Fin-de-siècle Chat Rooms -The Trigger_ Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
Tadolescent Gavrilo Princip. He would still be in his teens when he assassinated the Archduke, so these formative years of education were of real significance. Here was evidence of an outlier student who began by defying
a provincial childhood of extreme poverty to outperform fellow students from much richer, more sophisticated families in the capital city. At first he could not stop himself from doing the conventional thing by studying hard and obeying the teachers – no more so than could those members of the Princip family back in Obljaj who over the generations had worked as border guards and policemen for the colonial authorities, first Ottoman, more recently Austro-Hungarian.
The earliest photograph of Princip, one I retrieved from an archive in Belgrade, dates from this early period of his schooling, a souvenir family portrait taken in a professional studio with all three Princip brothers as its centrepiece.
They appear rather self-conscious, stiff even, determined both to look away from the camera and to show publicly that they had broken with their peasant serf roots. The oldest brother, Jovo, sits to one side, fashionable flat cap on his head, cigarette in his left hand. Over on the other side Nikola, the youngest, maybe not yet in his teens, rests on a fake balustrade, with his arms tightly crossed in front of a painted backdrop showing a very un-Bosnian scene, an ornate, landscaped garden. Gavrilo has been given the most prominent position, right in the middle.
The photograph is not dated, but it would appear to have been taken in Sarajevo around the time of the 1910 census. The official form I found for the population count showed that Gavrilo, aged fifteen, was not the only Princip boy
then lodging at Jezero Street with the Bozić family. Nikola, aged twelve, was recorded as living at the same address, having also come to the ‘big city’ to receive an education. All other pictures of Princip, which date from around the
time of the assassination in 1914, show him with a rather hunted, even haunted appearance: face drawn, eyes sunken. But in this early photograph alongside his brothers we see a very different boy. His face is full and healthy, the shaped chin that is so characteristic of the Princip family is clearly visible and his hair is neatly parted. He wears a smart three-piece suit over a collared shirt and tie, while for footwear peasant clogs have been replaced by lace-up leather shoes. In his hands he holds a book: the very image of the dutiful, hard-working, successful scholar.
And yet this A-grade student turned. To understand why, I would have to search out other sources. He had kept no diary, and only a few scraps of his own writing survive along with a handful of photographs, so I was drawn instead to the extensive legal and medical records from the Austro-Hungarian authorities that arose following the assassination. Under cross-examination during the trial that followed the shooting and as part of the police investigation, he answered numerous questions about his background and schooling. Other clues come from
the records of an Austrian psychiatrist, Dr Martin Pappenheim, who was allowed to visit him four times during his imprisonment. Dr Pappenheim, a professor from the University of Vienna, asked a wide range of questions, probing not just the 1914 assassination, but also the life experiences and intellectual development that led up to the event. These clinical notes were published verbatim in 1926 by an Austrian publisher in German, and in English by an American magazine the following year.
The dominant theme that emerges from these sources is a growing anger, one that drove a young man to kick back against a way of life imposed from above. The rage was directed against the Austro-Hungarian colonial occupier of Bosnia, but in essence it was no different from that felt in the same period by the Russian serf struggling against tsarist exploitation, or the British worker still without am representative political party in Parliament, or the peasantry calling for home rule in other parts of the Balkans such as modern-day Macedonia or Slovenia or Croatia. The history of these many struggles is rich and involved, but in essence it has one common feature: the rage of the oppressed.
What marks out Princip’s anger is that it grew to consume him, knocking offcourse the dutiful student and ultimately leading to direct action. This was a young man who, as his family told me so proudly, could not help himself doing
whatever was necessary to protect victims of bullying, whether it was hitting a primary-school teacher with a pencil case or getting into a fight with an abusive imperial gendarme. And what I found intriguing was how it all began with his first journey to Sarajevo – an experience which showed him that the poverty he experienced growing up was the same across the country, through all of Bosnia’s south-Slav communities. The dire conditions that killed six of his siblings in infancy applied all over a territory where an impoverished peasantry was still by far the largest single social cohort. And as he spent more time in the capital city, events took place that spread his anger to the older generation of his own people, local leaders from the south-Slav communities grown docile under the rule of Austria–Hungary. To bring about meaningful change, the older generations could not be relied upon.
