Nationhood and Political Murder: When Teenagers Kill


by Jelena Vićić

Looking back from the centennial of the assassination that triggered the Great War, seldom do we take into account that the culprits were merely boys seduced by the romanticism of the ghastly nationalist idea sweeping Europe since the revolutions of 1848.

And while it is hardly believable from the vantage point of today, that a clumsily executed assassination could set in motion an unstoppable war machine; it becomes even harder to understand that its perpetrators were destitute teenagers romanticizing nationhood, who regretted that they caused the death of the Archduke’s wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

Assassination as a instrument of power politics is a tactic as old as time. Endorsed by Sun Tzu as well as Machiavelli, it was explained by the Great Man theory that ascribes historical progress of civilizations to personal skills of its leaders and assumes that once the great leader is removed, history will change direction. Although seen as flawed today, this theory guided the 1914 assassins in the belief that removal of heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is necessary for “the unification of all Yugoslavs, free of Austria,” in words of the main perpetrator, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip.

Princip was a member of Young Bosnia, a Yugoslav revolutionary movement active before WWI whose members were high school students in the Hapsburg Empire. Declaring themselves Serbocroats during the trials following the assassination, these young men said they targeted the Archduke because they perceived him to be more threatening to the “Yugoslav cause” than Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, who was ill, old and more cosmopolitan in his love of Hungary than his successor.

The unification movement was already in full swing in early 1910s in the Serbo-Croatian speaking province of the empire, and it was inspired by the revolutions of 1848, and fueled by the successes of the Serbian army in the Balkan wars 1912 and 1913. Around that time, according to Cvjetko Popović, one of the assassins, the spiritual preparation for the fight for national liberation was over, “Everyone was ready for a sacrifice, and many were willing to be the victims of this fight.”

The Yugoslav nationhood these teenagers were fighting for was arguably an idea conceived from within (the youth organizations and clubs), rather than imposed from the outside. According to some, the idea was growing and developing together with the youth who, schooled in Austrian Bosnia, were aware of political and cultural pressures “their people” were experiencing under the Habsburgs. The youth were politically active — many Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were members of various clubs and contributors to local magazines concentrating on questions of Yugoslav nationhood. “We are not only South Slavs, we want to be Yugoslavs,” writes one of the central figures of the movement, Ljubo Leontić in 1914.

Popović, who wrote a memoir, Vidovdan in Sarajevo 1914, recollecting the assassination and imprisonment, speaks at length of his student days and the events that lead to June 28. He claims that only the youth, and not retrograde political parties, advocated for Yugoslav nationhood. He states further that even some of the Serbian political associations at the time took up this idea from the young because of its popularity — not vice versa. One of the figures the Yugoslav youth admired was Jovan Skerlić, a famous Serbian writer and literary critic, who inspired them by saying that national unification is a natural process, that cannot be stopped once started.

“We are not criminals. We are honest people, animated by noble sentiments, we are idealists, we wanted to do good, we have loved our people, and we shall die for our ideals,” said Nedeljko Čabrinović, who participated in the organization of the June assassination.

Despite the grand motivation every single of the assassinators had, the killing was a real surprise — it was a surprise that it succeeded. Popović and some others were only included in May 1914, a little over a month before the attempt on Archduke’s life was to be made. Half blind, 18-year-old Popović refused to wear friend’s glasses on the day of the attack in order not to look suspicious to local authorities.

Another assassin, 17-year-old Vaso Čubrilović, gave up the idea of killing Franz Ferdinand as soon as he came closer to the car. “I gave it up on the spot. I was always strongly resolved to carry it out, but I did not know that she would be with him. I did not expect to see her [Archduke’s wife] at his side,” Čubrilović said during the trial.

Danilo Ilić, Bosnian Serb who became a member of the Black Hand secret society in Belgrade in 1913, upon his return to Sarajevo recruited these young men to carry out the political murder. He joined their organization, Young Bosnia, and contacted them separately, without them knowing who else was recruited or how many people were to participate. In his memoirs, Popović does not mention the Black Hand or that Ilić was a member of it, which possibly means that he was not aware of who Ilić aligned himself with.

News of the Archduke’s death was a secret relief to many Austrians, writes Stefan Zwieg, Austrian novelist who received the news of Sarajevo assassination while vacationing in Baden. Without penchant for music or talent for humor, Archduke was missing what Austria needed in a leader – cordiality, charm and charisma. Royal circles welcomed the news of his death as a political relief, favoring his much more affable successor, Charles I of Austria.

National heroes or terrorists, teenagers who fought for Yugoslav liberation were guided by the 19th century idea that each nation should have its own state. Despite globalization and multiculturalism, the modern state builds itself on this very idea. The murder of an unpopular political figure was used as an immediate cause to start one of the worst wars in the history of humankind. There are many readings of how and why World War I happened, but to truly understand the spark that started it, one could try by exploring Serbocroat youth in Sarajevo in 1914. To Popović, “to understand and evaluate these young men that carried out the assassination, it is necessary to know the environment they grew up in and the ideas they foolishly believed in.”

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