You just can’t make this stuff up, they say, and when it comes to the conspiracy to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand on his visit to Sarajevo 100 years ago today, no imagination in Hollywood would be capable of drawing it up.
Not surprisingly, some details of the plot and the assassination are in dispute. Were the conspirators really part of the shadowy Serbian intelligence agency known as The Black Hand? Or were they local recruits that allowed the Black Hand some plausible deniability? There are also minor discrepancies in how the plot unfolded.
But most agree on the broad outline of the conspiracy — which makes the fact that they actually pulled it off all the more remarkable.
The archduke announced the trip ahead of time and helpfully published a map of the motorcade that would take the royal party to a ceremony at city hall. He rode in an open car with this loving wife Sophie and basked in the cheers from the large crowd along the way.
There were 7 assassins in all. Boys and young men burning with nationalistic fervor who saw knocking off the heir to the Hapsburg throne as a signal for a general revolt. While long on patriotism, they were short on training, planning, execution, and courage. Looking at them from the distance of 100 years, it seems remarkable that this inept, awkward, not-very-bright group of teenagers could pull off the assassination of the young century and throw the world into chaos.
The fact that they did is an example of serendipity and coincidence that boggles the mind today.
There was minimal security — not even 100 police along the motorcade route. But even that paltry number was enough to deter at least 4 of the would-be assassins who chickened out without firing a shot.
One assassin was foiled by a jammed pistol. Another tossed a crude homemade bomb at the archduke’s car that Ferdinand fended off, which caused the device to land in back of the car on the street, injuring several bystanders when it exploded.
The bomb thrower, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, began to run toward the river, swallowing poison before he jumped in trying to drown himself. Unfortunately for him, the water was only inches deep and the poison only made him sick. He was hustled off to jail while the motorcade continued.
Here’s where serendipity makes an appearance:
The furious archduke arrived at City Hall, where the mayor of Sarajevo delivered some totally inappropriate remarks that were written before the assassination attempt.
The archduke snapped, “What kind of welcome is this? I’m being met by bombs!” Then he wiped the blood off his prepared speech and addressed the crowd.
Afterward, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne got back into his motorcade with his wife, Sophie. They had decided to visit the hospital to see the people who were wounded in the bomb attack.
But no one told the driver.
At that fateful intersection, the car was supposed to go straight — but it turned right. A general in the motorcade shouted, “You’re going the wrong way!”
And the driver stopped the car … right in front of assassin number seven.
Assassin number seven was 19 year old Gavrilo Princip. He was crestfallen that he and his comrades had failed in their attempts to kill Ferdinand and decided to visit a local deli to drown his sorrows in a bottle of beer and a sandwich.
The driver’s wrong turn changed the course of history. At that exact moment, Princip was emerging from the deli and not 4 feet away was Ferdinand’s car – conveniently stopped and with no bodyguards in evidence. Princip leaped upon the running board and pumped two shots into the car, hitting both Ferdinand and Sophie. They would die within minutes.
A conspiracy planned and executed by incompetent amateurs ended up completing the task of assassinating Archduke Ferdinand by simple dumb luck and remarkable coincidence.
Thirty seconds either way and Princip would have missed his opportunity. If the mayor had taken 30 seconds longer in his remarks, Princip would have been denied. If the driver had gone the right way, Ferdinand would have probably lived to ascend to the Hapsburg throne. You can point to a dozen scenarios where a few seconds would have made the difference and Princip would have missed his rendezvous with destiny.
But it wasn’t to be.
They unveiled a statue to Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo yesterday. Honoring a terrorist says more about Bosnian Serbs today than it does about what the nation was like in 1914. One man’s terrorist may be another’s freedom fighter, but even if you believe that, it takes a certain amount of obtuseness to celebrate an act that led to the death of 40 million people.