Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Event that Sparked World War I: The Plot and Plotters

                                                            Gavro Princip

Gavro Princip was the man who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand. With two shots he changed the course of European history.

For a man who, albeit unwittingly, came to have a profound impact on the history of modern world (Europe at any rate), Gavro would appear to have left little trace of himself. He remains an enigmatic figure, shrouded in mystery. Apart from the evidence he gave during his trial, only a handful of letters he wrote, plus the notes of a Viennese psychiatrist who interviewed him in prison, survive.

Early Years and Childhood

Gavro was born in 1894 in the village of Oblaj in the Grahovo valley (on the Western border of Bosnia and Hercegovina) close to Croatia. The valley was a home to ethnic Serbs for hundreds of years until 1995, when they were driven out by the advancing Croats during the multi-ethnic conflict in the Balkans involving Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

Gavro was 4th amongst 9 children of his parents, Peter and Maria. Only 3 of the 9 children survived infancy.

The child was named Gavrilo—Gabriel in English—(soon shortened to Gavro), the choice of the local priest who overruled the mother (who wanted to name him Spiro after her dead brother) as he was born on St Gabriel’s day.

Gavro was born on 13 the July. This date, the correct date of his birth, was entered in the parish register. However, in the civil register, a wrong date, 13th June, was entered as his date of birth. This mistake nearly got Gavro hanged 20 years later. Gavro assassinated Archduke Ferdinand on 28 June 1914. At the time of Archduke’s assassination Gavro was two weeks short of his 20th birthday, and, according to Austrian law, he could not be hanged. If, on the other hand, the wrong date (13 June) was accepted as his date of birth, he would have been just over 20 at the time of assassination and therefore old enough to be executed.

As it happened Gavro was not hanged. He was sent to prison where, four years later, he died in abominable conditions, his body wrecked by tuberculosis.

In the prison Gavro was interviewed by Dr. Martin Pappenheim, a Viennese psychiatrist.

Gavro told Dr. Pappenheim that his father was a farmer and had no interest in politics.  Gavro’s father Peter came from a large clan which once owned a large land. However, after the death of Peter’s father, the land and property were divided and Peter owned only four acres of land.

According to Dr. Pappenheim’s notes, Gavro was a quiet and sentimental child. He was a loner and did not mix much with other school-children. He was interested in books and art from an early age, and participated regularly in the village gatherings where he read out poems praising the heroics of Serbian men.

Teenage Years and Politicization

Gavro’s father wanted him to start working in the fields soon after he turned ten. He owed his further education to the interventions of his mother and his eldest brother Jovo. Jovo was considerably older than Gavro and was living and working in Hadzici, a town near Sarajevo. Jovo was keen that his younger brother continued with his education.

It was Jovo who arranged and paid for Gavro’s entry into the military school in Sarajevo when Gavro was 14. Jovo had high hopes for his younger brother. Gavro would however disappoint Jovo. He would not complete higher education; instead he would be embroiled in revolutionary politics.

Gavro arrived in Sarajevo in 1907; he was 13. Jovo arranged for him to stay with a widow who was looking for tenants. The widow’s name was Stoja Iliac. Gavro shared a room with Stoja’s only child, Danilo Iliac. It was Danilo, four years older than Gavro and a proud possessor of a collection of revolutionary literature, who seven years later planned the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Danilo Iliac would be tried for his role in the conspiracy and pay dearly.

The first year away from home was probably unsettling for young Gavro and, at Jovo’s house, where he had to move after a few months as Jovo was unable to pay Stoja Iliac’s rent, he would sleep-walk in the night, one of the many reasons he did not make a favourable impression on Jovo’s wife.

It was in Sarajevo that Gavro became politicized, like many young Bosnian Serbs of his generation. By this time the Hapsburg Empire, following the Berlin treaty of 1878, was controlling Bosnia and had come to be despised by the Serbs almost as much as they despised the Turks who had ruled Bosnia for 500 years prior to that. When, in 1908, the Empire formally annexed Bosnia and Hercegovina the Serbs were furious.

