Danilo Ilic remains the most controversial figure of the plotters involved in the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
Danilo is generally credited as the man who masterminded and organized the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (together with Gavro Princip). While that might be exaggerating Danilo’s role in the conspiracy, there is no denying that he was in the plot right from the beginning. He and Gavro Princip planned together to assassinate Ferdinand.
Danilo and Gavro were the only two who knew the identities of all the men lying in wait for Ferdinand on Appel Quay on the morning of 28 June 1914. Danilo also was responsible for recruiting three of the plotters who were expected to take direct part in the assassination (Vaso Cubrilovic, Cvjetko Popovic, and Mehmed Mehmedbasic).
Danilo was the man who collected the weapons from Misko Jovanovic, in Tulza, and smuggled them into Sarajevo.
Danilo is also generally cited as the man who, upon his arrest, betrayed the rest of the conspirators.
Danilo met Gavro Princip in 1907 when Gavro arrived, for the first time, in Sarajevo to pursue further studies, and lodged with Danilo’s mother. Danilo was four years older than Gavro.
Danilo was the only child of his parents. His father, a cobbler, died when Danilo was five, and his mother did not remarry. Danilo was a sickly child and suffered from stomach ulcers and various other ailments in his childhood.
Danilo and Gavro would appear not to have kept in contact after Gavro had to leave Danilo’s home as his (Gavro’s) brother could not afford the rent. They probably reacquainted their friendship sometime in 1912 and 1913.
This was a period when Gavro was drifting between Hadzici (where his brother, Jovo, lived), Belgrade and Sarajevo. When in Sarajevo Gavro spent a lot of time in the company of his old friend Danilo.
By this time Danilo had qualified as a teacher and was working in Sarajevo.
This was also a period of great strife in Bosnia and Sarajevo. In May 1913 Oskar Potiorek, the increasingly unpopular governor of the increasingly unpopular Austro-Hungarian Empire, announced the repressive Emergency measures; Serbia (towards which all the Bosnian Serbs felt a great deal of loyalty) was involved at the time in the Second Balkan War, and there were lots of young Serbs, Gavro and Danilo amongst them, whose heads were full of assassination plots to rid Bosnia of the foreign presence.
Gavro and Danilo discussed between them assassinating Oskar Potiorek—Danilo had, by this time, obtained a revolver.
But then a more pressing matter arose to which Danilo felt he had to devote his full energies. The Second Balkan War started in June 1913. Danilo volunteered for Komite to fight for Serbia. He spent some time as an ambulance driver, but returned to Sarajevo in the autumn of 1913.
Upon his return Danilo became ill and was hospitalized. In the hospital Gavro visited him, and the two revolutionaries decided to put on hold the plans to assassinate general Potiorek. They were still fired by their idea of creating a pan-Slavic state, but decided that they must first create an organization in Bosnia and Croatia, and then make an attempt on the life of Potiorek.
In early 1914 Danilo made a visit to Switzerland. In his 1914 trial he would claim that he went to Switzerland to learn pedagogy. However, during the trial Danilo was desperately trying to dissociate himself from the plot, and his real reason for going to Switzerland was not to learn pedagogy (the judges did not believe it in any case). In all probabilities Danilo went to Switzerland to meet with Russian revolutionaries and to talk with Vladimir Gacinovic, a demagogue and the ‘guiding spirit’ of the ‘Young Bosnians’, an organization consisting of several secretive societies full of, in the main, Bosnian Serbs, who despised the Hapsburgs. According to one account, Gacinovic told Danilo that ‘the heads of the some of the leading dignitaries of the Hapsburg Empire must fall.’
In March 1914 Gavro left for Belgrade telling Danilo to await communication from him if any significant development happened.
A month later, in mid-April 1914, Danilo received a coded letter from Gavro that he had managed to obtain weapons which he would smuggle into Bosnia and eventually into Sarajevo (Described inan earlier post). Danilo’s task, Gavro wrote in the letter, was to recruit three more people—a second group—for the assassination.
The Archduke would be visiting Sarajevo in just over two months. Danilo was running out of time. Danilo approached a man named Lazar Djukic, a rabble-rouser and a member of the ‘Young Bosnian’ organization, to participate in the plot. Djukic declined. Danilo then asked Djukic to suggest someone else. Djukic introduced Danilo to a 17 year old boy, Vaso Cubrilovic. Danilo approached Vaso. This was exactly the kind of encouragement Vaso, who was spending his days imagining wreaking unspeakable havoc on the Austrians, did not need. Vaso readily and happily agreed to take part in the killing. Vaso Cubrilovic was the younger brother of Veljko Cubrilovic, the ‘teacher gentleman’, who had helped Gavro to smuggle and hidethe weapons in Tuzla; however it is likely that neither of the brothers was aware of the other’s involvement in the plot until they all were arrested. (Vaso Cubrilovic had also known Gavro Princip, the two had become friends when Gavro briefly studied in Tuzla a few years earlier; however, until the very end, Vaso did not know of Gavro’s involvement in the plot.)
