Centenary of an Assassination

Each night I dreamt one and the same dream: I was an anarchist, wrestling with the police.[1]

Gavrilo Princip, a member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), talking about the time just before the Sarajevo assassination

We live in an era of the onslaught of the ruling class conducted at all fronts, hence no wonder it is so easy to detect tendencies toward criminal reinterpretation of historical events, accompanied by revisions of history fashioned on the day-to-day necessities of bourgeois politics. Anniversaries, along with other commemorative festivities organised around various events of history, are such occasions when we can percieve this dark tendency inherent to the system in the most blatant of ways; these are the situations in which the ideology of the ruling class crystalises. Marking the centenary of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and, shortly afterwards, the beginning of the WWI, are particularly revealing examples in this sense.

Without a proper understanding of the historical context. it is not possible to grasp the events that took place a hundred years ago, just as this understanding is not possible in the case of Ferdinand’s assassination without a proper understanding of the specifically Yugoslav character of this context. The error one should avoid in the most careful manner, if one aims at scientifically tackling the matter of analysis of historical happenings, consists in projecting one’s own views and values on the past and making faulty analogies with contemporary events. Unfortunately, today we witness precisely this type of proceeding, infused with a large quantity of forgery and unverified information, day-to-day juggling with the facts of history, tentative recuperations of the attitudes of revolutionaries and their inclusion into the context of Serbian nationalism by the current regime in Serbia and also of the racist stance on the part of some Western European intellectuals and institutions, not forgetting indeed the bizarre coining of non-existant links with events from the recent wars in the Balkans. One should keep in mind that nationalism, as a new phenomenon, was rather amorphous throughout this period and that national, confessional, as well as political notions, which were supposed to be opposed each to other, in fact, coexisted and only at the moments when diverse affinities engaged in overt conflict in the minds of the people the issue of choice between these emerged.[2] This also stands for the movement of the Yugoslav revolutionary and national youth prior to 1914. Undoubtedly, having as their primary focus the position of the unification of South Slavs, the ideas of social justice, federalism, anti-clericalism, anti-parliamentarianism, and anarchism also played a notable role in forming the awareness of younger generations in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Hercegovina, which were then ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

“The spirit which inspired these boys was fanatic and militant hatred towards authority and tyranny―in school, on the street, and against every power-structure. For the youth it was the very essence of politics,” [3] writes Josip Horvat, the historian and a contemporary of the events, describing the general atmosphere common at the time among the insurrectionary youth in Zagreb. The attempts at breaking the protest student rally (assembly) held on February 1, 1912, in opposition to the outright introduction of Austro-Hungarian tyranny, led to the wounding of 15 students. And as a result: “Scatered youth demonstrated the entire evening around the city, throwing stones and sticks on policemen mounted on horses. Clashes raged all night. The day after a strike broke out. The students penetrated into the university building, set up barricades, hung the black flag on the building’s front side, swearing not the leave the site until their demands were met, and to respond with violence on any act of violence made against them.”[4]

In Slovenia, young Yugoslav anti-imperialists ― secondary school pupils and students― were gathered around the so-called Preporod (Rebirth) association which published the eponymous journal in 1912 and 1913. They did this in clear-cut opposition to parliamentarian petty politics and parliamentarian “struggle” and constantly in contact with the Yugoslav revolutionary youth in other parts of Austro-Hungary, including the members of Mlada Bosna. In March 1914, along the lines of similar movements in other corners of the South Slavic space within the Austro-Hungary, the activists of Preporod organised a massive student strike. After the assassination of Ferdinand, large number of Preporod members was arrested by Austrian authorities and stood trial under the charges of high treason in December 1914.[5]

In comparison to other South Slavic countries, the situation in Bosnia-and-Herzegovina was by far the worst, since the criminal regime of the so-called “Dungeon of Peoples” (popular monicker for Austro-Hungarian Empire), intending to win the support of the governing Muslim elite, preserved feudal relations, alongside the establishment of capitalism.[6] Those were the circumstances from which a generation arose whose imagination was predicated on the myth of Bogdan Žerajić, an ardent admirer of Peter Kropotkin, and a perpetrator of a failed assassination attempt on General Marijan Varešanin, the then-governer of Bosnia-and-Herzegovina, at whom Žerajić shot in June 1910. “With the last bullet he killed himself, whereas the general remained unharmed. The police decapitated Žerajić’s corpse, kept it in the police archive as a specimen of ‘a head of an anarchist’, and buried the rest of his remains in clandestine. The youths found his grave, and started to visit the site, laying their oaths to work towards the realisation of the ideal of freedom on the burial ground of the martyr freedom-fighter. This cult of Žerajić was started by Vladimir Gaćinović.[7] The other youth ― Luka Jukić ― shot at Ban Cuvaj [8] in Zagreb in Jun 1912, but also without any success. Jukić was given a lifelong prison sentence, which he served until the collapse of Austro-Hungary. August Cesarec (1893-1941), a writer and future editor of various leftist magazines (among others Plamen (Flame), 1919), was sentenced to 5 years in prison along with him.“ [9]

Danilo Ilić, a member of Mlada Bosna, designated as one of the leading inspirators and organiser of the assassination, and as such sentenced to death in February 1915, before the assassination was immersed in intense activity as translator and publisher of revolutionary, socialist, and anarchist literature. As the first book in his edition named Oslobođenje (Liberation), in Sarajevo, in 1913, he released Mikhail Bakunin’s The Paris Commune and the Idea of State, and the second title of the edition in the same year was The Lie of Parliamentarism by Pierre Ramus. [10]

