Parallel Lives: Franz Ferdinand & Gavrilo Princip

Alan Bardos

The parallels between assassin and victim.
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Archduke Franz Ferdinand & Gavrilo Princip are two of the most famous names in the 20th century, but little is generally known about them other than Princip assassinated the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparking the First World War. However they both went through an extraordinary chain of events to arrive at Sarajevo.

Being heir to the Habsburg throne was something of a poisoned chalice by the time Franz Ferdinand inherited the title in 1896; following the death of his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf in a suicide pact with his mistress; and his father Karl Ludwig, died of typhoid after drinking water from the River Jordan.

For a time it was thought Franz Ferdinand would also die when he contracted tuberculosis. He eventually recovered and Franz Ferdinand’s doctor gave him a letter to certify him fit, which Franz Ferdinand always carried.

Franz Ferdinand

One of the reasons for his recovery was an attachment he’d formed with Sophie Chotek. Who despite being a Czech noble was not considered to be of equal birth to Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne. Nonetheless Franz Ferdinand fought to marry the woman he loved, overcoming the opposition of the Emperor and the backbiting of his court. He forced a compromise morganatic marriage, renouncing his wife’s and descendants’ claim to the throne, on the 28th June 1900.

Despite this they were very happy together and had three children, but Sophie was subjected to all manner of petty humiliations because of strict court protocols. To the extent that they could not travel together in the same carriage on official state occasions.

Attending army manoeuvres in Bosnia gave Franz Ferdinand the opportunity to reverse this humiliation and he won a concession from the Emperor to allow Sophie to accompany him and they were able to ride together through the streets of Sarajevo. On the anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic oath which had made their marriage possible.

Gavrilo Princip came from a remote village in western Bosnia. He was one of nine children, six of whom died as a result of the poverty he blamed on his Austro-Hungarian masters.

When Princip was thirteen his elder brother paid for him to go to a military academy and become a soldier in the Emperor’s army; but on the way they stopped to buy Gavrilo new underwear and the shopkeeper persuaded his brother to put him in the Merchants’ School in Sarajevo instead. He was placed in a boarding house and shared a room with Danilo Ilic an older boy who became the main fixer for the assassins and was eventually hanged for the role he played in the assassination.

Gavrilo Princip

Ilic introduced Gavrilo to the nationalist ideas taking route in a Young Bosnia movement that was determined to liberate their people from Austro-Hungarian rule and would drive Princip. He was eventually expelled because of his subversive activities and went to Belgrade to continue his studies. When the Second Balkan’s War broke out Princip tried to join the partisans, but like the Archduke suffered from tuberculosis. He was unable to keep up with the physical demands of the training and was thrown out.

The bitter sting of that humiliation drove him to act and to prove himself. Princip moved to Belgrade which was full of Bosnian dissidents desperate to ignite a revolution against the Austrian occupiers of their homeland.

Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, head of Serbian Intelligence, and his deputy Major Vojislav Tankosić were recruiting many of these dissidents to send into Austro-Hungarian territory as part of a covert war they were waging against Austro-Hungary.

Princip and his fellow conspirators were one such group, whether or not they were acting under their own initiative or from Dimitrijevic and Tankosić’s direct instruction is still debated. However Dimitrijevic and Tankosić did provide the technical support that made it possible for Gavrilo Princip to carry out the assassination.

Dimitrijevic and Tankosić did not think that anything would come of Princip’s mission and he was very nearly right. Only one of the conspirators acted as the Archduke’s motorcade drove to an official reception, missing the Archduke’s car with a bomb.

In response Franz Ferdinand’s route back from the reception was changed, causing confusion amongst his entourage which led to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car stopping in front of Gavrilo Princip, the only one of the remaining dissidents with the desire and motivation to act.

Alan Bardos is the author of The Assassins, set around the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand.