Assassination at Sarajevo

General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, invited Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Inspector of the Austro-Hungarian Army, and his wife, Sophie von Chotkovato, to watch his troops on maneuvers in June, 1914.

Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, knew that the visit would be dangerous. A large number of people living in Bosnia-Herzegovina were unhappy with Austrian rule and favoured union with Serbia. Ferdinand was aware that in 1910 a Serb, Bogdan Zerajic, had attempted to assassinate General Varesanin, the Austrian governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he was opening parliament in Sarajevo.

Zerajic was a member of the Black Hand (Unity or Death) group who wanted Bosnia-Herzegovina to leave the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The leader of the group was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff. Dimitrijevic considered Franz Ferdinand a serious threat to a union between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. He was worried that Ferdinand's plans to grant concessions to the South Slavs would make an independent Serbian state more difficult to achieve. When it was announced that Franz Ferdinand was going to visit Bosnia in June 1914, Dimitrijevic began to make plans to assassinate him.

Dragutin Dimitrijevic, and his fellow conspirators, Milan Ciganovic and Major Voja Tankosic, sent three members of the Black Hand group based in Belgrade, Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez, to carry out the deed. Each man was given a revolver, two bombs and small vial of cyanide. The three men were instructed to commit suicide after Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been killed as it was important to Dimitrijevic that the men did not have the opportunity to confess that members of the Serbian Army were involved in the assassination. Princip, Cabrinovic and Grabez were all suffering from tuberculosis and knew they would not live long. They all agreed they were willing to give their life for what they believed was a great cause: Bosnia-Herzegovina achieving independence from Austro-Hungary.

Unknown to Dragutin Dimitrijevic, Major Voja Tankosic, was informing Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia about the plot. Although Pasic supported the main objectives of the Black Hand group, he did not want the assassination to take place as he feared it would lead to a war with Austro-Hungaria. He therefore gave instructions for Gavrilo Princip, Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Trifko Grabez to be arrested when they attempted to leave the country. However, his orders were not implemented and the three man arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina where they joined forces with fellow conspirators, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, Danilo Ilic, Vaso Cubrilovic, Cvijetko Popovic, Misko Jovanovic and Veljko Cubrilovic.

Just before 10 o'clock on Sunday, 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie von Chotkovato arrived in Sarajevo by train. General Oskar Potiorek, Governor of the Austrian provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was waiting to take the royal party to the City Hall for the official reception.

In the front car was Fehim Curcic, the Mayor of Sarajevo and Dr. Gerde, the city's Commissioner of Police. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie von Chotkovato were in the second car with Oskar Potiorek and Count von Harrach. The car's top was rolled back in order to allow the crowds a good view of its occupants.

The local police force were in charge of the security arrangements for the royal visit. Before the arrival of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, thirty-five potential troublemakers were arrested and taken into custody. A hundred and twenty policemen were placed along the route that the royal party was to take on its way to the City Hall but it was decided that the 70,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers in Sarajevo were to be kept in their barracks.

Unknown to the Sarajevo police force, seven members of the Black Hand group also lined the route. They were spaced out along the Appel Quay, each one had been instructed to try and kill Franz Ferdinand when the royal car reached his position. The first conspirator on the route to see the royal car was Muhamed Mehmedbasic. Standing by the Austro-Hungarian Bank, Mehmedbasic lost his nerve and allowed the car pass without taking action. Mehmedbasic later said that a policeman was standing behind him and feared he would be arrested before he had a chance to throw his bomb.

The next man on the route was Nedjelko Cabrinovic. At 10.15. Cabrinovic stepped forward and hurled his bomb at the archduke's car. The driver accelerated when he saw the object flying towards him and the bomb exploded under the wheel of the next car. Two of the occupants, Eric von Merizzi and Count Boos-Waldeck were seriously wounded. About a dozen spectators were also hit by bomb splinters.

