Mugging, according to a popular theory, is a consensual act. Split seconds before the assault takes place victims supposedly establish some sort of complicity with their attackers, thus turning the robbery into a contractual arrangement. The same principle is just as easily applied to political assassination. Along the lines traced by Hardy’s famous poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, which suggests that the Titanic and the iceberg had actually been waiting to bump into each other, the hated tyrant seeks some kind of consummation in the thrust of a dagger or the discharge of a bullet.
The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, appears to have received more than one premonitory glimmer of his death at the hands of the Serb student Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914. ‘I know I shall soon be murdered,’ he announced to a relative shortly beforehand, adding that a newly-completed crypt at the family castle stood ready to receive him. Leaving for military manoeuvres in Austria’s newly annexed province of Bosnia, he commented on the sepulchral quality of the candlelight in his imperial railway carriage and joked about ‘a murder attempt in Sarajevo’.
Franz Ferdinand belongs to that class of assassination victims doomed to extermination for what they represent rather than for any specific wickedness. Though possessed of a temper so filthy as to suggest partial insanity, he was in no position, as yet, to act the role of tyrant. His killing sprees were confined to the non-human. A game bag totalling 272,439 included two elephants, a leopard, a panther and a domestic cat. His tenderer moments focused on his morganatic consort, Sophie Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, whom the Austrian nobility, taking its lead from the Emperor, delighted to snub. Her presence at the Archduke’s side during the fatal trip to Sarajevo offered a deliberate challenge to court protocol, for which she would pay with her life. Franz Josef characteristically interpreted the double murder as a divine punishment for flouting Habsburg dynastic conventions, refusing to acknowledge that his seizure of Bosnia might have had something to do with it.
Gavrilo Princip, at his trial, protested that he had never meant to kill Sophie. His grudge against the Archduke was hardly a personal one. As David James Smith points out in this outstanding new account of events and characters surrounding the assassination, the 19-year-old Princip was callow and unworldly, a good shot with his revolver but lacking anything in the way of contingency plans. He and his fellow conspirators plotted the attack to mark the malign coincidence or deliberate tactlessness which brought Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo on Vidovdan, St Vitus’s day, anniversary of the crushing defeat inflicted by the Turks on the Serbs at Kosovo in 1389. Theme of the ballads Gavrilo and his friends learned in their Bosnian border villages, the battle had fostered a culture of resentment and grudge-bearing easily transmuted into the sort of nationalism which confers identity and significance on downtrodden ethnic minorities.
Supplied with bombs and pistols by a Serbian army officer, the conspirators mooched around Sarajevo for several weeks trying not to look suspicious as they paced out the Archduke’s processional route and visited the grave of Bodan Zerajic, whose suicide following a bungled attempt at assassinating Emperor Franz Josef in 1910 had turned him into a martyred avenger of Kosovo. That the 1914 terrorists succeeded where he had failed was the result, as Smith points out, of a fortuitous mixture of official misunderstanding, technical blunder, peevish punctilio on the part of Franz Ferdinand, determined to go ahead with his programme despite an earlier bomb explosion, and for Princip the pure good luck of being in the right place at the right time. Even had he not happened to be standing on a street corner a few feet from the archducal car as its chauffeur, having followed the wrong route, began to reverse, a major European war would still have erupted. Gavrilo’s two pistol shots merely accelerated the process, earning him the martyr status he craved, even though finally pronounced too young for execution.
A relatively short book unfolding the amplest of perspectives, One Morning in Sarajevo is the most comprehensive study of the assassination yet published in English. The author, a professional journalist, has interviewed the conspirators’ families, tracked down their pistols in a Viennese Jesuit seminary, sifted through the trial documents and studied the notes kept by Princip’s prison psychiatrist. He remains even-handed in his treatment of the murderers and their victims, showing some compassion for poor Sophie Chotek who, even in her coffin, was made to appear insufficiently high-born by being accorded the funeral honours due to a mere lady-in-waiting. Pettiness on this scale makes just as good a case as the annexation of Bosnia for dumping the Habsburgs.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 19, 2008