Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Event that Sparked World War I: How it Ended for the Plotters

                                                             Veljko Cubrliovic

Veljko Cubrilovic appealed against his death sentence. He was wasting his time. He waited for several weeks for the judgment of the High Court which rubber stamped the death sentence.

Even though Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic had not appealed against their death sentences, the two men received a reprieve while the High Court deliberated on Veljko’s appeal. For some reason the Austrians wanted to hang the three men together.

While he awaited his fate Veljko exchanged several letters with his wife. He wrote a letter to his daughter Nadja, who was an infant at the time, with the instruction to his wife that Nadja receive the letter when she turned 15. Veljko ended this very moving letter by telling his daughter, who grew up without knowing her father, that in his last hours his thoughts were directed at her and her mother.

Veljko’s wife, Jovanka (who did not remarry after Veljko’s death and wore mourning clothes for many years after her husband’s death), gave this letter to Nadja, as her husband had wished, when Nada turned 15. Jovanka had never exactly hidden the story of Veljko’s life from Nadja, but she became more open about it as Nadja grew older.

In 2006, 92 year old Nadja would tell an interviewer, in Belgrade, that her father was a Yugoslav hero and, even though she never knew him, she was immensely proud of him.

Veljko was hanged along with Danilo and Misko on 2 February 1915. On the last day of his life Veljko wrote his final letter to Jovanka. There is a note of resignation in this letter. He wrote: ‘Do not grieve too much and don’t be sad. It had to be this way.’ As Veljko wrote this letter, a photograph of his wife and daughter was in front of him, on the table. 

The last letters Veljko wrote to his wife and daughter got to them by a stroke of good luck. The prison authorities sent these letters not to Jovanka, but to a judge in the town Jovanka was living at the time (Bosanka Gradiska). The judge wrote to the Austrian High Court that the letters be destroyed. In one of the letters Veljko had written that he was leaving behind ‘untarnished name’. It was unacceptable, the judge felt, that a child in a crib [Nadja] be told that a man who had committed high treason and who was subsequently hanged was leaving an ‘untarnished name’! The High Court agreed with the judge’s recommendation and the letters were destroyed. However, a high court clerk made copies of these letters before destroying them. The copies were passed on to the director of a bank in Sarajevo. The director handed the letters to Vaso Cubrilovic after the war and Vaso passed them on to Jovanka.

The last moment of Veljko’s life were described to Jovanka by a friend of Veljko from Priboj, a priest, who was in the same prison.

Veljko left some money for the guards to have a drink in his memory. As he was being given the last rites on the platform, along with Danilo Ilic and Misko Jovanovic, Veljko asked the priest to tell his wife and daughter that he was thinking of them at the end.

Veljko was very co-operative with the executioner. When ordered to remove his coat, he also removed the collar and tie so that the hangman would find it easier to fit the noose around his neck. There was a fixed smile on his face all the time. As the noose went round his neck, he said: ‘Long live the Serbian people! Long live the Serbian army! Long live King Peter!’

The executioner, Alois Seifried, an Austrian, left an account of the execution. According to Seifried’s account the three prisoners’ chains were removed in their cells and they walked unaided to the gallows, led by a priest who was reciting prayers.

All three men were calm and looked composed. They listened quietly when the verdict was read out.

The first one to step forward was Veljko, As Veljko fumbled to unbutton his shirt and tie so Seifried offered to help him. Veljko declined and said he would do it himself.

According to Seifried, the second man, who was Misko Jovanovic, was also very calm.

The third man, Danilo Ilic, Seifried wrote, had the greatest guilt written on his face, but he too was serene.

One of the men, Seifried could not remember which one afterwards, said to him, ‘please don’t torment me for long.’

As the drums were rolling the executioner heard all the men shouting. He recalled that all three of them expressed themselves very strongly against Austria.

Seifried completed his account by saying that he had never met such brave, calm delinquents in his life.