The politics of change had been mobilising the young across Europe from far back in the nineteenth century. From 1848, the year when so much of Europe flirted with revolution, to the Paris Commune in 1870s France, the 1881
assassination of the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, and the Young Turk rebellion of 1908 that hastened the end of the Ottoman Empire, a central role was played by younger generations. As the twentieth century began, the forces of reaction were holding on, but calls for change were growing all over Europe, especially among the young. When these went unheeded, support grew for more radical change.Britain today might enjoy a reputation for stability, but it was not immune. Emily Davison, a campaigner who called for nothing more radical than the right for women to vote, was in her thirties when she left the following rallying cry on the wall of a prison cell in 1909: ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.’ Four years later she would die after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby.
The exact same forces found purchase among the younger generations in Bosnia, so much so that a movement grew up that they would later call Mlada Bosna or Young Bosnia. That is not to say it was a single, disciplined party with
a coherent structure, leadership or set of internal rules. It would be more accurate to describe it as an amorphous grouping of diverse young people from across Bosnia’s ethnic and social spectrum, coalescing around one shared aim: the removal of Habsburg colonial rule. Ideas about how this would be achieved and what type of regime would come in its place did not enjoy the same unanimity. These questions remained unsettled, subject to fierce debate and bitter disagreement. But what stands out to me – as someone who saw Bosnia pull itself to pieces in the 1990s over ethnicity – is that the group was not called Young Serbs or Young Croats or Young Muslims. By using the name Young Bosnia, there was a deliberate attempt to achieve inclusivity, a common purpose between all those living in Bosnia that was not limited by ethnicity and religion.
In the eyes of many observers, Bosnia’s geographical position on the southeast Balkan periphery of Europe served to distance it fundamentally from the rest of the continent. When the 1990s war was raging, Western politicians sought
to decouple their world from Bosnia. John Major, then the British Prime Minister, implied that it was a place unlinked to the West when he spoke of conflict driven by ‘ancient hatreds’. It was perhaps John Gunther, the American author, who best captured this sharp and rather resentful presumption of disconnect between the Balkans and the rest of the world. He wrote in Inside Europe:
It is an intolerable affront to human and political nature that these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan peninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world war. Some hundred and fifty thousand young Americans died because of an event in 1914 in a mudcaked primitive village, Sarajevo.
Yet the more I read about the country at the time when Princip was losing his way at school, the more I saw it as fully joined up with European political thinking at the time. The Mlada Bosna movement reflected perfectly the spectrum of political debate occupying minds throughout Edwardian Europe:
the gradualism of social democracy, the theoretical promise of revolutionary socialism, the turmoil of anarchism, and all points between. The same political tracts that stirred so much revolutionary thinking elsewhere in Europe were steadily becoming available, smuggled into Bosnia under the noses of the Austro-Hungarian censors – every publication that made it through being a gesture of defiance against the foreign occupier.
The works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Gorky, Dostoyevsky and others were handed around like forbidden scripture to be parsed, analysed, discussed, memorised, copied and distributed. As they did for the downtrodden all over Europe, these thinkers raised in the minds of radical young Bosnians the possibility of changing a stratified, feudal social order that had altered little in hundreds of years. The young might not have had the Internet chat rooms of the twenty-first century, but they did have school libraries, youth clubs and coffee houses, and it was here that the merits of socialism, anarchism and nationalism were all boisterously debated. Secret societies emerged, sometimes modelled along the strict need-to-know basis of Russian revolutionary cells, protected by oaths and passwords and under constant attack by spies in the pay of the AustroHungarian authorities. Some of the student activities in Sarajevo were so lowlevel as to be almost harmless: a campaign to deface signs printed in German, the language of the occupier; another to pull down flags showing emblems associated with the Austro-Hungarian authorities. Graffiti would appear denouncing the foreign rulers or Schwaben, as they were pejoratively referred to by young Bosnians. But with assassination an already established reality of early-twentieth-century politics, one that had claimed the lives of prime ministers, plenipotentiaries and presidents from France, to Russia, the United States and beyond, the potential impact of secret student groups could not be ignored.
The Austro-Hungarian occupiers were fully aware that young Bosnians were experimenting with political ideas that clashed with the fundamentals of traditional imperial rule, and made great efforts to suppress them. Student societies were outlawed and anyone caught violating this rule faced expulsion. The high school in Mostar was a particular hot zone for Mlada Bosna, so much so that in 1913 the whole school was shut by the colonial authorities. In the same year 141 secondary-school students were arrested across Bosnia and tried for membership of groups hostile to the state.
