June 28, 1914: “But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.”


June 28, 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie – setting out in their motorcade in Sarajevo that fateful morning, as the assassins, unseen, move into position.

Here are two excerpts from Rebecca West’s towering Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The book is not solely about the assassination; it’s a travelogue, detailing her trips through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s. The whole book is worth a read – don’t let its daunting size scare you off – but the assassination section is very good.

This [June 28th] was a day of some personal significance to him [Franz Ferdinand]. On that date in 1900 he had gone to the Hofburg in the presence of the Emperor and the whole court, and all holders of office, and had, in choking tones, taken the oath to renounce the royal rights of his unborn children. But it was also a day of immense significance for the South Slav people. It is the feast-day of St. Vitus, who is one of those saints who are lucky to find a place in the Christian calendar, since they started life as pagan deities; he was originally a Vidd, a Finnish-Ugric deity. It is also the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo, where, five centuries before, the Serbs had lost their empire to the Turk. It had been a day of holy mourning for the Serbian people within the Serbian kingdom and the Austrian Empire, when they had confronted their disgrace and vowed to redeem it, until the year 1912, when Serbia’s victory over the Turks at Kumanovo wiped it out. But, since 1913 had still been a time of war, the St. Vitus’s Day of 1914 was the first anniversary which might have been celebrated by the Serbs in joy and pride. Franz Ferdinand must have been well aware that he was known as an enemy of Serbia. He must have known that if he went to Bosnia and conducted maneuvres on the Serbian frontier just before St. Vitus’s Day and on the actual anniversary paid a state visit to Sarajevo, he would be understood to be mocking the South Slav world, to be telling them that though the Serbs might have freed themseves from the Turks there were still many Slavs under the Austrian’s yoke.

To pay that visit was an act so suicidal that one fumbles the pages of the history books to find if there is not some explanation of his going, if he was not subject to some compulsion. But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.

Another excerpt:

In January 1913 [Danilo Ilitch] had gone to Toulouse with a Moslem friend and had visited the wonderful Gachinovitch, the friend of Trotsky. He had received from the leader weapons and poison for the purpose of attempting the life of Genera Potiorek, the Military Governor of Bosnia, but on the way he and his friend had thought better of it and dropped them out of the carriage window. Ilitch had also enrolled two schoolboys called Chubrilovitch and Popovitch, and gave them revolvers. Neither had ever fired a shot in his life. The few days before the visit of the Archduke Ilitch spent in alternately exhorting this ill-assorted group to show their patriotism by association and imploring them to forget it and disperse. He was himself at one point so overcome by terror that he got into the train and travelled all the way to the town of Brod, a hundred miles away. But he came back, though to the very end he seems at times to have urged Princip, who was living with him, to abandon the attentat, and to have expressed grave distrust of Chabriovitch on the ground that his temperament was not suited to terrorism. It might have been supposed that Franz Ferdinand would never be more safe in his life than he would be on St. Vitus’s Day at Sarajevo.

This very nearly came to be true. On the great day Ilitch made up his mind that the assassination should take place after all, and he gave orders for the disposition of the conspirators in the street. They were so naive that it does not seem to have struck them as odd that he himself proposed to take no part in the attentat. They were told to take up their stations at various points on the embankment: first Mehmedbashitch, then Chabrinovitch, then Chubrilovitch, then Popovitch, and after that Princip, at the head of the bridge that now bears his name, with Grabezh facing him across the road. What happened might easily have been foretold. Mehmedbashitch never threw his bomb. Instead he watched the car go by and then ran to the railway station and jumped into a train that was leaving for Montenegro; there he sought the protection of one of the tribes which constituted that nation, with whom his family had friendly connections, and the tribesmen kept him hidden in their mountain homes. Later he made his way to France, and that was not to be the end of his adventures. He was to be known to Balkan history as a figure hardly less enigmatic than the Man in the Iron Mask. The schoolboy Chubrilovitch had been told that if Mehmedbashitch threw his bomb he was to finish off the work with his revolver, but if Mehmedbashitch failed he was to throw his own bomb. He did nothing. Neither did the other schoolboy, Popovitch. It was impossible for him to use either his bomb or his revolver, for in his excitement he had taken his stand beside a policeman. Chabrinovitch threw his bomb, but high and wide. He then swallowed his dose of prussic acid and jumped off the parapet of the embankment. There, as the prussic acid had no effect on him, he suffered arrest by the police. Princip heard the noise of Chabrinovitch’s bomb, and thought the word was done, so stood still. When the car went by and he saw that the royal party was still alive, he was dazed with astonishment and walked away to a cafe, where he sat down and had a cup of coffee and pulled himself together. Grabezh was also deceived by the explosion and let his opportunity go by. Franz Ferdinand would have gone from Sarajevo untouched had it not been for the actions of his staff, who by blunder after blunder contrived that his car should slow down and that he should be presented as a stationary target in front of Princip, the one conspirator of real and mature deliberation, who had finished his cup of coffee and was walking back through the streets, aghast at the failure of himself and his friends, which would expose the country to terrible punishment without having inflicted any loss on authority. At last the bullets had been coaxed out of the reluctant revolver to the bodies of the eager victims.

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8 Responses to June 28, 1914: “But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.”

  1. Rachel says:

    You might be interested in this: the UK Foreign Office is tweeting in real time diplomatic correspondence concerning the July crisis, starting with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. https://twitter.com/WW1FO

    More here: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/16/the-lamps-are-going-out-tweeting-the-july-crisis/

  2. sheila says:

    Rachel – thanks! I follow a couple historical event live-tweeting sites and they’re pretty awesome – I didn’t know about this one!

  3. Myrtle says:

    I just saw something on tumblr and it totally made me think of you. In reference to the “blunder after blunder” made that day by both assassins and staff:

    “It is obvious to even the most casual observer that this particular event has been meddled with by at least two groups of time travelers trying to change history. Please, if you invent a time machine, leave the assassination of Ferdinand alone; the space-time continuum there is already showing obvious cracks from the strain.”

  4. Clary says:

    I would love to know if Duchess Sophie was expecting a child at the time of the attack. Not that it would have change anything in History, but, you know, to better understand the moment from her point of view. I remeber having read they were celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary with the trip to Sarajevo.
    “Don’t die, live for our children”, Franz Ferdinand could have been not just an Archduke, but also a melodrama writer, don’t you think?

  5. JD says:

    You went to see the long riders? (Actually long ryders?) Like, “Looking for Lewis and Clark”? Those guys? Paisley Underground? They’re like my favorite overlooked band.!!!

  6. Mike Molloy says:

    Happy coincidence for me here, I was just thinking about this line, the title of this post, and wondering where exactly it came from. I seem to remember hearing it in Mike Duncan’s (revolutions podcast) voice, and for all I could remember he’d coined it. Nice to get it right! Another straw on my “eventually read Black Lamb & Grey Falcon” back

    • sheila says:

      Mike – I don’t know the revolutions podcast – sounds interesting!

      “eventually read Black Lamb Grey Falcon” – I know. It was on my list for a long time – but, it’s 1300 pages long, you know? It was Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts – where he basically follows in her footsteps through the former Yugoslavia – that made me finally pick it up. I’ve read it twice all the way through now – and actually lugged it with me on my trip to Croatia. She is why I wanted to see Split so badly. She is why I have DREAMT of Split for YEARS. To get to spend a couple of days there was a total dream come true.

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