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The Great Assassination

The Road to Sarajevo

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

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 during the First World War—hence his deep knowledge of association football. He has recently taught at Oxford and Manchester, Harvard, and Cornell. To crown all, he is an experienced journalist who knows how to write well. No other man in the world could have written this book with such competence, such mastery of sources, and such profound detachment.

MORE THAN HALF the book is background: to explain why young Bosnians turned to political assassination in the years before 1914. Some of the background is essentially Balkan: the five hundred years of Turkish oppression, when Serb national consciousness was kept alive by folk-ballads, and particularly by the Kosovo legend of how a Serb nobleman assassinated Sultan Murad on the eve of battle. Not for nothing did one of the Sarajevo assassins exclaim, when arrested: “I am a Serb hero.” The background has also a wider European context. The national enthusiasms which had inspired western Europeans in the nineteenth century spread by the twentieth into the Balkans. Serb nationalists aspired to emulate the deeds of the Italians and of the Irish. The Bosnians in particular had a hard fate. In 1875 they had risen against the Turks, but they did not achieve liberation. In 1878 the Congress of Berlin transferred them to the rule of Austria-Hungary, and their struggle had to begin anew. Princip came of a family which had repeatedly fought for freedom. He sought confidently to follow the example of his forebears.

Princip challenged Habsburg rule in Bosnia, and indeed the existence of the Habsburg Monarchy, in the name of national freedom. It is irrelevant therefore to argue whether Bosnia was well-governed. The Austrians ruled Northern Italy competently; the British made great claims for their rule of Ireland; and I daresay that the mainland settlements in North America have never been so well-governed as before 1776. But the supporters of nationalism want freedom, not good government, and no one who enjoys national freedom is entitled to dispute their claim. In any case, Bosnia was governed in a heavy, bureaucratic fashion, and the reforms which Franz Ferdinand is supposed to have contemplated for the Monarchy would have brought little benefit to its subjects. In any case, his only importance in the story is as victim. Franz Ferdinand had come to believe that war against Serbia was the only way out for the Monarchy, even at the risk of general war in Europe. Ironically this was the solution for which his assassination provided the excuse.

This background discussion is done with the greatest literary skill and in itself makes the book remarkable. But of course our thoughts are on the “whodunit,” just as during the playing of a string quartet our eyes stray to the champagne and caviar at the buffet. The technical answer is a matter of no dispute. Six young Bosnians were the assassins of Sarajevo. We call Princip their leader because he fired the fatal shot and was perhaps the strongest personality, but in rank they were equal. Only accident brought them together: the accident that they all happened to be in Belgrade, completing the work for their pre-university examinations, just before Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo. The idea of the assassination was theirs, and theirs alone. No conspiratorial leader inspired them or gave them orders. They were not members of the Black Hand or of any other Serbian secret society, though they may have had contacts with half-a-dozen ramshackle bodies in their own Bosnia. This makes futile the prolonged discussion whether Franz Ferdinand was killed for some reason of Serbian policy. No Serb politician or conspirator started it off.

The six however needed arms. They turned to “a certain gentleman,” Major Tankosic, who was in fact a member of the Black Hand. But Tankosic does not seem to have consulted the Black Hand or anyone else. For years past, he had undertaken the supply of arms to Serbian conspirators in Macedonia and, to a lesser extent, in Bosnia. Now Macedonia had been liberated from the Turks, and all that remained there was a conflict between the civil and military authorities—Pasic, the Prime Minister, backing the civilians, and Apis, a prominent member of the Black Hand, backing the military. Tankosic had cooled off on Bosnia also after repeated failures, but he thought that the six meant business and in any case were worth one last try. Later he gave the explanation that he had encouraged them in order to embarrass Pasic, but this may have been an excuse which he thought up after the event. At any rate, the six got some antiquated bombs and revolvers. Tankosic also enabled them to cross the frontier by the “tunnel,” so as to escape examination by the Serb or Austro-Hungarian police. The “tunnel” did not work with much secrecy. Most of those involved in it were arrested later by the Austrians and imprisoned or executed.

