Gavrilo Princip: The 19-Year-Old Who Inadvertently Caused Two World Wars

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Stories November 12, 2019 Gavrilo Princip: The 19-Year-Old Who Inadvertently Caused Two World Wars

If you know anything about World War I or Scottish indie rock from the early 2000s, then you’ve probably heard the name “Franz Ferdinand” before. Why’s he famous?

I could go on about how he deserves recognition in his own right, for being an archduke and heir apparent to rule the Austro-Hungarian empire. But Austria-Hungary is in dead empire hell, and that’s not why we care about Franz Ferdinand enough for Scots to name a band after him. He’s famous because he got shot in the neck in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and died, setting off a series of events that would start World War I, which in turn led to the entire 20th century—World War II, the ascension of the United States as a global superpower, the Cold War, right up until the modern day bullsh*t conflicts that plague the world today.

Franz is a man famous for being assassinated, but what about his assassin? He was about the opposite of a 50-year-old archduke: a Serbian peasant, only 19 years old when he shot his Browning pistol at the motorcade, first hitting Ferdinand’s wife, then Ferdinand. He wasn’t even the first assassin to attack Ferdinand’s motorcade that day.

But chance put Franz Ferdinand and Gavrilo Princip on the same street, at the same time.  When Gavrilo—a kid too young to be hanged under Austrian law at the time—pulled his trigger, he was doing something serious. Serious might not be the right word . . . what am I looking for—oh, right! F**ked up. Shooting a man and his wife in cold blood is f**ked up. But there was no way he could have known he was setting off the biggest butterfly effect in modern human history.

Who Was Gavrilo Princip?

First, I should make a note: Gavrilo Princip, for many years, was treated as a national hero in Yugoslavia, before the country was all divvied up—Balkanized—into warring factions. After that, Bosnia considered the teenager a terrorist. Either way, they know the name Gavrilo Princip in that part of the world, and if you’re from there, well, you probably don’t need this article.

For the rest of us, we have some catching up to do.

Gavrilo was born a sickly kid in 1894. It seems like illness ran in the family—or maybe living conditions were just terrible—because six of his eight siblings didn’t survive infancy. His father was a postman, but let’s not sugarcoat things: the Princips were peasants.

Gavrilo was able to receive some education, at least, going to schools in Sarajevo and Tuzla, before heading off to Belgrade in 1912. Belgrade is where, in modern parlance, Gavrilo was radicalized.

He joined a nationalist movement called the Black Hand, which, when you’re 19, sounds pretty cool. If you haven’t seen 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, maybe give that a watch and then come back, because I’m about to use it as an analogy for early 20th century Serbian nationalism. It’s only 93 minutes. You really only need to see Act I for this, if memory serves me right. Here’s a paragraph break to give you some time to give it a quick watch.

OK, back? How was it? I haven’t watched it since I was a kid, but I’ll bet it still holds up. OK, so the character Danny Pennington, he’s like Gavrilo Princip. He’s some who kid feels like he needs a group—nay, a clan—to belong to, so he joins Shredder’s Foot Clan. The Foot Clan is like the Black Hand, but they’re ninjas rather than Serbian partisans.

Our Shredder, meanwhile, is Dragutin Dimitrijevic, chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian army. Through that job, he has another job: leader of the Black Hand. Just like Shredder was luring lost boys into his ninja gang, Dimitrijevic recruited some young Serbian dudes.

If you’ve paid any kind of attention over the years to how terrorism works, then you know what Dimitrijevic probably knew: it’s not that hard to convince young men to throw their lives away, as long as you convince them it’s for something important. It’s even easier when each of the young men are already doomed: Gavrilo and some of the other assassins were sickly, sufferers of tuberculosis, and knew they weren’t long for the world anyway.

So he sent a group of young men—including Gavrilo—to Sarajevo to kill the archduke, whose motorcade would be driving through the city, on his way to inspect army maneuvers. When they were finished, the assassins were instructed to kill themselves with cyanide. Dimitrijevic didn’t want any loose ends leading back to him or the Serbian army. That made these sickly, disposable young men perfect cat’s paws for killing Franz Ferdinand.1

Gavrilo Princip and The Black Hand: Why Kill Ferdinand?

The Black Hand’s goal was a union between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. The problem was that Bosnia-Herzegovina was already part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. If it was going to merge with Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina first needed to gain its independence from Austria-Hungary. The city of Sarajevo was, at the time, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.2

OK, so why would killing Franz Ferdinand, the heir for the empire’s throne, result in an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina? It wouldn’t.

This is where things get very complicated in a very Balkans kind of way. The short version is that Serbia, around that time, was transitioning from military to civilian rule after the brutal Balkan Wars.

Dimitrijevic, the guy running the Black Hand, remember, was head of Serbian army intelligence, so he was in the military government camp. By 1914, as civilian government was taking more power, Dimitrijevic was at risk of—gasp!—losing his job. He knew that stirring shit up with Austria-Hungary would cause enough international trouble that Serbia would get distracted, need more military direction, and Dimitrijevic would, therefore, keep his job.