The Turning Point, 1911

After three years at the Merchant school in Sarajevo, in 1910, Gavro requested his brother to shift him to a classical high school in the nearby town of Tuzla. Jovo relented. This would turn out to be a fateful decision.

In those days Tuzla was a hotbed of young Serbian students, their heads full of revolutionary ideas, considered seditious by the Hapsburgs. In Tulza Gavro became friends with a boy three years younger than him: Vaso Cubrilovic. Four years later Vaso would be Gavro’s ally in the conspiracy to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. Vaso Cubrilovic was one of the only two conspirators, directly involved in the assassination attempt, who lived into old age. Years after the assassination, Vaso, in an interview, described Gavro as a ‘stuha’—a restless spirit.

In his prison interview to Dr. Pappenheim, Gavro described 1911, the year he turned 17, as the critical year in his life. He began reading avidly anarchist, nationalist and socialist literature. He also began reading fiction of Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas, and detective stories of Sherlock Homes. A fellow-student later recalled that no one amongst them knew literature as much as Gavro. He remained a loner, though, choosing to spend time in the library than with other students.

Gavro also began writing poetry but was unsure of its literary merits. The most substantial piece of written work Gavro left behind is a long entry in a tourist’s visitor book at a lodge in the mountains outside the town of Hadzici (where his brother, Jovo, lived).

Back in Sarajevo, 1912

Perhaps because of the radical atmosphere around him in Tuzla, Gavro began challenging the system; he also became irreligious. He felt that his professors mistreated him, and he requested his brother to transfer him back to a school in Sarajevo. Once again Jovo relented.

In Sarajevo Gavro continued to lead an isolated existence which, he would recall later, did not bother him unduly. (Some biographers believe that in his desperately sad last years of life, when he spoke to Dr. Pappenheim, Gavro might have romanticised his past isolation as a coping mechanism).

It was in Sarajevo, sometime in the summer of 1912, that Gavro became friends with a man who, on 28 June 1914, would throw a bomb at Archduke Ferdinand’s car in the hope of killing him (he missed). He was Nedejko—Nedejo—Cabrinovic. 

Nedjo, whose family lived in Sarajevo, took Gavro to his home from time to time. Gavro most probably had a crush on Nedjo’s bright and vivacious younger sister Vukosava. He wrote many a lyrical letter to Vukosava. (Vukosava kept these letters with her for thirty years after the assassination. In the 1940s Vukosava lived with her doctor husband in Croatia The childless couple had to flee the town when they were informed that Utasa fascists were planning to come to their house and kill them. They left behind all their possessions—among them Gavro’s letters—which were lost.)

First Visit to Belgrade, Serbia and attempts to take part in the First Balkan War (1912)

Gavro was getting into trouble in Sarajevo. He was getting poor grades in his studies, probably because he was not concentrating on them. He was instead participating in student demonstrations against the Hapsburg Empire. The inevitable happened: he was expelled from the Sarajevo school. Gavro did not tell his family, not even his brother Jovo, what had happened. Instead he left for Belgrade in the first half of 1912. He walked 300 kilometres and, so he would later say, kissed the soil when he entered Serbia. He had no money—either to stay or come back to Sarajevo. He wrote to Jovo asking for money. Jovo refused to help. Gavro survived for the next few weeks in Belgrade on credit and kindness of friends.

A roommate of Gavro in the hostel where he lived recalled him as someone who was always reading. He frequently had to sell his books to subsist, although he always tried not to sell his favourite books. He would occasionally go out for walks with other hostelites and recite Serbian poetry.

After a few weeks of aimless drifting in Belgrade Gavro realised that the only way to get his life back on track and to get back into the good books of his brother, Jovo, was to resume his education and take exams. He visited the Department of Education in Belgrade on 2-3 occasions to seek permission to sit his exams. The Minister for Education, Ljuba Jovanovic, remembered Gavro: ‘I remember him well. He was slight, broadish in shoulders with a broad though somewhat pinched countenance. He spoke without nervousness.’ 

