This comedy of errors would be hilarious, were it not so tragic.
It starts in 1894, in Serbia, with the birth of a sickly child. His parents name him “Gavrilo” in hopes his namesake angel Gabriel will save him. He survives childhood – barely – but never grows to full stature.
Gavrilo also grows up angry. His parents, who are poor Christian farmers, rent their land from a Muslim landlord, which gives Gavrilo a deep resentment of Turks. When he turns 13, Gavrilo leaves the farm to live with his brother in Sarajevo. Here he learns that the city is under Austrian martial law, and so he resents them too. He attends school, but is a lousy student. He joins student protests against the Austrians, and is expelled. He enlists in the military to go fight Turks, but is rejected because of his meager size. So he joins a political organization dedicated to creating an independent Serbia.
It’s at this moment that the prince of Austria decides to visit Sarajevo. He’s been asked to attend the opening of a hospital, and he’s hoping this might generate good will amongst the citizens. He and his wife take the train down from Vienna, and are driven into the city in a motorcade of four open-top limousines. His route has been posted in advance, in hopes of bringing out lots of cheering faces along the way.
Which gives Gavrilo and his friends an opportunity. They decide the quickest way to gain independence from Austria would be to blow up its next leader. Brilliant! Gavrilo and five other students arm themselves with rudimentary hand-grenades and head out to the parade.
It’s a bad idea, but luckily the execution of the plan is worse. The first would-be killer loses his nerve as the prince drives by. The second hurls his bomb, but it has a delayed fuse and doesn’t go off in time. To avoid capture, he swallows a cyanide pill (which doesn’t work) so he tries to drown himself by jumping off a bridge (unfortunately into a river that is only four inches deep). He is captured and immediately starts naming names.
The prince is whisked to safety. Disaster averted. And just like that, Amateur Assassination Hour is over.
If only…if only.
In his wisdom, the prince subsequently decides to go ahead and visit the hospital. Unfortunately, his driver is given a bad set of directions. He takes a wrong turn. He goes down a dead-end street, and gets stuck. He shoves the car into reverse, noisily grinding the gears. The engine stalls, and won’t immediately restart. Leaving one of the most powerful men in the world broken down right outside of Moritz Schiller’s sidewalk café.
And here’s the really funny part. By pure dumb luck, sitting right there in the café at that moment is none other than Gavrilo. He recognizes the car. He walks out to the sidewalk. He pulls a pistol out of his pocket, points it, and pulls the trigger.
And one hundred years ago, June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, Serbian nationalist, assassinates the sole heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Duchess Sophie, with two shots, from a distance of about five feet.
That’s where the hilarity ends. One month later, Austria-Hungary cracks down on Serbia. Russia mobilizes to protect the Serbs. Germany protests, declares war on Russia, forms a secret pact with the Ottoman Turks, and invades Belgium. Britain declares war on Germany. France declares war on Austria-Hungary. Pretty much everyone declares war on everybody else. And Europe is plunged into a war that will last 4 years, kill 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians, and destabilize the continent for the next four decades.
And as for Gavrilo Princip? He is captured, put on trial, and sent to jail. He is held under horrible conditions. He develops skeletal tuberculosis that eats away his bones. In 1918, he dies and is buried in an unmarked grave. But a soldier assigned to the burial later reveals the location. In 1920, Gavrilo Princip’s body is dug up and moved to Sarajevo.
Today he rests in St. Mark’s Cemetery, beneath a chapel “built to commemorate for eternity our Serb heroes.”