Gavrilo Princip nicked the razorblade on his neck and scuttled the stubble from his youth-stretched skin. It was to be today: the day of martyrdom.
Hands trembling with adrenaline, he snicked his lip with the sharp metal blade - a soft stream of red dribbled down his chin and neck. He wiped the blood away with his sleeve and smiled. He could not stop himself from smiling.
With pride, he said out loud, “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”
What Gavrilo was about to do is well known now. It was the morning of June 28th in the year 1914. He was in Mrs Ilić’s house, mother of fellow conspirator Danilo Ilić. Gavrilo had received his weapon from Ilić the night before: a Browning pistol. It was heavy in his jacket pocket. He had also received his suicide pills.
The weapons had endured a long journey to Sarajevo. Gavrilo had met Mehmedbašić, the Muslim carpenter, in a café the night before. He was with the Black Hand. He had been assigned to carry the weapons on the train from France to Bosnia.
But, his first attempt at smuggling the arms had been a failure, and he remembered it with shame:
It was raining, a dark night, and the train stopped unannounced a few minutes after leaving the station in Toulouse. Mehmedbašić was nervous. Through the glass door, he saw two policemen entering the train in the forward carriage. Mehmedbašić panicked and with a tug he opened the stuck window and flung the weapons onto the tracks, into the night. The police entered his cabin.
“We are looking for a thief,” they said. “He has blonde hair and is without a moustache.”
Mehmedbašić said politely that he hadn’t seen the thief, but he would contact the police at once if he did. The police officer looked at the half-opened window and at the rain hitting off Mehmedbašić’s shoulder, creating a damp patch on his cotton jumper. Then, the policeman’s colleague tapped him on the arm and he turned and they both moved on down the carriage and the train started again.
Gavrilo did not know of this story. New weapons were sent from Serbia: they moved through the clandestine tunnel of Black Hand operatives, crossing borders and rivers under assumed identities, hidden in a cinema and under sofas, smuggled in a cart, from safehouse to safehouse.
Now the weapons were in the hands of the seven assassins: automatic pistols, hand-held bombs, and cyanide pills.
Danilo Ilić entered the bathroom in which Gavrilo was shaving. It was time to go. Gavrilo coughed with a tubercular hoch and splutter and turned to leave. He had had tuberculosis since he was a boy; it was killing him slowly.
They went down to the patisserie nearby where they were to meet the others. It was very early in the morning; the sun was up but the streets were almost empty.
The others were already there when Gavrilo and Ilić arrived. The five of them were sitting around a flour-dusted table in the back of the shop, chewing on fresh croissants. Gavrilo was offered something to eat; he refused.
“Not hungry?” his friend, Čabrinović, asked wryly.
Yes, he was hungry but he was accustomed to hunger; he had often starved as a boy when his parents could not provide for him - hunger gave him focus.
Ilić walked to the table, placed one hand on Čabrinović’s shoulder, and, with the other hand, he removed today’s paper from his jacket and dropped it on the table.
“Published in today’s paper, men, is the route which the Imperialist Franz Ferdinand will take through our city of Sarajevo later this morning,” he said. “I will line you up along the river. Stick to your positions and do not fail to act and you will become heroes of the Serbian people. The Archduke’s car will pass by each one of you, and if one of you should fail, the others surely shall not.”
These were the instructions that had been relayed to Ilić by the one they called “The Bee”, a Serbian colonel, dark head of the Black Hand.
Ilić opened the paper, and turned to the page which illustrated the route of the royal motorcade. He then pointed to each man and showed them their position along the route.
Mehmedbašić was first in line, he was to stand outside the Mostar Café armed with a bomb; they trusted Mehmedbašić the least for his previous errors and for the fact he was Muslim. Alongside him was Vaso Čubrilović and Cvjetko Popović, armed with a pistol and a bomb, also not much trusted, being seventeen-year-old schoolboys who had only recently persuaded the Black Hand to let them participate in the assassination.
Next was Čabrinović, armed only with a bomb as he had never been much use with a gun during training in Belgrade.
Gavrilo Princip was stationed in the middle. He was respected as having the best aim with his pistol and was expected to finish the job.
Trifko Grabez was the last in line and armed with a revolver. He was the violent son of a priest who had been expelled from school a couple of years ago for assaulting his teacher. None doubted his courage.
Ilić would not take part in the killing itself, but would stand by and watch as it unfolded. “Have courage,” he said to the young men.