According to Vaso Cubrilovic, both Veljko and Misko refused to say goodbye to Ilic on the scaffold, presumably still holding a grudge against him for the betrayal. Vaso, who would only be one of the two main accused who survived prison, could afford to be magnanimous to Ilic in his memoirs. He wrote:

‘I don’t blame [Veljko and Misko] nor do I support the fact that the late Veljko and Misko did not wish to say farewell to him [Ilic] before their deaths.’ Vaso then turned philosophical. ‘ I know,’ he continued, ‘from my own experience that there are moments in life that require the utmost energy of soul to remain in balance.’

                                                            Danilo Ilic

Austrians decided to bury the bodies of the three hanged men secretly at night. The Empire did not want the graves to become a point of pilgrimage. (The chief of police wrote: ‘Their graves will be decorated with flowers every night as if they were martyrs and heroes.’)

The burial took place the following day, 3 February 1914. No one knew where the bodies were buried until sometime later, when a landscape artist walking round the suburbs of Sarajevo was told by a peasant that his (the peasant’s) son had watched city policemen on the night of 3 February 1914 digging graves.

The artist who was a professor at the Teacher’s Collage and had taught Danilo Iliac painting when Ilic went to the Teacher’s School, immediately guessed that this was the grave of the three hanged men.

The authorities were informed about this after the Great War ended. By that time the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared. The bodies were recovered and reburied in the cemetery in Sarajevo. Here they were eventually reunited at the memorial for all the conspirators.

                                                         Misko Jovanovic

                                                        Mehmed Mehmedbasic

Mehmedbasic, the only Muslim involved in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, escaped. As seen in earlier postings Mehmedbasic escaped to Montenegro and from there went to Belgrade. He joined the Komites and fought in the First World War. It was while he was in the Komite that Mehmedbasic became close to Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Apis).

Three years later, in 1917, Apis was arrested, along with 10 others, on charges of conspiracy to assassinate the Prince Regeant Alexander. As seen in an earlier post these were trumped up charges and the aim was to neutralize Alexander’s enemies within the army.

One of the 11 men who stood trial was Mehmed Mehmedbasic. He was found guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

One wonders whether Mehmedbasic appreciated the irony of his situation. Three years earlier (in 1914) he had avoided conviction for an assassination in which he was directly involved (if caught he would most certainly have been hanged, as he had a direct involvement and was over the age of 20), but now he was facing 15 years in prison for something which he did not do.

As it happened, Mehmedbasic did not spend 15 years in prison. He spent only 2 years and was released in 1919 after the First World War ended..

After his release Mehmedbasic returned to Sarajevo. He was 31 and his CV boasted involvements in two high profile assassinations—one genuine and one imaginary. He obviously decided that he had had enough excitement and lived for the remainder of his life quietly in Sarajevo, making a modest living as a gardener and carpenter. Beyond this not much is known of Mehmedbasic’s life in Sarajevo. In 1937 he was interviewed by the Italian historian Luigi Albertini about his role in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

However, fate had one final violent twist for Mehmedbasic. The exact circumstances of his death are not known, but it is believed that the man who participated in the assassination of a noble for his revolutionary ideas in 1914 was killed by the Ustase fascists on 29 May 1943, probably because of his long standing Serb sympathies. Mehmedbasic would have been 56 or 57 when he was murdered.

The Rest

Vaso Cubrilovic, Veljko’s younger brother, and Cvjetko Popovic were escorted from Sarajevo in chains, and taken by train to the prison at Zenica, 70 kilometres away from Sarajevo.

A second group of prisoners, comprising the Kerovic father and son, Lazar DjukicIvo Kranjcevic and Jakov Milovic soon joined the teenage conspirators.

In December 1914, the prisoners were removed from this prison. Austria had declared war against Serbia within a month of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and, after initial success, the Empire was struggling. The Austrians became increasingly nervous about keeping the prisoners on Bosnian territory and decided to remove them.

