Gavrilo Princip or Franz Ferdinand? Heroes or Villains?

In 1917, the Austro-Hungarian government erected a monument to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo on the third year anniversary of the assassinations on June 28. It was called the Sühnedenkmal or Spomenik umorstva, The Atonement or Expiation Monument. The bronze statue was by Hungarian sculptor Eugen Bori.


1918 Austro-Hungarian postcard featuring the monument to Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo date stamped August 25, 1918 by Kartenzentrale Jacob A. Cappon, Sarajevo, the same publisher of the Gavrilo Princip postcard published after the war. Sarajevo, Sühnedenkmal. Spomenik umorstva. 28 VI. 1914. Atonement or Expiation Monument. Stamped K-und-K Milit. Post. Sarajevo. 25 VIII. 18.

The monument was moved to the Bosnian National Museum in 1918 after World War I by authorities of the newly created kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes that emerged. The two 10 meter columns were destroyed. The central medallion with the images of the Archduke and the Duchess have been preserved, however, in the basement of the Sarajevo Art Gallery.

In 2001, Emin Svrakic, the Bosnian Muslim deputy chairman of the Sarajevo City Council, stirred controversy when he proposed that the 1917 monument to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie be returned to the site.


Sarajevo: Sühnedenkmal Spomenik, 28-VI-1914.

Before the 1991-1992 breakup of Yugoslavia, the Communist regime had built a monument at the same site where the assassination occurred, with a sidewalk display representing Princip’s footprints, with a marker on the spot and a short explanation of his act which was depicted as heroic. The assassination was characterized as a “protest” against the “tyranny” and “oppression” of the Austro-Hungarian government. This Communist monument was destroyed by Bosnian Muslim forces in 1992 when the Bosnian civil war began.

In 1995, the Bosnian Muslim political leaders in Sarajevo removed the monument and replaced it with a marker that only noted that the assassination occurred there but without characterizing the deed.

Svrakic explained the decision by arguing that Princip was not a “hero” at all, but an assassin who had murdered innocent victims.

“Princip killed an innocent man and his wife who was in advanced pregnancy at the time. Was that a heroic act?”


Duchess Sophie was 46 at the time of the assassination. Whether she was pregnant or not has never been conclusively established. Svrakic uses this unproven assertion to create an anti-Serbian animus. Moreover, who would support a baby killer?

He ignored the fact that Austria-Hungary had illegally annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908. This annexation was itself a crime. It deprived the population of Bosnia of their civil rights. The characterization depended on what paradigm one used. Under natural rights theory, Gavrilo Princip’s actions could be justified or rationalized, even exonerated, under the view that he was exercising his natural rights. His country had been seized and occupied. He had no say in this process. His human and civil rights had been violated. He had a natural right to secure and to safeguard those natural rights.

The judgment depends on whether a natural law theory or a legal positivist theory is applied. Under natural law theory, he never entered into a social agreement or contract with the government. The government merely imposed its own arbitrary rule through force and established the laws by diktat and by coercion on the population. Under positivist legal theory, laws are valid and just so long as they were properly created and established by a legitimate authority. In this case, Princip killed two human beings. That is homicide in all modern jurisdictions and societies. Thus, he would be a murderer regardless of whether his country had been legally or illegally annexed. The only issue would be whether the laws were validly promulgated and properly executed.


1918 Austro-Hungarian postcard featuring the memorial to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo, The Atonement Memorial.

Similarly, Princip could be termed a “terrorist” or a “patriot”, a member of the resistance opposing an illegitimate regime or government, depending on which paradigm one applied. Was he engaged in a national movement of independence to establish self-determination and to obtain civil and human rights or was he committing a crime merely to advance some personal or individual objective? If the latter, then he could be termed a “terrorist”. But if the former, it can be argued that he was a “national hero”, one seeking independence and national sovereignty.

