Is there a more devastating assassin in history than Gavrilo Princip, the young Serb who stepped out a hundred years ago in Sarajevo and shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand ?The killing of Ferdinand, who was heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, caused not only the outbreak of World War 1, but by extension the Second World War, which essentially arose as a consequence of the first one. So these are momentous effects for a shooting by a riverbank in a south European city on a warm summer’s day. Caught immediately, Princip (19) and his accomplices were too young to hang, but died in prison some years later.

And yet world carnage was not the intention of Princip. He was a Balkan radical who wanted to drive the Austro-Hungarian empire out of the region and especially out of Bosnia which the Habsburgs had annexed a few years previously. The Turks had already been driven out of the region, creating new states in Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania and Princip wanted to hasten the departure of the Austro- Hungarians, and create more ‘free Slav’ states, and indeed a new unity state of ‘free Slavs’ in what later became Yugoslavia.

These were large ambitions but what gave them an even bigger impact was the precarious ‘balance of power’ diplomacy then at work in Europe. With the Balkans coming free, the bigger European powers wanted to seize influence there for themselves. The same powers were already in a period of intense imperial competition and the strategic alliances between them meant that they were immediately locked into supporting one another, if threatened.

The Austro Hungarian Empire, understandably outraged by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, blamed Serbia itself and made a set of demands on Serbia that it could not fulfill. They then declared war, and the newly resurgent Germany backed them up. Alarmed at this, the British, French and Russians offered to support Serbia. It was shaping up for a big fight. But then the British and German had been spoiling for a fight for some time. The Germans came late to the colonial game and missed out on the African carve-up, so they built up a navy which alarmed Britain. With the Austro Hungarians invading Serbia, the Germans launched an attack on France, via supposedly ‘neutral’ Belguim. After this, Irish troops enlisted.

But no-one foresaw the sort of war they were facing. War was still seen as a grand game of military set pieces and manoeuvres that might result in new borders and power structures. They didn’t foresee the savage and meaningless trench war, which killed millions, and introduced a new mechanised form of conflict with machine guns, railways and mustard gas. By war’s end, Europe was turned upside down, all as result of an ambush in Sarajevo.









And yet in 1997 when I visited the spot where Princip’s shooting took place, the plague was gone and replaced by a square of blank cement. This was because it was just two years after another brutal war had occurred in a region, a war in which Serb forces had laid waste to Bosnia and besieged Sarajevo itself ( picture above), in a spectacle we all saw on our TV screens but which the world seemed powerless to stop. So the last thing the locals wanted to know was celebrate the historic actions of a ‘Serbian militant.’

And yet this would be a misreading of Princip. Far from being a narrow Serb nationalist like the modern versions such as Slobodan Milosevic, Princip was actually an early supporter of the broader Yugoslavia model of a republic of fellow Slavs comprising Croatian, Serbs, Slovenes and others. This was the model that eventually emerged after World War 1, and then again after World War 2 when it became a successful multi-ethnic society under Communism and the admittedly firm grip of Marshall Tito. But once Communism crumbled, the old rivalries re-emerged, disaster loomed, just as did in World War 1.

The modern disaster was there for all to see. I will never forget my long bus journey to Sarajevo from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast in 1997, as we passed through the beautiful Bosnia countryside and miles and miles of burnt-out houses and buildings – the wanton results of ethnic cleansing. It was like something from the Second World War and hard to believe that it had happened in Europe in recent times.

Today those divisions remain but the region has recovered from the Yugoslav wars, as has the charming multicultural city of Sarajevo, which is truly, as they say, like a ‘mixture of Istanbul and Vienna’. The authorities have even put up a new plague to Gavrilo Princip, acknowledging him not as hero but as a historic figure, and as a Slav, whose daring actions on the 28th of June 1914 quite literally changed the world.