Monday, 7 July 2014

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

                                                               Veljko Cubrilovic

Veljko Cubrilovic was the ‘teacher gentleman’ who helped Gavro and Grabez smuggle the weapons into Sarajevo, via Tuzla, after the plotters had crossed the border between Serbia and Bosnia.One of the weapons would be used to assassinate Franz Ferdinand.

Veljko was the eldest of ten children. His father was a successful merchant and had even travelled in Europe as a tourist, a rarity in those days. Veljko’s was a cultured, middle-class family. One of his aunts was the first qualified female doctor in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

The family came originally from Tuzla. After the death of his parents Veljko had the responsibility of supporting his younger siblings. One of them was Vaso, who would face trial, together with Veljko, in 1914, for plotting to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand.

Veljko Cubrilovic was a qualified teacher. In 1910 he moved to the town of Priboj with his wife, Jovanka, to take up a teaching post. Jovanka was also a qualified teacher; the two had met at a teachers’ conference and begun teaching at the same school in Tuzla.

Both Veljko and Jovanka were politically conscious and Serb Nationalists to the core. They were outraged when Austria annexed Bosnia and Hercegovina. In the year of the annexation (1908) Jovanka, who was a couple of years older than Veljko, travelled to Belgrade and tried to volunteer herself to assassinate the Emperor Franz Joseph. The officers laughed her out of the room.

Veljko and Jovanka lived in Priboj for four years. Their financial circumstances improved, which enabled Veljko to support his younger siblings more effectively. He made frequent trips to Tuzla where he helped develop a programme for implementing good standards of hygiene in the primary school. In Priboj, outside of his school-work, Veljko began work on an ethnographic study of Serbian folklore and traditions with a fellow writer. (The work remained unfinished).

Veljko Cubrilovic got involved in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand when he was sought out by Gavro and Grabezin Priboj. Gavro and Grabez had had to take a detour via Priboj after they entered Bosina surreptitiously, carrying with them the weapons given to them by Milan Ciganovic, a Komite officer. Ciganovic had asked them to go to Tuzla where Misko Jovanovic, a ‘good Serb’, would help them. However, the journey to Tuzla was long and arduous and the peasants helping Gavro and Grabez to carry weapons suggested that they go to Priboj first and look for Veljko Cubrilovic who, they thought, might be able to help them. Veljko was known in the Serb community as an educated man of stature who was also involved, for all outward appearances, in a Serb cultural group called Sokol. He commanded respect of Serbian peasants in the region.

All of the above suggests that Veljko stumbled into the plot by accident. It was a set of chance circumstances that led the plotters to Priboj and seek him out. Certainly he would maintain throughout the trial that he had no idea of the plot until he ran into the peasants on that morning in Priboj and was told that two ‘students’ who had travelled from Belgrade wanted to see him.

Those who subscribe to the theory that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a carefully planned and executed conspiracy do not believe this, and maintain that Veljko was involved in the plot right from the beginning via his connections with Narodna Odbrana, a Serb cultural organization for all outward appearances but which was rumoured to have links with the dreaded Black Hand. The conspiracy theorists would say that Veljko did not run into Gavro Princip and Trifko Grabez by chance; he was expecting them. He embraced his fate knowingly.

Whatever the manner in which Veljko was embroiled in the plot—by accident or design (on his part)—once he met Gavro and Grabez, he did everything in his capacity to make the passage of the young plotters easier. He also did not bat an eyelid when he came to know their intention—either because he already was on it, or because he was the sort of man who took everything in his stride.

In his trial Veljko told the court that when he met the two ‘students’ he became suspicious and wondered aloud whether they were carrying gunpowder, because he knew it was cheaper in Serbia and often smuggled into Bosnia. He then said to Gavro, 'Please tell me they are not for the Heir-Apparent because he is coming.’ Gavro then told him that the weapons were indeed for the Heir-Apparent and apparently threatened Veljko and his family with destruction if he did not keep quiet.

Veljko must have been very broad minded, as, despite what many would have regarded as psychopathic threats by Gavro, the two men got on very well. He accompanied them to the village of Tobut and introduced them to the family of Mitar Kerovic (thereby sowing the seeds of destruction of the Kerovics). He persuaded Mitar and his sons to arrange a cart for Gavro and Grabez to take them to Tuzla. While they were at Mitar Kerovic’s house, waiting for the cart to get ready, Veljko couldn’t resist spilling the beans to Mitar about the weapons, and encouraged Gavro to show and demonstrate to Mitar how the bombs worked.

Veljko was the only one who knew the address of Misko Jovanovic in Tuzla, the man Gavro and Grabez were supposed to contact. Veljko wasn’t sure that Misko would agree to help the plotters. So he wrote a note to Misko, whom he knew, requesting him to help the ‘students’.

This does not look like the behaviour of a man who was coerced into helping Gavro and Grabez. However, Veljko seemed to have been aware of what he had let not only himself but also the family of poor Mitar Kerovic into. Just before the plotters left for Tuzla, Veljko took Mitar Kerovic’s sons aside and told them, so he would tell the trial later that year, that they had fallen into great misfortune. The weapons the students were carrying were for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The account given by Blagoje, Mitar’s son (who stood the trial), was different. Veljko, according to him, was pretty gung-ho: the students, Veljko is supposed to have said, were going to shake up the Heir; they were ready to sacrifice their lives for ‘us Serbs’. Blagoje was worried. He said to Veljko, ‘I hope you don’t ruin us with these students.’ Veljko gave him the blithe assurance that everything would be alright.

Veljko then returned to his cottage and told his wife, Jovanka, who was not lacking in revolutionary zeal, what had happened, and how he admired the ‘students’ and how he felt humbled by their idealism. (Veljko, who was devoted to his wife, kept this conversation, secret from everyone, which probably saved Jovanka. Years later Jovanka told their only child, a daughter named Nada, about this conversation.)

It seemed, though, that Veljko could not keep the good news to himself. A week after Gavro and Grabez left, Mitar Kerovic met Veljko, and Veljko told him what Gavro and his bunch of idealists were going to do, in case Mitar’s sons had not already told him. Mitar was shocked. ‘Don’t worry,’ Veljko assured him, ‘if they do kill him, then they will kill themselves and nobody will learn anything about it.’

None of the plotters killed himself (although in case of some of them, Nedjo Cabrinovic, it was not for the want of trying). Veljko Cubrilovic, as Mitar’s son Blagoje feared, had brought ruin on all of them.

Veljko Cubrilovic’s younger brother, Vaso, was also involved in the plot. Vaso was recruited by Danilo Ilic a few weeks before the assassination. It is not clear whether the two brothers were aware of the other’s involvement in the conspiracy. Available evidence suggests that they weren’t.