It was only by chance that Nedeljko Čabrinović, the principle organiser of the assassination beside Gavrilo Princip, did not enter the hall of fame of tyrannicide ― the bomb which he hurled on Ferdinand’s vehicle, just a few moments before Princip’s shots, bounced off and exploded with a delay. Nedeljko was a typographer of the anarcho-syndicalist magazine Komuna (Commune), which at the time was printed in Belgrade, and during the trial he unequivocally described himself as an anarchist, speaking about his ties with anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in the region, presenting a genesis of his political positions from nationalism to socialism and anarchism. [11]

What is often a subject of speculation is the role played in the assassination by a late Mazzinian figure, a Serbian army colonel, Dragomir Dimitrijević Apis, and his Carbonarian organisation Ujedinjenje ili smrt (Unification or Death), more commonly known as Crna ruka (Black Hand). Apart from several instances of circumstantial evidence about the contacts certrain individuals from his entourage had with some of the members of Mlada Bosna, there is no substantial proof which can support the claim about him as an inspirator or organiser of the assassination. On the contrary, abundance of evidence and testimonies by contemporaries show that the assassination was the work of a group of young idealists which, in conditions of absence of any form of collective resistance to state repression, and in the tradition of anarchist propaganda by the deed, turned to the means of tyrannicide as an expression of the aspirations of South Slavs towards freedom. On the other hand, even the judicial aparatus of the Austrian ruling class came to the conclusion that it is not possible to prove the direct involvement of the Serbian state aparatus in the organisation of the assassination. Moreover, there are indications that the Serbian governmental establishment was not in any way familiar with the details of the assassination, and suspecting something of the sort might occur it even went on to send multiple warnings to Austro-Hungarians in that sense.[12] Therefore, the attempts at promulgating the thesis on the activity of Mlada Bosna as the instrument of the Serbian state politics are extremely inappropriate.

WWI was an interimperialist conflagration, a slaughter-house of peoples, which brought about the annihilation of almost 40mln human lives. It was a consequence of the relationships which dominated the system under which we still suffer, and the blame for its emergence, and the terrifying cost entire humanity had to pay for it, falls on all ruling cliques of all involved states in the Europe of that time. As usual, the official history is written by the victors, so it is no wonder that Gavrilo Princip and his comrades, that entire generation of insurrectionary Yugoslav youth, is put on the pillar of shame and blamed for causing WWI by the intellectual mercenary dogs of the bourgeois regime. Things are that way because, for the moment at least, the ideas of that generation ― on unity and freedom ― are crushed, and history is today interpreted by the adversaries of these ideas. It is the duty of the libertarian movement, which in the past saw some of its leading figures making a serious mistake during WWI by releasing The Manifesto of Sixteen to the benefit of the Allied Forces camp war victory, not to allow the repetition of the error of its predecessors, and to take a firm anti-militaristic and anti-imperialist stand, giving its contribution to the preservation of the memory of the truth of one generation which was never allowed to unleash its full potential to embrace freedom.

Ratibor Trivunac*

* the author is an antiquarian bookseller and publisher, member of Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative – Serbian Section of the International Workers Association (AIT-IWA)


1. See Martin Pappenheim, Gavrilo Princips Bekenntnnisse, Wien, R. Lechner & Sohn,
1926. This volume is a collection of conversations conducted with Gavrilo Princip by the prison psychiatrist during 1916 in Theresienstadt, a fortification and a military camp used as a political prison.
2. See Erik Hobsbaum, Nacije i nacionalizam od 1780 – Program, mit, stvarnost, Filip Višnjić, Beograd, 1996.
3. Josip Horvat, Pobuna omladine 1911-1914, SKD Prosvjeta, Gordogan, Zagreb, 2006.
4. Ibidem.
5. For more details on Preporod see Ivan Janez Kolar, Preporodovci 1912-1914, Tiskarna A. Slatnar, Kamnik, 1930, and Anton Ponikvar, Preporodovci proti Avstriji, Borec, Ljubljana, 1970.
6. For more details see Veselin Masleša, Mlada Bosna, Centar za liberterske studije, Beograd, 2013.
7. Frequently cited as the founder and ideology-maker of Mlada Bosna.
8. Baron Slavko Cuvaj de Ivanska (1851, Bjelovar - 1930, Vienna) was a
Croatian politician who used to be the ban (viceroy) of Croatia-Slavonia
and royal commissioner for Austria-Hungary.
9. Trivo Inđić, Kratka istorija anarhističkih ideja na tlu jugoslovenskih zemalja.
10. For both texts, as well as some other Ilić’s translations and writtings, see Spomenica Danila Ilića, Izdanje drugova i prijatelja Danila Ilića, Sarajevo, 1922.
11. For more details see Vojislav Bogićević, Sarajevski atentat – Stenogram Glavne rasprave protiv Gavrila Principa i drugova, Državni arhiv NR BIH, Sarajevo, 1954. In general, a very useful source of information about the views of the members of Mlada Bosna.
12. In relation to this see the volume by Leo Pfeffer, the investigating judge in the trial to the perpetrators of the Sarajevo Assassination (Leo Pfefer, Istraga u Sarajevskom atentatu, Nova Evropa, Zagreb, 1938).



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