But try as they might to close off this seam of angry young people, the Austro-Hungarians failed – in many ways victims of their own success at empire-building. Bosnia was, after all, a component part of the Habsburg Empire at the start of the twentieth century. Its population, including any student sufficiently rich and qualified to seek out further education, could travel easily to Vienna and other nexuses of political thought across Europe. As citizens of the empire, Bosnians needed no passport to travel across its vast territory and their only obligation was to register at the police station of any town or city they reached. At his trial Princip recounted how, as he became older, he had travelled extensively through the empire, visiting Zagreb, capital of today’s independent country of Croatia, and other cities outside Bosnia on the Adriatic coastline.
Leon Trotsky, then based alongside so many other would-be revolutionaries in the political hothouse that was early-twentieth-century Vienna, would take a close interest in Mlada Bosna. On a number of occasions he met several of its senior figures, influencing some of its internal ideological discussions, not least on the old trope of whether socialist revolution was possible in a rural, peasant society such as Bosnia, which had no significant industrial proletariat. Other young Bosnian schemers made pilgrimages to Zurich to meet leading Russian revolutionaries within the circle of Lenin, himself a longtime exile in Switzerland. Links would reach right across Europe, with Edith Sitwell, the
avant-garde English poet, later falling under the influence of the mystic and poet Dimitrije Mitrinović, who was born in Herzegovina and was one of the earliest Mlada Bosna pioneers. He had been among the first wave of student
troublemakers at Mostar high school, where he had set up a secret library to exchange revolutionary texts. Bosnia was fully linked up with contemporary political debate and, although it might be geographically on the edge of Europe, in many ways this made it all the more important. History teaches us that it is on the margins that the greatest change often happens.
From the moment in 1907 when Princip was lodged in Sarajevo at the house of the widow Ilić, there was no chance he could avoid exposure to Bosnian youth politics. The person he shared a room with at Oprkanj Street was already a keen admirer of all that Mlada Bosna stood for. Danilo Ilić, the landlady’s son, was four years older than the thirteen-year-old boy from the provinces given the spare bed in his room. An unsettled young man, Danilo had a life that was
typical of those young Bosnians experimenting with politics at the time. After qualifying as a teacher, he failed to settle down to a career in education, wandering instead between jobs as a bank clerk, proofreader and journalist
writing columns critical of the Austro-Hungarians, but unsure how best to serve the goal of taking on the occupiers of his homeland.
Princip soon became friends with the older boy, who showed him how to find his way in Sarajevo, starting with the teeming bazaar so close to the front door. But their relationship would soon reach beyond ways to survive in the big
city. Ilić was already caught up in underground youth politics, so much so that hewould later travel to Switzerland and beyond, meeting revolutionaries and carrying back to Sarajevo their latest publications. His journeying would become so extensive that, according to Dedijer, Danilo Ilić became known by other young Bosnians in Sarajevo as Hadji – as if he were a pilgrim bringing back life’s inner secrets from Mecca.
Princip turned out to be a slow-burn revolutionary, only gradually embracing the radical politics that drew in his room-mate so fully. When he arrived in Sarajevo he was already a keen reader and for these early years in the city, when his school performance was still so good, he was remembered by schoolmates as a solitary, private individual who preferred to surround himself with books. In these early days he read nothing more inflammatory than the work of Alexandre Dumas, Oscar Wilde and Walter Scott, while joining the many Sarajevans who eagerly devoured the Sherlock Holmes whodunits serialised in popular local news-sheets. Dr Pappenheim’s clinical notes were consistent with the school reports I found:
No diseases in the family . . . Always has been healthy . . . Always an ‘excellent student’ up to the fifth grade . . . Was not much with other schoolboys, always alone. Was always quiet, sentimental child. Always earnest with books, pictures, &c. Even as a child was not particularly religious.
As he matured, Princip sought to express himself through poetry, scribbling away for hours and sharing the results with friends. They were not impressed. At one point he tried to summon the courage to submit one of his compositions to Ivo Andrić, only a few years his senior, but already a young man with a reputation as one of Sarajevo’s finest literary talents. Princip could not overcome his nerves and chickened out in the end. His failure calls to mind another wouldbe artist struggling to survive at exactly the same time in another AustroHungarian city. In around 1910 Adolf Hitler was trying to make it as a painter in Vienna. He too failed and was forced to direct his energies elsewhere.
Numerous friends reported that the young Princip did not drink and he did not chase members of the opposite sex. There was one girl he did have a special bond with, according to the psychiatrist, Dr Pappenheim, although it was a
chaste, unconsummated relationship that he did not want to discuss. ‘Relates he knew her in the fourth class,’ the doctor’s notes stated. ‘Ideal love; never kissed; in this connection will reveal no more of himself.’
