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Gavrilo Princip: The Man Who Lit the Powder Keg

Tomorrow, June 28, 2014, marks the 100-year anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, the monumental event that led to the outbreak of World War I. Ferdinand’s 19-year-old assassin, the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, is remembered today as both hero and villain.

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With apologies to Lexington and Concord, the real shot heard ’round the world was fired June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. His target was the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, though Princip also killed the archduke’s wife, Sofie. Ferdinand’s killing caused Austria-Hungary to swiftly declare war against Serbia. A complicated network of alliances quickly drew most of the major European powers into the growing conflict. Germany, facing the prospect of a two-front war, invaded France by way of Belgium. The rest is history.

While Franz Ferdinand is well-remembered as the man whose death led to the outbreak of the Great War (though to some millennials he’s merely an indie rock band), Gavrilo Princip is much less widely known. His story and memory are still contested in parts of Europe today.

What’s the Big Idea?

To some, Princip is a hero. To others, a villain. His shot began a conflict that would claim the lives of 17 million people (including nearly 20% of the entire Serbian population). But to some, his actions were a strike against tyrannical oppression. This conflict of opinion resonates today in Sarajevo, which will recognize the assassination’s centennial this weekend with a varied schedule of events. To many of the city’s Bosnian Serbs, Princip was a freedom fighter. To the city’s Muslims and Croats, he was a scoundrel.

It should be noted that of all the members of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, Ferdinand was among its most Serb-friendly and actively opposed an earlier proposed conflict.

Because Princip was under 20-years-old at the time of the murder, he was exempt from the death penalty under Habsburg law. He received a twenty-year sentence but died of tuberculous after only 3 years imprisonment (he weighed only 88 lb/40 kg at the time of his death).

I can’t encourage you enough to read up on Princip, Ferdinand, and the sparks that lit World War One, especially with this week’s major anniversary bringing the monumental event to the forefront of modern historical examination.

Read more about how Sarajevo intends to commemorate the event this weekend in The Guardian.

For more on the outbreak of World War I and the conspiracy to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, I highly recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast: Blueprint for Armageddon. Carlin does a fantastic job recounting the absurd and wild story (culminating in history’s greatest coincidence) that led to the assassination.


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