Gavro was allowed to take his exams which also helped him to reconcile with Jovo. Jovo started sending Gavro money and Gavro was back in the Belgrade cafes, debating revolution. He took his exams and failed.

This was also the prelude to the First Balkan War which would begin towards the end of 1912 and last for roughly seven months. The First Balkan War which pitted the Balkan League nations (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria) against the Ottoman Empire, would result in a victory for the Balkan league nations and the Ottomans would lose what little control they had over the territories of Eastern Europe.

Gavro was more than keen to fight for Serbia against the Ottomans and wanted to join the Komite, the Serbian regular army of volunteers, led by Major Vojislav Tankosic, a Bosnian Serb who, by this time, had become an influential figure in Serbia with close links with some of the Serbian army officers. Tankosic would play a crucial role, two years later in the assassination of Ferdinand.

                                                          Major Vojislav Tankosic

Gavro went from Belgrade to the border town of Prokulpje where Tankosic was based. Tankosic dismissed Gavro within seconds with a wave of his hand. He was ‘too small and too weak’. Dejected, Gavro returned to Belgrade and from there to Hadzici where Jovo was living.

Over the next year Gavro travelled between Hadzici and Belgrade. He also spent a lot of time in Sarajevo.

1913—plans to assassinate General Potiorek

In May 1913, Oskar Potiorek, the Austrian general of Bosnia and Hercegovina, announced the repressive ‘Exceptional measures’. Gavro, together with Danilo Ilic, occupied himself plotting Potiorek’s assassination. However, the plans had to be kept on hold when, within a month, the Second Balkan War began and Danilo decided to join the Komite army. Gavro did not go, presumably thinking, following his unsuccessful interview with major Tankosic the previous year, that his chances of getting recruited into Komite were less than slim. He was still small of stature and sickly.

Danilo did not last long in the Komite either, and was back in Sarajevo in the autumn of 1913. Upon his return he fell sick and needed hospitalization. The two friends decided to put Potiorek’s assassination on hold once again, this time for more lofty reasons. They were going to build up a pro-Serbia grass-root organization. They would let Potiorek live until the organization was up and running.

Throughout his stay in Sarajevo Gavro led a hand-to-mouth existence. He was always short of money. What little money he did earn (or borrow from Danilo) he would spend on books. He lived at Danilo’s house free of rent. Just as in Belgrade, he read voraciously in Sarajevo, mainly about Russian revolutionaries and about wars and battles.

In his prison interview to Dr. Pappenheim Gavro would declare that during this period he increasingly came to view assassination as a justifiable means to achieve the end. 

In February 1914, Gavro went for the last time to his home in Grahovo where his parents still lived; the trip was financed by Jovo. Gavro stayed with his parents for two weeks. Maria found her middle son, the last time she saw him, even more brooding and quieter than usual. He spent most of the time in the company of his cousin (Vladeta Bilbija) and the two left for Belgrade after two weeks.

March 1914—final visit to Belgrade

Gavro arrived in Belgrade on 13 March 1914. This would be his last visit to Belgrade. When he left Belgrade 10 weeks later, on 28 May, he would be carrying guns and bombs on his person.

It is very likely that when Gavro arrived in Belgrade, probably even before that, when he left Sarajevo to visit his parents, his mind was made up to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand whose visit to Bosnia to oversee military manoeuvres in the summer of 1914 was announced.

As was his wont, Gavro spent a lot of time in Belgrade reading and fraternizing with ‘Young Bosnians’ (more about this organization later), talking their heads off about revolution. He took up rooms on Carigradska Street in Belgrade where he ran into an old friend. The friend was Trifko Grabez. Grabez had dropped out of high school and arrived in Belgrade to earn a living.

With little difficulty Gavro recruited Grabez to the plot. When Gavro left Belgrade for Bosnia on 28 May, Grabez was with him, carrying weapons.