After throwing his bomb, Nedjelko Cabrinovic swallowed the cyanide he was carrying and jumped into the River Miljacka. Four men, including two detectives, followed him in and managed to arrest him. The poison failed to kill him and he was taken to the local police station.

Franz Ferdinand's driver, Franz Urban, drove on extremely fast and other members of the Black Hand group on the route, Cvijetko Popovic, Gavrilo Princip, Danilo Ilic and Trifko Grabez, decided that it was useless to try and kill the archduke when the car was going at this speed.

After attending the official reception at the City Hall, Franz Ferdinand asked about the members of his party that had been wounded by the bomb. When the archduke was told they were badly injured in hospital, he insisted on being taken to see them. A member of the archduke's staff, Baron Morsey, suggested this might be dangerous, but Oskar Potiorek, who was responsible for the safety of the royal party, replied, "Do you think Sarajevo is full of assassins?" However, Potiorek did accept it would be better if Duchess Sophie remained behind in the City Hall. When Baron Morsey told Sophie about the revised plans, she refused to stay arguing: "As long as the Archduke shows himself in public today I will not leave him."

In order to avoid the city centre, General Oskar Potiorek decided that the royal car should travel straight along the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital. However, Potiorek forgot to tell the driver, Franz Urban, about this decision. On the way to the hospital, Urban took a right turn into Franz Joseph Street. One of the conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be was standing on the corner at the time. Oskar Potiorek immediately realised the driver had taken the wrong route and shouted "What is this? This is the wrong way! We're supposed to take the Appel Quay!".

The driver put his foot on the brake, and began to back up. In doing so he moved slowly past the waiting Gavrilo Princip. The assassin stepped forward, drew his gun, and at a distance of about five feet, fired several times into the car. Franz Ferdinand was hit in the neck and Sophie von Chotkovato in the abdomen. Princip's bullet had pierced the archduke's jugular vein but before losing consciousness, he pleaded "Sophie dear! Sophie dear! Don't die! Stay alive for our children!" Franz Urban drove the royal couple to Konak, the governor's residence, but although both were still alive when they arrived, they died from their wounds soon afterwards.

As instructed, after shooting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie von Chotkovato, Gavrilo Princip turned his gun on himself. Ante Velic, who was standing behind him, saw what he was doing and seized Princip's right arm. Another man, Danilo Pusic, also grabbed Princip and within seconds the police arrived and he was arrested.

Nedjelko Cabrinovic and Gavrilo Princip were both interrogated by the police. They eventually gave the names of their fellow conspirators. Trifko Grabez, Danilo Ilic, Vaso Cubrilovic, Cvijetko Popovic, Misko Jovanovic and Veljko Cubrilovic were arrested but Muhamed Mehmedbasic managed to escape to Serbia.

Several members of the Black Hand group interrogated by the Austrian authorities claimed that three men from Serbia, Milan Ciganovic, Dragutin Dimitrijevic and Major Voja Tankosic, had organised the plot. 0n 23rd July, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government demanded that the Serbian government arrested these three men and send them to face trial in Vienna.

On 25th July, 1914, Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia, told the Austro-Hungarian government that he was unable to hand over these three men as it "would be a violation of Serbia's Constitution and criminal in law". Three days later Austro-Hungarian declared war on Serbia.

Eight of the men charged with treason and the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were found guilty. Under Austro-Hungarian law, capital punishment could not be imposed on someone who was under the age of twenty when they had committed the crime. Nedjelko Cabrinovic, Gavrilo Princip and Trifko Grabez therefore received the maximum penalty of twenty years. Vaso Cubrilovic got 16 years and Cvijetko Popovic 13 years. Misko Jovanovic, Danilo Ilic and Veljko Cubrilovic, who helped the assassins kill the royal couple, were executed on 3rd February, 1915.

All three men sent by to Sarajevo from Serbia by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, died in prison from tuberculosis: Nedjelko Cabrinovic (January, 1916), Trifko Grabez (February 1916) and Gavrilo Princip (April, 1918).

