by Daniel N. White
January 29, 2013
One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914
by David James Smith, 2008
David James Smith is a British journalist and One Morning is his second book. My copy was printed in the UK and has rave cover blurbs on it from various English publications. I don’t recall the book making any splash this side of the Atlantic. Something wrong with that; the book is very good.
You would think that the biggest political assassination in world history would have been more researched than Franz Josef Ferdinand’s has been. There is something quite terribly wrong with the profession of history that there wasn’t a decent book about the assassination and its perpetrators until Vladimir Didijer’s The Road to Sarajevo came out in 1967. Almost nobody bothered to do any real investigation in the interwar years, when the surviving participants could all have been interviewed. Nobody bothered to assemble and translate the trial transcript until 1984. Unbelievable. Various other books about the assassination have come along but this is the best to date and likely as not will be the definitive word on it. There just won’t be more material showing up and that will limit future efforts to recycling and rewriting Didijer and Smith, mostly.
Smith gives a good brief account of the Balkans’ history in the eventful and turbulent years prior to 1914. The Balkans, and Serbia in particular, were riven with revolutionary fervor and revolutionary love, where people were hard smitten with desires for radical political changes–here, the union of all the south Slav peoples in the Balkans into a Serb-led country called Yugoslavia, wherein all the south slavs would be free of their detested foreign rulers and would be in control of their destiny and would redeem their land and peoples into a new more glorious version of their past and so on. Easy enough for us here now to mock their dreams and aspirations, particularly after the recent blowup of Yugoslavia. We here now know nothing of revolutionary love ourselves from our own lives and we know nothing of the revolutionary love that swept over those parts then, as happens from time to time in parts elsewhere. But there is hardly a stronger human feeling than it, nor a more dangerous one. It is very much like some virulent sort of plague virus that breaks out from time to time and infects all the vulnerable in some region and lays them all low and after a while la peste burns itself up and goes into hiding until sometime in the future, somewhere else, it breaks out again.
Gavrilo Princip, the assassin, was, with all his so terribly young fellow plotters and would-be assassins, so terribly infected with revolutionary love that he decided to kill Franz Ferdinand, knowing full well that he would die immediately afterwards. He and his fellows could envision no better life than a premature death in exchange for some envisioned eternal glory in the future histories of the south slavs. They had no earthly inkling that their actions would cause the First World War, and all its destruction and death. It was inconceivable to them that their action would destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, and all the rest of the existing European order. Nor could they envisage the Second go-round, even more destructive, coming 21 years later mostly from the undecided issues of the First. There they were–from 16 to 23 years of age, mostly from poor backgrounds, all engaged in the usual early struggle of youth to establish a livelihood, or go to school for a better one, and without any outside prompting they all decided that Franz Ferdinand’s visit meant that his assassination was the right thing to do right now, even though it would mean their deaths. Revolutionary love was sweeping the south slavs in those years and had infected many of them badly to where there was no shortage of young slavs living in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzigovina who felt the same and would have done the same had they had the opportunity. Generally revolutionary love infects the young, they are the most vulnerable population to it, and it makes them do mad nihilistic things like this that they would never have done otherwise.
The books patient and thorough accounting of the plotters’ lives prior to the assassination is quite good and it makes plain the fact that they were not really any sort of agent for the Serbian Secret Service or its sub-rosa branch the Black Hand, that they were their own agents. Certainly the Black Hand was responsible for providing through a cutout the bombs and guns, but they, their leaders at any rate, did so out of their own opportunistic and impulsive desire to correct what they saw as a likely Austro-Hungarian war impending against Serbia. A typically infantile misreading of the political situation by the uniformed military on their part, aggravated by a Balkan propensity to plot and scheme. The Black Hand leaders came to their senses and tried to stop the plotters but did so too late. The assassins were mostly incompetent and unlucky agents who succeeded out of a fluke set of circumstances that had Franz Ferdinand get lost and stop in front of Gavrilo Princip, the most dedicated of the plotters, who then managed to, at a range of six feet or less, with his head turned full away, fire twice blindly at Franz Joseph and his wife Sofie and kill them both. An almost impossible set of circumstances all fell together for the two to meet, and afterwards the world changed in a way that no one could possibly have conceived. It was no masterminded conspiracy by nefarious all powerful agents; it was a once in a lifetime royal flush of circumstances dealt at the wrong place at the wrong time.
All but one of the plotters were rounded up quickly afterwards; only one of them made any real effort to flee and evade a certain death at the hands of a vengeful Austrian law. All those older than 20 went to the gallows, those younger went to terrible imprisonment in Theresienstadt, where many of them died. Gavrilo Princip, 19 at the time of the assassination, went into prison with tuberculosis and died a gruesome slow death from it–one arm rotted off at the elbow from skeletal TB–in March 1918. Did Princip know before the assassination that he had TB, and certainly enough in those days would never live long enough to comb grey hair? I suspect he did; he’d coughed up blood on occasions and must have known what that meant. But we will never know. He was buried almost secretly in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery, under a pathway where his grave would be walked on for all eternity. One of his Czech guards made a careful note of where his grave was, and buried his notes with instructions to his father to find them if he didn’t come back from the war. But this Czech soldier did make it back alive from the war, and came back to the gravesite, and marked it off, and set a new Czechoslovakian flag on it. That Czech understood who to thank for his new country.*
A fine book, an overdue book, and a terribly sad story to read. History rarely if ever reads this sad. Revolutionary love infected all the characters and it ended as badly as could be for them all, who all were, from this book’s recounting, fine young people who deserved a life more than they got. Love ends badly sometimes, revolutionary love badly more oftener, but love never ends up worse than it did here. From my here to their there, I tip my hat to them, for their earnestness, patriotism, bravery, and dedication, but yet I wish so hard that it hadn’t turned out that badly for them, and for all the rest of us, too.
*Dear me, Czechoslovakia–another country that came out of the First World War that did not survive the 1990’s.