Children in History: Gavrilo Princip (Bosnia, 1894-1918)

Figure 1.--Teenage Bosnian-Serb terrorist Gavrilo Princip set off the cataclysm of World War I by shooting Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. No act of terror in history has had such profound consequences. The great totalitarian powers, the Communist Sovie Union, Italian Fascists, and German NAZIs all followed in its wake as well as World War II and the Cold War. The man with the moutash here is Gavrilo's older brother Jovan. The boy is his youngest brother Nikola. There were nine children in the family, but only three survived.

The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914, their 14th wedding anniversary, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Gavrilo was a 19-year old teeager committed to the Young Bosnia Movement. As he was considered the least reliable, he was given a pistol rather than a bomb. The assasintion was to launch World War I. As Princip was a minor, he could not be executed under Austrian law and was instead sentenced to prison. He died a terrible death in prison, but the war he had helped launch though an act of terrorism had the desired effect. The great multi-ethnic empire empires were dismantled. Most were broken up into small states based on specific nationalities. As Pricipio had wanted, Serbia was expanded to include many Slavic populated areas of the Astro-Hungarian Empire and called Yugoslavia.

Ottomon Empire

The image of the Empire founded by Othman in the 13th century is not a popular one in the modern mind. There are no romantic images as surround many other great empires such as those of Greece and Rome. The images that are most in the public mind are those of a war-like, uncivilized people conquering the great jewel of Christianity--Constaniople, the enslavement of Christian children, the titilating stories of harems, the asault on Christain Europe, and the supression of the Greeks in the 19th century. The geocide of the Armenian people is also often blamed on the Ottomans, although it seems more the result of the rise of Turkish nationalism and the modern secular Turish state. The image of the Ottomans is generally that of the declining Ottoman state of the 19th century when it had become the backward, coruption-ridden Sickman of Europe. This is very different than the state of the Empire at it height. Art and education flowered under the Ottomans at a time when it was many Christain kingdoms that were backwards. Much of the neagative evaluation of the Ottomans comes from the application of 20th century standards which of course is inappropriate.


Serbia is a relatively new nation, but has an amcient heritage. The medieval Christan kingdom of Serbia was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, bur reemerged as an independent country in the 19th century. Serbian resistance to Ottoman rule began to grow in the 18th century. The first major uprisings occurred in 1804 and 1815. The Ottoman Empire was declining and faced increasing resistance in the largely Christian Balkan provinces. Russian expamsion was another factor presuring the Ottomans as was a social system which could keep pace with the technical and indutrial advances flowing from the Industrial revolution in Europe. The Serbs launched both a national and social revolution gradually making Ottoman rule untenable. Only the differences among the great powers as to how to divide Ottomam territory allowed the Empire to survive. Serbia gradually emerged as a largely autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire. Formal independence came after the Russo-Turkish War (1878). Bismarck with considerable difficult managed to arrange a peace, although it postponed rather than resolved the major issues. Serbia was frmally recognized as an indpendent country under the terms of the Congress of Berlin (1878). Bosnia (1908-09)


he principal of Serbian nationalists had for centuries been the Ottomon Turks. The Ottomons by the turn of the 20th century were an empire in decline and were being forced out of the Balkans, in large measure by the Russians who expoused the cause of fellow Orthodoc Slavs. The Serbs increasingly were looking at thge Austrians whoi were expanding into the Balkans as the country which was denying their national aspirations. Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 6, 1908. Many Orthodox Christians in Bosnia resented Austrian rule and dreamed of a united southern Slav nation. Bosnia had, however, a mixed population with many Muslims and Catholic Croats.