Another old friend Gavro looked up in Belgrade was the perineal rabble-rouser Nedjo Cabernovic. Nedjo had been billeting in Belgrade for 10 months after causing too much trouble for himself and his family in Sarajevo. Gavro had no difficulty in recruiting Nedjo, who, in any case, was daydreaming on a daily basis about assassinating some or the other luminary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to his plot.

Acquires Weapons

Gavro and Nedjo began discussing in earnest how they were going to obtain weapons for their forthcoming assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Gavro accepted the responsibility of finding weapons. Gavro and Nedjo met every day in cafes to check the progress. Gavro also kept himself up-to-date with the current events by reading newspapers.

It would appear that Nedjo and Gavro, although they met each other daily, did not fully keep each other abreast of what they were up to. Both of them met separately Milan Ciganovic, a popular fighter in the Komite who had won medals for bravery in battles. 

                                    Milan Ciganovic with Gavro Princip and Nedjo Cabrinovic

Ciganovic was close to influential figures both in the Komite (Major Vojislav Tankosic, who had deemed Gavro unfit for military duties earlier) as well as the Serbian army (Colonel Dragutin Dimitrivij, who was nicknamed ‘Apis’). All three of them—Ciganovic, Tankosic, and Dimitrivij—were also members of a dreaded secret Serbian organization called the ‘Black Hand’ (more about it later), and did not frown upon using terror tactics to further their cause. 

                                                          Dragutin Dimitrivij (Apis)

Involvement of Ciganovic, Dimitrivij (Apis) and Tankosic in the plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand led to the accusation from the enraged Austrians of direct involvement of the Serbians in the assassination, leading, within weeks of the assassination, to the First World War.

Gavro—who seemed to have a talent for seeking out and becoming friends with dodgy characters—had made friends with a man named Djuro Sarac, who, like Gavro, was a ‘Young Bosnian’. Sarac, who once nursed dreams of becoming a priest, had ended up in a profession involving duties which couldn’t have been further removed from those of a priest. Sarac was the personal bodyguard of Major Tankosic. Through Sarac, Gavro managed to get an audience with Ciganovic. The young Serb revolutionary informed Ciganovic of his audacious plan and asked him to provide bombs, saying that he would find revolvers himself. Ciganovic said after a pause, ‘We’ll see.’ He said that he would need to discuss this further with a gentleman. That gentleman (in the loose sense of the term) was Major Tankosic. Ciganovic kept the young assassin on tenterhooks for a while. This was because around that time (April 1914) the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph, who was 84, became seriously ill, which meant the Heir-Apparent’s visit to Sarajevo might be cancelled. Eventually Ciganovic provided Gavro with bombs, warning that they were not reliable and there was a delay of several seconds before they exploded (It was this delay, of 10-12 seconds, which Nedjo would not take into account when he threw the bomb and Ferdinand would be temporarily reprieved). The kindly Ciganovic also provided Gavro—because ‘he was so poor’ (!)—with some revolvers. The conspirators received, in total, 4 revolvers and 6 bombs.

It was now mid-April in 1914. The countdown to assassination had begun.

Receives training in Shooting

Ciganovic, upon Tankosic’s instructions, trained Gavro and Grabez in shooting. Nedjo who was working overtime did not receive this training. On 28 June 1914 when Franz Ferdinand met his end, there were several plotters waiting for him, armed with bombs and revolvers, except Nedjo who carried with him only bombs.

Gavro now wrote to Danilo Ilic in Sarajevo, who had been in on the conspiracy right from the beginning. Writing in a code and using allegory (the poet in him surfacing, perhaps) Gavro informed Danilo that the weapons had been obtained and the assassination was going ahead.

In the letter Gavro also asked Danilo to recruit more people to the plot, the second ‘cell’ if you will. By now four young men had committed themselves to assassinating Ferdinand: Gavro himself, Danilo Ilic, Trifko Grabez and Nedjo Cabrinovic. Apparently that was not enough. Gavro felt he needed more. How many more? Three. Danilo would find them.

