Gavrilo Princip Bio – Some Facts About The Man Who Shot Franz Ferdinand

We all know Gavrilo Princip killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but do you know much about the killer himself. In this short Gavrilo Princip biography we take a closer look at the most infamous assassin in history, his connection to the Black Hand and why it was he killed the archduke.

The article also examines Princip’s trial and sentencing, his death and legacy, and hopefully sheds some light on the facts versus fiction surrounding that fateful morning in the summer of 1914.

Who Was Gavrilo Princip?

Gavrilo Princip was born in Obljaj, a village in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the 25th July 1894. Or was he? There is actually quite a bit of confusion over the exact date of Princip’s birth, partly because of the fact that when young Gavrilo was baptised, the priest recorded the birth date as July 13th in the parish register, but recorded the date in the civil register, as June 13th.

It is important to note that many Eastern Orthodox countries were still using the “old style” (O.S.) Julian calendar at that time. This means the dates in question, when converted to the “new style” (N.S.) Gregorian calendar, were actually either July 25th, 1894 (in the parish register) or June 25th, 1894 (in the civil register). This one month discrepancy probably didn’t seem to matter much at the time, but was to prove extremely important almost twenty years later, in the summer of 1914.

Princip’s father, Petar, was a serf who lived off the land in Obljaj, a Serbian stronghold on the Bosnia / Croatia border, where he lived with his wife, Marija, Gavrilo’s mother, who was fourteen years his junior. Petar was also the village postman, which was a position of some standing, but despite this he was initially reluctant for his son to go to school, due to the fact that Gavrilo was tasked with shepherding the family’s sheep.

Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand

In 1903, Gavrilo was finally allowed to attend primary school, at the age of nine, and after an indifferent start he ended up doing extremely well. By the age of 13, Gavrilo had moved away from his parents and had travelled to Sarajevo, where he went to live with his older brother, Jovan. There, he studied at the Merchants’ School for three years, before finally joining Sarajevo Grammar School.

By the fourth grade, Princip had become quite radicalised in his political views and, in 1911, at only 16 years of age, he joined Young Bosnia, a revolutionary society which sought the liberation of Bosnia from Austro-Hungarian rule. During this time he also started to take part in demonstrations against the Habsburg authority, in Sarajevo, which eventually led him to being expelled from his school due to his unruly conduct.

In 1912, Princip made the decision to walk all the way to Belgrade, a 170 mile journey, where he then enrolled in the First Belgrade Grammar School, in order to complete the final two years of his schooling. While in Belgrade, Princip was introduced to members of the Black Hand, a secret military society who sought to unify the territories of the Southern Slavs.

The Black Hand specialised in terrorist activities and assassinations and their latest target was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Austrian throne, who was due to visit the Bosnian capital in the summer of 1914. Gavrilo Princip was to lead the group of assassins and he and two of his friends, Nedeljko Čabrinović and Trifko Grabež, who were also members of Young Bosnia, were trained by the Black Hand in how to use weapons. The training took place in Topčider Forest Park, a suburb of Belgrade, where Princip proved to be the best marksman out of the three.

Gavrilo Princip and the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The three assassins left Belgrade at the end of May and crossed over the Serbian-Bosnian border, smuggling into the country the bombs and pistols which the Black Hand had supplied them. During the month of June, under the supervision of another of Princip’s friends, Danilo Ilić, the three of them were introduced to the rest of the assassination team; the young Bosnian Serb students, Cvetko Popović and Vaso Čubrilović, and a Bosnian Muslim, called Mehmed Mehmedbašić. And then, a few days before Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo, they got given the go ahead from Belgrade to assassinate the archduke.

On the morning of the 28th June, 1914, the six assassins lined the Appel Quay, along the Miljacka River, which was part of the archduke’s planned route from the railway station to the town hall. Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were travelling in an open-top limousine, the third car in the motorcade, and it is worth noting that the security surrounding the archduke was lax to say the least.

Mehmedbašić and Čubrilović, the first two assassin’s stationed along the Appel Quay, failed to act as the motorcade slowly passed them by; but the third assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to hold his nerve and throw a bomb at the archduke’s car.