Dedijer named the girl as Vukosava, the younger sister of one of Princip’s associates in Sarajevo, although the passion got little further than him giving her a copy of his favourite Oscar Wilde stories. There is a legend that Princip wrote Vukosava many letters and poems, opening his heart and expressing to her his innermost feelings and thoughts. But as with the original co1urt transcript and much else connected with Princip, these letters – if they ever existed – went missing. The story went that Vukosava buried them in a village out in the Bosnian countryside during the First World War, but somehow in all the turmoil they were never retrieved. This did not stop acquaintances of the young couple recomposing some of the text of these love-letters and publishing them in the years after the First World War. By then the interest in Princip was of such intensity that many friends, contemporaries and acquaintances wrote books and memoirs about their time with the young assassin. I rather fear the desire to be published overcame adherence to the truth.
Princip’s retiring, solitary nature did not necessarily win him friends, with some of his contemporaries regarding this behaviour as superior and boastful. Dobroslav Jevdjević gave a rather damning character reference for him in a sworn statement that was read out at the trial following the assassination: ‘Gavro Princip stood out . . . He pretended that no one was better than he, especially in his knowledge of literature and he used to say that he was the best among us.’ Dedijer described the two as ‘intimate friends’, something I found strange. The whole tone of Jevdjević’s testimony was very negative regarding Princip, and when the statement had been read out the defendant objected fiercely that many of Jevdjević’s assertions were wrong. ‘It is true that I had a conflict with him,’ Princip announced to the court.
A key event took place in 1908, a year after Princip started school: a political and diplomatic crisis that was centred right there in Sarajevo, but soon spread far beyond Bosnia. It would change fundamentally the character of Bosnian youth politics, launching quiet students like Princip on a much more radical path. It would also give final proof that the country’s remote geographical location did not stop it from playing a role in high European diplomacy. The Bosnian dispute was so serious it almost led to a European war and can be regarded today as adress rehearsal for 1914: it was the formal annexation of Bosnia by Austria–Hungary.
When Bosnia was occupied by the Habsburgs in 1878 through the settlement agreed at the Congress of Berlin, the diplomatic rubric insisted that the Ottoman rulers nevertheless retained nominal control or suzerainty over the land. While this did not limit in any meaningful way how Austria–Hungary set about administering and exploiting its new Bosnian dominion, the words retained a certain diplomatic potency, one that only became truly apparent once Vienna pushed through formal annexation in October 1908, claiming for itself full sovereign rights over Bosnia for the first time.
The move was a pre-emptive strike by the Austro-Hungarians to deal with murmurings of discontent within their already large population of south Slavs,
made up of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes spread across the empire’s longestablished territories in the North Balkans. The emergence during the nineteenth century of an independent nation of Serbia further south had given the south
Slavs within the Habsburg Empire an example to aspire to. They had not known meaningful self-rule since the Middle Ages, yet they watched closely as fellow south Slavs in Serbia showed that in the modern age it was possible to rule themselves. In order to put Serbia back in its place, so the thinking went in Vienna, Bosnia would be formally annexed, thus shifting the centre of gravity for all south Slavs away from Serbia.
The upgrading of occupation to annexation in a small corner of the Balkans might today sound arcane, but it had dire implications in the context of earlytwentieth-century diplomacy when the balance of power was as painstakingly
and delicately constructed as a house of cards. For several months around the winter of 1908/9, Bosnia was the epicentre of a portentous international debate, as European statesmen struggled to deal with Vienna’s unilateral violation of the treaty agreed at Berlin. If the annexation represented a diplomatic gain for Vienna, which of the other Great Powers would stomach a loss? For many months the name of Bosnia, the layout of its borders and the details of its administration occupied the attention of the greatest diplomats from London to Rome, St Petersburg to Berlin, desperate both to save face and restore order. That these statesmen were successful in managing to avoid a European war has meant that the importance of the Bosnian annexation crisis is today rarely recognised. But what I found particularly striking in my research was that so many of the diplo-politico linkages that would lead the world to war in 1914 were in play during this earlier crisis: Serbian attempts to draw in Russian support; Germany’s willingness to back Austria–Hungary; Britain’s sweeper-role monitoring the impact on Europe’s balance of power; secret talks, ultimatums. In the end it was Russia’s reluctance to offer military support to Serbia that defused the situation, eventually leading to Serbia’s grudging acceptance of the annexation. By the spring of 1909 the Berlin treaty had been amended, the annexation was complete and the house of cards still stood.
