Sarajevo, 1941: The Removal of the Gavrilo Princip Plaque

When German troops occupied Sarajevo on April 15, 1941, one of the first actions they took was to remove the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque erected in 1930 to commemorate the June 28, 1914 assassination. The memorial plaque was removed on April 19, 1941 and sent to Adolf Hitler at his command and control headquarters aboard his special train in Monichkirchen in Austria for his 52nd birthday.

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A group of Yugoslav volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans, wearing white shirts and ties, were photographed and filmed marching in formation carrying a banner to the site of the assassination. They are shown carrying two ladders which they use to climb to the plaque, mounted on the wall of the building. They have erected a scaffold under the plaque. Two German soldiers, part of a military band, stand with a bass drum and cymbals in front of the façade. Two volksdeutsche remove the screws and dismantle the plaque, which they hand down to another member on the ladder. They then bring the plaque down. Two volksdeutsche members are photographed holding the plaque as two Wehrmacht officers look on. The removal ceremony was filmed for the German newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau, The German Weekend Show, Nr. 556 for April 30, 1941. The photo of the scene was taken by Adolf Hitler’s personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann on April 19, 1941. The photo was published by the Berliner Volkszeitung, the Berlin People’s Daily, on April 24, 1941. Subsequently, the plaque is given to German Army troops who are photographed holding the plaque. It was brought to the Fuehrer headquarters, the Fuehrer Special Train, Sonderzug Amerika, in Mönichkirchen in Styria in Austria from where it was sent to Berlin.

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Adolf Hitler examines the 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque removed from Sarajevo by German troops and presented to him on his 52nd birthday on April 20, 1941, aboard his special command and control train, Sonderzug Amerika, in Monichkirchen. The photograph was taken by Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. Source: Illustrierter Beobachter, No. 18, May 1, 1941, page 542.

The 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque commemorated the assassination by characterizing the event as ushering in “sloboda” or “freedom”, “freiheit” in German.

The Serbian Cyrillic script on the plaque reads:

“Na ovom istorijskom mjestu Gavrilo Princip Navijesti slobodu na Vidov-Dan 15. [28.] Juna 1914.”

“At this historical place Gavrilo Princip pronounces freedom on Vidov Dan 15th [28th] June 1941.”

The 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque was given to Adolf Hitler by three Kriegsberichter, or German war correspondents. A photograph of Hitler examining the plaque was taken by Heinrich Hoffman. Hitler had established his command and control headquarters for the Balkan campaign against Greece and Yugoslavia in his special personal train, the Sonderzug Amerika, which was stationed at the Austrian town of Monichkirchen. It was in a cabin of this train that he was photographed examining the Gavrilo Princip plaque. Hitler had used the train in the 1939 campaign against Poland but this was the only time when the train was the site of his forward command headquarters. The train would take him into occupied Yugoslavia on April 26 when he arrived in Maribor in Slovenia.

The photograph with the plaque first appeared in the German magazine Illustrierter Beobachter, The Illustrated Observer, No. 18, in the May 1, 1941 issue. In the first published photograph, Hitler’s head is bowed as he examines the plaque. A third figure can be seen on the far right. A second, different photograph of the same scene was shot by Hoffmann that shows Hitler standing upright while he gazes at the plaque. There are only two German Army officers in the scene. In a third photograph of the same scene, Hitler is standing with his back to the camera. The third German officer can be seen on the far right in greater detail. He is wearing a German Army uniform with Wehrmacht collar tabs and an Iron Cross. Hoffmann took at least three different photos of the same scene in rapid succession.

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The plaque was kept in the Berlin Zeughaus, or German Military Museum, known as the Arsenal from 1941 to 1945. The railroad coach from Compiegne had also been brought to Berlin in 1940 and was publicly exhibited in the Lustgarten across from the museum. The railroad coach was burned by German forces in 1945 and the remains buried. The plaque also disappeared after the war.

The 1930 plaque represented a symbol of anti-German sentiment in the Balkans. It was an insult and a provocative symbol from World War I which was unacceptable in the New Order. It represented triumphalism which memorialized the German defeat in World War I. For this reason, the plaque was one of the first objects targeted by German occupation forces in Sarajevo.