Fortunately for Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the bomb bounced off the folded top of the motorcar and exploded under the car travelling behind. Although no-one died in the explosion, the passengers were badly injured, as were some of the members of the crowd, who stood nearby.

Following the failed assassination attempt, the motorcade sped on to the safety of the town hall. This meant that the rest of the assassins positioned along the Appel Quay, including Gavrilo Princip, could only look on as the archduke’s motorcar raced by.

There are a number of theories as to what Princip did next, following the failed assassination attempt. Some even claim that the young Bosnian Serb felt a little bit peckish and decided to go and get a sandwich to satisfy his hunger. More likely is that he simply moved to a point along the planned return route of the archduke, in the hope that he might still have a chance to carry out the plan.

But for whatever reason, the fact is that approximately half an hour after Čabrinović had thrown his bomb, Gavrilo Princip was stood outside Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen on Franz Josef Strasse, ready and waiting to fulfil his destiny.

Meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand had decided that he and his wife would go to the hospital where the victims injured by the bomb were being treated. Concerned by the earlier events, the Governor of Bosnia, Oskar Potiorek, insisted on changing the return route, in order to minimise the risk to the archduke. However, it appears that he did not inform the Czech chauffeurs in the motorcade of the changed itinerary, which resulted in the archduke’s car making a wrong turn into Franz Josef Strasse—the exact place where Princip just happened to be waiting.

As the archduke’s chauffeur attempted to reverse the motorcar back on to the Appel Quay, Gavrilo Princip calmly walked up to car and fired two shots from point-blank range. Princip had managed to shoot Franz Ferdinand in the neck and Sophie in the stomach—both of them died from their wounds shortly after.

Click here for a more in-depth report of the Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination.

Why Did Gavrilo Princip Kill The Archduke?

It is clear that Gavrilo Princip had strong and radical pan-Serb views from an early age, and as a result had joined the Young Bosnia revolutionary society when he was just sixteen, but what exactly was his reasons for committing murder.

We can perhaps deduce the reason why Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand from a couple of the Gavrilo Princip quotes attributed to him. As to what he was thinking at the time of the murderous deed, he said:

I aimed at the Archduke. I do not remember what I thought at that moment.

However, in another quote he clearly states that it was out of revenge and he did not regret what he had done:

I am the son of peasants and I know what is happening in the villages. That is why I wanted to take revenge, and I regret nothing.

Gavrilo Princip Trial and Sentencing

At his trial, Princip claimed that although he did not regret killing the archduke, it had not been his intention to kill the duchess and his second target had in fact been Oskar Potiorek, the aforementioned Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He also stated that the plan had been to unite all southern Slavs and that it was Serbia’s moral duty, as a free state, to help in the unification. He then went on to say:

In my opinion every Serb, Croat and Slovene should be an enemy of Austria.

Unsurprisingly, Princip was found guilty of his crimes, but at that time, Habsburg Law stated that a person needed to be at least twenty years old in order to receive the death penalty, which of course brings us back to where this story began and the all important contradicting birthdates in the parish and civil registers.

After much toing and froing, the powers that be finally decided to take the birthdate in the parish register as gospel, which meant that Gavrilo Princip was officially only nineteen years and three-hundred-and-thirty-eight days old at the time of the assassination. As a result, he received the maximum sentence the court was allowed to give him—twenty years in prison.

Gavrilo Princip Death and Legacy

Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned in Terezín’s Small Fortress, in modern day Czech Republic, where he was chained to a wall in solitary confinement. It is not known for certain as to whether he contracted tuberculosis before or after his imprisonment, but the disease certainly took its toll amidst the harsh conditions of the prison.

Princip finally succumbed to his tuberculosis on the 28th April 1918, exactly three years and ten months after killing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, and six and a half months before the end of the war he had helped cause.

In the time since the assassination, the legacy of Gavrilo Princip within the Balkans has switched from terrorist to hero and back again, a number of times, depending upon the ruling ideology of that period. Today, he largely remains a polarising figure; although considered a hero by many Serbs, he is still regarded as a terrorist by many Bosnians and Croats.

Why not check out Gavrilo Princip Biography – PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes

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The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

WebQuest

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand WebQuest Student Version is a 5-page teaching resource consisting of a webquest which covers the main immediate cause of World War One, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).