Princip had only just started his second year of the Merchants’ School when the crisis began in 1908. But what he witnessed on the streets of the capital city was
the impact of the annexation: deeper entrenchment of Austro-Hungarian colonial rule, emergency powers granted to imperial governors, new waves of non-Slav immigration from elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire, growing resentment among fellow Slavs who grumbled that advancement was being monopolised by foreigners. The 1910 census illustrated the population shift clearly, recording a city population of 52,000, with the Muslim and Orthodox communities relatively static. In contrast, the Catholics, consisting mostly of arrivals from elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire, had ballooned in just three decades from 700, when Bosnia had first been occupied by Austria–Hungary, to 17,000.
This was when Princip’s simmering anger towards the foreigner began to strengthen into rage. During these early years in Sarajevo he endured a meagre existence, spending what little money he had on books. Friends said he would
rather go hungry than sell from his beloved library, surviving mostly on loans advanced against the promise that his older brother would pay off the debt.While Jovo did everything he could to support Gavrilo, there were occasions
when he was not good for the money, forcing his younger sibling to change digs – hence the many addresses I found on Princip’s school records. ‘I did not have the means to maintain myself here,’ he said at his trial. ‘I always lived on credit.’ He found himself exactly where his serf forebears had been, anchored to the bottom of a social order imposed by a foreign power. The anger only got worse when he went home on school holidays. Land reform had been one of the promises made by the Habsburgs, and yet whenever he travelled to Obljaj – such as in 1909, when he scratched his initials on the wall in the garden of the family homestead – he saw that Bosnian peasants like his own family were no better off under the Austro-Hungarians than they had been under the Ottomans.
This mounting fury towards Vienna seeps through Princip’s testimony at his trial. He accused Austria of ‘doing evil to the south-Slav people’, ‘imposing torments upon the people’ and ‘behaving badly to our people’. There are several
references to his ‘hatred’ of the occupier and to his desire for ‘revenge’ against injustices forced on the south-Slav citizens of Bosnia. ‘If I could, I would destroy Austria completely,’ he declared towards the close of proceedings.
But there was also a sense in which his anger metastasised. It was not just the foreign occupier that he hated. He also came to distrust those leaders of his own south-Slav community who accommodated the Austro-Hungarians. These were local councillors, businessmen and politicians who took the view that working for change from within the occupation was wiser than fighting against it. They were derided as Mamelukes, an Ottoman euphemism for slaves, by young Bosnian zealots then poring over their revolutionary texts. The Serbian government’s decision, albeit under intense diplomatic pressure, to accept theannexation of Bosnia by Austria–Hungary was the clearest proof that the older generation of south Slavs could not be relied upon to bring about change. Their gradualism would never deliver true freedom, so something more radical was needed. Dr Pappenheim’s notes capture Princip’s attitude:
Our old generation was mostly conservative, but in the people as a whole existed the wish for national liberation. The older generation was of a different opinion from the younger as to how to bring it about. In the year 1878 many Serb leaders and generals prayed for liberation from the Turks. The older generation wanted to secure liberty from Austria in a legal way; we do not believe in such a liberty.
As an underground movement Mlada Bosna did not have any formal membership process, so there is no paper trail tracking Princip’s links with the group. But it was in the aftermath of the annexation that, still only fifteen years
of age, he began to associate with its members in Sarajevo and to embrace its ideals of taking on the imperial occupier. Again his evolution was far from headstrong. Princip did not rush into radicalism, exploring instead a wide range of options, from the peaceful utopianism of William Morris – after his death a copy of Morris’s News from Nowhere was found with Princip’s signature inside – to the more turbulent radicalism of the Russian revolutionaries. ‘I read Krapotkin and the Russian socialist literature,’ he said during his trial.
Princip remained a very private individual, an introvert, at his happiest keeping himself to himself. As he dabbled with politics in an environment rife with Austro-Hungarian spies, he learned the true value of discretion. One of the
books in his growing library was an obscure series of short stories written in German – Wenn Landsleute sich begegnen, by Jassy Torrund. As well as having his signature within the covers, it was found that he had picked out and transcribed a few portentous lines from the text:
What your enemy should not know,
You shouldn’t tell your friend.
If I don’t tell the secret, then it is my slave,
If I do, then I am its slave.
Up until the annexation in 1908, the dominant voices within Mlada Bosna were moderate, but after the crisis such restraint was thrown off. Sarajevo – like so many other cities, not just in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but across all of Europe – simmered with the injustice felt by the masses. It led to pressure for direct action, a force that built and built. With only sham democracy in place, one that allowed for a local parliament to be elected, but without the power to challenge the colonial occupier, there was no safety valve to release this pressure. Eventually revolutionary thoughts in Sarajevo turned to calls for political assassination.
