The assassination that changed history
What really happened on June 28th1914? Everybody knows that a man named Gavrilo Princip shot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. This event would become the immediate cause for the outbreak of World War I. What only few people know is that, on the same day, Franz Ferdinand had luckily escaped another attempted assassination and that only through an amazing combination of luck and coincidence did Gavrilo Princip manage to fulfill his plan.
So what really happened in Sarajevo on that lovely summer day? Nobody knows exactly. However, testimonies gathered by the police and the trial documents, combined with the historical research, help us build a clearer image of the incident that ended up changing the world.
Everything starts in 1913, in Vienna, capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand agrees to travel the following year to Bosnia, to inspect the garrison troops. His wife, Sofia, is allowed to accompany him, despite the imperial etiquette on morganatic marriages. So plans were made for the couple to travel to Sarajevo on June 28th. It was a date that brought back ugly memories to the Archduke:on the same day, in 1900, he had agreed to renounce the throne for the children he would have with Sofia. The date was also significant for the Bosnian Serbs, reminding them of the defeat they had suffered in Kossovopolje, against the Ottoman Empire.
Learning that the Archduke would travel to Sarajevo in June 1914, a couple of Serbs decide to assassinate him. But how will they do it?!
Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo on June 25th. Three days later, on Sunday the 28th, they will attend the religious ceremony hosted by the hotel chapel. Afterward, the two joined the festive suite that toured the city. Meanwhile, the plotters had decided to separate in three groups scattered across the city’s main street. Their plan was simple:when the royal car would be near them, they would throw a bomb at it.
However, the plan was faulty. First of all, given the security surrounding the Archduke, it would’ve been a real challenge to throw the bomb at the car. And, even if they succeeded, in case of a failed assassination attempt, the car would surely change the route. Also, the bombs the men had obtained from Belgrade were too large to be hidden inside a coat pocket, and their mechanism was quite complicated:once the bomb lit, they were supposed to wait 10 seconds before throwing it, because the explosion time was set at 12 seconds. Lastly, the men involved were too young:Vaso Cubrilovic was 17, and Nedeljko Cabrinovic and Gavrilo Princip were 19. Although determined, they were inexperienced and lacked the strength needed to commit a public murder in cold blood.
A bomb, a pistol and a cyanide pill
Leaving the Vlanic pastry shop, where they had met that morning, with the bombs hidden under their jackets, a pistol and a pill of cyanide in each pocket, the three young men went their separate ways, towards to the established positions along the street. They tried to blend in, chatting with random people, in order not to attract unneeded attention. They had learned from the paper that Franz Ferdinand usually used the second car in a suite. The problem was that the suite was always opened by a police car, and the plotters didn’t know if, in this case, the Archduke was using the second or third car.
The plotters took their positions and waited for the suite to arrive. The cars passed Muhamed Mehemedbasic, one of the plotters, but he failed to act. A few yards away, Cabrinovic had already removed the bomb’s safety pin, and then asked a nearby policeman which car belonged to the Archduke (the third). When the car passes in front of him, Cabrinovic lights the bomb, but throws it without waiting the 10 seconds. And so the driver, surprised by the noise, instinctively accelerated. The bomb landed right behind the archduke, on the car’s hood, but it eventually fell on the pavement, only to explode near the fourth car.
The marks left on the pavement – a large hole 15 cm deep and 30 cm wide – tell us what would have happened if the bomb had exploded in the Archduke’s car.
Immediately after the explosion, Franz Ferdinand ordered the driver to stop, to see if anyone had been hurt or killed. Only a few people on the street, colonel Erich von Merizzi and count Alexandre Boss-Waldeck had suffered small injuries. And so the suite goes back en route, passing right by the other plotters, who fail to react.
Meanwhile, the police started looking for Cabrinovic and his possible accomplices. Cabrinovici had already swallowed his cyanide pill, but it surprisingly failed to kill him:it only made him nauseous. Lacking the courage to shoot himself, Cabrinovic will eventually be caught.
Back at the hotel, a furious Franz Ferdinand complains to the mayor:‘I come to Sarajevo as a friend and I’m received with a bomb!’ His wife Sofia tried to calm him down. During the following reception, the Archduke jokingly asked General Potiorek (Bosnia’s governor and the person responsible with the security) if he should expect a second bomb. Potiorek assures him everything will be fine, but still insists the official program be changed. Instead of going to the museum, according to the initial plan, he suggests the royal couple leave directly to Konak or stay at the hotel. Franz Ferdinand, however, decides he wants to go to the hospital and check on Colonel Merizzi.
The people responsible with guarding the Archduke decided to change the normal route to the hospital. Instead of leaving the main street and turning right on the Latin Bridge, and then on Franz Joseph Street towards the city center, they decide to remain on the main street because it was wider.
Franz Ferdinand, worried for his wife’s safety, begged her to stay to stay at the hotel, but she refused.
A tragic coincidence
Finally, the couple left the hotel, with only car accompanying them. When the cars reached the Latin Bridge, the first car (belonging to the chief of police) turned right on Franz Joseph instead of going straight ahead. Maybe the driver hadn’t been informed the route had change, or maybe he turned right out of reflex… And so the two cars ended up on Franz Joseph Street. General Potiorek ordered the driver to turn the car and go back. Turning the car around on a narrow street proved to be quite difficult and it attracted a lot of attention. The people walking by were thrilled to see the Archduke so close to them.
Through a tragic coincidence, Gavrilo Princip was nearby. He was probably upset and furious their plan had failed. He lacked the spirit to come up with a new plan, and even the will to kill. And then, right in front him, less than two meters away, he sees the imperial couple.
Princip still had the gun and the bomb on him. He hesitated a little, because the person closest to him was Sofia, not her husband. He then reacted on instinct:he took out the gun and fired. He would later confess, at the trial, he had turned his head when shooting, not knowing how many fired he shot or against whom. It turned out he had fired only two shots:the first bullet touched the Archduke’s neck, hitting his jugular vein, and the second bullet ended up in Sofia’s abdomen. Passersby immediately reacted and immobilized Princip. However, he still had time to swallow the cyanide pill;but, like in Cabrinovic’s case, it failed to kill him.
Meanwhile, the imperial car rushed towards the governor’s house. Nobody realized how severely wounded Franz Ferdinand and his wife were. Still conscious, Franz Ferdinand only thought of his wife;Potiorek later said he had heard Franz Ferdinand whisper to his wife ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.’ A few moments later, she lost consciousness and collapsed on her husband’s knees.
Princip had fired the shots at 10.30. Sophia was dead by 10.45, and Franz Ferdinand died 15 minutes later, because of massive blood loss. A month later, Austria declared war on Serbia.
The plotters’ fates
According to the imperial legislation, people younger than 20 couldn’t receive the death penalty and could be sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. As such, Cabrinovic received 15 years;he would die in prison one year later, sick with tuberculosis. Gavrilo Princip, sentenced to 20 years, would also die incarcerated, in 1918. The other plotters-Danilo Ilic, Misko Jovanovic and Veljko Cubrilovic, who were over 20 – were sentenced to death and executed in February 1915. Cvjetko Popovic received 30 years, but would be released in 1918, just like Vaso Cubrliovic, who had been sentenced to 16 years.