Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Princip are two of the most famous names in the Twentieth Century, but little is generally known about them other than Princip assassinated the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, sparking the First World War.
However, they both went through an extraordinary chain of events to arrive at Sarajevo, which I wanted to explore in my novel The Assassins.
Being heir to the Habsburg throne was something of a curse by the time Franz Ferdinand inherited the title in 1896; following the death of his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf in a suicide pact with his mistress; and his father Karl Ludwig, died of typhoid after drinking water from the River Jordan.
For a time it was thought Franz Ferdinand would also die when he contracted tuberculosis and his uncle Emperor Franz Joseph exiled him to die. He eventually recovered and Franz Ferdinand’s doctor gave him a letter to certify him fit, which Franz Ferdinand always carried.
One of the reasons for his recovery was an attachment he’d formed with Sophie Chotek. Who, despite being a Czech noble, was not considered to be of equal birth to Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne. Nonetheless Franz Ferdinand fought to marry the woman he loved, overcoming the opposition of the Emperor and the backbiting of his court. He forced a compromise morganatic marriage, renouncing his wife’s and descendants’ claims to the throne, on the 28th June 1900.
Despite this they were very happy together and had three children, but Sophie was subjected to all manner of petty humiliations because of strict court protocols, to the extent that they could not travel together in the same carriage on official state occasions, much to Franz Ferdinand’s fury.
Attending army manoeuvres in Bosnia gave Franz Ferdinand the opportunity to reverse this humiliation, and he won a concession from the Emperor to allow Sophie to accompany him. They were able to ride together through the streets of Sarajevo; on the anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic oath which had made their marriage possible.
Gavrilo Princip came from a remote village in western Bosnia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. He was one of nine children, six of whom died as a result of the poverty he blamed on his imperial masters. When Princip was thirteen, his elder brother paid for him to go to a military academy and become a soldier in the Emperor’s army; but on the way they stopped to buy Gavrilo new underwear and the shopkeeper persuaded his brother to put him in the Merchants’ School in Sarajevo instead. He was placed in a boarding house and shared a room with Danilo Ilic, an older boy who became the main fixer for the assassins and was eventually hanged for the role he played in the assassination.
Ilic introduced Gavrilo to the nationalist ideas taking route in a Young Bosnia movement that was determined to liberate their people from Austro-Hungarian rule and would drive Princip. He was eventually expelled because of his subversive activities and went to Belgrade to continue his studies. When the Second Balkan’s War broke out Princip tried to join the partisans, but like the Archduke suffered from tuberculosis and was unable to keep up with the physical demands of the training and was thrown out.
The bitter sting of that humiliation drove him to act and to prove himself. This determination can be seen in the look of defiance he gives in the picture on the cover of the book, as he walks to his trial. He had done what others only talked about. Belgrade at the time was full of Bosnian dissidents desperate to ignite a revolution against the occupiers of their homeland. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbian Intelligence, and his deputy Major Vojislav Tankosić were recruiting many of these dissidents to send into Austro-Hungarian territory as part of a covert war they were waging against Austro-Hungary.
Princip and his fellow conspirators were one such group, whether or not they were acting under their own initiative or from Dimitrijevic/Tankosić’s direct instruction is still hotly debated. However they did provide technical support that made it possible for them to carry out the assassination.
This was largely in response to the manoeuvres that Franz Ferdinand was attending, provocatively being held on Serbia’s doorstep. Dimitrijevic and Tankosić did not think that anything would come of Princip’s mission and nothing very nearly did.
Only one of the conspirators acted as the Archduke’s motorcade drove to an official reception, missing the Archduke’s car with a bomb. In response Franz Ferdinand’s route back from the reception was changed, causing confusion amongst his entourage which led to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car stopping in front of Gavrilo Princip, the only one of the remaining dissidents with the desire and motivation to act.
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