An account of life in Sarajevo at the time from a young boy who would go on to become one of Austria’s most renowned artists gives a wonderful counterpoint perspective on this febrile atmosphere. Hans Fronius was a perfect
example of the Austro-Hungarian colonial immigrant class that had flooded into Bosnia. His father was a doctor who served as a state physician based in Sarajevo, and his grandfather had been one of the early train engineers who built
Bosnia’s narrow-gauge railway network for the Habsburgs. Describing the childhood he enjoyed in Sarajevo around the time of the annexation crisis, Hans Fronius wrote:
We Schwabians, the incoming Austrians, lived in the Balkans like colonialists and enjoyed a high standard of living. I was a quiet child and drew a lot. But despite all I did to cut myself off, I nevertheless could feel that not everything was in order in this peaceful world. There were workers’ strikes, as well as parades against the threat of war and attempted assassinations on the governor. Unforgettable was the following mental image: my father still agitated as he talked about an attempted assassination, removing his bloody shirt cuffs while washing his hands.
Amid all the growing political tension that was born of the annexation one episode stands out. In June 1910 a young man called Bogdan Žerajić – a Bosnian Serb from Herzegovina, just like Princip, and also a supporter of Mlada Bosna – took a pistol and fired five times at the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia, General Marijan Varešanin, as he was being driven by coach over one of the old Ottoman bridges across the Miljacka in Sarajevo. The General had just taken part in a high-profile event, the state opening of Bosnia’s quisling parliament – one that was brought into existence as a result of the annexation eighteen months earlier. In Žerajić’s eyes, the parliament was nothing but a council of Mameluke lackeys, south-Slav elders complicit in the oppression of Bosnia’s population by the Habsburg outsider. The time had come for action.
Žerajić was standing about halfway across the Emperor’s Bridge when his target drove past. It was a narrow bridge, so the General would have been only a ,few feet away from him when Žerajić pulled out the gun and fired. He missed
his target with all five bullets. But the gunman then did something that marked out his assassination bid as different from others. With his sixth bullet he shot himself dead – a martyr in the eyes of Mlada Bosna supporters; a cowardly
suicide terrorist in the view of Austria–Hungary. The way his body was then treated added to his legend. Some sources said that General Varešanin got out of his coach, walked over to the body and kicked it. Others said he spat on the body. What is not disputed is that the gunman’s head was cut off and his skull ostentatiously used as an inkpot, pour encourager les autres, by one of Sarajevo’s more brutal colonial police investigators.
The legend of Žerajić grew in tribute poems and essays written by fellow Mlada Bosna members and the whole incident had a great impact on Princip. For young political activists like him, this was not the highbrow theorising of philosophical debate or the strategic-level calculus of international diplomacy. This was politics at its most real: direct action by a student only a few years older than himself – Žerajić was in his mid-twenties when he died – from exactly the same background, for a political cause that he shared, and right there, in his own neighbourhood. The bridge where it happened lies a few minutes’ walk from where Princip attended school and he must have passed the spot often, each time being reminded that the fight against the foreign occupier could demand the ultimate sacrifice.
At Princip’s trial in 1914 the ghost of Bogdan Žerajić was ever-present. When mention was made of a poem, ‘Death of a Hero’, that praised the failed assassin, Princip shouted out, ‘May Žerajić rest in peace!’ It was an outburst that incensed the Austro-Hungarian judge and led to proceedings being suspended. Earlier, when the name of Žerajić came up, Princip was candid in his explanation of how highly he regarded him: ‘He was my role model. At night I used to go to his grave and vow that I would do the same as he . . . The grave was neglected and we put it in order.’
Princip was only fifteen when Žerajić died in 1910. It would take time for the slow-burn revolutionary to complete his own journey from schoolboy dreamer to assassin. Dr Pappenheim’s clinical notes recorded how that journey started shortly after the failed assassination attempt by Žerajić, when Princip began an episode of sleepwalking. His schoolwork, as indicated by the worsening grades of his school reports, no longer mattered as much as politics.
He found himself increasingly caught up in student demonstrations and agitation against Austro-Hungarian rule. The young man told his psychiatrist that the year following the Žerajić shooting was ‘critical’:
Left the school in Sarajevo in 1911. At that time nationalistic demonstrations were taking place . . . Was in the first lines of students.
Was badly treated by the professors. Read many anarchistic, socialistic, nationalistic pamphlets, belles lettres and everything. Bought books himself; did not speak about these things.