The Mystic Journey—the weapons are smuggled into Bosnia

The weapons were in hand. All that was needed was smuggling them into Bosnia. That wouldn’t be easy. The plotters were skint. And there would be gendarmes and police at every step. Ciganovic had warned them to avoid local administration at all cost, as they would be arrested and sent back to Serbia. The Serbian Interior Ministry was not to get so much as a whiff of the plot.

Once again Ciganovic, the Good Samaritan, came to rescue. He provided the plotters with money. He also gave them names of ‘good Serbs’ in Bosnia, who would help them.

Ciganovic advised that the young men should head first to the Bosnian town of Tuzla (where Gavro had studied two years earlier). If they encountered difficulties in smuggling weapons into Sarajevo from there, they should contact a Serb named Misko Jovanovic, who lived in Tuzla. Misko would not turn them down.

Trifko Grabez plotted the route. Gavro, Nedjo and Grabez met the following morning, a beautiful, sunny morning (Nedjo would recall later), revolvers in their pockets and bombs tied to their waists.

During his trial Gavro described the journey from Belgrade to Sarajevo as a ‘mystic journey’. When asked to explain he refused. The mysticness of the journey, one would have to assume, related not so much to the actual route (which was very arduous) as to the state of Gavro’s mind once he arrived in Sarajevo. It may be that during this journey Gavro Princip had the revelation that while there were at least five more in their group (provided Danilo managed to recruit three more to the plot, which he did), it would be he who would bring the life of Franz Ferdinand to an end.

During their travels, the three would-be-assassins fell out. Nedjo, who was always the wild card among the plotters, was not discriminate about their mission. At one stage during the journey he sent half a dozen post cards to his friends and family and wrote lines of heroic Serbian poetry on them, celebrating the victory of Serbs over Turks 110 years earlier. Gavro was annoyed as he felt Nedjo was giving away the secret, and the two had an argument. From this point on Gavro came to regard Nedjo, good friend he might have been, as a liability. During their trial Gavro made light of the fight and described it as a ‘friendly quarrel’; however, after the quarrel, Gavro and Grabez travelled together while Nedjo travelled on his own, bizarrely enough, on Grabez’s passport and calling himself Trifko Grabez! He did not have weapons on him, as Gavro and Grabez took them from him.

The three men decided to meet in Tuzla. Since Nedjo would be travelling without weapons and legitimately (on a false passport!) he would reach Tuzla early. He was to wait for the other two in Tuzla. As the men crossed the border between Serbia and Bosnia, they were helped by Sergeant Rade Grabic (probably linked to Ciganovic). Grabic introduced Gavro and Grabez (the real Grabez) to two Serbian peasants, Mico Mimic and Jakov Milovic who would help them find their way to Tuzla. On their way, they also sought help from a friend of Milovic, named Obren Milosevic.

Plotters go to Priboj, Bosnia—meeting with Veljko Cubrilovic

Gavro and Grabez wanted to go straightaway to Tuzla after they crossed the border and entered Bosnia. The trouble was Tuzla was still many kilometres away and the journey was arduous. It was suggested that Gavro and Grabez should go to the town of Priboj in the first instance, where they should look for a school teacher. The school teacher was described by Obren Milosevic as a ‘teacher gentleman’. He was Veljko Cubrilovic, the elder brother of Vaso Cubrilovic, whom Gavro had become friends with a few years earlier when he studied in Tuzla.

How did the peasants know the ‘teacher gentleman’? It is probable that Veljko was known in the area for his work with a local Serb cultural group (Sokol). Equally likely, the peasants had known of him because of his connections with a Serb ‘cultural’ organization called Narodna Odbrana (more about it later). All three of the peasants had acted as couriers for the Serbian organization.

