100 years ago, it was February 1915, and the Great War—a war that was supposed to have been over by Christmas 1914—was still raging. And as bad as the initial months of the war had been, 1915 was going to be worse. 1915 was going to be the year that witnessed the first large-scale use of poison gas in warfare. It was going to be the year that Germany first declared a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was going to be the year of the battles of Gallipoli, and of Loos, and of Zeppelin raids against British civilians. In 1915 the Great War was going to broaden, intensify, and take its first halting steps towards becoming a total war.

It is in this context of intensification that I want to talk about three deaths that took place (almost unnoticed) in a small prison in Sarajevo on February 3rd. Only one piece of correspondence marks the deaths of these three men—a telegram from the Bosnia Administration to the Joint Ministry of Finance in Vienna. It read: “Trial sentence against Veljko Cubrilović, Miško Jovanović, and Danilo Ilić executed today between 9 and 10 A.M. with- out incident.” (1) Given the scale of the Great War, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the execution of three Bosnian Serbs far away from the front didn’t receive more fanfare. Even so, as conspirators convicted of participating in the plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand—the very event that precipitated the inexorable slide into global war—the execution of these men probably merited more attention than it got.

If the names Veljko Cubrilović, Miško Jovanović, and Danilo Ilić don’t stand out to you, don’t worry; one of the more remarkable things about the execution was the absence of the actual assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Austro-Hungarian law prohibited the death penalty for anyone under the age of 20 at the time the offense was committed. Since he was caught in the act and arrested on the spot, Princip’s guilt was never seriously in question. Much of his trial, instead, centred on which day could be considered his correct birthday. There was some ambiguity as to whether Princip was 19 or 20 years old when he shot the Archduke and Archduchess. Amid conflicting evidence, in what can only be described as a remarkable instance of fair-minded judicial restraint, the court found in favour of Princip, and rejected the prosecution’s recommendation of the death sentence. Instead, Princip was sentenced to life in prison. The same held true for many of the principle conspirators.

Veljko Cubrilović, Miško Jovanović, and Danilo Ilić had fairly minor roles in the assassination. For the most part, their role was in the transport of weapons and in sheltering the assassins. However, Austro-Hungarians wanted blood and these three were the only ones convicted who were old enough to face the death penalty. This fact illustrates something startling: most of the conspirators—whose actions unleashed one of the most devastating wars in history—were teenagers.

In 2015, many countries are still fighting the War on Terror. In our preoccupation with our own times, sometimes it is hard to remember that terrorism is old. Certainly, if the Austro-Hungarians used our modern nomenclature, Princip and his compatriots might be labelled terrorists. Therefore, the question “what drives a terrorist to act?” was no less salient a century ago than it is today.

Nedeljko Čabrinović—another one of the conspirators—was 19 when he threw a bomb at Franz Ferdinand’s car that fateful day. What drove him to act? On the last day of the trial, Čabrinović addressed the court with an answer to this question. Historian Joachim Remak recorded Čabrinović’s testimony in his book Sarajevo: The Story of Political Murder:

“We did not hate Austria,” he said, but the Austrians had done nothing, since the occupation, to solve the problems that faced Bosnia and Herzegovina. In particular, they had failed to relieve the economic misery of the Bosnian farmer. “Nine-tenths of our people are farmers who suffer, who live in misery, who have no schools, who are deprived of any culture. We sympathized with them in their distress.” The court should understand this, and “not consider us criminals. We loved our people.”

The assassination, Čabrinović went on—his voice betraying his deep emotion—had arisen from an atmosphere in which there was daily talk of violence, and in which assassins were celebrated as heroes. “We thought that only people of noble character were capable of committing [political] assassinations.” There had been no personal hatred for Franz Ferdinand, but “we heard it said that he was an enemy of the Slavs. Nobody directly told us ‘kill him’; but in this environment, we arrived at the idea ourselves.”

Čabrinović ended by voicing a sentiment he had steadfastly suppressed during the trial so far:

“I would like to add something else [he said, as tears showed in his eyes]. Although Princip is playing the hero, and although we all wanted to appear as heroes, we still have profound regrets. In the first place, we did not know that the late Franz Ferdinand was a father. We were greatly touched by the words he addressed to his wife: ‘Sophie, stay alive for our children.’ We are anything you want, except criminals. In my name and in the name of my comrades, I ask the children of the late successor to the throne to forgive us. As for you, punish us according to your understanding. We are not criminals. We are honest people, animated by noble sentiments; we are idealists; we wanted to do good; we have loved our people; and we shall die for our ideals.” (2)

It seems, somehow, extremely dissonant to see an assassin declare himself an honest man and an idealist —a person who was animated by love for his people. A cynical person might see this as a ploy to gain a lighter sentence, or as a means of diminishing culpability. But Remak’s book, which is based off of extensive court documents, seems to make it clear that those in attendance at the trial judged Čabrinović’s words to be sincere. What does this say, then, about Čabrinović, or about his fellow conspirators (most of whom expressed similar sentiments throughout the trial), or about the nature of terrorism in general?

I am tempted right now to say something like “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” or something about how good intentions can lead people astray; but no matter how idealistic the conspirators judged their goals to be, the intent was always to murder a man and that cannot be judged as good. I think the best we can say of Princip, Čabrinović, and the rest is that they did not intend their actions to result as they did.

As carefully as they appeared to have laid their plans to kill Franz Ferdinand, the conspirators seemed curiously thoughtless and unprepared for what consequences his death might have—both geopolitically, and for the Archduke’s family. In the end, some expressed regret for what they did. Čabrinović said, “if I would have known what was going to happen, I would have sat down on these bombs and let them tear me to pieces.” (3) To me, the conspirators seem to have acted under a false impression of idealism. They acted foolishly, clumsily, and thoughtlessly. They acted like teenagers.

1915 was going to be a bad year for each and every combatant nation. A great wave of change was coming to sweep away the Old World, and leave only the corpses of millions and the wreckage of once-proud empires in its wake. It is amazing that this event was the direct result of a handful of misguided and idealistic teenagers, not even old enough to face the full extent of the law for their actions. Reality is truly stranger than fiction.

1. Joachim Remak, Sarajevo: The Story of a Political Murder (New York: Criterion Books, 1959), 246.
2. Remak, 242 – 243.
3. Remak, 221 – 222.

* Photo: The trial of Franz Ferdinand’s assassins. Gavrilo Princip is third from the left.

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