Serbian Blame: The Assassins
To assess the degree of Serbian guilt, we should look in three places: the young Bosnian assassins, their backers in Serbia, and the Serbian government.
Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie Chotek, and Governor Potiorek (in an open car) passed seven assassins as their procession drove through Sarajevo. A look at the actual participants tells us something about South Slav nationalist dissatisfaction in Habsburg-ruled Bosnia.
The first conspirator along the parade route was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, a 27-year old carpenter, son of an impoverished Bosnian Muslim notable: he had a bomb. After planning a plot of his own to kill Governor Potiorek, Mehmedbasic joined the larger plot.
When the car passed him, he did nothing: a gendarme stood close by, and Mehmedbasic feared that a botched attempt might spoil the chance for the others. He was the only one of the assassins to escape.
Next was Vaso Cubrilovic, a 17-year old student armed with a revolver. Cubrilovic was recruited for the plot during a political discussion: in Bosnia in 1914, virtual strangers might plot political murders, if they shared radical interests. Cubrilovic had been expelled from the Tuzla high school for walking out on the Habsburg anthem. Cubrilovic too did nothing, afraid of shooting Duchess Sophie by accident. Under Austrian law, there was no death penalty for juvenile offenders, so Cubrilovic was sentenced to 16 years. In later life became a history professor.
Nedelko Cabrinovic was the third man, a 20-year old idler on bad terms with his family over his politics: he took part in strikes and read anarchist books. His father ran a cafe, did errands for the local police, and beat his family. Nedelko dropped out of school, and moved from job to job: locksmithing, operating a lathe, and setting type. In 1914 Cabrinovic worked for the Serbian state printing house in Belgrade.
He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, who recruited him for the killing, and they travelled together back to Sarajevo. Cabrinovic threw a bomb, but failed to see the car in time to aim well: he missed the heir's car and hit the next one, injuring several people. Cabrinovic swallowed poison and jumped into a canal, but he was saved from suicide and arrested. He died of tuberculosis in prison in 1916.
The fourth and fifth plotters were standing together. One was Cvetko Popovic, an 18-year old student who seems to have lost his nerve, although he claimed not to have seen the car, being nearsighted. Popovic received a 13-year sentence, and later became a school principal.
Nearby was 24-year old Danilo Ilic, the main organizer of the plot; he had no weapon. Ilic was raised in Sarajevo by his mother, a laundress. His father was dead, and Ilic worked as a newsboy, a theatre usher, a laborer, a railway porter, a stone-worker and a longshoreman while finishing school; later he was a teacher, a bank clerk, and a nurse during the Balkan Wars. His real vocation was political agitation: he had contacts in Bosnia, with the Black Hand in Serbia, and in the exile community in Switzerland. He obtained the guns and bombs used in the plot. Ilic was executed for the crime.
The final two of the seven conspirators were farther down the road. Trifko Grabez was a 19-year old Bosnian going to school in Belgrade, where he became friends with Princip. He too did nothing: at his trial he said he was afraid of hurting some nearby women and children, and feared that an innocent friend standing with him would be arrested unjustly. He too died in prison: the Austrians spared few resources for the health of the assassins after conviction.
Gavrilo Princip was last. Also 19-years old, he was a student who had never held a job. His peasant family owned a tiny farm of four acres, the remnant of a communal zadruga broken up in the 1880s; for extra cash, his father drove a mail coach.
Gavrilo was sickly but smart: at 13 he went off to the Merchants Boarding School in Sarajevo. He soon turned up his nose at commerce, in favor of literature, poetry, and student politics. For his role in a demonstration, he was expelled and lost his scholarship. In 1912 he went to Belgrade: he never enrolled in school, but dabbled in literature and politics, and somehow made contact with Apis and the Black Hand. During the Balkan Wars he volunteered for the Serbian army, but was rejected as too small and weak.
On the day of the attack, Princip heard Cabrinovic's bomb go off and assumed that the Archduke was dead. By the time he heard what had really happened, the cars had driven by. By bad luck, a little later the returning procession missed a turn and stopped to back up at a corner just as Princip happened to walk by. Princip fired two shots: one killed the archduke, the other his wife. Princip was arrested before he could swallow his poison capsule or shoot himself. Princip too was a minor under Austrian law, so he could not be executed. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and died of tuberculosis in 1916.
We can make some generalizations about the plotters. All were Bosnian by birth. Most were Serbian, or one might say Orthodox, but one was a Bosnian Muslim: at their trial, the plotters did not speak of Serbian, Croatian or Muslim identity, only their unhappiness with the Habsburgs.
None of the plotters was older than 27: none of them were old enough to remember the Ottoman regime. Their anger over conditions in Bosnia seems directed simply at the visible authorities. The assassins were not advanced political thinkers: most were high school students. From statements at their trial, the killing seems to have been a symbolic act of protest. Certainly they did not expect it to cause a war between Austria and Serbia.