The Žerajić shooting started Princip on the path that would lead to the assassination of the Archduke. In this country, where history so often trips over itself, the 1914 assassination would take place in Sarajevo just a hundred yards away from where Žerajić shot his pistol on the Emperor’s Bridge four years earlier. But as Princip told Dr Pappenheim, he was ‘not yet ripe and independent enough’ to be able to consider such direct action. For Princip to complete his own transformation to radical assassin, he had one more important journey still to make.
Across the Drina River, which forms Bosnia’s eastern frontier, lay Serbia, thesouth-Slav nation that had recently won independence. It was small, with borders yet to satisfy the territorial ambitions of its rulers. It was new, with
official recognition coming only in 1878 at the Berlin Congress following decades of rebellion, insurgency and uprising against Ottoman occupiers. It was also unstable, with a rivalry between royal houses so intense that in 190 the King and his wife were murdered by mutinous army officers, attacked in their palace in Belgrade, their bodies disembowelled and defenestrated. But Serbia was free from foreign occupation, and that was what made it so important for Princip and millions of other south Slavs still under foreign occupation in the Balkans.
Princip – intense, secretive and private – told the trial that while he had started off reading Russian revolutionary texts, it was nationalism, specifically south-Slav nationalism, that he came to focus on. Serbia was the place where
nationalism had delivered self-rule and so, after withdrawing from the Bosnian school system, Princip joined the growing stream of young Bosnians and others drawn there from across the Balkans. The Bosnian Serb boy from Herzegovina, who had been brought up listening to renditions around the fire of epic poems about medieval Serb heroics, set off in early 1912 to his ‘homeland’ for the first time, hitch-hiking, walking and taking public transport all the way to Belgrade. There he would complete not just his formal education, but his transition to fullblown assassin.
Before following Princip to Belgrade, I set out with my 1908 Sarajevo map to try and picture the city as he would have known it during his four years there as a schoolboy. Even though I was staying in the centre, the provincial character of this city meant that when I walked out onto the streets just before dawn I could hear cockerels crowing from smallholdings up the nearby flank of Mount Trebević. In the 1990s very different sounds came from the same mountain: the reports of Bosnian Serb artillery pieces firing into the city, although my diary reminded me that not all gunfire was life-threatening. During the football World Cup in 1994, soldiers on both sides fired their guns in the air in wild celebration when Germany, the nation that occupied Bosnia in the Second World War, was beaten by a fellow Balkan country, Bulgaria.
During the post-Second World War communist period in Sarajevo, tower blocks and apartment buildings bloomed where the valley widens into the zone ambitiously demarcated by the Austro-Hungarians as ‘New Sarajevo’. But with
its steeply sided setting constraining its growth, the heart of the city remains remarkably unchanged. The skyline of twenty-first-century Sarajevo would be perfectly recognisable to one of Arthur Evans’s open-mouthed Bosnian bumpkins from the nineteenth century. Princip would certainly know his way around.
To reach Oprkanj Street, where Princip’s Sarajevo life had begun, I walked through the old bazaar quarter. The late-nineteenth-century decision by the Austro-Hungarian colonial planners to leave it alone, while modernising the rest of downtown Sarajevo, is a blessing for the modern city, providing a natural draw for visitors, whether local or foreign. The layout of the boulevards, the course of the river, the shape of the city’s hills all serve to funnel people towards Baščaršija, the Turkish name by which the market area is still known.
The mosques, with their ancient fountains, tombs and ritual fittings, are still very much in use, and as I explored I saw, within their precincts, groups of Bosnian Muslims going about their devotions just as earlier generations had. The older men passing through the gates were recognisable by the dark berets they wore on their heads, a last remnant of the days when costume was an ethnic identifier. In the women’s sections I could only snatch glimpses through open doors and latticework screens, but it was interesting to note that while I saw plenty of headscarfs, there were only a few full face-covering veils. Yet the market area’s main attraction was not religion, but what it has always been: the business of living. The baggy-trousered traders with sacks of spices might have gone, but the same web of alleyways remains, lined by stalls selling mobilephone air time, memory sticks, football shirts, flip-flops and all the other bric-abrac of modern life.
I had only known the market area when it was battered by shelling, its shops battened down and its stockrooms emptied by the Bosnian Serb siege that choked off supplies. Over the centuries the market has endured fire, plague,
invasion and other crises, so back then the shop owners did what their forefathers had always done – they waited. In the summer of 1994 I was taken to one of the booths that was owned by the family of an Albanian jeweller. The
shutters were down and it was closed, dank, dark and dusty, but there I was entrusted with a mission that spoke of an earlier age: smuggling a tiny package of gold out over Mount Igman for delivery to a family member who had managed to escape from Sarajevo to London.