The oldest of the assassins-to-be was Mehmedbašić. He was twenty-eight. The rest of them had barely finished puberty. Each had his reasons for joining the Black Hand; each had his motives for martyrdom.
All of these men, these boys, were poor. And three of them were terminally ill with tuberculosis. Their peasant parents would have paid punitive taxes to the Austro-Hungarian government. Impressionable, alone, they felt they were victims; and they were victims, but of what, it was not exactly clear. The Serbian nationalist rhetoric gave them stir, the folk legends of a martyred race inspired them, and they joined the Black Hand; they were to murder a man whom they had never met, and murder his entirely innocent wife as well; they were to murder a man who, unbeknown to them, planned to empower the Bosnian people when he came to power; they were to give their lives for a vague cause that would lead to utter, utter catastrophe; and did they know it? ... of course not ... and did they care? ... probably not.
At around 9am, on the Appel Quay road that runs parallel to the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, the assassins took their positions. It was a hot and bright summer’s day. A crowd was gathering along the roadside, enthusiastic to see the grand royal man with his beautiful young wife. There were police on duty of course, but not nearly as many as the assassins had expected. Danilo Ilić walked down the middle of the car-less road, foreshadowing the route of the Archduke’s convoy, and gazing at the Black Hand assassins as he passed them, staring courage into their eyes and whistling a Serbian folk song. Gavrilo Princip heard his stomach growl and felt courage rise in his chest at the sight of the whistling Ilić. So exhorted was he that he wanted to cry out patriotic slogans for a Greater Serbia, but he inhaled deeply and focused on his task.
The crowd continued to grow larger and the young men were growing nervous and restless in the heat. An hour had passed and the motorcade was sure to come soon. Each man, in his own head, perceived the scene on that Bosnian morning: the Balkan sun, the simple peasants dressed in traditional clothing, red fezzes, waistcoats and black kilts, ordinary people, families, waiting to see a royal couple. Salesmen were selling sweets and cold drinks and children were running between the legs of the crowd; stray dogs sniffed for scraps at people’s feet and the river tinkled by, glinting in the sun.
To the young men, the assassins, everything was blurred in the bright morning light, the noises of the crowd were muffled; over the chatter of people were heard the buzzes of insects, but slowed down, the movement of time seemed to have warped, the passage of history was heavy with pregnancy.
Distant cheers signalled the coming of the cars. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in the third car - the killers had discovered this by asking a patrolling policeman - and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, was beside him; they had the roof down to wave at the people, their subjects, who were cheering them along.
The motorcade rolled slowly passed the first assassin, the fear-struck veteran, Mehmedbašić. He stared at the smiling Archduke as he moved along in front of him. Mehmedbašić failed to act.
The school-boys next, on opposing sides of the road; they looked at each other as the cars passed by them. They fingered the bombs in their pockets. They too failed to act. Events sagged under the weight of non-occurrence.
But now was Čabrinović, Gavrilo’s old friend, of the poor shot but riotous verve; he stepped into the street, smacked his bomb against a lamppost, activating the charge, and hurled it at the Archduke’s car, screaming wildly as he did so. The bomb rotated through the air and impacted against the fold-down roof of the motorcar; as it bounced, the Duke and his retinue turned in shock, the crowd were motionless, and Čabrinović, before seeing the results of his actions, took his cyanide pill in his teeth, bit down hard, swallowed, and leapt into the Miljacka River to end himself for sure.
In his excitement, he had forgotten that the bomb had a ten second fuse before detonation. The bomb bounced several times off the concrete road; the Archduke’s car stalled at first, and then eventually sped off away down the Appel Quay in flight, and the bomb exploded amongst the crowd, maiming twenty bystanders in a bloody mess. Screams and smoke filled the streets.
Čabrinović was lying half-conscious in the river vomiting. His cyanide pills were too old - they had failed to kill him. Due to a lack of recent rainfall, the river was only four inches deep. He lay partially submerged in the puddle-like water, vomiting violently from the cyanide and unaware of the explosion he had caused as the police beat him and apprehended him. As they dragged him through the shallow water to the road, his face bloody and broken from truncheon blows, he was heard to say meekly, “I am a hero.”
The remaining assassins heard the explosion and they saw the Archduke’s car speed by them. It passed Gavrilo Princip and he failed to act. It passed Trifko Grabez and he failed to act. Danilo Ilić had already made motions to flee and had crossed the Cumurja Bridge to disappear into the alleyways of the city.