Danilo tasked Vaso with the responsibility to recruit another person to the plot and Vaso approached Cvjetko Popovic who at the time was only 16 (the youngest of the conspirators) and lived in the same hostel as Vaso. Popovic agreed to take part in the assassination with eagerness that surprised the courts during the trial.
The third person Danilo recruited was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, the only Muslim involved in the conspiracy (more about him later). It is not clear how Danilo knew Mehmedbasic, who came originally from Croatia. It is very likely that the two knew (or knew of) each other via their membership of the ‘Young Bosnian’ association. They had also met Vladimir Gacinovic, the ‘guiding spirit’ of the Young Bosnian in early 1914, although in two different meetings, and perhaps it was Gacinovic who made them aware of each other’s existence when he sensed that the two men were itching to kill some or the other Austrian luminary. Danilo met with Mehmedbasic sometime in April 1914 in the town of Mostar. Danilo told Mehmedbasic that there was going to be an assassination attempt on Archduke Ferdinand and that he would send him a telegram when everything was arranged. (In his trial Danilo would claim that it was Mehmedbasic who wrote to him and arranged the meeting in Mostar, and it was Mehmedbasic who put the idea of killing Ferdinand in his mind even before Gavro Princip. However, by this time Danilo was trying everything he could to avoid the gallows. Mehmedbasic was the only one of the conspirators who was not caught, and it must have been tempting for Danilo Ilic to put the blame on him.)
In early June 1914 Gavro arrived in Sarajevo with Nedjo Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez. The weapons, he told Danilo, were hidden in Tuzla at the house of Misko Jovanovic. Danilo was to get them into Sarajevo.
On 14 June 1914, exactly two weeks before the assassination, Danilo Ilic boarded the train to Tuzla. He had with him a box of Stefanija cigarettes, a secret sign Gavro told him he had agreed with Misko.
Danilo arrived at the doorsteps of an increasingly anxious Misko Jovanovic who, until he heard of the assassination two weeks later, remained unaware of the identity of the victim (or so he claimed in the trial). Danilo could not hide all the weapons (4 revolvers and 6 bombs) on his person. (The day before Danilo’s arrival, Misko’s mentor, Veljko Cubrilovic, arrived in Tuzla to take part in a Serbian festival. It was Veljko who had asked Misko to hide the weapons. When Misko met Veljko and informed him that no one so far had arrived from Sarajevo to collect the weapons, Veljko asked him (so Misko would claim in his trial) whether he (Misko) knew what the weapons were for. Misko said he didn’t. Veljko then started talking in generalities about the repressive Austrian regime in Bosnia and Misko formed the impression that the intended victim was General Oskar Potiorek.) Danilo told Misko to put the weapons in a sugar box and get them to the station next to Tuzla. That station was Doboj.
In his trial Misko would claim that he took the box himself. The court most probably did not believe him because Misko had travelled to Doboj in the company of a local Tuzla man and his wife. The wife could not recall Misko carrying any box. Interestingly she herself was carrying a sugar box. When quizzed about it, Misko replied that it must have been a genuine sugar box. According to Misko’s account, he himself carried the weapons in a sugar-box and alighted at Doboj hoping that Danilo would arrive on the next train. Danilo didn’t arrive. Getting anxious Misko walked into the town and went to the tailor shop of a man he knew and left the box there. Then he went back to the station and resumed his wait for Danilo. Finally Danilo arrived. The two men went back to the tailor’s shop and collected the box. Danilo then boarded the train and left.
Two weeks later, when he heard of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it finally dawned upon Misko (so he claimed in his trial) what the weapons he had agreed to hide in his house were for. Misko Jovanovic was one of the only three conspirators who were hanged for their part in the conspiracy.
Danilo took a very circuitous and convoluted route into Sarajevo to avoid detection by the police. He successfully brought the weapons into Sarajevo and hid them in his house. The weapons would remain hidden for the next 12 days in his house.
Danilo Ilic, despite his various claims and counterclaims during the trial, was involved in the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand right from the beginning. It was he and Gavro Princip who formulated the plan to assassinate the Heir-Apparent sometime in the early 1914 after Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo was announced.
Gavro had initially expected that Danilo would join the group involved in the actual assassination. However Danilo told him that he would prefer to operate in the background. Was Danilo committed to killing Ferdinand? The available evidence of his activities in the weeks leading to the assassination suggests that he was. Danilo recruited Vaso Cubrilovic and, through him, Cvjetko Popovic to the plot. He also recruited Mehmedbasic and convinced him that Franz Ferdinand was a far bigger target than general Potiorek (whom Mehmedbasic wanted to kill, as we shall see later.) Danilo was the one who finally smuggled the weapons into Sarajevo from Tuzla at what must have been a considerable personal risk. He kept the weapons hidden in his house and distributed them to the other assassins.