Is there some consistent, systematic, universal formula or set of criteria to use in determining this issue? Is there a paradigm that can be used? There is no such paradigm or formula. “Aye, there’s the rub!” Hamlet’s dilemma is also a universal dilemma. No one person sees an event the exact same way.

The case of Gavrilo Princip is an excellent case in point. From the Serbian perspective, he is a “national hero” and a “patriot”. But how is he seen from the Bosnian Muslim perspective?

Svrakic perceived Princip as a murderer who killed a pregnant woman. He characterized the Austro-Hungarian government as benign and beneficial for the Bosnian Muslim population:

“Austria has always been a good friend of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As soon as Austro-Hungarian government was established in Bosnia, this country blossomed, with railways, roads and the most beautiful palaces.”

This is an accurate description. By using the same criteria, Adolf Hitler achieved even more for Germany in the 1930s. Hitler revitalized the economy, created the autobahn, put people back to work, and secured Germany’s national security by strengthening the armed forces. Svrakic characterizes the event based on whether or not it will advance the agenda of the Bosnian Muslim faction in Bosnia. From his perspective, Bosnian Muslim interests will be advanced if Gavrilo Princip is portrayed in negative terms while Franz Ferdinand is depicted in positive terms.


Yugoslav Communist era postcard showing Principov Most, Princip’s Bridge, across the Miljacka River in downtown Sarajevo, circa 1950s.

The Communist regime of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito saw in Princip a proponent of “Yugoslavism”, Pan-Slavism, the unification of all the southern Slavs in a single country. In that regard, he served their political purposes and advanced their agenda. As an atheist, anarchist, and proto-Communist, he was an important symbol of “brotherhood and unity” in the SFRJ. This is why the Communists created a special memorial to him in Sarajevo and retained the name of the bridge over the Miljacka river as “Principov most”. The name of the bridge has subsequently been changed to “Latinska cuprija”. The new name uses the “Bosnian” name for “bridge”, again demonstrating the subjective nature of all judgments regarding the issue. The new plaque uses Latin letters, while the Communist and the Yugoslav monarchist plaque was in Cyrillic. There is also an English translation. The Croats, the Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes, and Albanians use the Latin script while the Serbs and Macedonians use the Cyrillic script.

How have World War I historians analyzed this issue? Barbara Wertheim Tuchman in her 1962 Pulitzer Prize winning study of the first month of the war, The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan, page 71), characterized the assassins as “Serbian nationalists”:

“’Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,’ Bismarck had predicted, would ignite the next war. The assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists on June 28, 1914, satisfied his condition.”

The term “nationalists” is more pejorative than the much more positive “patriots” term. The “Serbian” adjective also tends to be negative because the assassins were citizens of Bosnia-Hercegovina, not Serbia. This could imply that they were seeking the unification of Bosnia with Serbia, which is, in fact, the case.


Yugoslav postcard featuring Vidovdan Heroes, 1914: Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, and Trifko Grabez. On the back is stamped “Dopisnica”, postcard,  and “Bos. Poshta”, Bosnian mail, in Cyrillic.

In The Guns of August, Tuchman examined the first month of World War I. The British, French, Russian, and German military leaders and their decisions were analyzed. The theme of the book was that the Great Powers were locked into their decisions in some cases based on plans and decisions made ten years before the war actually started. All was planned in advance, at least five years before 1914. This tied their hands and made war inevitable. The book was not on Bosnia or Gavrilo Princip.

In the 1966 follow-up book The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914 (New York: Macmillan, page 459), basing the title from the 1845 Edgar Allan Poe poem “The City in the Sea”, she changed her characterization of the assassins. From “nationalists” they now became “patriots”:

“At the end of June, news that Serbian patriots had assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, in an obscure town in the annexed territory of Bosnia, provided a sensation of the kind to which Europe was accustomed. It passed without causing undue public alarm.”

The adjective “Serbian” remained, however, implying that their national interests were elsewhere, in another nation or country.