So that’s why he got young Serbs to act as Franz Ferdinand’s—and his wife’s—assassins, before killing themselves. This scheme, which Dimitrijevic hatched to keep his cushy job, would result in more deaths than he ever could have imagine. If you follow the flow-chart of 20th century war deaths resulting from Dimitrijevic job-retention efforts, then it’s something like 60 million dead. That office must have had some view.3

As for Gavrilo’s reasons, he was a young nationalist, who wanted to see Bosnia and Serbia unite. Further, Gavrilo was really f**king ticked off about how Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Black Hand’s stated goal, therefore, would have been appealing to Gavrilo. And, given his health issues, he knew he wasn’t going to live a long time, anyway. The kid was looking for purpose, and Dimitrijevic gave him something that looked like a purpose—even if that purpose was to die so Dimitrijevic could keep his job. 4

Was Gavrilo Princip a good assassin?

Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the duchess of Hohenberg (Sofia, to her friends), were riding through the streets of Sarajevo in their motorcade. The reason for the visit, as I touched on a bit earlier, was that Ferdinand was the Inspector General of the army, and he’d been invited to Sarajevo to generally inspect said army.5

It turned out to be a bad day, from an archduke’s perspective. All told, there were around six or seven Black Hand assassins planted along Ferdinand’s motorcade route. One of the assassins, Nedjelko Čabrinović, was almost the guy who did the killing that led to all the bad things during the 20th century. But, when he threw his bomb at Ferdinand’s car, it bounced off, and exploded underneath the next car in the motorcade. It hurt some people, of course, but not the right people to set off a War to End All Wars. And that’s why this isn’t an article about Nedjelko Čabrinović.

This failed attack did, however, lead Ferdinand to Gavrilo. Ferdinand’s motorcade tour through Sarajevo, for some reason, wasn’t halted for an immediate security lockdown, nor was Ferdinand rushed under the cover of bodyguards to some remote bunker.

Instead, the motorcade continued, and Ferdinand even extended the day’s activities to include a hospital trip—he wanted to visit an officer wounded at the bombing earlier in the day.

It was on his way to the hospital that Ferdinand’s motorcade crossed paths with Gavrilo Princip. The motorcade had retraced its planned route for the added leg, and amazingly stopped for a moment, right in front of Gavrilo. The archduke had fallen right into his lap. Gavrilo raised his pistol and fired.

His first shot missed its intended target, according to Gavrilo. He had aimed for the military governor of Bosnia, Oskar Potiorek. Instead, his bullet found Ferdinand’s wife, Sofia, striking her in the abdomen and purportedly killing her instantly—along with her unborn child.

Gavrilo then tried to fire a third shot into his own head, but was snatched by guards before he could manage suicide.6

Instead of getting the easy way out, Gavrilo had the sh*t beaten out of him, more or less, by the arresting guards. They beat his head with the flats of their sabres, kicked him with their boots, tortured him, etc. All understandable—this guy had just shot two people in cold blood, and tensions were high.

All things considered, June 28, 2014, was a f**ked up day in Sarajevo.

The Consequences for Gavrilo Princip

Go figure, but back in 1914, in Austria, you had to be at least 20 years old to be executed for a crime. Instead, Gavrilo was sentenced, later that year, to 20 years in prison. His predisposition for illness wouldn’t give him that much time. He contracted tuberculosis of the bone, had his right arm amputated, and died, age 23, at a hospital near his prison.

Gavrilo wouldn’t be the last person to die as a result of his actions. The death of the archduke started fighting between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. War then metastasized across Europe, following the overcomplicated web of international alliances obligating too many countries to take up arms over what began as an act of Serbian nationalism.

Dragutin Dimitrijevic used Gavrilo and his other Black Hand assassins to light a spark between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. That spark created a brush fire that became an inferno that, over the decades that followed, would leave millions upon millions of people dead. It redrew international borders and renamed countries. It led to the rise of Nazi Germany, then its fall, and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers, the Cold War, and well, you get it.

Everything we know, our entire Western frame of reference for the last century—it’s all the way it is because a driver stopped his car in front of a 19-year-old in Sarajevo for a few seconds.

Notes 📌

  1. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Who’s Who—Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved from
  2. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Who’s Who—Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved from
  3. Bailey, Jeffery. (2017, October 29). Why was Franz Ferdinand killed? Retrieved from
  4. How It Works. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand. Retrieved from
  5. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Who’s Who—Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved from
  6. How It Works. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand. Retrieved from

Notes & Citations 📌

  • Bailey, Jeffery. (2017, October 29). Why was Franz Ferdinand killed? Retrieved from
  • Dash, Mike. (2011, September 15). The Origin of the Tale that Gavrilo Princip Was Eating a Sandwich When He Assassinated Franz Ferdinand. Retrieved from
  • Devoss, David. (2000, July 31). Searching for Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved from
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Gavrilo Princip: Slavic Nationalist. Retrieved from
  • Eyewitness to History. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, 1914. Retrieved from
  • (Accessed July 13, 2018). Who’s Who—Gavrilo Princip. Retrieved from
  • How It Works. (Accessed July 13, 2018). Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand. Retrieved from
  • The New York Times. (2016, June 28). Franz Ferdinand, Whose Assassination Sparked a World War. Retrieved from
written with 💖 by Alex Johnson

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Comments & Reactions

  1. Matt
    February 23, 2019 at 4:16 am

    It’s kind of bizarre that one moment in time led to these events, including astonishing achievements such as the development of the first nuclear reactor as part of the Manhattan Project during WW2 and the 1st moon landing driven by the rivalry between the US and USSR during the Cold War.

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