Sarajevo today. A museum marks the scene of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie
Sarajevo today. A museum marks the scene of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie © Paul Lowe

“Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children,” the dying Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand urged his wife as she slumped over him in the open-topped sports car. But Gavrilo Princip’s shot had already killed her. A bodyguard asked Franz Ferdinand if he was in pain. “It’s nothing!” he replied repeatedly. Those were his last words.

If Princip could return today to the scene of his crime, he’d recognise almost every corner of Sarajevo’s old town, well restored since the Serbian siege of the early 1990s. The quay along which the royal couple motored to their deaths on June 28 1914 remains a pleasant backwater of Habsburg-era buildings, a sort of cut-price Vienna. The town hall, the last place the couple visited that lost summer morning, is now almost restored to its mock-Moorish splendour of 1914. Around the corner, locals in the medieval Ottoman bazaar are still drinking Bosnian coffee. Sarajevo is still a sleepy Balkan town, still dwarfed by its surrounding hills, still smelling of death.

So much has changed here yet so much has remained the same since 1914. That only intensifies the urge to rewind to that day and imagine a different outcome. Princip’s shots led to Austria declaring war on Serbia. That sparked the first world war, which sparked the Russian Revolution, the second world war and the cold war. Many argue that the poor tubercular 19-year-old Serb nationalist bookworm was only the catalyst and that a European war was inevitable anyway in 1914. In fact, Princip may have mattered rather more than that. I visited Sarajevo to try to understand his act in its local context – the context both of 1914 and 2014.

The pavement on the quay facing the Latin Bridge is marked by a small, deliberately neutral, grey plaque: “From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.” My hotel was two minutes’ walk away, and passing the fateful place several times a day, I was constantly surprised by the smallness of it all: a little man on a little street in a little outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, changing history.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shortly before their final, fateful journey
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shortly before their final, fateful journey © Time Life Pictures

Even the hours just before the assassination can evoke nostalgia. The royal couple rolled through Sarajevo in their Gräf und Stift car. The Archduke, in his helmet topped with green feathers, was an unmistakable target for the six waiting assassins. Franz Ferdinand comes from another age – and yet the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark, in his seminal 2012 history The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, emphasises the event’s “raw modernity”. “It began,” he writes, “with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles” – premonitions of September 11 2001 and Dallas, 1963. That day’s Bosnian-Serb assassins seem to foreshadow the Bosnian Serbs who besieged Sarajevo in the 1990s. These later horrors inevitably influence our perception of Princip.

When you revisit that morning, the counter­factuals scream out at you. It’s like watching film of President Kennedy’s assassination, wrote the journalist Christopher Hitchens: one feels “a subliminal but unmistakable wish that the newsreel could be run again, and one turn of the car avoided or one wretched coincidence averted”. For a start, Franz Ferdinand should never have come to Sarajevo that day. Serbs were clamouring to expel the Austrian Habsburgs, hoping to create a greater Serbia or at least a united kingdom of “south Slavs” (“Yugoslavs”). Plotting to assassinate Habsburg dignitaries had become something of a local pastime. Rebecca West, in her 1941 classic about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, eventually gives up enumerating every assassination attempt: “And so on, and so on,” she concludes. Most famously, in 1910, the Serbian student Bogdan Zerajic had fired five shots at Bosnia’s Austrian governor, missed every time, and shot himself with the sixth round. (Princip had laid flowers on Zerajic’s grave.)

The plaque at the Museum Sarajevo commemorating the assassination of the Archduke and his wife
The plaque at the Museum Sarajevo commemorating the assassination of the Archduke and his wife © Paul Lowe

No wonder Franz Ferdinand was worried about visiting Sarajevo. He spoke of his anxiety about leaving his three young children fatherless and asked his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, whether he really needed to go. At dinner on June 27, he voiced his doubts again. Yet he went the next day. Worse, he went almost without security. This was partly because the snobbish Habsburgs didn’t recognise his beloved wife, a minor Czech noblewoman, as the future Empress. Franz Ferdinand couldn’t parade her at state ceremonies in Vienna. In Sarajevo, he seized the chance to do so – especially because June 28 was their wedding anniversary. It was a big day out for the couple, but a relatively unofficial one, and therefore without the obsessive security that had accompanied Franz Josef’s visit to Sarajevo in 1910.