The Black Hand

Many secret socities were formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to promote a wide range of political and nationlist agendas. One of the most notorious was the Black Hand. These groups in many ways are similar to Al Qaida and other fundamentalist Islamic groups of the 21st century. Just 2 days after Austria annexed Bosnia, a group of Serbian nationalists met in the Belgrade City Hall on October 8, 1908, to form the semi-secret Serbian nationalist society--Narodna Odbrana (National Defense) dedicated to promote pan-Slavism. The men who formed the Black Handc were some of the most important men in Serbia, including noted Serbian ministers. The goal of Narodna Odbrana was to recruit and train agents to persue to gain control of Bosnia even if it meant war with Austria. They promoted anti-Austrian propaganda and supported assaasins and saboteurs to operate in Bosnia and other Austro-Hungarian provinces. Narodna Odbrana also organized local underground groups in other Austr-Hungarian provinces with Slavic populations, including Slovinia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Istria. The Bosnian group was Mlada Bosna--Young Bosnia. Narodna Odbrana proved extremely successful. A a result, Austria in 1909 demanded that the Austrian Government restrain its anti-Austrian subversive work. Serbia fearing an Austrian invasion, did restrain but not supress Narodna Odbrana. Russia was unwilling at the time to fully support Serbia. Narodna Odbrana shifted its focus to education and propaganda within Serbia itself, refashinning itself as a more benign cultural organization. Many members of Narodna Odbrana were not prepared to suspend their anti-Austrian agitation. These were generally lower-level members who had less to lose. A small group of 10 men met on May 9, 1911 to form Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death), better known as The Black Hand. It was a much smaller more, shdowy organization than Narodna Odbrana. As a result, the Serbian Government could more easily deny resonsibility for its operations. The connection with the Serbian Governmentis not fully known, but many members were Serbian army officers. The Black Hand by 1914 had hundreds of operatives who were committed to creating a Greater Serbia and prepared to use terrorist violence to achieve that goal. The Black Hand trained and equipped saboteurs and assassins. The basic unit of the Black Hand was local 3 to 5-member cells who did not know of other cells in order to ensure the security of cladestine operatioins. These cells which were controlled by district committees. The entire organization was directed by a Central Committee in Belgrade, Serbia. A 10-member Executive Committee was headed by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as Apis. New members swore "...before God, on my honor and my life, that I will execute all missions and commands without question. I swear before God, on my honor and on my life, that I will take all the secrets of this organization into my grave with me." [Shackelford] It was a cell of the Black Hand in Sarajevo that was instructed to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One of its members was Gavrilo Princip.

The Hapburgs

The Hapburgs were one of the great European ruling families. The Hapsburg dynasty was founded by a relatively obscure German count who in 1273 was elected Holy Roman Emperor. Since then the Hapsburgs had played a major role in the history of Central Europe. The Hapsburgs had defended Europe from the Ottomon Turks. When the Spanish throne was addedd to the German possessions under Charles V, the Hapsburgs dominated Europe and oversaw the conquest of the americas. The Hapburgs were the dominate force in Germany until defeat by Prissiain the Franco-Prussian War (1866). At this time the Prussians under Bismark's guidance sought to build a largely German empire. The Hapsburgs, largely excluded from Germany, proceeded to give more ttention to building a multi-ethnic empire.

Austro-Hungarian Empire

Austro-Hungary was one of the three great European continental empires, along with Germany and Russia. The Empire had changed greatly under Emperor Franz Josef. It had once dominated Germany. The Empire was almost fundamentally changed by the Revolutions of 1848. A conservative regime was saved by the intervention of the Russian Army. After defeat by Prussia in 1866, Franz Josef in 1867 agreed to a dual monarchy with Hungary. Unlike the largely German, German Empire constructed by Bismark, the Austrian Empire was exceedingly diverse. It was composed of eight bmajor nationalities (German, Hungarian, Czech, Serb, ????) and even more languages. The Empire was divided into 17 provinces. This made fore tremendous cultural differences and increasing resentment at the largely German (Austrian) leadership. It was also extremely complicated poltically with over 20 parlimentary bodies. The Emperor Franz Josef was by the 1910s elderly and increasinly out of touch with the political and cultural trends seeping the Empire. Austro-Hungary had acquired territory in the Balkans, as the Ottomons were pushed out, primarily by the Russians after the Russo-Turkish War. The new Serb kingdom had been formed and many Serbs in neighboring lands, especially Bosnia which Austro-Hungary had annexed dreamed of union in Serbia and a united state for the southern Slavs.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the Austo-Hungarian throne. Francis Joseph's nephew Francis Ferdinand was made heir to the throne after the untimely death of Archduke Rudolf. I know little of his childhood or how he was dressed as a boy. Historians have written a great deal about Franz Ferdinand and very little of it has been very positive. Franz Ferdinand has been referred to as a miser, a bigot, and a spoiled child. He was shunned by the elite of Viennese society. One observer called "the loneliest man in Vienna". Francis Ferdinand appears to have lacked the two key elements for success in political life--charm and elegance. His Family life, however, appears to have been surprisingly better. His marriage to Countess Sophia von Chotkowa und Wognin, Duchess of Hohenburg in 1900 was called one of the world's great love affairs. Unfortunately the Emperor considered the Duchess a commoner and tried to convince Franz Ferdinand he was marrying beneath his station. They went through with the marriage against the Emperor's wishes but had to renounce rights of rank and succession for their children. In the years to come, Sophie would not be allowed to ride in the same car with her husband during affairs of state. I do not yet have details on Francis Ferdinand and Sofia's children. There was at least two boys and a girl. Theboys were often dresses alike. Sofia seems to have liked sailor suits even though Austria had only a small navy. The Archduke and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, their 14th wedding anniversary, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Archduke's role of Inspector General of the Austrian army had brought him to Sarajevo for the summer maneuvers. Neither Emperor Franz Josef or the Kaiser saw fit to attend the funeral. A strange reaction when in reaction to the assasination, they were to plunge Europe into the First World War which would result in the end of both the Austrian and German monarchies. Franz Ferdinand was third in line to the throne at one point, he became heir through two untimely deaths. The first was of the Emperor's son, Crown Prince Rudolph, who killed himself (and his 16 year old mistress) in 1889. The second was the death of his father, Archduke Charles Louis, in 1896. After which it was Franz Ferdinand that would be next in line for the Austrian crown.

Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo was a 19-year old teeager committed to the Young Bosnia Movement. He was Orthodox Christian commited to uniting the southern Slavs. Gavrilo was the fourth of nine children, although six died in infancy. His father was a postman. Gavrilo was a small boy and not in the best of health. He went to school in Bosnia, both Sarajevo and Tuzla. The schools in Bosnia of course were run by the Austrians which would have affected how history was presented. (I believe it also meant that the instruction was in German, ut I do not have details on this. Bosnia was recently added to the Empire so we are not ure what the regulaions in the schools were like.) Gavrilo in 1912 went to Belgrade where he could study in Serbocroaian and the history courses could address Serb-nationalism education. While in Belgrde he became deeply committed to the creation of a Greater Serbia. He was accepted into Major Tankosic's Black Hand partisan academy in 1912. Gavrilo's weak health seemed to preclude active duty. Tankosic in 1914, despite Gavrilo's health recruited him to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip as a result of his training was a good shot with a pistol and despite his health, exhibited leadership qualities. [Shackelford]

Franz Ferdinand's Official Visit

The greatest unknown about the assassination is why the Archduke came to Sarajevo, especially on June 28 as it was such a provocative action. The answer probanbly lies in the Archdukes chgaracter. We do know that the Archduke and his wife looked forward to trips outside Austria. Under the terms of the arrangement with the mperor allowing the marriage, Sophie was accorded very low status. She could not even ride with her husband in officuial motorcades. Outside Austria in Austro-Hungarian provinces, Sophie could be accorded the honors merited the wife of the Archduke. The Archduke was the Inspector General of the Austrian Army. General Oskar Potiorek, Bosnia's military govenor invited him to review a military exercize. Potiorek was extremely remiss for several reasons. The most serious failure was failure to take seriously the impact on Bosnian Serbs. June 28 was St. Vitus Day. Vidovdan is the Orthodox Christian holiday honoring the the valliant resiatance to invading Ottomon forces. The Ottomons defeated the Serbs in Kosovo. After the defeat, Sebian nbelman Milos Obilic who sneaked into the Sultan's tent and stabbed him before his guards cut Obilic down. The date was thus held sacred by Serbs and an official visit by any high Austrian official was seen as offensive and provocative. I am not sure if Potiorek made no effort to acquaint himself with the history and culture of the people he governed or if he simmply dismissed such matters as of little consequence. Not only did Potiorek ignore this, but he did not take any special steps to protect the Archduke. The Archduke for his part was equally remiss. Franz Frdinand was heir to the throne and the Emperor was not expected to live much longer. It seems extremely poor judgement to put his life in danger by visiting the most rebelious province in the Empire, especially on such a provocative day. The archduke's staff even agreed that it was needlessly provocative. Even more mistifying, the Serbian Ambasador at the request of Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic had in May 1914 informed Austrian authoirities of a possible assasination attempt. [Devoss, pp. 45-46.]

Political Assainations

The 20th century brought with it many political assisantions. One of the first was the assaination of President McKinnley which brought Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. One assessment reports that there were 40 political assasinations in the first 13 years of the 20th century. One of the most notable was the assasination of Serbian King Alexander Obrenovic and Queen Draga in 1903. The mastermind was Major Dragutin Dimitrijevic who had organized disafected Serbian army officers. Dimitrijevic by the 1910s was the dominant force in the Black Hand which instead of army officers was using young and very idealistic schoolboys. [Devoss, p. 46.]

The Assassination

The Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia on June 28, 1914, their 14th wedding anniversary, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Princip who had some skill as marksman was given a pistol rather than a bomb.


