The Great Assassination

The Road to Sarajevo

by Vladimir Dedijer
Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $11.95

Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand; drawing by David Levine

Political assassinations have been common throughout history. Professor Dedijer lists ninety major ones between 1792 and 1914. Many were senseless—the work of a madman or of someone with a private grievance. Some have sought to demonstrate a general principle, such as anarchism. Some—one is tempted to say, the most justified—have been tyrannicide, the traditional weapon of the helpless against their oppressors. Most assassins have been lone operators, but sometimes they have been agents in a wide conspiracy, and often men have suspected a conspiracy where none existed. American citizens hardly need to be reminded at the moment that it is hard to discover the full truth about a political assassination, even with the resources of modern publicity.

Where much is doubtful, one fact is certain. When the Bosnian student Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, he committed an assassination unrivaled in its consequences, both political and literary. Princip fired the first shot in a world war. He also touched off a historical controversy which rumbles to the present day. Dedijer says that over three thousand books and pamphlets were written on the subject up to 1939, and fresh ones are still appearing. Almost everyone has been accused of complicity: the Serbian government of course most of all, but also the Russian government, the Bolsheviks, the British Intelligence Service, the Hungarian government, and the German government. Even American anarchists, who had clearly nothing to do with it, tried to claim the credit. Yet despite all this stir there has been singularly little study of a detached historical nature. Nearly all the writers had an axe to grind of one sort or another and, since most historians are men of conservative mind, respectful of authority, they have usually taken the Austrian side. One German historian has confessed that during the Second World War he forged documents to prove Serb complicity, and yet this has not damaged his reputation for scholarly integrity. It would have been very different if the forgery had been the other way round. Professor Dedijer’s book can be described without exaggeration as the first to treat the Sarajevo assassination with complete scholarly impartiality and, as often happens when a truly honest historian goes to work, it is likely also to be the last word on the subject.

Dedijer has all the right qualities, beginning with access to much Serb evidence previously unused. He is by birth a Bosnian Serb, like Princip, and understands the emotional background of the assassins. He is a democrat by heredity and experience. He is a Yugoslav, not a Serb nationalist, and is not committed either to Pasic, the Serbian prime minister, or to Apis, the head of the Black Hand (though he was once dandled on Apis’s knee as a little boy). Dedijer has also strong links with the west. He was educated in England…

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