June 28 also happened to be a big day for Serbs: St Vitus Day, anniversary of their defeat by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A Serb hero of that battle was Milos Obilic, reputed to have sneaked into the Turkish headquarters and cut the Sultan’s throat before Ottoman guards beheaded him. Obilic was Serbia’s first great assassin-martyr. Princip knew by heart an epic poem about him, writes Clark. For Franz Ferdinand to have entered Sarajevo almost unguarded that St Vitus Day was madness.

The Archduke and his wife moments before their death
The Archduke and his wife moments before their death © Mondadori Collection

The motorcade drove along the Appel Quay. Then one of the assassins, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, threw two grenades. He missed the royal couple but wounded officers in the car behind them. Franz Ferdinand oversaw the treatment of the wounded, then said: “Come on, that fellow is clearly insane. Let us proceed with our programme.” But by the time the motorcade reached the town hall, he was understandably irate. “Herr Bürgermeister!” he shouted at the mayor, who was about to read his prepared speech. “One comes to Sarajevo to pay a visit to the city, and people chuck bombs! That is outrageous! Well, Herr Bürgermeister, you may now speak.”

Clearly the thing to do was to leave Sarajevo amid tight security straight from the town hall. You want to shout at Franz Ferdinand, across history: “Get out of town!” Instead, he decided to drive back through the city centre to visit the wounded in hospital. A man who claimed to have attended the reception in the town hall later told Rebecca West: “We all felt awkward, because we knew that when he went out he would certainly be killed.”

Gavrilo Princip
Gavrilo Princip © Time Life

In 1937, West leaned from the town hall’s balcony and reflected that the event felt more like suicide than murder. “Nobody worked to ensure the murder on either side so hard as the people who were murdered.”

At least the Austrians decided that the motorcade wouldn’t wend its way through the narrow Ottoman town, as per the original plan. Instead it would race along Appel Quay to the hospital. Regrettably, nobody remembered to tell the chauffeur of the front car. This bit of “bureaucratic slovenliness”, typical of the Austro-Hungarian empire, made the assassination possible, noted the British historian AJP Taylor.

In a photograph taken seconds before their deaths, the royal couple are motoring blithely along the quay. But then the unwitting driver turned into the narrow Franz-Josef-Strasse. Oskar Potiorek, governor of Bosnia, shouted at him: “This is the wrong way!” The car began slowly reversing. All this was watched from point-blank range by Princip, who, after Cabrinovic’s failed assassination attempt, happened to be loafing near Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen. (Reports that he was there for a sandwich remain unconfirmed.) Princip was a mediocre shot. However, the green-feathered fat man in the almost motionless open-topped car was hard to miss. Princip fired two shots.

A special third edition of the local German-language afternoon newspaper, the Bosnische Post, reported: “Everything, officers, police, gendarmes and the public threw themselves on the assassin and began beating him. Princip was injured.” He’d intended to commit suicide but didn’t have time. The Post also said “an enormous crowd” had formed outside the newspaper’s offices and literally stormed the building for news, while the office telephone rang nonstop and eye­witnesses queued to volunteer information. You sense a small local paper struggling to cope with the news story of the century.

The river Miljacka, Sarajevo. The fourth bridge from the front, now the Latin Bridge, was renamed in honour of Princip in postwar Yugoslavia
The river Miljacka, Sarajevo. The fourth bridge from the front, now the Latin Bridge, was renamed in honour of Princip in postwar Yugoslavia © Paul Lowe

The Post said that the apprehended bomb-thrower, Cabrinovic, “behaved cynically”, “repeatedly smiled”, but admitted he’d got his bombs “from abroad”. The question of who sent the assassins is still unresolved. Austria suspected they were Serbian government agents, aiming for a Greater Serbia. Belgrade proclaimed total innocence. The truth, according to Clark, is somewhere in the middle. He explains that various groups within the Serbian authorities had unofficial relationships with nationalist activists outside Serbia, including Princip’s group. Princip had studied in Belgrade. The secretive Serbian “Black Hand” movement – led by Dragutin Dimitrijevic, nicknamed “Apis”, head of Serbian military intelligence – armed him and other assassins, and smuggled them from Serbia into Bosnia. It’s unclear who in Serbia’s government knew about this. Belgrade couldn’t entirely control its irredentist activists, just as 80 years later the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic couldn’t entirely control Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb army.

