Wednesday, 9 July 2014

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

                                                         Mehmed Mehmedbasic

Mehmedbasic was the only Muslim involved in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. At 27 (or 26; there is uncertainty about the year of his birth which is given either as 1886 or 1887) he was the oldest of the conspirators who took a direct part in the assassination.

Although belonging to the Muslim community in Bosnia, which was (traditionally) loyal to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Mehmedbasic's political sympathies lay firmly with the Serb nationalists.

Mehmedbasic was a trained carpenter from the Hercegovina town of Stolac. His father was a feudal landlord, but the family had fallen on hard times.

Mehmedbasic wanted to get out of Hercegovina. In January 1914, he allowed his father’s last servile kmets to buy their freedom and travelled to France; to the southern city of Toulouse, to be precise. He wanted to attend a meeting.

It is not clear what exactly happened in this meeting which was also attended by radical ‘Young Bosnians’. According to some historians, this was the meeting in which the seeds of the plot that eventually killed Ferdinand were sown. According to others it was just one of the many plots that were being hatched on an almost daily basis in those extraordinary times.

Vladimir Gacinovic spoke at this meeting. Gacinovic was one of the original ‘Young Bosnians’. Although he was not officially the leader of the organization—there was no leader—he was the ‘guiding spirit’. He was highly critical of what he saw as the passivity and indolence of the older Serbs and repeatedly railed against them. He travelled to study in Switzerland where he came into contact with Russian revolutionaries. He had association with Leon Trotsky.

Lots of potential targets of assassination, including Franz Ferdinand, were discussed in the meeting in Toulouse; but Gacinovic impressed on the collective minds of the congregate the urgent need to assassinate Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia. Mehmedbasic was given the honour of assassinating Potiorek. He was supposed to kill Potiorek with a poisoned dagger!

Mehmedbasic set off for Sarajevo with a knife and a small phial of poison. As he was travelling on the train he heard that the gendarmes were searching the train for someone. Panicking, the would-be assassin ran to the toilet and threw away the dagger and the phial. Afterwards he realised that the gendarmes were looking for a petty thief.

Mehmedbasic, despite this setback, did not give up on his ambition to assassinate general Potiorek. He returned to his native town of Stolac, obtained a revolver and went back to Sarajevo. By this time the impending visit of the heir-Apparent was announced.

It is not exactly known how Mehmedbasic came to be involved in the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, or, for that matter, how he got introduced to the plotters.. Most probably he knew of them via his association with the ‘Young Bosnians’ organization. It also seems clear that his contact with the plotters was Danilo Ilic. It is very likely that like most of the plotters save Gavro Princip and Danilo Ilic, Mehmedbasic was unaware of the identities of the other men involved in the plot.

According to some historians, Ilic wrote to Mehmedbasic in March 1914 and informed him that there was going to be an assassination attempt on the Heir-apparent and guns and bombs would be provided. Ilic informed Mehmedbasic that the assassination of Ferdinand would now have to take precedence over the assassination of Potiorek! According to others, the two met in person in the Bosnian town of Mostar.

Mehmedbasic told Ilic that he had given his word to Gacinovic that he would kill Potiorek, and he did not want to change the targets without running it past Gacinovic.

Mehmedbasic and Ilic then wrote a joint letter to Gacinovic and soon they received a two-word reply: ‘Forward Lions!’

Mehmedbasic then travelled back to his native town of Stolac awaiting further instructions from Ilic.

On 26 June (two days before the Archduke was assassinated) Mehmedbasic received a telegram from Ilic summoning him to Sarajevo. Mehmedbasic arrived in Sarajevo and booked himself into a hotel. There he met with Ilic, Princip and some others, and the group sat talking till the early hours of the morning, Ilic regaling them with exciting stories of Russian revolutionaries.

On the evening of 27 June Ilic again met with Mehmedbasic and gave him the bomb with some instructions about how to use it. (Mehmedbasic had never handled a bomb before.)

On the day Archduke was assassinated Mehmedbasic was assigned a position (by Ilic) at the head of the avenue of assassins (near Cumurja Bridge), the oldest and supposedly the most determined of the assassins.

But Mehmedbasic did not throw the bomb. Later he told a friend that Ilic had advised him not to throw the bomb unless he had recognised the Archduke; he could always throw the bomb later when the procession came back down Appel Quay from the town hall.

Years later, when he spoke to the historian Albertan, Mehmedbasic claimed that the real reason he did not throw the bomb was that just as the procession was approaching, a gendarme stood next to him. He was therefore afraid to throw the bomb (Mehmedbasic said) as he might have been seen and given the plot away. Perhaps the real reason was, like some of the other plotters, Mehmedbasic lost his nerve at the last minute. He ran off as soon as he heard Cabrinovic’s bomb exploding.

Mehmedbasic was the only one of the 28 June plotters who escaped and never faced the trial. However, a few years later he was arrested and faced trial for his alleged involvement in another assassination conspiracy (Salonika trial); but that is another story.