World War 1 History: The Assassins of June 28, 1914
Heir to the Throne
Princip Was Not Alone
Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1869 - 1914), next in line to succeed the aging Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28, 1914. His death set in motion a chain of events which led to the start of World War I a month later on July 28. Princip did not act alone. A total of seven conspirators lined the archduke's route that day and they had been supported by others in the assassination planned by the leader of the Black Hand.
Leader of the Black Hand
The Black Hand
When Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbian Military Intelligence and leader of the secretive Black Hand, heard that the archduke would be visiting Sarajevo after observing Austrian military maneuvers in Bosnia, he started planning. The Black Hand, with about 2,500 members at that time, was dedicated to using violence to create a Greater Serbia that would encompass lands that once belonged to Serbia centuries before or had significant Serbian populations. The archduke was seen as a threat because he advocated increased autonomy for several restive lands under Austro-Hungarian rule and Dimitrijevic believed this would pacify the Bosnians enough to resist joining Serbia. The archduke also wanted to ease relations with Serbia, going against the Austrian hardliners. He feared a war with Serbia would mean the Russians would come in against Austria-Hungary. Eased tensions would make it more difficult for Dimitrijevic to stir up trouble.
The Assassins' Handler
Six Assassins And Their Handler In The Crowd
Three Bosnian Serb youths, members of the Black Hand living in Belgrade, Serbia volunteered for the mission. They were full of idealistic dreams and all had terminal cases of tuberculosis. Serbia's prime minister learned of the plot and ordered them arrested at the border. Despite this, Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabez and Nedeljko Cabrinovic were successfully smuggled into Bosnia and its capital, Sarajevo. Once there, they met with Danilo Ilic, another Bosnian Serb, who would handle the whole operation. Ilic already had three other assassins lined up in Sarajevo: Muhamed Mehmedbasic, a Bosnian Slav and two Bosnian Serb students, Vaso Cubrilovic and Cvjetko Popovic.
Ilic, with the help of others, provided bombs, pistols and money to the assassins-- as well as cyanide pills they were to take if they were arrested. Black Hand leader Dimitrijevic wanted no witnesses.
On the morning of June 28, 1914, crowds lined the Appel Quay awaiting the archduke's motorcade, including the six assassins spaced along the route. Ilic was also in the crowd, going from man to man, providing encouragement and calming nerves.
Frozen in Fear
The Archduke's Motorcade Appears
The procession of six cars appeared, slowly motoring along the Quay. The archduke and his wife, Duchess Sophie, were in the back of the third car, a convertible with its top down. As the cars passed Mehmedbasic, he froze. He would state later that he couldn't throw his bomb because a policeman was right behind him. The motorcade continued, approaching Cubrilovic, waiting with a pistol and a bomb. He too failed to act. The motorcade passed him by. The next in line was Cabrinovic, armed with a bomb.
First Attempt Fails
Cabrinovic threw his bomb, but the archduke's driver saw it and swerved. The bomb bounced off the convertible's folded-back cover and exploded under the following car, severely wounding two passengers and hurting 18 onlookers in the crowd. Following his training, Cabrinovic swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the nearby river. Unfortunately, the cyanide pill didn't do its job and the river was only four inches deep. When he was dragged from the water, the crowd beat him severely.
Failed to Act
Archduke Franz Ferdinand Decides To Visit The Wounded
At this point the motorcade sped off, whisking the archduke past the remaining assassins, Popovic, Princip and Grabez, who failed to act against the speeding cars.
Understandably shaken, Archduke Ferdinand nonetheless met with the mayor of Sarajevo and gave his speech, though he complained of the reception they'd received. Afterward, despite Sophie's protestations, the archduke decided to visit those wounded in the attack and the motorcade headed off toward the hospital. Unfortunately, the driver wasn't familiar with the city and made a wrong turn.
A Failure and Then a Second Chance
Gavrilo Princip, having failed his mission, was eating a sandwich in a cafe when he saw the archduke's car pass by. The driver, realizing he'd taken a wrong turn, stopped and attempted to back up, but the car stalled and its gears locked up right in front of Princip, who stepped forward and fired two shots from five feet away. The archduke was struck in his jugular vein and Sophie was hit in the stomach, both mortally wounded. Princip was immediately arrested while the victims were driven away for medical treatment, but the duchess was dead on arrival and the archduke died minutes later.
16 Million Dead
The archduke's assassination lit the fuse leading to the powder keg that was Europe. Tensions, which had been building for decades, exploded a month later when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. More than 16 million people, including nearly 10 million soldiers, would die before it ended on November 11, 1918.
Austria-Hungary put the assassins, except for Mehmedbasic who managed to flee to Serbia, and all who aided them on trial in October, even as the warring armies were tearing each other apart. Five of the assassins in custody were under the age of twenty, and as such could not be executed. They were given sentences ranging from 13 years to 20 years; Princip, Cabrinovic and Grabez each received the maximum of 20 years. Ilic and two other adults who had aided the assassins, were sentenced to death. Other conspirators were sentenced to three years to life in prison.
Death By Execution, Disease and Murder
Danilo Ilic, who ran the operation in Sarajevo, was hanged in February 1915.
Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the assassin whose bomb bounced off the archduke's car, died in prison in 1916 of tuberculosis. Before he died, he received a letter of forgiveness from the archduke's three children.
Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Serbian leader of the Black Hand, was executed by firing squad in June 1917, possibly as part of a secret deal between Serbian leaders who wanted to get rid of him and Austria-Hungary who demanded his execution in return for allowing the return of the Serbian Government in exile.
Gavrilo Princip, the successful assassin, died in prison in 1918 of tuberculosis.
Trifko Grabez, failed assassin, died in prison in 1918 of tuberculosis.
Muhamed Mehmedbasic, the failed assassin who escaped to Serbia, returned to Sarajevo in 1919 and was pardoned for his role in the assassination. He died at the hands of the Ustase, a Croatian fascist movement that promoted genocide against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, in 1943, during World War II.
Failed Assassin Lived Until 1980
Failed Assassin Lived Until 1990
One Assassin Lived Until 1980, The Last Died in 1990
Cvjetko Popovic, failed assassin, lived long enough to see Ronald Reagan become president. He died in 1980.
Vaso Cubrilovic, failed assassin, lived long enough to see the Russian Revolution that created the Soviet Union and the revolutions that would tear it apart in the late 1980s. He died in 1990.
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© 2012 David Hunt