(This piece was originally posted on the 100th anniverary of Princip's assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdiand, an event which is widely agreed to have touched off World War I. It is reposted today, on the 100 year anniversary of the United States' entranace in that tragic, protracted, and seemingly pointless conflict, on the day following U.S. airstrikes on Syria, an event which some fear might touch off World War 3.)
"Baby, you're a firework"... Gavrilo Princip, archduke slayer
I’m on a mission, cuz now I’ve had it I watch their system, then spit right at it! I was born and plated, a schmuck they created I’ll explode, I’ll erode! Yeah, I’ll break your fuckin’ code Cuz I’m an automatic schmuck… with a tendency to rock!
An assassin commits murder, but not just any murder. He kills not for the thrill—though killing may indeed be thrilling for him—but because it is something he must do, either because it is his paid profession, or simply because he views such a task as his grisly responsibility.
However, for the political assassin, shooting or stabbing an unarmed public figure in a public setting serves two very specific functions.
On a psychological level, it serves as an occasion to engage in what is euphemistically called “propaganda of the deed.” That is to say, through carrying out such an appallingly brazen act, in plain sight of the world, the assassins announce loudly that they mean business. A populace is put on notice: blood will be spilt, throats will be slit, bombs will explode, and widows will wail with grief... in short, terror will reign, until the ardent, depraved, and remorseless terror-mongers get exactly what they want. As long as their demands are not met, no one is safe, no matter how rich, powerful, or well-connected he may be.
More obviously, of course, assassination simply brings about the demise of a hated official representative of the ranks of the enemy. After all, in the ideologized assassin’s mindset, individual manifestations of human personality hardly matter—the king, president, prime minister or whoever has been targeted may not be a bad fellow in himself, but this does not deter the assassin one whit from the cold, furiously determined hatred which induces him finally to pull the trigger. The political assassin is a thoroughgoing Manichean at heart; he makes no distinctions between good, better, bad, or worse; he has switched off his mind to such vexing complications, and locked himself in to accomplishing the deadly task at hand. He is a human bomb, bound for violent oblivion, an “automatic schmuck… with a tendency to rock.”
By most accounts, Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand was a fair-minded, mild-mannered man, well aware of the complexities inherent in the question of Serbian independence, dedicated to finding solutions to the difficult political problems of a governing a multiethnic empire. He was no blustering, bullying, jingoistic hardliner, but a man of relative temperance, prudence and restraint. Still, as a representative of the hated Austro-Hungarian state, Ferdinand became a convenient target for some of the regime’s more ruthless and implacable foes when he and his beloved wife Duchess Sophie made their ill-fated trip through Sarajevo a century ago today, on June 28. 1914.
Early that morning, members of the Black Hand, a notorious Serb terrorist organization, launched an unsuccessful grenade attack on the archduke’s motorcade, which only succeeded in injuring scores of bystanders when the weapon bounced off the car and exploded behind its intended target. After the suspects fled (all save the weak-armed grenadier himself, who was immediately apprehended by police after jumping in the shallow, slow-flowing Milijacka river), Ferd and Sophie generously decided—against all counsel from advisors—to visit the victims of the attack in the main Sarajevo hospital.
Once again, they set off through the perilous city. But this time, there came a fatal hitch. En route, their driver took a wrong turn, and had to pause for a moment before backtracking, because the gears in the vehicle had stubbornly locked.
At that fateful instant, the noble couple’s quite conspicuous cab was sighted by a young man named Gavrilo Princip, who just happened to be standing in front of a nearby restaurant on Franz Josef Street.
Princip, a gaunt, grubbily mustachioed, wanly tubercular 19-year old, was one of the six Black Hand men who’d traveled to Sarajevo to whack the unfortunate archduke. He’d been unable to take action during the initial attack after crowds rushed in and chaos overtook the scene. Afterwards, he’d apparently wandered over to the Moritz Schiller delicatessen, where some historians say he’d consoled himself by purchasing a sandwich. (Othersdispute this claim, calling it suspiciously anachronistic—sandwiches not being a typical staple of early twentieth century Balkan cuisine—as well as chronologically dubious, given that when Gavrilo met Franz, it was only 10:45 a.m, too early for lunch.).