The waiting game had clearly paid off, as Baščaršija was now heaving once more, youngsters with tattoos barging out of crowded bars, tables choking the alleys where the flagstones were freshly polished by the footfall of shoppers laden with purchases. And as throughout the city’s long history, Sarajevo wore well its Janus-like duality. Slices of pizza were being hawked loudly next to eateries selling burek, traditional Bosnian stuffed-pastry tubes prepared in vast, swirling spirals that Rebecca West described as ‘cartwheel tarts’.
While a few people, tourists mostly, sat on low cushioned benches smoking nargileh, my ear picked up a very un-Balkan sound. It was ‘Waka Waka’, the anthem of the 2010 football World Cup played in South Africa, spilling out of a bar nearby. A friend in Cape Town played bass on the track, so I took out my phone to send him a recording of his African beat being played in an un-African setting. As I fiddled with the buttons, the device buzzed to say it had picked up a wireless Internet network from the Hotel Europe, a name that I immediately recognised. During the siege it was a huge, burnt-out wreck memorable for the unfeasible number of refugees crammed within and for the busted ATM machine outside. It was the only one I ever found in Sarajevo, its fading VISA sign then a symbol of a city cut adrift from modernity. Now my mobile phone was like a compass guiding me to a new age, as I turned and looked up to find towering above me a very different Hotel Europe, completely refurbished, its façade partially clad in elegant glass, flags of various nations hanging ostentatiously above the portico. Sarajevo was about to host an international film festival, and the hotel staff were in a flap of final preparation for the arrival of their VVVIP
guest, Angelina Jolie. I went inside and would have taken a drink on the terrace that was deliberately built with a view of the ancient Ottoman bazaar, only my filthy trekking gear felt rather inappropriate for the setting.
At the trial that followed the 1914 assassination Princip described Oprkanj as a ‘back street’, a description that still holds today. While visitors to Sarajevo’s old town flock to take photographs of the raised, latticed kiosk that caps the
ornate Sebilj fountain in Pigeon Square, few ever wander up the crooked little lane one block to the east. It has none of the cafés and booths so prominent elsewhere in Baščaršija, just a few old houses and a boutique hotel with a rather cheesy name, the Villa Orient. A museum to Princip was once opened on this street, and I was able to find an old photograph of the bedroom that had been mocked up in the museum to display how Princip had once shared a room here with Danilo Ilić. In the picture you can see a single bed, a table to work on and kilims spread on the floor and hanging on the wall. There is also a large religious painting in the style of an Orthodox Christian icon – a strange choice for the room of a young man who under cross-examination at the trial described himself as ‘an atheist’. Today there is no trace of the museum. It was closed without fanfare decades ago.
You can take a tram from the top of Oprkanj Street, but to reach the site of the Merchants’ School there really is no need. The old centre of Sarajevo is so small that it took me only ten minutes to pick my way through the crowded
bazaar and out along Ferhadija, the main pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the market with the street-grid laid out by the Austro-Hungarians. After a few hundred yards the school building was on my left, although no longer in use for education, the Merchants’ School having been rehoused elsewhere in the city long ago, rebranded as more of a business school.
It was a very tight stage on which the drama of Princip’s city life had played out, Sarajevo then reaching scarcely ten blocks at its longest point and only a few blocks across at its widest, all within the hilly frame of the Miljacka valley. With the street names retrieved from his school reports, I made a tour on foot. It took less than an hour to walk between all the addresses Princip was registered as using during his years in Sarajevo: Oprkanj, Franz Joseph, Upper Bjelava,m Jezero, Mjedenica and Hadji Suleyman streets. Many of the buildings had been modernised, but all the roads were still there and I could picture Princip’s wanderings among them. The student who started out doing so well at school, posing so conventionally in his family portrait, walked these same lanes, smelledthe same oily aroma of frying burek, dodged trams running along the same routes and watched the level of the Miljacka River chart, as it still does, the season’s passing from winter rage to summer’s slack water. And it was in Sarajevo’s school libraries, reading rooms and coffee houses that his growing anger against the Austro-Hungarian occupier slowly took form, from the dreamy utopianism of William Morris to the direct action of Bogdan Žerajić, who shot himself dead on a bridge over the river.
The most striking feature of my tour was that there was nothing to tell the visitor that Princip had ever been there. He was the Bosnian with the greatest impact on world history, and yet in today’s Bosnia there were no plaques or sing, Nothing to record his many years living in the city before he headed to Belgrade.