Lazar Djukic and Ivo Kranjcevic were sent to the prison in Theresienstadt (current day Czech republic) while Vaso, Popovic, the Kerovic father and son, and Milovic were sent to Mollersdorf near Vienna, and were immediately sent to solitary confinement. The conditions in the prison were extremely harsh.

Gavro Princip, Nedjo Cabrinovic, and Trifko Grabez were removed to a fortress in Terezin, North of Theresienstadt in Bohemia (the former name for Czech Republic).

In the initial months of the war, Austrians were prevailing against Serbia and a prison guard told the prisoners of the Austrian successes. Gavro replied, ‘Serbia may be invaded but not conquered. Serbia will one day create Yugoslavia, mother of all south Slavs.’ When the guard asked Gavro whether he was sorry he was going to die in prison, Gavro waved his hand dismissively. The guard then asked Gavro why had he killed a woman (the Archduchess)? Gavro replied that he had no wish to kill a mother; it just happened. The bullet, he said, does not always go where one wishes and the two (Ferdinand and Sophie) were sitting close to each other. Gavro concluded that it was all Archduke’s mistake as he wished to subjugate and destroy whole of his people and all the Slavs.

The trio were joined by Lazar Djukic and Ivo Kranjcevic. Kranjcevic was the only one who got out alive.

All the prisoners were subjected to considerable spite and physical violence. When they became ill, they were denied proper treatment.

Except Vaso, Popovic, and Kranjcevic who were young and in robust health, no one survived.

As the winter of 1915 set in the health of the prisoners began to deteriorate.

Death of Nedjo Cabrinovic

                                                     Nedjo Cabrinovic

Nedjo was the first to die. He died within a year of imprisonment, of advanced tuberculosis, hunger and exhaustion.

Nedjo Cabrinovic’s family lived in Sarajevo and faced a calamitous situation following Nedjo’s arrest. His father Vaso was arrested, and the rest of the family expelled from Sarajevo. Their house and restaurant were ransacked by rioting anti-Serb mobs. Nedjo’s mother gathered the rest of the family and took a train to Trebinje, the home of her brother-in-law. Vaso had looked after his brother’s children and paid for the education, so Nedjo’s mother had high hopes from the Trebnje branch of Cabrinovics. However, the brother-in-law closed the door in her face and told her that he did not want anything to do with her family. The family was given shelter by a friend of Vaso until, three months later, the police arrived and arrested all of them. The family was taken to an internment camp where some of the children caught dysentery, and were removed. The family never reunited.

Nedjo’s mother died during the Great War. Vaso Cabrinovicreturned to Sarajevo and remarried. The new wife was not kind to the children of the first wife and they dispersed. Vaso Cabrinovic lived into his seventies, a bitter and unhappy man, frequently talking of killing himself.

Dusan Cabrinovic, Nedjo’s youngest brother was only four when Nedjo was arrested. Dusan carried on living in Sarajevo until his death in the mid-1990s.

None of the family ever saw Nedjo again, although the siblings remained proud of Nedjo.

Vukosava, Nedjo’s favourite sister, learned from a young Austrian soldier, Franz Werfel, who went on to become a novelist in America, how her revolutionary anarchist brother met his end.

Werfel had been posted in Terezin when he was invited by his corporal to ‘see something’ on the closed ward of hospital number 13 in the fortress town. That ‘something’ was Nedjo, who, by this time, was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. It was a pathetic sight. His lymph glands were swollen. He was so weak and emaciated that he could barely sit and could not keep his legs from shaking while he was sitting. He was completely broken by cold, hunger, isolation and tuberculosis.

Werfel was appalled to learn that the hospital doctor had deemed Nedjo fit enough to be taken back to his cells. The doctors said they believed Nedjo posed a danger of escape! The truth probably was the doctors had concluded that Nedjo’s condition was beyond redemption and there was nothing they could do for him, not even allowing him to die with dignity.