One can only guess what must have leapt through the mind of this rabidly radicalized lad as he caught sight of his imperial prey for the second time in just a few hours. That damnably high-and-mighty archduke, representative of the despised regime oppressing his people, had miraculously crept back into his crosshairs; this insufferable personage in the pompously plumed hat now lounged directly before him, entirely helpless; with those feathers in his helmet, in the seat of the stalled-out double phaeton that was to become his death cab, the archduke could quite accurately have been called a sitting duck.
However thunderstruck he may have felt by his luck, however, Gavrilo did not waste any time marveling at the marvelous opportunity thrust upon him by destiny. Instead, he immediately, unthinkingly took advantage of this inexplicable second chance he’d been granted. He strode right up to the car, pulled out his Browning semiautomatic pistol, pointed, and fired twice at point blank range.
The consumptive killer’s first shot tore through the archduke’s neck, causing him to jerk back spasmodically; his second bullet struck Sophie, who lunged in front of her husband in an effort to protect him from further injury. Fleeing the scene of his crime amidst shouts, cries, and general mayhem, Princip attempted to shoot himself in the head, and thus complete what had all along essentially been a suicide mission, but the gun jammed, and he was immediately seized and pummeled by incensed bystanders before finally getting snatched up and carted off by authorities.
Back in the imperial car, now spattered horrifically with noble blood, Sophie instantly lost consciousness. Princip’s second shot had ripped into her stomach, causing what would prove to be mortal damage. Her husband, writhing in agony from his own gaping neck wound, nevertheless was heard to implore his wife’s lifeless form, “Sophie, don’t die! Think of our children!”
Later, the frantic driver breathlessly asked Ferdinand if he was okay, and he replied, in a soft, dreamy tone, “It is nothing.” Soon he passed out from the pain and the blood loss. By the time the royal car reached Sarajevo Hospital, the duchess had perished. A few minutes later, after being carted into a hospital bed, the archduke died as well.
Ferdinand’s poignant plea to his dying wife—which of course went unanswered—is a reminder of the personal damage caused by this generally impersonal act of politically-fueled rage. Because of Gavrilo Princip’s militant heart and itchy trigger finger, two human lives were snuffed out, and the couple’s three children—Ernst, Sophie, and Maximillian—were rendered orphans.
Of course, considered from a global perspective, the young man’s violent deed proved even more devastating. For it was the killing of the Austrian archduke that sent the principalities and powers of Europe scampering into a cacophonously haphazard formation of clashing alliances, producing such rancor and instability as to fling the continent into the unprecedented catastrophe of World War I.
Of course, Gavrilo Princip had no notion that his surprisingly quick and easy double murder would lead to such a massively gruesome eventuality. On June 28, 1914, he had no premonition of the brutal trench fighting which would rage over the next four years, killing and maiming millions; he could not envision the furiously cruel chemical attacks which would wreck the life and sanity of many a man; he could not imagine the ghastly sight of piles of rotting bodies stacking up daily along the shores of the blood-stained Sommeand elsewhere across the gore-strewn battlefields of Europe.
Princip also couldn’t have foreseen the subsequent rise of destructive, inhuman ideologies like Communism and Nazism, or guessed at the even bloodier conflagration which would again consume his home continent a mere two decades later. Indeed, he had no conception whatsoever of the terrifying future that awaited the world. He only knew he wanted the Austro-Hungarian imperialist regime out of his native land. And to help accomplish this, he was willing to harden his heart enough to kill a man in cold blood. (Princip apparently expressed regret for Sophie’s death, which he claimed was an accident.)
Actions have consequences. It took a bitterly determined automatic schmuck like Gavril to usher in a bitter century of ravagement and horror. A grudging toast to you, young sir, on the 100-year anniversary of your day of glorious infamy.