Tuchman unconvincingly argued that the assassination of the Archduke and his wife was a routine or ordinary event. This does not ring true. Not if one knows that the Austrian military Chief of Staff Conrad von Hoetzendorf was arguing for preemptive war against Serbia for years. He merely needed an excuse or pretext. This judgment also ignores the fact that the 1908 annexation nearly resulted in a war between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Otto von Bismarck was much more accurate in his assessment. The Balkans were always volatile. Any spark could set off a conflagration.

The book examined the society of Europe and the U.S. in the period before the war. England, the U.S., France, Germany, The Hague, Anarchists, and Socialists, were examined. Like the previous book The Guns of August, this book too was not on Bosnia itself or the role of Gavrilo Princip in the assassination.

Tuchman flip-flopped on this issue because it is inherently ambiguous. The analysis depends on the context, on the paradigm. There is no single, correct way to analyze this issue.

The New York Times on the day following the assassination, June 29, 1914, characterized the assassination as follows: “Heir to Austria’s Throne is Slain with His Wife by a Bosnian Youth to Avenge Seizure of his Country”. This characterization is unusual in that it implies that Princip was acting as someone seeking independence from an oppressive, foreign power that had annexed the country illegally and by force, that it was an act within the context of a larger political conflict of national independence and self-determination.

After World War I, the image of Gavrilo Princip that emerged in what became Yugoslavia was much more positive. Princip was seen as a 20th century Milos Obilic, freeing his people from a foreign power which would seek to occupy his country. As Obilic had killed Sultan Murad in 1389 in Kosovo, so Princip had killed Franz Ferdinand on Vidov Dan, June 28. Princip was thus a “national hero”. But to whom? Was this the only characterization of Princip?

The footprints in cement, the Gavrilo Princip Museum, and the new plaque were all created by the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito after World War II. It was Tito who turned Gavrilo Princip into a “national hero” of Communist Yugoslavia. The interwar monarchy was much more subdued in its treatment of Gavrilo Princip. In 1917, the Karadjordjevic monarchy executed Apis whom it purported to prove in a show trial to be the real organizer of the assassination of the Archduke. Apis was supposed to have planned another assassination, this time of Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic. So the monarchy had Apis executed on charges that he had planned and carried out the assassination of the Archduke.


Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

In 1930, the Yugoslav government erected a memorial to Princip in Sarajevo. The plaque revered Princip as a liberator: “On this historic spot Gavrilo Princip, on St. Vitus’s Day, 1914, heralded the advent of liberty.”

What was the reaction in the West, of the allies of Serbia during World War I? What did Winston Churchill think of commemorating the assassination by Gavrilo Princip? Churchill wrote in his 1932 book The Unknown War that it represented “infamy”: “Princip died in prison, and a monument erected in recent years by his fellow-countrymen records his infamy and their own.” British historian R.W. Seton-Watson wrote that the memorial to Gavrilo Princip was “an affront to all right-thinking people.”

The 1917 monument to Ferdinand and Sophie had stated: “On this spot, on 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie of Hohenburg gave their life and blood for God and country.” They are depicted as victims and martyrs, patriots dying for their country and their faith.

Which characterization is right and which one wrong? There is no way to determine this. If human beings could only think the same way. Life would be so much easier. If we just had someone who could tell us what to think. What a concept? The real world, however, does not work that way. Reality is much more complex.


The ruins of Gavrilo Princip’s house in Obljaj in Grahovo in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 2013, destroyed in August, 1995 by Croatian troops during Operation Storm.

Gavrilo Princip’s house in Sarajevo was destroyed three times and rebuilt twice. The house was first destroyed by Austro-Hungarian forces during World War I, by Croatian Ustasha forces during World War II, and by Bosnian Muslim forces during the 1992-1995 civil war. The house of his birthplace in Obljaj in the Grahovo district of northwest Bosnia was destroyed in August, 1995 by Croatian troops during Operation Storm. Only the stone foundation remains. Croatian soldiers burned the wooden top part of the house. His house remains in ruins. Will the house be rebuilt in the future?