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Hitler had welcomed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand because he perceived him as pro-Slavic and not a genuine German nationalist but “the most mortal enemy of Austrian-Germanism” and the “patron of Austria’s Slavicization”. Franz Ferdinand was perceived by Hitler as promoting the “Slavicization” of Austria-Hungary. His wife Sophie of Hohenberg was Czech. She was a Slav. Their three children could not inherit the throne but Franz Ferdinand could. He was the heir to the Habsburg throne.

Hitler vehemently opposed any attempt to unite the German and Slavic populations of Austria. He opposed any conception of adding a Slavic component to the Austro-Hungarian state, a policy known as “trialism”, creating a German-Hungarian-Slavic country. Hitler supported the opposite. He wanted a German state with no mixing or uniting with the Slavic populations. He promoted “Germanization”.

So Hitler saw the assassination as a god-send which with one fell swoop destroyed the rapprochement and community with the Slavic populations. The resulting war against the two Slavic countries, Russia and Serbia, Hitler welcomed as a means to restore German identity and dominance. Hitler was photographed in Munich on August 2, 1914 at the outbreak of the war amidst a cheering and exuberant crowd after the German declaration of war against Russia. This photograph was also taken by Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler seized the opportunity to fight in the war by enlisting in the German Army to vindicate German history and culture.

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Hitler was photographed in pensive thought examining and contemplating the plaque with two German officers in the room. The assassination was the event that set in motion the decisions that led to the first world war which resulted in the defeat of Germany and the post-war collapse and devastation. Hitler had emerged as a political leader whose mission was to redress and to right the wrongs and grievances that resulted from that event. So there was some ambivalence and ambiguity about the plaque. The event it memorialized had triggered the events that shaped his life and career.

To Hitler, the plaque represented an affront or snub and a reminder of what the war was about. Like the Compiegne railroad car, it was a symbol and avatar of Germany’s humiliation and defeat. Hitler had satisfaction that the insult or indignity could be erased and Germany’s image restored, denigrated by the Versailles Treaty and the Guilt Clause. The plaque and the railroad car impugned and vilified the valor and sacrifices of German and Austrian troops.

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In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote at length about the Sarajevo assassination. He characterized Gavrilo Princip and the other assassins as “Slavic fanatics”.

He ultimately saw the assassination as a positive outcome because it would allow the re-emergence and restoration of German power in Europe.

The 1930 plaque had stirred international controversy and outrage when it was first erected in 1930. The Yugoslav government maintained that the monument or memorial was private, not endorsed or funded by the Yugoslav government.

The London Times was critical of the memorial and editorialized in 1930 that the assassination was “an act which was the immediate cause of the Great War, of its attendant horrors, and of the general suffering which has been its sequel.”

The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, the German General Newspaper, called the plaque “a monstrous provocation which cannot be suffered.”

Winston Churchill was highly critical 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.”

Ironically, Adolf Hitler endorsed and guaranteed the Versailles borders of Yugoslavia in 1941 when Germany signed the pact with the Yugoslav government in Vienna on March 25, 1941. With regard to Yugoslavia, Hitler had no territorial demands and accepted and validated the results of the Treaty of Versailles.

The 1930 Gavrilo Princip plaque was kept in the Berlin Zeughaus, or German Military Historical Museum, along with the railroad coach from Compiegne. The plaque was displayed in Germany in 1941 on a wall of the museum. Like the Compiegne railroad car brought from France, the plaque became a museum exhibit in Berlin. The plaque was photographed on April 28, 1941. A German spectator was shown looking at the plaque mounted on a wall of the museum as a display in Berlin.

The Compiegne railroad car was blown up by German forces in 1945. Some fragments were later recovered. Presumably the same fate befell the Gavrilo Princip plaque.

In 1945, the Communist regime of Yugoslavia erected a new memorial in Sarajevo at the site of the assassination to Gavrilo Princip who became a “national hero” of Yugoslavia.

In 1953, a new plaque was erected by the Communist regime with Gavrilo Princip’s footprints encased in cement.

This 1953 plaque and memorial were destroyed by Bosnian Muslim forces in 1992.

In 2004, the Bosnian Muslim government erected a new Gavrilo Princip plaque in Sarajevo in Bosnian and in English in the Latin script. This plaque states that Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at that site on June 28, 1914.

The Gavrilo Princip plaque in Sarajevo in 2014 is in Bosnian and in English. It reads in English:

“From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia [sic].”