June 28, 1914 – the day everything changed

LukeUncategorized2 Comments

Ilidza - Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

Ilidza – Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

‘The hotel was not particularly large, and it was not particularly grand, but with its twin, the Hungary, facing it across a broad round swath of perfectly manicured lawn, it stood out, as it was meant to. If Reinhardt remembered correctly, the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had stayed here on their fateful visit to the city in June 1914. Reinhardt had been sixteen that month. They say the end of innocence comes for everyone, sooner or later. It came for him that summer. Military academy that year, the Eastern Front two years later.’

This is not so much a post about Reinhardt, or my novels, as about a moment and place in time that would reach out and remake him no matter where or who or what he was, and would remake anyone at that time, no matter where or who or what they were. There will be a Reinhardt novel set during the First World War, that will explore what happened to him and–importantly for the character–why he became a policeman after it. No, this is a post that, as I look out across the idle hills of summer, tries to imagine how it might have been back then.

Reinhardt was nowhere near Sarajevo that Sunday June 28th, 1914. He was 16 that year–six years older than my son is now, three more than my daughter–and he and all those boys of his age, and the ones a little older, and the ones a little younger, all would get swept up and into one of the most ferocious chapters in history. And with them would go all they were and all they could ever have been, all they had done and all they might ever do, from the greatest thing to the least. A mountain of souls that would be ruined and milled between the stones of the war that was to come. Souls strung out, mounded up, the number of them a power and insult to the mind, each of them a vanished instance of memory and possibility, each of them drowned under the heaving swell of the war that was to come, and the world changed and dissolved such that those who came back from so far, from the ruined edges of the world, could recognise it no longer, or it could no longer recognise them.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife leaving the Town Hall, just minutes before their assassination in July 1914

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife leaving the Town Hall, just minutes before their assassination in July 1914

The city would have lain under a skein of heat threaded by cool breezes from the mountains that rose up either side of the River Miljacka. A promenade wound down the side of the river, Appel Quay, an Austro-Hungarian construction, bridges arching out over the river that would have been sunken in the summer heat. A royal visit such as the Archduke Ferdinand’s would have seen the city turned out, men, women and children in their Sunday best, anxious for a glimpse of the royals and dignitaries as they came down Appel Quay in their splendid motorcars. As always in such events, for all the faces that strained up and around for a look, there would have been those that turned away, that hunched their shoulders around tables and held the conversation of like-minded men. Not for them the visit to their city on this day–St Vidovdan’s Day, of all days! The sacred anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389–not for them the celebration of the over-privileged heir to a hated throne.

One such man–one of a band of several–thought like them, but unlike them he moved. Or was moved. Or was placed. Pointed in the right direction. Who can really know, and it doesn’t really matter. That man stepped out of the crowd, that crowd of people who strained for a look at the royals and dignitaries, and he fired his pistol at them. He shot the Archduke, wounding him fatally. And–to his intense mortification–he shot the Archduke’s wife, wounding her fatally, too. The crowd was horrified. The man was set upon, beaten, grabbed. The man attempted to escape. He took poison, but the poison was ineffective, too old, its power to rip a man of his life gone.

Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip

The man was Gavrilo Princip. He was 19 years old, a member of a multiethnic revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on how you chose to view your history) group called the Black Hand. The killings triggered a chain of events that ultimately led, one month later, to the outbreak of the First World War. Whether Princip and his co-conspirators knew that–or even desired it–is highly debatable.

Princip was a Bosnian Serb born into desperate, grinding poverty in eastern Bosnia. As Christian peasants in Ottoman Bosnia, his parents had led lives of back-breaking labour. In 1878 the Austro-Hungarians replaced the Ottomans, but to those who dreamed of a free country, it was one set of imperial overlords replacing another. As an idealistic young man growing up at that time, Princip became a pan-Slav, meaning he desired a country where all southern Slavs–Serbs, Slovenes, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, others–could live together. Princip said this himself at his trial, that he was a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.

In many ways, Princip stood across a range of fault lines–ethnic, religious, cultural, territorial, imperial–and could not possibly have perceived what the consequence of his actions would be, assuming of course that one takes the view only one set of outcomes could ensue from his actions. This, of course, is not true. In an assassination attempt that was Monty Pythonesque in its ineptness, an ineptitude bettered only by the shambles of the Archduke’s security and motorcade, Princip fired the pistol that killed the heir to the throne of the regime that occupied what he thought of as his country. The subsequent steps to accusation, to escalation, to mobilisation, and to war, were not his, but the steps and actions of those who could, and should, have done better and differently. Nothing was preordained. Nothing ever is.

A rather sensationalist view of the assassination. Note how Princip is 'aiming' at Ferdinand's wife.

A rather sensationalist view of the assassination. Note how Princip is ‘aiming’ at Ferdinand’s wife.

The news of the killings flashed across a Europe that was very different to what it is now, coloured in large part by images like this one, published in Italy almost a month after the assassination of the Archduke. A new world was eventually born of the First World War, and part of that new world was called Yugoslavia. In many ways, it resembled the country Princip was fighting for but the new world and Yugoslavia were as riven with fault lines as the old, and it would not take too long for it all to go sliding down into them in the conflagration of the Second World War.

In all that time, and in all that time since, Princip himself has been somewhat lost, used and abused by history, revered and reviled by the people of his country, his actions owned and disowned as those of a revolutionary or a terrorist. To this day, he stands as figure of division in the country of his birth, and in the city in which he took aim at a man he regarded as an oppressor.

2 Comments on “June 28, 1914 – the day everything changed”

  1. Elizabeth

    Two of my grandmother’s first cousins – young men from a remote village in the Scottish highlands were also swept up in this war. They ended up at Gallipoli. Miraculously, they survived and eventually returned home to resume their crofting lives, but they never spoke of their experience.

  2. Rick Reed

    I am a writer. So enamored am I with The Man from Berlin and The Pale House I’ve read them twice. Is there an estimated publishing date for The Divided City?

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