However, it would also appear that the 24 year old teacher, one of the few involved in the plot who were older than 20, was also assailed by doubts about the usefulness of their mission. In his trial Danilo claimed that even as he was making arrangements for the assassination, he was trying to talk Gavro and Trifko Grabez out of it. This was confirmed by Gavro, who told the trial that Danilo tried to deter him from the course of action ‘which could only lead to ruin’. Danilo told them (so Gavro informed the trial) that now was not the time to kill Ferdinand, as it would only lead to more persecution of the Serbs. Gavro disagreed. (In the trial Gavro said that he had never imagined that the consequences of the killing would be so devastating; that the assassination would trigger a bloody war involving several European nations. Gavro might not have envisaged the exact nature of the consequences of the assassination; however, he was clearly hoping that the killing would trigger great upheaval and catastrophe. Trifko Grabez told the trial that during his talk with Gavro and Danilo, Gavro had used the phrase apres mois ie deluge (after me the flood)).
Gavro’s account (that Danilo tried to dissuade him from killing Franz Ferdinand) was supported by Trifko Grabez. Grabez told the trial that after arriving in Bosnia from Belgrade he spent some days in his native town of Pale and returned to Sarajevo 3 days before the assassination. He met Danilo who told him that the assassination had been called off. Danilo then began talking as if he was against the assassination.
The same afternoon Danilo called again on Trifko Grabez and told him that while the assassination was going ahead, the others would carry it and under no circumstances should Trifko take part in the assassination. However, Trifko, by this time, had become suspicious of Danilo’s motives (so he told the trial); also he had probably reached that fervid state of mind when the voice of reason would have had no effect on it. He chose not to believe Danilo or obey his instructions.
Interestingly, as was revealed in the trial, Danilo had tried the same tactics with Gavro. When he realised that Gavro would not be persuaded against the assassination, Danilo said to him, ‘All right then, let the others do it; just you don’t.’ Gavro had fallen silent upon hearing this and Danilo believed (so he told the court) that he had convinced his friend against taking part in the assassination. According to Gavro’s account Danilo was quite persistent and spent almost 10 days trying to get him to see the futility of the endeavour he was about to undertake.
Danilo told the trial that he hoped that the situation in Bosnia would improve, and the harassment of the Serbs (as he saw it) would stop, and that the assassination would not be necessary.
During the trial, Danilo was asked the obvious question: if he was so much against the assassination why did he not get rid of the weapons he had collected from Misko Jovanovic? Why did he distribute them amongst the other plotters? Danilo could not give a satisfactory answer to this question. His defence was: he knew the source of these weapons (the Serbian Komite leaders), and was afraid of them. ‘By my conduct,’ he told the trial, ‘I’d become an object of their hostility.’
Should Danilo’s assertion in the trial that he had second thoughts about the assassination and did not want it to go ahead be believed? During the trial Danilo was desperately trying to distance himself as much as he could from the assassination plot. As we shall see later, he had also betrayed the other plotters by revealing their names to the Austrian police. Was his ‘confession’ in the trial nothing more than a desperate attempt of a desperate man who was trying to avoid the hangman’s noose? Gavro supported him; but then Gavro and Danilo were old friends, and it could be argued that Gavro (who knew he was definitely going down, having carried out the actual killing) was doing what he could to save his friend. However, Trifko Grabez had no such obligations. He did not know Danilo well and had probably met him for the first time in the month of Archduke’s assassination. He had no reason to lie for Danilo. Even if Gavro was lying for his friend, Trifko Grabez wasn’t. This suggests that Danilo Ilic did have second thoughts about the wiseness of what they were about to perpetrate.
Danilo did not (or could not) give satisfactory explanation of why he had doubts about the mission. It could be that as the day of the planned assassination approached the enormity of the act dawned upon him. At 24 Danilo was the second oldest of the men directly involved in the plot (excluding Veljko Cubrilovic, who, at 28, was the oldest. Although his role in the plot was peripheral, he would pay dearly for it.) Danilo was the only one (again, excluding Veljko) who had qualifications; he edited a radical, socialist journal entitled Zovna—the Bell. It might be argued that he was in a better position than almost all, except perhaps Gavro, to appreciate the wider implications of the assassination of the Archduke. It would stretch credulity to suppose that Danilo had doubts about their mission because he realised the killing would trigger a great war; more likely, as he told the trial, he became concerned that the assassination would only result in more hardships for and suppression of his people (the Serbs), which was not he wanted to see.
It is also possible that Danilo developed cold feet as the day of the killing approached. Although older than the most of the men who had direct involvement, Danilo was only 24. He had a steady job and was earning a decent salary. He was the only child of his parents. His father had died when he was young and he was the only one to support his mother. Veljko Cubrilovic might have (naively) expected that the plotters would kill themselves after the killing, but Danilo was not naive enough to hope that that would happen. He must have been aware that there was a high chance that they would get caught and face certain ruin. It is possible that, as 28 June drew nearer, he wondered whether it was worthwhile to throw his life away over an act the advisability of which he was beginning to doubt. He was only human.
These are speculations. We shall never know why Danilo Ilic, who, together with Gavro Princip, had devised the plan to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, began having second thoughts about their mission (if he indeed had them). What we do know is that despite his doubts, he made only half-hearted attempts to dissuade Gavro and Grabez. He also performed the role that was assigned to him: smuggle the weapons from Tuzla into Sarajevo. Danilo was the one who hid the weapons in his house and distributed them among the young men who were going to take a direct part in the assassination.
As he had feared, Danilo was arrested soon after the assassination and his life was ruined.