The Gunshot That Reshaped the World

In June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb revolutionary inadvertently set off the first global conflict of our times. Should he have chosen more peaceful methods to further his cause, the world would be a different place today.

Gavrilo Princip, sitting at the centre of the front row, at his trial on December 5, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gavrilo Princip, sitting at the centre of the front row, at his trial on December 5, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.”
― Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

The butterfly effect is a common trope in popular science and fiction that attempts to convey a hard-to-intuit scientific fact: a trifling change in the initial conditions can create a significantly different final outcome. The phrase refers to the idea that tiny changes like the flap of a butterfly’s wings can alter initial conditions sufficiently enough to alter the path of a tornado half-the-world away. But does the world really work this way? Can one person, one event, one random turn, truly alter the course of human history?

A hundred and two years ago, providence altered the course of the world through the actions of one man. The wheels of destiny were driving history through the movements and actions of a young Serbian boy, Gavrilo Princip. Laced with irony, rebellion, intrigue and love – the story of Princip and Prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand epitomises the butterfly effect in human history. Ever since I first heard the story, I have been trying to reconcile the monumental impact of this one man and this chance event on the world as it exists today.

Making of a terrorist

Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), was a Bosnian Serb and was responsible for the assassination of Prince Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg. Princip was born in a family of serfs at a time when Serbia was in a  state of tumultuous transition. In 1878, under the Treaty of Berlin, Austria-Hungary received the mandate to occupy and administer Bosnia while the Ottoman empire retained official sovereignty. As part of the same treaty, Serbia was accorded the status of a sovereign state which soon transformed into a kingdom under Prince Obrenovic who ruled within the borders set by the treaty. However, this peaceful state of existence changed when as part of a military coup, the king and the queen of Serbia were violently murdered and Peter I was installed as the new king. This new dynasty was friendlier to Russia than to Austria-Hungary and over the next decade, disputes erupted as Serbia made strategic military moves to reclaim its former fourteenth century empire. Serbia’s military successes in these campaigns emboldened its nationalistic elements and the Serbs in Austria-Hungary who were irked by the Austro-Hungarian rule.

As a Christian Serb (serf) family living in northwestern Bosnia, the Princips (and other Serbs) were often oppressed by their Muslim landlords and forced to live off the little land they owned. This led to large scale discontent against the Austro-Hungarian empire. At the age of 13, Princip moved to Sarajevo and this gave him more opportunities for protest. In 1911, he joined the ‘Young Bosnia’, a society that wanted to separate Bosnia from Austria-Hungary and unite it with the rising kingdom of Serbia. The following year, Princip was expelled from school for being involved in demonstrations against the Austro-Hungarian authorities.

After the Balkan wars in 1912-1913 the Austro-Hungarian administration in Bosnia and Herzegovina became extremely serbophobic and declared a state of emergency as the governor closed many schools and Serb societies and inflamed the historic anti-Serb rhetoric. These hostilities further fuelled the young Princip as he left Sarajevo and arrived in Belgrade. He then volunteered to join Serbian Guerrilla bands fighting under the leadership of Major Vojin Tankosic, who was a member of a leading Serbian terrorist organisation of the times: The Black Hand. Three rebellious young men, including Gavrilo Princip at the age of 19, were thus trained, armed and tasked with the assassination of Prince Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by Major Tankosic. These young men were a product of their times as they sought freedom from the occupying Austro-Hungarian empire to unite with the rising Serbian state in hope of a better, more equitable future.

The charmed prince

Franz Ferdinand’s life is a story of fortuitous coincidences right till fortune deserted him at the very end. He was born in Austria to the younger brother of the then emperor Franz Joseph and was thus not in the direct line of succession. However, in 1889, his cousin and the Crown Prince, Rudolf, committed suicide leaving the emperor’s younger brother (Franz Ferdinand’s father) next in line to the throne. When his father died of typhoid fever in 1896, Franz Ferdinand became the prince and heir to the throne.

As a young man, Franz Ferdinand had met Countess Sophie Chotek at a ball in Prague but was forbidden to marry her as she was not a member of one of the reigning dynasties of Europe. Sophie and Prince Franz stayed in touch through letters and their relationship blossomed, away from the eyes of the court. Deeply in love, Franz Ferdinand refused to marry anyone else and after numerous appeals from him and his royal friends (Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, German emperor Wilhelm II and Pope Leo XIII all appealed his case), emperor Franz Joseph finally permitted the prince to marry Sophie. He however imposed a condition that the marriage would be morganatic and that their children would have no succession rights to the throne. Sophie was further forbidden from sharing her husband’s rank, title, precedence or privileges and could normally not appear in public with him. Despite these brutal restrictions, the two married in 1900 and stayed together for the rest of their lives.