During the first two years of the First World War the Serbian Army suffered a series of military defeats. Nikola Pasic, the prime minister of Serbia, angry about the way the war was destroying his country, disbanded the Black Hand organisation and Dragutin Dimitrijevic was arrested. Dimitrijevic was found guilty of treason and executed on 11th June, 1917.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Borijove Jevtic, was a member of the Black Hand group in Serbia in 1914.

A tiny clipping from a newspaper mailed without comment from a secret band of terrorists in Zagreb to their comrades in Belgrade, was the torch which set the world afire with war in 1914. The little clipping was from the Srobibran, a Croation journal of limited circulation, and consisted of a short telegram from Vienna. The telegram declared that the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand would visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, 28 June, to direct army manoeuvres.

How dared Franz Ferdinand, not only the representative of the oppressor but in his own person an arrogant tyrant, enter Sarajevo on that day? Such an entry was a studied insult. 28 June is a date engraved deeply in the heart of every Serb, so that day has a name of its own. It is called vidounan. It is the day on which the old Serbian kingdom was conquered by the Turks at the battle of Amselfelde in 1389. That was no day for Franz Ferdinand, the new oppressor, to venture to the very doors of Serbia for a display of the force of arms which kept us beneath his heel. Our decision was taken almost immediately. Death to the tyrant!

(2) Fehim Curcic, the Mayor of Sarajevo, reception speech at the City Hall (28th June, 1914)

Our hearts are full of happiness over the most gracious visit with which Your Highnesses are pleased to honour our capital city of Sarajevo, and I consider myself happy that Your Highnesses can read in our faces the feelings of our love and devotion, of our unshakable loyalty, and of our obedience to His Majesty our Emperor and King, and to the Most Serene Dynasty of Hapsburg-Lorraine.

All the citizens of the capital city of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness, and they most enthusiastically greet Your Highnesses' most illustrious visit with the most cordial of welcomes, deeply convinced that this stay in our beloved city of Sarajevo will ever increase Your Highnesses' most gracious interest in our progress and well-being, and ever fortify our own most profound gratitude and loyalty, a loyalty that shall dwell immutably in our hearts, and that shall grow forever.

(3) Archduke Franz Ferdinand, speech at the official reception at the Sarajevo City Hall (28th June, 1914)

It gives me special pleasure to accept the assurances of your unshakable loyalty and affection for His Majesty, our Most Gracious Emperor and King. I thank you cordially for the resounding ovations with which the population received me and my wife, the more so since in them an expression of pleasure over the failure of the assassination attempt.

(4) Borijove Jevtic was a member of the Black Hand group who later claimed he had been involved in the assassination.

To make his death certain twenty-two members of the organization were selected to carry out the sentence. Two hours before Franz Ferdinand arrived in Sarajevo all the twenty-two conspirators were distributed 500 yards apart over the whole route along which the Archduke must travel from the railroad station to the town hall. When the car passed Cabrinovic he threw his grenade. It hit the side of the car, but Franz Ferdinand with presence of mind threw himself back and was uninjured.

The cars sped to the Town Hall and the rest of the conspirators did not interfere with them. After the reception in the Town Hall General Potiorek, the Austrian Commander, pleaded with Franz Ferdinand to leave the city, as it was seething with rebellion. The Archduke was persuaded to drive the shortest way out of the city and go quickly.

The road to the maneuvers was shaped like the letter V, making a sharp turn at the bridge over the River Nilgacka. Franz Ferdinand's car could go fast enough until it reached this spot but here it was forced to slow down for the turn. Here Princip had taken his stand. As the car came abreast he stepped forward from the curb, drew his automatic pistol from his coat and fired two shots. The first struck the wife of the Archduke, the Archduchess Sophie, in the abdomen. She was an expectant mother. She died instantly. The second bullet struck the Archduke close to the heart.

