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The lie that started WW1

Date
The Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo moments before their assassination

The Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo moments before their assassination Photo: Getty Images

This day 100 years ago dawned memorably bright over Sarajevo. After days of stormy rain, Sunday June 28,1914 began cloudless as Austria-Hungary, the imperial power that held dominion over the small Balkan province of Bosnia, prepared for a show of ostentatious pageantry in its capital.

Loyal citizens came out in their thousands, lining the route into the city centre that was to be used for a rare official visit by a top member of the Habsburg royal house, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, second only in imperial protocol to the venerable, mutton-chopped emperor himself, Franz Joseph. Witnesses remember the morning sun being fierce as the crowds gathered, eight deep in places, many of them waving the yellow imperial standard of Austria-Hungary with its double-headed black eagle, some shouting ''Long Live the Archduke'' as the Graf & Stift limousine drove sedately by. An imperial 21-gun salute from the fortress high in the hills that ring Sarajevo sent out puffs of smoke, vivid white against the blue summer sky.

But the crowd was seeded with six would-be assassins united in their loathing of Austria-Hungary. By the time the sun set, what happened in Sarajevo would plunge the world into the darkness of global war for the first time.

The details were well recorded: how the first attacker lost his nerve as the cortege passed, how the next attacker threw a grenade that struck the limousine but did not harm the Archduke, how the royal party nevertheless continued with the visit, how three would-be assassins melted away into the crowd and how one, a 19-year-old peasant, stood his ground.

Gavrilo Princip was his name and he took up station at the street corner where the royal vehicle was scheduled to turn right, according to the route flagged up for days in local newspapers, off the wide riverside boulevard that gives Sarajevo its spine, before taking the Archduke to visit a museum.

What might be called the devil's luck then enters the story as the decision had been taken after the grenade attack for the Archduke's car not to turn right but to continue down the boulevard. All the senior members of the royal party were informed. But nobody told the driver.

When the driver made the turn, an imperial officer on board with the Archduke and his wife, Sophie ordered: ''Stop.'' The driver braked immediately, presenting the assassin with his targets right in front of him in a now stationary car, the canvas roof folded helpfully back because of the sunny conditions.

Princip needed to take only half a step forward before he aimed his 9mm, semi-automatic Browning pistol and fired what amounted to the starting gun for modern history. The killing of the Archduke and his wife was the trigger for the First World War. What happened next is a bone well worried by historians. But the details of who Princip was, his motivation, his actions and his support network have been mired ever since in political bias, ethnic rivalry and sloppy homework.

We have been told that: Princip jumped on the running board of the Archduke's limousine to take his shot, the Archduke's wife was pregnant when she died, the shooting happened on the anniversary of their marriage, the car did not have a reverse gear, the Archduke caught the grenade thrown earlier and tossed it away safely, and Princip stopped to eat a last sandwich at the caf?? on the corner before emerging to take his shot. It's all myth.

Yet, given that this is the young man with perhaps the greatest impact on modern history, I have been drawn to spend the past three years researching what the historical record definitively reveals about the assassin from Bosnia.

Gavrilo Princip was born in 1894, a serf's son from the hamlet of Obljaj in remotest western Bosnia, short and slight of build with the strong chin that is the dominant hallmark of the Princip male line. His father Petar was trapped in the grinding poverty of generations of Princips before him. Princip was the feudal subject of two local lords who effectively owned him, one called Jovic, the other Siercic. Although the Princips came from the ethnic Serb community, a hundred years ago rivalries with the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims were not as charged as today. Instead their anger was directed against Austria-Hungary, a foreign power responsible for occupation of particular austerity. And there were plenty of grounds for anger. Six of Princip's brothers and sisters died in childhood, a level of child mortality that appears routine.

Gavrilo Princip's break came in 1907 when, after excelling at primary school, he left Obljaj and made the long journey to Sarajevo to take up secondary education. I found his school reports, passed over by a century's worth of historians, and saw grades that charted the development of a slow-burn revolutionary. The reports show him as a starred-A grade student to begin with, but as the years pass his truancy goes up, his academic performance down. He had fallen in with other young radicals who dared to think the unthinkable: doing away with Austria-Hungary.

And just as with other independence movements across the world, the talk slowly turned to direct action and political violence. Again, Princip was not headstrong, watching and learning as an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made in 1910 by a slightly older Bosnian student in Sarajevo against an Austro-Hungarian target. What stands out, however, is how inclusive Princip's nationalism was. He learnt to trust Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, not just his ethnic kin from the Bosnian Serb community. He made contact with extreme Serb nationalists in Belgrade, capital of Serbia, to acquire the weapons used in the assassination but this appears opportunistic. There is no evidence he shared their chauvinistic agenda, not least because the attackers were planning on using trusted Bosnian Croats to spirit away the weapons, while one of the six would-be assassins was Bosnian Muslim.

Princip was caught within seconds of firing his pistol, his bid for martyrdom doomed when the dose of cyanide he stuffed down his throat failed to kill him.

Two weeks short of his 20th birthday, Princip was too young to be executed as Austro-Hungarian law said the death sentence could only be given to criminals aged 20 or more. Instead, he was jailed, sentenced to 20 years solitary confinement with the condition that one day a month he was to receive no food. He died in a prison hospital on April 28 1918, his body so badly ravaged by skeletal tuberculosis that his right arm had had to be amputated.

Over the last century his voice has rarely been heard, drowned out by more powerful forces, not least Vienna which was desperate to use the assassination as a pretext to attack its small and potentially troublesome neighbour, Serbia. For this to work, Austria-Hungary worked to represent Princip and the assassination plot as the work of the Serbian government. And this alone is perhaps the greatest misrepresentation of the truth about Gavrilo Princip, with the historical record containing no convincing evidence to support the claim.

Wilfred Owen wrote of the patriotic invocation dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as "the old lie'', but I have come to see an even greater lie at the founding moment of the First World War. It is the lie used by Vienna in its deliberate misrepresentation of the Sarajevo assassination. On its hundredth anniversary, now is high time to straighten the record.

Tim Butcher's 'The Trigger - Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War' is published by Chatto & Windus

The Daily Telegraph

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