The Sarajevo assassins were swiftly rounded up. They were teenagers, and Austria-Hungary didn’t apply the death penalty to anyone under 20, but that didn’t matter as prisoners tended to die in jail anyway. Princip was imprisoned in Theresienstadt in Bohemia, the future Jewish death camp of the second world war. He died of tuberculosis in April 1918, having witnessed the continental catastrophe he had wrought. He now lies with his fellow assassins in an Orthodox cemetery in Sarajevo.

One of the two assassins who survived jail, Vaso Cubrilovic, became minister of forests in Josip Tito’s postwar communist government. Cubrilovic died aged 93 in 1990. “It wasn’t our intention to cause a world war,” he had written to his sisters from prison.

Yet they did cause it. Until recently the historical consensus was that Europe’s great powers were so belligerent, and bound by treaties to go to war together, that Princip’s act merely “sparked” the inevitable outcome. Recently, though, more historians have argued that the first world war was improbable. It needn’t have happened. Clark suggests that just as the attacks of 9/11 didn’t simply “spark” inevitable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but changed the geopolitical situation, so Princip created a new European reality. First, his victim was a major figure, heir to Austria’s throne. More important, Clark shows that although there were belligerents in all countries in 1914, there were also leading figures everywhere arguing against war. Franz Ferdinand had led the Austro-Hungarian peace camp, arguing (correctly) that the fragile empire couldn’t withstand a war. His assassination strengthened the “war party”. On July 28, a month after Sarajevo, Emperor Franz Josef’s ostrich-feather quill signed the declaration of war on Serbia.

Russia, France and Britain entered the war on Serbia’s side. The French and British might have hesitated had they thought Belgrade was behind Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. However, the Austrians hadn’t proved Belgrade’s guilt – partly because the links between Belgrade and the assassins were murky. And so Princip sparked war.

Conspirators (from left) Princip, Milan Ciganovic and Cabrinovic before the assassination
Conspirators (from left) Princip, Milan Ciganovic and Cabrinovic before the assassination © Getty

History in the west often serves as entertainment, something to enjoy from a comfortable distance, rather like a horror movie. That is the spirit of much western remembrance of 1914 this year. In the Balkans, though, history is fresher, more vicious, always about to jump out and bite the present. Princip and Franz Ferdinand still haven’t faded into history here.

In 1917 the Austrians erected the first monument across the quay from Schiller’s deli: a giant statue of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. A year later, after the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, locals tore it down. Princip became a Yugoslav hero. The ancient Latin Bridge facing the assassination spot was renamed for him. A small black tablet went up outside Schiller’s fêting him as “the initiator of liberty, on St Vitus day, June 28th, 1914”. The British writer-politician Winston Churchill grumbled that the “monument erected . . . by his fellow-countrymen records his infamy and their own”.

In April 1941 German soldiers entered Sarajevo, removed the tablet and sent it to Hitler as a birthday present. In May 1945, after Yugoslav partisans liberated the town, a speaker at a communist rally praised Princip for having tried to free “our dear city of Sarajevo, our entire homeland” from German rule. Princip would remain a sort of posthumous Yugoslav partisan until Yugoslavia dissolved. An artist placed two footprints in concrete on the pavement more or less where Princip had stood and for decades tourists enjoyed posing in them. A museum on Schiller’s former premises glorified him.

Police arrest Nedeljko Cabrinovic after a failed attempt on the Archduke’s life earlier the same day
Police arrest Nedeljko Cabrinovic after a failed attempt on the Archduke’s life earlier the same day

But in 1992 Bosnian Serbs began besieging Sarajevo. Princip’s assassination spot was an easy target for the new assassins in the hills above town. The museum’s contents were moved for safety to a local synagogue. During three years of siege, the museum and its fateful pavement were shelled and the town hall further along the quay mostly destroyed.

