Profile: Gavrilo Princip

Serbian student Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, igniting conflagration of WWI & subsequent world events into present day, in jail cell awaiting trial. Photograph: Time Life Pictures

Serbian student Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, igniting conflagration of WWI & subsequent world events into present day, in jail cell awaiting trial. Photograph: Time Life Pictures

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

His name may not be as instantly recognisable as Franz Ferdinand, but the 19 –year-old assassin who killed the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo in 1914 played a crucial role in the subsequent development of European history.

Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian-Serb who fired the fateful shots on the morning of June 28th, has become a symbol of the strain of radical Serbian nationalism that infiltrated the Balkan peninsula in the decades leading up to the first World War. Princip was in fact one of a core group of three assassins who were sent from Belgrade to carry out the assassination in June 1914.

Born in Sarajevo in 1894, Gavrilo Princip was born into a relatively poor household, and was a sickly child. He left school early and moved to Belgrade where, in the coffee houses of the Serbian capital, he became exposed to the underground nationalist movements that were gaining ground. He, and his two Bosnian-Serb friends, Trifko Grabez and Nedeljko Cabrinovic, were recruited into Black Hand, an irredendist group which counted among its members Dragutin Dimitrijevi? known as “Apis”, the chief of the Serbian military intelligence.

The plan to assassinate the archduke was hatched in Belgrade, with senior Black Hand operatives providing the guns and ammunitions that would be used to murder the archduke. In an ideology that would inform terrorist attacks a century later, the attackers intended to kill themselves after carrying out the deed. During his trial for the Sarajevo killing, Princip recounted how, in the days before the assassination, he had visited the grave of Bogdan Zerajic, a suicide assassin who had tried but failed to assassinate General Varesanin, the Austrian governor of Bosnia, in 1911.

The three friends entered Bosnia with the help of the Black Hand network in the days before the murder and were joined by four co-conspirators in Saraejevo.

The seven assassins lined Appel Quay on the morning of June 28th, under instructions to kill the archduke.

In the event, it fell to Princip to deliver the fatal shots, as the others effectively lost their nerve, while Nedeljko Cabrinovic’s attempt to bomb the car failed and the poison he ingested failed to kill him.

Princip was immediately seized following the attack, surrounded by a shocked and angry crowd which began attacking him, and he appeared before a judge within hours. Both he and Cabrinovic maintained that they had acted alone, but the decision of one of the seven assassins, Danilo Ilic, to confess, immediately widened the investigation to Belgrade, as the authorities desperately tried to confirm a link between Serbian authorities and the actions of the young Bosnian Serbs.

Princip’s full trial took place in October 2014 in Sarajevo. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence that could be imposed as he had been aged under 20 at the time of the attack. The young Bosnian died of tuberculosis in the Theresienstadt Prison outside Vienna in April 1918 as the war he helped to ignite continued to rage.

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