The Boy Behind The Trigger: Who Was Gavrilo Princip?

more than a year ago
On July 25th 1894 (July 13th in ye olde style), Gavrilo Princip entered the world in the tiny Bosnian hamlet of Obljaj, which if you say out loud sounds slightly Welsh. Gavrilo was one of nine children, but six of these managed to not survive infancy. It’s something of a miracle that our Gavrilo did, as when he was born he was so desperately weak that his father all but gave up on him. A Serbian Orthodox priest knew better however, and told the family that if they named their beaming baby boy are the Archangel Gabriel then he would be sure to survive. It worked, but in hindsight maybe not.

The family name wasn’t always Princip. It was originally Čeka, which is a form of the verb ‘to wait’ in Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin. This all changed with the giant figure of Todor Čeka, a hulk of a man with a particularly sparkly coat. Todor was respected/feared by all in the village, and the local Muslim boys took to calling him ‘Princip’ (Prince). Being named Prince is much better than being named ‘Wait’, so the change was made. Todor would sire many children presumably, one of who would go on to marry a lady from Herzegovina and settle in the Dinaric Alps. He never swore and he never drank, became a postman and had many children, although most of them died young. Three survived however. One would go on to become a doctor, another would be a tradesman and politician, and the third would go on to be Gavrilo Princip.

Desperately poor, Obljaj wasn’t the place to be during the late 19th century social upheaval spreading through Europe. Or maybe it was? The area was full of young chaps sensing a different world just over those hills, a world of fresh ideas, excitement and change. Gavrilo was in primary school at the age of 9, and despite initial troubles was a good student. The best in class actually, leading to him receiving a book of Serbian poetry as a prize. Still, the Princips were a peasant family, and being a peasant in Obljaj wasn’t much fun.

His father didn’t want him to leave this barren wasteland however. Papa Princip needed a shepherd not a scholar, a herdsman not an intellectual. Mother and Uncle Princip insisted though, and Gavrilo was allowed to leave. At the age of 13, he and his father walked across one third of Bosnian territory then jumped a few trains in order to get our young chap to Sarajevo, where his brother Jovan was studying. The rocky highlands had been left behind, and Gavrilo Princip had experienced first hand the green wonder of Central Bosnia. The plan was for Gavrilo to enrol at the Austro-Hungarian military school, but this was changed after some chap convinced Jovan that his brother would basically be learning to slaughter his own people, which obviously wouldn't be great It’s also a little ironic, in hindsight. Gavrilo Princip went to Merchant School instead.

Princip was fairly indicative of Europe’s downtrodden youth at the time. He had scrambled out of the isolating misery of a poor peasant’s life into a new exciting world of contemporary ideas. This was still a miserable, penniless life, but at least it came with books. Upon arriving in Sarajevo, Gavrilo stayed at the home of the pleasant widow, Stoja Ilić, and her 17-year-old son Danilo surely wouldn’t influence Gavrilo in any way. Nope, not at all.

Okay, so maybe he’d have a little bit of an influence. Danilo and Gavrilo struck up a close friendship, based on their shared love of learning. Bosnia was going through a tough time and young rebellious types were popping up all over the place, trying to murder people in positions of power. They didn’t have much luck though, and more often than not these attempts would end in failure. The most notorious of these was the efforts of Bogdan Žerajić, a handsome Serb boy from Herzegovina (Rebecca West’s words, not ours), who followed Emperor Franz Josef from Sarajevo to Mostar and back without firing a shot. He then resolved to do in the Governor of Bosnia, but missed with his five shots. He didn’t miss with the sixth, but unfortunately for Žerajić he aimed this one at his own temple.

Gavrilo revered Žerajić, who was a part of a revolutionary group known as ‘Slobodna’ (Freedom). Žerajić also had a friendship with a chap called Vladimir Gaćinović, who would go on to become the ideologue behind a movement called ‘Mlada Bosna’, or ‘Young Bosnia’. In 1911, Gavrilo Princip joined this group. They were a feisty group, this Young Bosnia, with thoughts of tyrannicide standing rather forebodingly at the top of their agenda.

He was kicked out of school in 1912. Gavrilo was expelled for his active role in a protest against the Austro-Hungarian top brass, who despite their efforts to make Bosnia a model colony at the time weren’t in the mood for allowing such things. Supposedly, Gavrilo went from class to class threatening those who refused to go to the protest with a knuckle-duster, or ‘brass knucks’ as the professional wrestling fan would say. Threatening students with brass knuckles is quite a good reason to be expelled, so we can’t really argue with the school’s decision here. Gavrilo didn’t see this as the end of his studies though, and with his mind full of nationalism and thrills, he decided to walk 280km to Belgrade.

As the story goes, upon crossing the border into Serbian land Gavrilo went down onto his knees and kissed the soil. I Life in Belgrade was hard for Gavrilo. He slept in doorways, begged and received the occasional meal from a local monastery. What he did feed voraciously on however was books. He devoured all the reading he could, gulping down words like no-one’s business. Unfortunately, words don’t provide much in the way of physical nutrition. He volunteered to join Serbian guerrillas who were involved in vicious fighting with the Turks at the time. Gavrilo offered his services to a particularly angry group, called ‘Crna Ruka’. You probably know them as the ‘Black Hand’.

The Black Hand was a conspiratory group put together by a man with an exceptional moustache called Dragatin Dimitrijević, or Apis. Tyrannicide was their game, and like most terrorist/rebel groups throughout history they needed idealistic young men to do their doings. Unfortunately for our Gavrilo he was frail, intense and had a fairly pallid complexion. He looked like the poet he aspired to be when growing up, not the proud soldier that the Black Hand required. The group rejected him on account of being too small and too weak. To quote the recruitement officer at the time; ‘You are too small and too weak’

Slighted by this, Gavrilo headed back to Sarajevo. Then back to Serbia. Then back to Sarajevo. Somehow through all this, Gavrilo ended up in Vranje. What was special about Vranje at this point was the Četnik raining camp located there. Here Gavrilo learnt to shoot, throw grenades and generally be a good young fighter. He was still weak on account of having tuberculosis forever, but he could fire a pistol at the very least.

The Black Hand had a new plan, and again they needed a group of blinded (not literally) young revolutionaries to carry it out. Gavrilo was one of seven chosen, so along with his old friend Danilo Ilić, Trifko Grabež, Nedeljko Čabrinović, Muhamed Mehmedbašič, Vaso Čubrilović and Cvejtko Popović Gavrilo headed to Sarajevo in June 1914. His aim? To assassinate the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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