Tuesday, 8 July 2014

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

                                                                Vaso Cubrilovic

Vaso Cubrilovic was one of the seven plotters who had direct involvement in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Vaso was recruited into the plot (by Danilo Ilic) quite late, just a few weeks before the assassination.

Vaso was the youngest brother of Veljko Cubrilovic, the ‘teacher gentleman’, and a regular holiday visitor to Veljko’s home in Priboj where Veljko lived with his wife and worked as a teacher.

In early 1914 Vaso Cubrilovic turned 17. He was studying at the high school in Tuzla. He had joined the organization ‘Young Bosnians’, whose members kept themselves busy by thinking of increasingly dramatic ways of resisting the Austrians. The school to which Vaso went was famous as a stronghold of and fertile recruiting ground for the ‘Young Bosnians’.

One day (in 1914) during the service at the school the Austrian national anthem was being played. Vaso chose this moment to make a dramatic gesture: he got up and walked out of the room as the anthem was being played. For this he was expelled from school. Vaso moved to Sarajevo, with one of his sisters, and began happily consorting with other revolutionaries, two of whom were Lazar Djukic and Cvjetko Popovic, both of whom would be charged with the plot to assassinate the Archduke in 1914.

In Sarajevo, when he wasn’t hobnobbing with other Serbian school-boy-revolutionaries, Vaso avidly read radical Serb papers. It was in these papers that he read that Ferdinand would be visiting Sarajevo. Straightaway he began thinking of ways to assassinate the Archduke. The problem was: Vaso had no weapons. While he reckoned that he would have little difficulty in obtaining illicit guns in his home town of Tuzla, which, by this time, had become a hotbed of Serbian revolutionaries, he was not sure he would be able to smuggle them into Sarajevo. He however rightly guessed that he wouldn’t be the only Serbian student who was thinking of assassinating the Heir-Apparent. And the man who would be in the know about these matters would be Lazar Djukic.

It is not clear who sought out whom. Because, unbeknown to Vaso, Danilo Ilic had met with Djukic and asked him to recruit someone to the plot (Djukic had declined to participate himself) and Djukic had Vaso in his mind as just the type of reckless, impulsive young man who would be willing to participate.

Vaso and Lazar Djukic met in April 1914. In his 1914 trial Vaso would claim that they talked light-heartedly about ‘waiting’ for the heir-Apparent. Then the discussion became serious and Vaso volunteered himself as the man who would kill the Archduke if only he had weapons. Djukic told Vaso that he would introduce himself to someone who could give him weapons.

That ‘someone’ was Danilo Ilic.

Danilo Ilic met with Vaso, and the two—one, a 24 year old newly qualified teacher, and the other, a 17 year old school boy—began discussing how they were going to kill Ferdinand. Ilic told Vaso that the weapons would be coming from Serbia. However the source of the weapons was unofficial and the official Serbia was not to know about this.

Ilic indicated to Vaso that there were others involved in the plot. Vaso replied that he did not want to know the identity of others and, in turn, did not want anyone to know about him. Vaso agreed to find two more men for the assassination. Vaso knew many Serbian students full of revolutionary fervour in Sarajevo. One of them was a possible candidate: Cvjetko Popovic, another schoolboy.

Vaso ‘studied’ Popovic for a few days and ‘approved’ of him. He then met Popovic and invited him to join the plot. Popovic agreed. In the 1914 trial, the court could not believe that a boy who was only 16 so readily agreed to be a part of an assassination plot on recommendation of someone he hardly knew until then. However, both Vaso Cubrilovic and Cvjetko Popovic insisted that this was how Popovic was recruited. In the trial Popovic said that after he joined the plot he spent the whole night thinking and dreaming about the assassination. In the morning he was a different man. He was convinced that he had only until 28 June (the day the Archduke was to visit Sarajevo) to live.

Vaso then met with Danilo Iliac on 28 May 1914. Vaso informed Iliac that he had recruited another ‘man’. Iliac told him that that was enough as he (Iliac) had already found another one. That man was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, the only Muslim involved in the plot.

Despite his request to Iliac that his name should remain a secret, Vaso was not secretive about his involvement in the plot, and was almost boastful in his interactions with his peers. Popovic was the same. However, neither was taken seriously by their peers who found the idea of the two schoolboys becoming assassins ludicrous.

Vaso was unaware of the identities of other plotters and often speculated (with Popovic) about their identities. One day he saw Iliac walking with Gavro Princip (whom Vaso knew when Princip studied at Tuzla a few years earlier) and wondered whether Princip was involved in the plot.

In the middle of June, two weeks before the assassination, Ilic met Vaso and informed him that the weapons had arrived in Sarajevo. (He did not tell him that he had brought the weapons himself.) Vaso thus had no idea how the weapons had arrived and who had smuggled them into Sarajevo. One day, while thinking to himself about this, he jokingly wondered whether his elder brother Veljko, who also had trenchant anti-Austrian sentiments, had helped smuggle the weapons into Bosnia, never guessing that his (Veljko’s) younger brother would use them. Veljko indeed had helped smuggle the weapons into Sarajevo, and neither of the brothers was aware of the other’s involvement in the plot.

The bombs were not of the quality the assassins desired: they were not the grenades which exploded on impact; instead they were Serbian military bombs which exploded after a 12 second delay. Iliac asked Vaso to find a discrete friend who would hold the weapons secretly. Vaso was unable to find any, and Iliac decided to keep the weapons with himself.

In his later life Vaso wrote a 36 page account of the assassination and his role in it. In this account Vaso portrayed himself as a solid, dependable, and determined person. He was, at this point in time, probably none of these. He was jokey, facetious and frequently talked and behaved as if the assassination plot were a bit of a laugh (in his defence he was only 17). He certainly could not be depended to keep his mouth shut about the conspiracy. He would blather about how he was going to finish off Ferdinand to anyone on the Sarajevo streets who was prepared to give him an ear, and would then panic that he would be betrayed. And his determination to take part in the assassination wavered on more than one occasion. At one stage he told Danilo Ilic that he was withdrawing because he feared his sister, at whose house he was staying, would be arrested after the assassination. From his prison, while awaiting his trial, Vaso would write to his sister that he had planned to leave Sarajevo and stay out of it until 28 June because he wanted to avoid bringing trouble on her. (This was in fact Danilo Ilic’s idea: he wanted both Vaso and Popovic to lie low.)

Both Vaso and Veljko would be charged with the conspiracy to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. Though neither was to know it then, for Vaso, the assassination would be a dramatic early episode in what would turn out to be a long, and, for all outward appearances, very successful, life. His elder brother’s life would soon end.

                                                    Vaso Cubrilovic in later life