Who Was Gavrilo Princip?

By Cyn Felthousen-Post

Bosnian landscape in Autumn. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Gavrilo Princip was one of the most significant people of the 20th century. You might not know his name, but you definitely know what he did, or at least felt the impact of it. By assassinating the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he set in motion a series of events that would bring contemporary superpowers to their knees, end centuries-old monarchies, and spark resentments and revolutions that continue to shape our world. We all know what happened in Sarajevo that fateful June day in 1914, but few of us know the perpetrator, his motives, or his story.

Map of Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1889. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Early Life

Gavrilo Princip was born in July 1894 in the small Bosnian town of Obljaj, near the modern border between Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. His parents were poor ethnic Serb farmers and devout Orthodox Christians. His childhood was spartan, but he began his education at the age of nine and excelled in his studies.

At 13, Gavrilo moved to Sarajevo with his older brother to continue his schooling. It was there, in 1911, that he first engaged with radical politics and became a member of the organization Young Bosnia, a revolutionary anti-occupation movement that aimed to drive the Austrians out and unite the various Slavic peoples of southeastern Europe.

His views grew so extreme that, in 1912, he was expelled from school for threatening his classmates and demanding they join an anti-Austrian demonstration in central Sarajevo. Humiliated and enraged, Gavrilo set out for Belgrade in Serbia with the goal of joining a militant guerilla organization fighting the Ottoman Turks. He subsequently joined the paramilitary Serbian Chetnik Organization, an even more extreme group, where he trained in firearms and bomb-making before moving back to Sarajevo in 1913.

Sarajevo's Latin Bridge. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Black Hand

The Black Hand was a secret society of Serbian military officers formed in 1911. Their motto, "unification or death," alluded to their goal of liberating the region from occupiers and forming a unified and independent pan-Slavic state. Nationalist sentiment was prominent throughout the Balkans during this period. Inspired by the successful unification movements in Italy and Germany, the idea of a Yugoslav state—a shared homeland for all the South Slavic peoples—motivated countless radical thinkers and activists during this period.

With a large membership composed of military officers and political leaders, the Black Hand wielded outsize influence over the government of contemporary Serbia. Whether training guerilla fighters to fight the Ottomans or sending saboteurs into Austrian-occupied Bosnia, the Black Hand-operated as a highly secretive and destabilizing regional force independent of but tacitly supported by the Serbian state.

The leader of the Black Hand, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, decided in early 1914 that they needed to send a larger message to the Austro-Hungarians. Their clandestine activities and propaganda produced limited results, so he decided to escalate the campaign a bit and straight-up assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Source: (gettyimages.com)

The Sarajevo Plot

When it was announced that the Archduke would visit Sarajevo on a royal tour to inspect the military and preside over the opening of a new museum, the Black Hand sprang into action. They formed a cell of six agents, both from Young Bosnia and the Black Hand, that would be trained, armed, and dispatched along the motorcade route to carry out the plot.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, arrived in Sarajevo on the morning of June 28, 1914, and boarded a convertible touring car that would allow the public a clearer view of their future monarch. The royal convertible was third in a motorcade of six cars that would drive through the center of town toward city hall.

Roughly halfway along this course, the second assassin of the group threw a grenade at the Archduke's car, which bounced off and exploded under the next car in the motorcade, gravely wounding the passengers and several spectators along the route. The motorcade sped up, continuing toward the city hall, and the ensuing pandemonium denied the other assassins a chance to act. Franz Ferdinand arrived safely, though shaken, and delivered his remarks to the chamber.

World War I Canadian military cemetery. Source: (gettyimages.com)

After the events, the Archduke and his wife canceled their remaining plans and intended to visit the wounded in the local hospital instead. The police decided that the motorcade should travel quickly along the river, avoiding the traffic and crowds of the center, but this was not communicated to the driver of the royal car. At the famed Latin Bridge, the royal driver turned right instead of continuing straight. In one of the most significant coincidences possibly ever, it happened to take them past the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was eating his lunch. Knowing this was the group's last chance, he produced his gun and fired into the royal car, fatally wounding Franz Ferdinand and Sophie before police could arrest him.

The actions of this 19-year-old radical set off a chain reaction of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War and the deaths of millions. Princip was arrested at the scene and his trial began later that year in Sarajevo. Too young to receive the death penalty under Austrian law, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. While imprisoned, he contracted tuberculosis and died in his cell on April 28, 1919 at the age of 23 before he could set anymore Final Destination--style calamities in motion.

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!