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WWI centenary: how one assassin destroyed an empire and world order


Bosnia and Herzegovina

WWI centenary: how one assassin destroyed an empire and world order

Special envoy Laurence Alexandrowicz reports: “We are on the street corner ‘where the 20th century started’. That’s going back 100 years, to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. This special report is on the centenary of the First World War. We return to that day, 28 June, 1914, that no one imagined would change the face of the world.”

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were celebrating 14 years of loving marriage. His uncle, the Emperor, had condemned it, because Sophie was not of dynastic rank, and Franz was heir presumptive. Protocol rarely allowed her to appear in public with him. But this was a lower rung military inspection.

Historian Mirsad Avdic says: “It was the first time in 14 years they were free to ride in the open car together.”

The couple were in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to review the imperial troops. This coincided with the date of a fourteenth century defeat of the proud Serbs at the hands of the Turks. Since 1878, the region had been under Austria-Hungary’s domination.

Historian Slobodan Soja says: “Now, almost 40 years on, someone rises up and assassinates the very symbol of occupation, of tyranny!”

Yugoslavist militants under the name ‘Young Bosnia’ plot violent revolt. One of them hurls a grenade as the archduke’s car passes. The couple are unhurt, but others are wounded. The culprit is seized; he has failed. Ferdinand decides to carry on, to the opening of a hospital, yet his driver is given inadequate instructions. Another plotter, the son of poor farmers, convinced the chance to strike has come and gone, then finds the target like a sitting duck.

In Avdic’s words: “The chauffeur makes a wrong turn in front of the museum. Franz Ferdinand insists he stop. Six vehicles behind them have created a traffic jam.

“Gavrilo Princip is on the other side of the bridge. He’s got diabetes and tuberculosis, and after the bomb attempt has failed, he is in a state of nervous exhaustion. He’s nipped into a cafe for a sandwich. As he’s leaving, he sees the cortege and acts.

“He gets to within one metre of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand, and fires off five deadly shots.”

They bleed to death.

The empire, one month later, declares war on Serbia, and the continent catches fire.

The 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip escapes capital punishment because of his age. He is sentenced to 20 years in prison, while co-conspirator Ivan Kranjcevic, who had been in charge of weapons, gets ten years.

We find his grandson today, Davor Koric, who says these were not terrorists.

Koric says: “There were attackers’ cults at the time, cults of sacrifice, in which the members were ready to give their lives so that others could have a better future. We can’t say it was terrorism in the sense we see it today. Of course, every murder is an act to be condemned, but that was a kind of protest; it was a heroic act.”

A chapel was built in the Kosevo Orthodox cemetery in Sarajevo in 1939, in memory of Gavrilo Princip and his young friends, even though they were atheists.

The image attributed to them would evolve differently in the Balkan region.

Soja says: “The fall of communism changed things. Countries split up. They shared the same past but not the same opinions about it. Suddenly, everything was thrown into question. Suddenly, something absurd happens: Princip and the others are left supported only by the Serbs.”

Princip wasted away in prison. A few months before the global killing ended, he died.

One nation after another had declared war; in the aftermath, empires had fallen, and new countries were formed — mined with sectarian passions.

Every story can be told in many ways: see the perspectives from Euronews journalists in our other language teams.

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