THE SERBIAN GOVERNMENT also learned that some arms had passed the frontier, though they did not know what the arms were intended for. They did not want trouble just after the Balkan wars and with turmoil at home. They therefore did what they could. They tightened the frontier controls, and this is perhaps the reason why no more efficient conspirators were present at Sarajevo on 28 June. They did not give any formal warning at Vienna. They did not know precisely what warning to give, and in any case the Austro-Hungarian government resented any interference in Bosnian affairs. Franz Ferdinand had received many warnings of a general nature. A Serbian warning would only have made him more determined than ever. The Serbian government however undertook a step which has previously not been made clear. They ordered an investigation of Apis and brought pressure to bear, in a roundabout way, on the Black Hand.

It was only now that Tankosic admitted what he had done. Apis at first accepted responsibility and associated himself with the supply of arms. But on 15 June the central committee of the Black Hand met. They overruled Apis and ordered him to stop the conspirators. He obeyed. An emissary of the Black Hand was sent to Sarajevo with instructions that the attempt should not be made. Other representatives were sent on behalf of the Serbian government, and warnings were also sent to the leading Serb members of the Bosnian assembly. However, the activities do not seem to have been only one way. Just before 28 June, Apis’s chief intelligence officer in Austria-Hungary appeared in Sarajevo, and there are hints that he instructed the conspirators to proceed. On whose behalf was he acting—his own, Tankosic’s, or Apis’s? There are no means of knowing. In any case, it seems clear that Princip was determined to proceed, whatever the warnings and orders from Belgrade.

This part of the story is confused by what happened later. In 1917 Apis, still at odds with Pasic and also with Alexander, the Prince Regent, was framed on a charge of plotting Alexander’s death. He was tried along with a number of associates. To save their lives and also his own, he confessed that he and they had organized the Sarajevo assassination. He also declared that he had done this in cooperation with the Russian military attache, which was certainly untrue. In fact the entire confession was untrue, though it has often been hawked round the world as containing the secret of the assassination. Nor did it serve the purpose which Apis had hoped for. He and his associates were shot on 26 June 1917. The confessions of his associates have not been preserved, which suggests that they did not confirm Apis’s story. Though he was no doubt a fanatical Serb patriot, he did not organize the assassination at Sarajevo, however much he would have liked to do so. The six acted on their own. They did not in fact act for the cause which Apis believed in. He was a Serb. They were South Slavs—a difference which the Serbian government later tried to conceal.

THE REST OF THE STORY is well-known. One conspirator threw a bomb while the Archduke’s procession was on its way to the Town Hall. He missed. The route for the return was changed, so as to avoid the old town. But the chauffeur did not receive instructions of the change. He began to turn into the old town, was ordered to stop, and began to back the car. Princip, standing gloomily on the sidewalk, saw the almost stationary car before him. He stepped on to the running board and killed the Archduke with one shot. He then fired at the governor of Bosnia in the front seat by the driver and hit the Archduchess sitting at the back. Clearly he was not a good shot. It is also characteristic of the old Habsburg Monarchy that bureaucratic slovenliness played its part: if the chauffeur had been given instructions about the change of route, there would have been no murder.

All the conspirators were arrested. They were given a reasonably fair trial. Princip declared: “I am a South Slav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all South Slavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.” Another said: “I was not led by Serbia but solely by Bosnia.” The conspirators who were of legal age were sentenced to death. The others, including Princip, received long terms of imprisonment. Some survived the war and were liberated afterwards, when they returned to their academic careers. One became a university professor, and another a museum curator. Princip died in prison of tuberculosis. He left on his prison wall these lines:

Our ghosts will walk through Vienna
And roam through the Palace, frightening the lords.

It was altogether a perfectly simple story, despite the many mysteries which have accumulated around it. The six of Sarajevo belonged, in Dedijer’s words, “among that lofty group of primitive rebels which includes Sand and Orsini, Zasulich and Perovskaya, Connolly and Pearse.” They wanted national freedom for all South Slavs and did their best for the cause that they believed in. They were not the agents of any secret society or of any foreign government. They were on their own. Here is a warning for historians. Ninetenths of what has been written about the Sarajevo assassination turns out to be unnecessary rubbish, vitiated by the determination to discover an elaborate conspiracy somewhere. Historians apparently find it difficult to believe that some men are prepared to die, without orders or reward, for their beliefs, So it was here. The simplest explanation proves to be the true one. This is often the case.

I cannot resist a frivolous epilogue. In the 1920s, some journalists in Berlin amused themselves by a competition for the most sensational headline. This was the winner:


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