The Black Hand group were in disarray. They had stood by, silent and still, and watched as Čabrinović was arrested pathetically in the shallow river. The crowd, now a mob, were screaming for his head. He was taken away by police retinue.
The others dispersed but Gavrilo stood at his post unable to move. His hand was still gripping the revolver in his jacket pocket. He felt his empty stomach. He was without orders, without objective, without purpose, without meaning. He decided to get something to eat.
It may seem strange, absurd even, to think that, at this moment of crisis, Gavrilo Princip went shopping for a sandwich, but this is what he did. It was hunger. It is history.
Gavrilo knew of two delicatessens nearby. The closer one, Velja’s, had a rude proprietor so he chose the farther shop by the Lateiner Bridge. When he had eaten in Velja’s, a few days previous, Mr Velja, the shop-keeper, had been stung by a wasp minutes before Gavrilo placed his order; Mr Velja was therefore feeling irritable and had had little time for surly customers. As it was, the wasp-stung proprietor had lost business due to his bout of rudeness, for Gavrilo had chosen the rival delicatessen, Schiller’s, the one near the bridge. The significance of this decision would change the course of history forever.
The crowds remained on the Appel Quay, chattering and gesturing with great excitement and shock, and the crowds had grown significantly since the chaos of the explosion. Smoke still lingered in the air and the metallic tinge of blood could be smelled on the breeze.
As though it was any other day, Gavrilo ordered the cheapest panino on the menu, sheep-cheese and black-bread, and walked out onto the pavement to eat in the sun. He stood there and stared at the shining river, and thought none-know-what, and stared at the sun in the clouding sky.
Wiping the sweat with his sleeve from his brow, then itching at his new-shaved neck, Gavrilo swallowed the last chunk of chewy bread. He reentered the delicatessen to order a coffee and to get some shade. As he was sipping the bitter black liquid, he heard distant cheers from down the Appel Quay; there was a vague commotion - something was going on. Again Gavrilo felt nervous.
The car was coming again, the Archduke and his wife again, still smiling in splendid regalia; they were still waving to the crowd, the car’s roof was still down, but they were moving faster now, the car tutting along sprightly.
Gavrilo dismissed the noises coming from the street and, because of his tuberculosis, he began to cough again, violently.
Now, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had briefly attended his reception at the town hall and had told the delegation that he wished to visit the victims of the day’s attack at the city hospital. As such, the preplanned route of the tour was changed. In what can now be recognised as a fatal oversight, none of the authorities thought to inform the driver of this change of plan.
The driver drove down the Appel Quay by the River Miljacka - he was still feeling disturbed by the earlier violent incident - and turned right into Franz Josef Street, street of the emperor, the street named for Franz Ferdinand’s uncle.
Immediately, he was slapped across the back of the head by the security chief.
“Wrong way you fool! Turn us around at once!”
He halted the car suddenly, feet heavy on the pedals, and fumbled nervously with the temperamental gear stick, attempting to put the car into reverse. With a coughy bark the car shuddered into a stall.
Gavrilo was still coughing. He hurried out of the shop to painfully spit the blood from his throat onto the concrete pavement. His eyes watering a little, he looked up to see the Archduke’s car, sputtering at a stand-still before him, not four yards away. He looked onto the royal man’s face, his well-trimmed moustache, his agitated look.
Gavrilo Princip, with strong arm, grabbed the pistol from his coat, and took his straight aim. He fired two shots. Two cracks to break the air.
He bit his cyanide tablet and put the pistol to his head and was tackled to the ground. The cyanide made him vomit. He had failed to kill himself; policemen were carrying him away from the screaming lynch-mob. Between vomitus convulsions he bellowed, “Nail me to a cross and burn me alive! My flaming body will be a torch to light my people on their path to freedom!”
They didn’t realise it at first, but the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been hit in the neck, the bullet severing the jugular vein. Blood pored over his military insignia. The seven lucky charms on his necklace had failed to save him, as had his bullet-proof vest. His young wife Sophie had been hit in the stomach; she was unconscious.
“Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Live for our children!” he was heard to say.
Before his long death rattle, Franz Ferdinand spoke quietly:
“It is nothing, it is nothing, it is nothing, it is nothing, it is nothing, it is nothing. It is nothing.”