After Gavrilo shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife an incensed mob attempted to beat him to death. The police managed to resue him. The following police inrtogation was ineffective. Princip and Cabrinovic revealed nothing about the secret organization of Black Hand and especially who sponsored the plot. Danilo Ilic confessed. The police were not gentle, but they were also not the Gestapo or NKVD of the later 20th century. The plotters were not tortured. The plotters were all tried together. Princip despite his youth managed to galanize his colleagues and the Black Hand code of silence held. Some of the plottrs expressed remorse at the trial. Princip did not, except for the killing of Sophia and leaving their children orphans. [Devoss, p. ?.] He refused to reveal the role of the Blank Hand and in a statement to the Court said, " In trying to insinuate that someone else has instigated the assassination, one strays from the truth. The idea arose in our own minds, and we ourselves executed it. We have loved the people. I have nothing to say in my defense." [Shackelford]


Princip was of course found guilty. There was some discussion as to whether at the time he shot the archdyke whether he had yet turned 20 years old. This was of great importance. Under Austrian law, a sentence of death could not be give to anyone under 20 years of age. Despite the seriouness of the crime, the court showed leniecy. Rincip was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He did not, however, survive the war he launched. He suffered terribly in prison/. Princip died in the hospital of the Theresienstadt prison in April 1918 of tuberculosis. Theresienstadt was to be used by the NAZIs as a concentration cmp in World War II.

World War I

The assasination of Franz Ferdinand was arguably the most momentous political assasination in history. It in effect launched World War I. Austria presented Srbia with a list of demands that it could not possibly meet. As a result, when Serbia rejected the Austrian ultimatum, Austria declared war on Sebia and invaded. Russian Tsar Nicholas II saw no choice but to support his fellow Orthodox Christain Slavs and ordered the mobilization of the vast, but cumbersome Russian Army. Germany which had an alliance with Austria felt it had to act before Russia had mobilized its army. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman expressed his dismay to the British Amnmbassador of the "dammed system of alliances" that was dragging Europe into a devestating war. Kaiser Wilhelm was related to the Tsar and dispatched a "Dear Niki" letter asking him to rescind the mobilization order. The Tsar refused and then France which had a treaty with Russia ordered the mobilization of its army. The Kaiser backed Austria by declaring war on Russia. The Kaisser 2 days later declared war on France and launched an invasion through neutral Belgium. This brought Britain into the war as it was a guartontor of Belgium neutrality and independence. The Turks which had lost Balkan and Caucasian territory to the Russians entered the war a few months later on the side of the Central Powes (Austria and Germany). Italy wavered. It had treatied with Austria and Germany, but the alure of gaining territory at the expense of Austria brought them into the war on the side of the llies (Britain and France). The result was over 13 million military and civilian deth--virtually an entire generation of European men and the end of the German, Russia, and Ottomon Empires. The nationalist passions unleased were to lead to an even more devestating war a generatio later--World War II.


The war he had helped launch though an act of terrorism had the desired effect. The great multi-ethnic empire empires were dismantled. Most were broken up into small states based on specific nationalities. As Pricipio had wanted, Serbia was expanded to include many Slavic populated areas of the Astro-Hungarian Empire and called Yugoslavia.

Disolution of Yugoslavia: Bosnia

The nationalist passions that drove Gavrilo Princip have not disappapered. The West watched in horror as with the disolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s that Bosnia became a killingfield as Serbian leader Milosivich attempted to build a Greater Serbia.

Nationalist Image

The image of Gavrilo Princip has changed markedly over time. While Austria dominated Bosnia, he was a crazed terrorist. After World War I with the creation of Yugoslavia, he was seen as a national hero. The German World war II invasion of 1941 changed his status, but it was reserected when after the war, Tito made him an important national icon. With the disolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, his status changed again. The Muslim-dominated Bosnian Government now views him with disdain as terrorist, but Bosnian Serbs still revere him. [Devoss, p. 45.]


Devoss, David. "Searching for Gavrilo Princip," Smithsonian August 2000, pp.42-53.

Shackelford, Micheal. "The Black Hand: The Secret Serbian Terrorist Society."

Shackelford, Micheal. " Gavrilo Princip."


Navigate the CIH World War II Pages:
[Return to the Main 20th century children in history page]
[Aftermath] [Alliances] [Animals] [Armistace] [Biographies] [Causes] [Campaigns] [Casualties] [Children] [Countries] [Declaration of war] [Deciding factors] -------[Diplomacy] [Economics] -------[Geo-political crisis] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [Neutrality] [Pacifism] [People] [Peace treaties] [Propaganda] [POWs] [Russian Revolution] [Terrorism] [Trench warfare] ------[Technology] [Weaponry]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War I page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: June 18, 2003
Last updated: 7:09 AM 7/1/2014