Years later (in 1924) Werfel wrote an article about his only encounter with Nedjo Cabrinovic. Werfel waxed lyrical in this article. He wrote:

‘I now detect a white, indescribably ethereal form clinging with a phosphorescent hand to the iron bedstead. It seems to be clothed in spectral white linen wound tightly around it. But it does not give the impression of a shrouded skeleton—no, of a tremulous, pale vision, an insubstantial hovering vapour in the air—as if a disembodied spirit was about to dissipate in the unnatural yellow luminescence that filled the room.

‘Cabrinovic supporting his hand upon the bed, made motions with his feet like those of a man trying to step into his slippers standing up. His emaciated knees touched each other. His limbs trembled violently as in some nervous crisis.’

Werfel noted that the guards were rude and aggressive towards Nedjo while he, in striking contrast, was serene and elegant, a figure (Werfel turning lyrical again) almost saintly in his martyrdom.

(Werfel was Jewish and later himself faced charges of high treason because of his outspoken support of pacifism. He moved to Vienna where he met and fell in love with the widow of composer Mahler, who left her second husband to be with Werfel. Werfel was living in Vienna at the time of Anschluss. He moved to California where he died in 1945 after a long career as a writer.)

                                                       Franz Werfel

Nedjo Cabrinovic did not last long after the doctors sent him back to his cell. He lay in his cell for a few more weeks and died on 27 January 1916. The police authorities in Sarajevo later wrote to the prison authorities in Terezin, asking them to exhume Nedjo’s body, cut off the head and send back the skull to Sarajevo. The permission was not granted. Nedjo’s body remained intact when it was exhumed in 1920.

Nedjo was 20 at the time of his death.

Death of Jakov Milovic

Milovic was the next to die. He had never recovered from the beatings he had received. An abscess the size of a fist had developed on his rib cage but he was denied treatment and lay in his cold damp cell. He died in April 1916.

Death of Nedjo Kerovic

A few days after Milovic’s death Mitar’s son Nedjo, who was also denied treatment despite complaining of severe stomach pain, died. In the end he could no longer sit up or walk. At this stage he was removed to the infirmary where he died a week later.

Nedjo Kerovic was 30 when he died.

Death of Mitar Kerovic

Mitar Kerovic, Nedjo’s father, was 65 at the time of his imprisonment and suffered terribly. He survived his son by a few months. He too developed severe stomach complaints.

Mitar Kerovic died in September 1916.

The Kerovic father and son were poor peasants who got embroiled, most probably unwittingly, in the conspiracy when, at the behest of veljko Cubrilovic, they provided gavro and Trifko Grabez with transport (a cart!) to travel from Priboj to Tuzla. For this, they paid with their lives.

Death of Trifko Grabez

                                                         Trifko Grabez

By the time the winter of 1916 arrived Trifko Grabez’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. Like the rest of the conspirators he was denied access to proper treatment. Eventually he was taken to a hospital when he had severe stomach pain, but was returned to his cell the same day. He was found dead in his cell the next day. Vaso Cubrilovic believed that Grabez took his own life. However, Kranjcevic, who was in the same prison as Grabez had seen Grabez the day before he died. Grabez was so exhausted he could neither eat nor sit up nor stand. To cheer Grabez’s spirits Kranjcevic told him that he didn’t look too bad; that he [Kranjcevic] too suffered from stomach complaints; and that hopefully they would meet each other again if they could find a friendly guard. Grabez could not answer. The next day he was found dead in his cell.

Kranjcevic believed that Grabez died from general exhaustion and chronic starvation. Grabez would have been 20 when he died.

Lazar Djukic

Djukic, who had a peripheral involvement in the plot, suffered a mental breakdown in prison. He was convinced he was being poisoned and began rambling incoherently. He also began claiming that he had knowledge of an old plot to assassinate the Emperor, Franz Joseph. The authorities took this seriously to begin with and summoned Kranjcevic to confront Djukic. Kranjcevic recalled later that Djukic was all skin and bones, and had a festering wound in his right eye which was untreated.

Djukic was eventually transferred to a psychiatric ward in Prague where he died in either March or May of 1917. He was buried secretly and his grave has never been found.

Djukic would have been 21 when he died.