A closer look at the victims also supports this view: that symbolic, not real, power was at stake. Assassination attempts were not unusual in Bosnia. Some of the plotters originally planned to kill Governor Potiorek, and only switched to the royal couple at the last minute. Franz Ferdinand had limited political power. He was Emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, and became the heir when Franz Joseph's son killed himself in 1889 (his sisters could not take the throne).
This position conferred less power than one might think. Franz Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, was a Bohemian noblewoman, but not noble enough to be royal. She was scorned by many at court, and their children were out of the line of succession (Franz Ferdinand's brother Otto was next). Franz Ferdinand had strong opinions, a sharp tongue and many political enemies. He favored "trialism," adding a third Slavic component to the Dual Monarchy, in part to reduce the influence of the Hungarians. His relations with Budapest were so bad that gossips blamed the killing on Magyar politicians. There have been efforts to say that Serbian politicians had him killed to block his pro-Slav reforms, but the evidence for this is thin.
Serbian Blame: The Black Hand
The assassins did not act alone. Who was involved within Serbia, and why? To understand Serbian actions accurately, we must distinguish between the Radical Party led by Prime Minister Pasic, and the circle of radicals in the army around Apis, the man who led the murders of the Serbian royal couple in 1903.
The role of Apis in 1914 is a matter of guesswork, despite many investigations. The planning was secret, and most of the participants died without making reliable statements . Student groups like Mlada Bosna were capable of hatching murder plots on their own. During 1913 several of the eventual participants talked about murdering General Oskar Potiorek, the provincial Governor, or even Emperor Franz Joseph.
Once identified as would-be assassins, however, the Bosnian students seem to have been directed toward Franz Ferdinand by Dimitrijevic-Apis, by now a colonel in charge of Serbian intelligence. Princip returned from a trip to Belgrade early in 1914 with a plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, contacts in the Black Hand who later supplied the guns and bombs, and information about the planned June visit by the heir, which Princip would not have known without a leak or tip from within Serbian intelligence.
In 1917, Apis took credit for planning the killing,
but his motives can be questioned: at the time, he was being tried for treason against the Serbian king, and mistakenly believed that his role in the plot would lead to leniency. In fact, the Radical Party and the king were afraid of Apis and had him shot.
Those who believe Apis was at work point to "trialism" as his motive. Apis is supposed to have seen the heir as the only man capable of reviving Austria-Hungary. If Franz Ferdinand had reorganized the Habsburg Empire on a trialist basis, satisfying the Habsburg South Slavs, Serbian hopes to expand into Bosnia and Croatia would have been blocked. In early June 1914, Apis is said to have decided to give guns and bombs to Princip and his accomplices, and arranged to get the students back over the border into Bosnia without passing through the border checkpoints. Later in the month, other members of the Black Hand ruling council voted to cancel the plan, but by then it was too late to call back the assassins.
Serbian Blame: Pasic and the State
While Apis may or may not have been guilty of planning the murder, the murder did not necessarily mean war. There was no irresistible outburst of popular anger after the assassination: Austria-Hungary did not take revenge in hot blood, but waited almost two months. When the Habsburg state did react against Serbia, it was in a calculated manner as we will see in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the Austrians chose to blame the Pasic government for the crime. How culpable was the Serbian state?
There is no evidence to suggest that Pasic planned the crime. It is unlikely that the Black Hand officers were acting on behalf of the government, because the military and the Radical Party in fact were engaged in a bitter competition to control the state. After the Balkan Wars, both military and civilian figures claimed the right to administer the newly liberated lands (the so-called Priority Question). After 1903, Pasic knew that Apis' clique would kill to get their way.
Pasic's responsibility revolves around reports that he was warned of the intended crime, and took inadequate steps to warn Austrian authorities. Despite Pasic's denials, there is substantial testimony that someone alerted him to the plot, and that Pasic ordered the Serbian ambassador in Vienna to tell the Austrians that an attempt would be made on the life of the heir during his visit to Bosnia.
However, when the Serbian ambassador passed on the warning, he appears to have been too discreet. Instead of saying that he knew of an actual plot, he spoke in terms of a hypothetical assassination attempt, and suggested that a state visit by Franz Ferdinand on the day of Kosovo (June 28) was too provocative.
Austrian diplomats failed to read between the lines of this vague comment. By the time the warning reached the Habsburg joint finance minister (the man in charge of Bosnian affairs), any sense of urgency had been lost, and he did nothing to increase security or cancel the heir's planned visit. After the murders, the Serbian government was even more reluctant to compromise itself by admitting any knowledge, hence Pasic's later denials.
If we agree that the Pasic government did not plan the killings, what can we say about their response to the crisis that followed? War in 1914 was not inevitable: did the Serbs work hard enough to avoid it?