(5) Gavrilo Princip, interviewed by investigating judge (28th June, 1914)

I aimed at the Archduke. I do not remember what I thought at that moment. I only know that I fired twice, or perhaps several times, without knowing whether I had hit or missed.

(6) Count von Harrach was in Archduke's car when he was killed.

As I was drawing out my handkerchief to wipe away the blood from the Archduke's lips, her Highness cried out: "For God's sake! What happened to you?" Then she sank down from her seat with her face between the Archduke's knees. I had no idea that she had been hit and thought that she had fainted from shock. His Royal Highness said "Sophie, Sophie, don't die. Live for my children." I seized the Archduke by the coat collar to prevent his head from sinking forward and asking him: "Is your highness in great pain?" To which he clearly answered: "It is nothing." His face was slightly distorted, and he repeated six or seven times, every time losing more consciousness and with a fading voice: "It is nothing." Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood. This ceased on arrival at the governor's residence. The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.

(7) Judge Leo Pfeffer saw Gavrilo Princip soon after the assassination (28th June, 1914)

The young assassin, exhausted by his beating, was unable to utter a word. He was undersized, emaciated, sallow, sharp-featured. It was difficult to imagine that so frail looking an individual could have committed so serious a crime. Even his clear blue eyes, burning and piercing but serene, had nothing cruel or criminal in their expression.

(8) Veljko Cubrilovic, statement in court (October, 1914)

I am an opponent of assassinations and revolutions for the traces they leave behind are too bloody. That is the case here. I believe in the evolution of the spirit, of ideas; I rely on progress, not on action.

(9) Nedjelko Cabrinovic, statement in court (23rd October, 1914)

We did not hate Austria, but the Austrians had done nothing, since the occupation, to solve the problems that faced Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nine-tenths of our people are farmers who suffer, who live in misery, who have no schools, who are deprived of any culture. We sympathized with them in their distress.

We thought that only people of noble character were capable of committing political assassinations. We heard it said that he (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) was an enemy of the Slavs. Nobody directly told us "kill him"; but in this environment, we arrived at the idea ourselves.

I would like to add something else. Although Princip is playing the hero, and although we all wanted to appear as heroes, we still have profound regrets. In the first place, we did not know that they late Franz Ferdinand was a father. We were greatly touched by the words he addressed to his wife: "Sophie, stay alive for our children."

We are anything you want, except criminals. In my name and in the name of my comrades, I ask the children of the late successor to the throne to forgive us. As for you, punish us according to your understanding. 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.

(10) Dr. Rudolf Zistler defended Veljko Cubrilovic at his trial (October, 1914)

We must not lose sight of the fact that this is a historic trial; that the eyes of the whole world look on this illustrious court today; and that the world waits curiously for the sentence that will be pronounced in this hall of judgment.

Future generations and historians will speak of this trial. For this reason, the sentences must not be brutal; they must be just and endure as a bright page in the annals of criminal jurisprudence, before the tribunal of civilization, and of posterity.

(11) The Austro-Hungarian government sent Friedrich von Wiesner to Sarajevo to investigate the Serbian government's role in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (13th July, 1914)

There is nothing to show the complicity of the Serbian government in the direction of the assassination or its preparations or in supplying of weapons. On the contrary, there is evidence that would appear to show complicity is out of the question.

If the intentions (war with Serbia) prevailing at my departure still exist, demands might be extended for: (1) Suppression of complicity of Serbian government government officials in smuggling persons and material across the frontier. (2) Dismissal of Serbian frontier officers at Sabac and Loznica for smuggling persons and materials across the frontier. (3) Criminal proceedings against Ciganovic and Tankosic.

(12) After the First World War Field Marshal Karl von von Bulow wrote in his memoirs about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Although the horrible murder was the work of a Serbian society with branches all over the country, many details prove that the Serbian government had neither instigated or desired it. The Serbs were exhausted by two wars. The most hot-headed among them might have paused at the thought of war with Austria-Hungary, so overwhelmingly superior.