Slow-burn revolutionary: Princip in prison. Photo: Getty
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Gavrilo Princip: the assassin who triggered the First World War

Princip was a slow-burn revolutionary, identifying himself with all Bosnians and committing himself to the ideal of winning freedom for all local Bosnians, not just local Serbs.

Gavrilo Princip was not the best-trained of assassins, or the best-equipped, nor was he the most ruthless. But he was, perhaps, the luckiest, shooting dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand through a series of strokes of serendipity and fortune. It was the rest of the world’s bad luck that his actions triggered the first global conflict.

Princip was born in 1894, a serf’s son from the wild west of Bosnia. His father, Petar, earned extra income by delivering letters around the hamlet of Obljaj, where Princips had eked a hardscrabble existence for generations.

Petar was later described as an “entrepreneur” by his infamous son, but in reality his life was a continuation of a centuries-old tradition of feudal peasantry, battling to live off the land, obliged to surrender earnings and produce to overlords.

From the mid-15th century those overlords were installed by the occupying Otto­man empire before its withdrawal was finally confirmed by the 1878 Congress of Berlin. But the removal of one occupier did not mean freedom for the local Slav population, because another, Austria-Hungary, then staked Bosnia as the newest tessera in the polyglot mosaic of the Habsburg empire.

Austria-Hungary presented this coup of colonialism – the Scramble for Africa was taking place at roughly the same time – as a project of enlightened occidentalism that would bring light to a part of Europe long benighted by orientalism. This was largely guff, as the Austro-Hungarians set about plundering the natural resources of Bosnia  – mostly timber from its rich forests – and failed to carry out land reform and left alone the system of feudal exploitation.

For peasants like the Princips, life hardly changed. Petar married a woman called Maria from the hamlet next door and set up home in a single-room hovel with a beaten-earth floor, set into a hillside. They had nine children but only three, all boys, survived. Gavrilo was the middle son, his early life a cycle of domestic chores and learning his three Rs. He shone at school, his ability to read and write marking him out in Bosnia where, after 30 years of supposedly enlightened Habsburg occupation, the illiteracy rate stood at 88 per cent.

The local Slav community shared the same bloodline although they had been cleaved by faith over the ages into three groups: early Christians who followed Eastern Orthodoxy were known as Bosnia’s Serbs, Christians who followed Rome were Croats and those who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule were Muslims. The Princips were part of Bosnia’s Serb community, and Obljaj an entirely Serb settlement of co-religionists who lived, worked, married and died together.

The big change for Gavrilo came in 1907 when, aged 13, he left this insular little world and set off for the capital city, Sarajevo, to pursue his secondary education. Here he shone, excelling in his early years as a hard-working and dutiful student. But he did not just learn his lessons, he also learned to think the unthinkable, discussing with other students how Bosnia might be liberated from the occupier.

Princip was a slow-burn revolutionary, consistently identifying himself with all Bosnians and committing himself to the south Slav or Jugoslav nationalist ideal of winning freedom for all local Bosnians, not just local Serbs. His thinking was woolly and naive but he did not give in to the chauvinism of some Serbs who wanted a single Greater Serbia.

After four years of study he left for the neighbouring country of Serbia, another part of the Balkans peopled by south Slavs. Serbia had won independence from the Ottomans in the late 19th century, and Princip lived there on and off from 1912.

With his fellow Bosnian radicals – from all three faith groups – he settled on a plan to assassinate a senior Austro-Hungarian figure as a symbolic act that they hoped would be a catalyst and would spur others into demanding liberation. When they read in newspaper announcements that Franz Ferdinand was due to visit Sarajevo to oversee military manoeuvres, they settled on him as the perfect target.

Princip struck on the morning of Sunday 28 June during the archduke’s ceremonial visit into Sarajevo city centre. His wife, the duchess Sophie, was killed at his side: an accident, according to Princip, as he had intended to kill only the archduke or members of his officer cadre.

At two weeks short of his 20th birthday, Princip was too young to be executed; under Austro-Hungarian law, the death sentence could be given only to criminals aged 20 or more. Instead, he was jailed, sentenced to 20 years in solitary confinement, with the condition that one day a month he was to receive no food.

Princip died in a prison hospital on 28 April 1918, his body so ravaged by skeletal tuberculosis that his right arm had been amputated. He was buried in an unmarked grave but later disinterred, and his remains were moved in the 1920s to Sarajevo, where they lie to this day. 

Tim Butcher is the author of “The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War” (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.


There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.


Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.


Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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