The fateful day

In 1913, in the midst of the rising crisis in Serbia, Emperor Franz Joseph commanded the Archduke to observe military manoeuvres that were scheduled for June 1914 in Bosnia. June was also a time of great unrest in Serbia as it commemorated the fateful 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Ottomans when the Sultan was assassinated by a Serb. This was a time for Serbian patriotism and military observances. Duchess Sophie could never share the Archduke’s rank and splendours, but she would not let him travel alone, fearing for his safety amidst this political turmoil. In fact, historian A.J.P. Taylor writes that love was the reason they met their deaths on this fateful day in June:

“[Sophie] could never share Franz Ferdinand’s] rank… could never share his splendours, could never even sit by his side on any public occasion. There was one loophole… his wife could enjoy the recognition of his rank when he was acting in a military capacity. Hence, he decided in 1914, to inspect the army in Bosnia. There at its capital Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife could ride in an open carriage side by side…Thus, for love, did the Archduke go to his death”.

On the fateful morning of June 28, 1914, fourteen years to the day since their wedding, the Archduke and his wife arrived in Sarajevo by train and the entire motorcade including the governor of Sarajevo began its journey as per a pre-announced program.

Six armed assassins including a young Gavrilo Princip were positioned along the route with a single target in mind: Austria’s heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When the first two assassins along the route failed to act, the third assassin, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who was armed with a bomb decided to take immediate action. He threw his bomb but unfortunately the bomb bounced off the Archduke’s convertible and exploded under the next car in the motorcade causing a major furore as 16-20 people were wounded. The assassin, Cabrinovic, in true terrorist character, swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the nearby river to evade the police.

Unfortunately for him, the river was running dry and only six inches deep, and the cyanide did not quite work. He was thus captured and severely beaten. At that point, a massive disaster seemed to have been averted. The motorcade sped away to arrive at the town hall for the scheduled reception where the Archduke understandably complained about the reception accorded to him – “Mr. Mayor, I come here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous.” After a few soothing words from Sophie, he finally thanked the people of Sarajevo for their ovations “as I see in them an expression of their joy at the failure of the attempt at assassination.”

Photograph of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie emerging from the Sarajevo Town Hall to board their car, a few minutes before the assassination. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie emerging from the Sarajevo Town Hall to board their car, a few minutes before the assassination. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wheels of destiny drive history

After the commotion of the explosion and the rally, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie gave up their planned program and decided to visit the wounded from the bombing at the nearby hospital. The remaining assassins had all dispersed to avoid capture and it seemed that the  plot was indeed foiled. The Archduke and the Duchess boarded the motorcade which had been given general orders that the royal car be taken to the hospital through a route that avoids the city centre. However, the driver of this motorcade, Leopold Lojka did not get the revised order and took a wrong turn into the now eponymously named Franz Josef Street.

Coincidentally enough, after the failed assassination attempt, Gavrilo Princip had wandered into a nearby food shop – Schiller’s Delicatessen, which happened to be on the exact same street. As the universe conspired, the driver, upon being told about the changed route was trying to reverse the car when the engine stalled and the gears locked giving the young Princip a completely unexpected opportunity. Taking his chances, Princip stepped forward and fired two shots from a distance of about five feet.

The first bullet wounded the Archduke in the jugular and the second inflicted an abdominal wound on the duchess (who, some reports say, was pregnant at this time). Both victims remained seated upright but died while being driven to the Governor’s residence for medical treatment. As reported by Count Harrach who was with the motorcade, Franz Ferdinand’s last words were “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!” followed by six or seven utterances of “It’s nothing” in response to questions about his pain.

Princip and the other assassins were meanwhile caught and imprisoned for high treason. At his sentencing, Princip stated that his second shot was aimed at Governor Potiorek rather than the Duchess. Princip was 19 years old at the time of the assassinations and was thus too young to receive the death penalty. In fact, he was 27 days short of his twentieth birthday which would have made him eligible for death penalty under the Habsburg law. Instead, he received the maximum sentence of twenty years in prison where he contracted tuberculosis and died on 28 April 1918 – when the first world war, that was triggered by his actions, was finally coming to a close. Princip had stated under cross-examination: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist and I believe in unification of all South Slavs in whatever form of state and that it be free of Austria.” Princip was a young revolutionary who wished for nothing but the betterment of his people and, forced by a lack of better means, violence was his tool.

As fate conspired, this single event – the assassination of the Archduke – triggered a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the first world war in less than a month. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian state for the assassination and this dragged Germany into the war by virtue of its complicated web of political alliances. Russia supported Serbia and responded to the declaration of war, while France got dragged in, too. After many deliberations, Great Britain entered the war, which soon grew into the first global conflict of our times.

One month after the assassination by Princip, one of the bloodiest wars in history began. It lasted four years and affected almost the entire world in one way or another. It was also directly responsible for the Second World War, which in turn shaped and continues to shape the world as it exists today.

Ironically enough, in this case, the butterfly may have lived long enough to see the raging tornado. Princip was saved from the death sentence by his young age but he lived exactly long enough to witness the horrors of the first world war and the millions of deaths that directly resulted from his actions. Given the benefit of hindsight and knowing the consequences of his actions, would Princip have chosen to not fire his gun on that fateful day? If you extended the chains of causation – the current Middle East crisis, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Cold War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Pearl Harbour, the Third Reich, the Treaty of Versailles, the second world war – they would all occur at the other end of that one gunshot. And thus, the gunshot of a young 19-year-old boy that was intended to start a revolution reverberated around the world and its echoes can be heard even after a century.