After 21 hours of continuous travel on foot the plotters arrived in Priboj. Gavro (or Trifko Grabez) told the peasants, ‘Okay; go and tell the teacher we are here and you get yourself home.’ (All three men— Mimic, Milovic and Milosevic would be arrested and stand trial for helping the plotters. They, fighting for their lives during the trial, would portray themselves as illiterate farmhands who did not grasp the enormity of their conduct; the main accused—Gavro and Grabez—would try their best to protect the three men. Mimic and Milosevic would be acquitted, while Jakov Milovic would die in prison.)

Gavro and Grabez, exhausted and muddy following continuous seven days of walking on foot, met with Veljko Cubrilovic. The day was 3 June 1914. But there was no time to rest. Priboj was 40 kilometres away from Tuzla.

Journey from Priboj to Tuzla

Veljko, Gavro and Grabez—Veljko on horseback, the other two on foot—travelled onwards to a village called Tobut. Here they met with the family of a peasant, Mitar Kerovic whom Veljko knew. (Mitar and his three sons, Blagjoe, Jovo and Nedjo would be arrested and stand trial; Veljko would describe Mitar as a hard working peasant during the trial.) Mitar was 65 at the time. At Veljk’s behest Mitar agreed, after initial reluctance, to give his cart to the ‘students’ (as they were described by Veljko) so that they could travel onwards to Tuzla in some comfort.

Gavro and Grabez rested at Mitar Kerovic’s house and then travelled onwards to Tuzla to meet the ‘good Serb’, Misko Jovanovic. Misko was known to Veljko as he too was connected with Narodna Odbrana. Only Veljko knew where Misko lived in Tuzla and he gave the address to the ‘students’.

Arrival in Tuzla—leaves the weapons with Misko Jovanovic

Gavro and Grabez set off for Tuzla in a cart with Mitar Kerovic’s son, Nedjo (not to be confused with Nedjo Cabrinovic, one of the plotters), and a family friend, Cvijan. After a midnight’s ride the ‘students’ and peasants reached the outskirts of Tuzla. The students cleaned themselves by the river and sent the peasants ahead with the weapons to Misko Jovanovic’s house.

Misko Jovanovic was 36 years old at the time. Recently married, he had become a father (Veljko Cubrilovic was the baby’s godfather). Misko belonged to a prosperous and prominent Serb family in Tuzla. He had started off in his father’s business but had soon branched out, opening Tuzla’s first cinema. He was the president of the local Sokol (he had joined it in 1912 at Veljko’s behalf) and a local representative of Narodna Odbrana.

On 4 June the doorbell of Misko’s house rang; the misfortune had arrived at his doorstep. Outside were standing Nedjo (Mitar’s son) and Cvijan. They had with them weapons and note from Veljko Cubrilovic which had one sentence: ‘Dear Misko, keep these.’ The peasants told Misko that the weapons belonged to two students who would be visiting him shortly.

Misko hid the weapons in the attic. Then the ‘students’ arrived. Gavro told Misko that they were students from Belgrade and the plan was to smuggle the weapons into Sarajevo. By this time Oskar Potiorek’s Emergency Measures were in place all over Bosnia, and neither Gavro nor Grabez had passports. Gavro asked Misko to take the weapons into Sarajevo himself as it was much safer for him; if he was not prepared to do that, he should hide the weapons in his house and Gavro would send someone later to collect them.

Misko was not happy to smuggle the weapons into Sarajevo, but agreed to hide the weapons in his house. Gavro sent Danilo Ilic to collect the weapons. (During the trial Misko would claim that Gavro threatened him and forced him to hide weapons. Gavro accepted that he had indeed threatened him as he had noticed that Misko was afraid. Whether Misko was really threatened or whether Gavro, who by this time knew he was doomed, was taking the blame for everything so that others could be saved, will forever remain unknown. At any rate, this did not save Misko.)

Gavro and Trifko met with Nedjo Cabrinovic, who had arrived earlier in Tuzla and had made himself at home in a local inn.

June 1914—Plotters arrive back in Sarajevo

The three conspirators boarded the train for Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Heir-Apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had less than 4 weeks to live.

                                         Princip (centre) in Custody surrounded by Austro-Hungarian Guards