Multicultural Sarajevo died in the war. The city still features the exact spot where the eastern world meets the western: on the shopping street Ferhadija, at about number 43, where the Ottoman town ends and the Habsburg town begins. But today’s Sarajevo is almost monocultural: most Serbs have left and about 90 per cent of the 500,000 inhabitants are Muslims. Bosnia was always a colony – of Constantinople, Vienna and Belgrade – but today no foreign power even wants to colonise it. The decaying Habsburg buildings tell the sad truth: the world has forgotten Sarajevo. Various Middle Eastern countries are struggling halfheartedly for influence in a country with one of the highest proportions of Muslims in Europe. Saudi Arabia built the glittering King Fahd mosque, which outshines the bullet-ridden, decaying socialist apartment blocks where most Sarajevans live. (A rough geography of Sarajevo, from east to west: Ottoman town-Habsburg town-socialist town-postwar town.) Qatar is a big donor here and on the Ottoman bazaar’s main square is a small “Iran Products” shop, where a friendly veiled woman sold me a packet of English Twinings Tea labelled in Farsi for the Iranian market. Many young Sarajevan women now wear veils, though this city of blond Muslims is very far from being an Islamic theocracy.

The Archduke’s jacket
The Archduke’s jacket © Getty

Today, people in Sarajevo and next door’s Bosnian-Serb Republika Srpska hold contrasting views of Princip. Many Sarajevans now imagine him as a villainous forerunner of Karadzic: a Serbian peasant come down from the hills to destroy their city’s peace. The Princip Bridge has been renamed the Latin Bridge again. (In Sarajevo, all street names are temporary: the Appel Quay is now the Obala Kulin Ban and the square outside the town’s main theatre is Pozorisni trg Susan Sontag, after the American writer who championed besieged Sarajevo.) Some Muslims have spoken wistfully of building a new monument to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.

By contrast, Serbs are glorifying Princip. Statues of him are scheduled to go up this year in Belgrade and Republika Srpska. The monument-race may sound like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan farce but it’s part of the grim ethnic competition in today’s partitioned Bosnia.

If Princip is a hero in Serbia, Christopher Clark has become a villain there. Serbs objected to his description of the assassins as “terrorists”. Clark has conceded: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.” The German translation of The Sleepwalkers calls the killers simply “Attentäter” – assassins.

Yet both Sarajevan and Serb camps may be misinterpreting Princip. Here is how the man himself explained his act, at his trial in Sarajevo: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs.” He sounds like a pan-Yugoslav rather than a narrowly Serbian figure. Admittedly, the two are sometimes hard to disentangle. Milosevic, for instance, was both. However, “Princip was not a kind of Serbian nationalist like Karadzic,” insists the Sarajevan historian Vuk Bacanovic.

Bascarsija Square, Sarajevo
Bascarsija Square, Sarajevo © Paul Lowe

One afternoon in Sarajevo, I went around the current Bosnian museum on the site of Schiller’s delicatessen. Even its name is studiously neutral: “Museum Sarajevo 1878-1918”, the dates marking the period of Austrian rule here. Amra Madzarevic, director of Sarajevo’s museums, refused to speak to me for fear of saying something that might irritate any ethnic group. Instead she sent a statement: “In our museum you can see the facts and artefacts about the Atentat [assassination], without any further explanations which could have some suggestions on a visitor . . . we are, as society, still in very difficult period, and we do not want to answer the questions with any national sign.”

The museum’s curator, Mirsad Avdic, showed me around the small collection: Princip’s ragged black trousers, a replica of his pistol, his mock footprints that once stood on the pavement outside, etc. I asked Avdic what passed through his mind each day as he passed the spot that sparked the 20th century. He tapped his watch and grinned: “Maybe I’m late for work. Nothing emotional. My feelings are stronger in Srebrenica [where Serbs massacred about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995].” Avdic pointed out of the window, to a spot on the quay, where some teenagers stood chatting. “Three people were killed there by bombs in the war,” he said. Most Sarajevans today, walking (or often limping) around with their own war traumas, have fresher deaths to mourn than Franz Ferdinand’s. Almost every green space in the town is filled with gravestones from the siege years. And Sarajevo has new problems, too. During my visit, crowds were demonstrating against Bosnia’s corrupt, divided presidency. For some locals, Princip’s assassination is merely a marketing device for Bosnia’s fitful tourist trade. The Franz Ferdinand Boutique Hostel advertises itself with the slogan: “Your best shot.”

On June 28, St Vitus Day, the Vienna Philharmonic will give a concert at the town hall to mark the building’s official reopening. It’s the right form of commemoration: in Sarajevo, music is safer than words. This town has more history than it can handle.

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