Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Three Facts about Gavrilo Princip (and Why it Matters Today)

On June 28, the world will remember a single event that affected nearly every person on earth. One hundred years ago, in Sarajevo, a nineteen year old University student pulled a trigger and propelled the world into war.

June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Bosnia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He wanted to free Bosnia from the yoke of foreign occupation. In doing so he triggered a world war.

Princip Street Corner
Many historians have written about Gavrilo Princip over the last century. He is portrayed, alternately, as a hero, a terrorist, a patriot, a villain. His name has been used to unify and divide, to evoke Slavic pride and justify the horrors of war.

Who was this young man who changed Europe one summer morning with only two bullets?

There are many reasons I am intrigued by Gavrilo Princip. I live in Sarajevo. Everyday on my way to and from work I pass the infamous street corner where he pulled the trigger. For the past 15 years I’ve worked with university students and I can’t miss the choice of one teenager and its residual consequences. Add to this my interest in the history of the Balkans.

I recently read a fascinating book on Gavrilo Princip. In The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, author Tim Butcher retraces Princip’s life to uncover what motivated this young assassin. Mr. Butcher weaves the past 100 years of Bosnian history with his own contemporary journey to create a compelling narrative.

[Read my interview with Tim Butcher about Gavrilo Princip and his book The Trigger]

The Trigger clarifies why Gavrilo Princip is a lightening rod of division here in the Balkans.  However, without making any moral or historical judgements, there are at least three truths about Princip everyone can agree on.


Gavrilo Princip was a teenager

When Princip was 15 he returned home from Sarajevo for the extended summer break. On a rock behind his house he carved his initials and the date—Г П 1909. When a friend asked why he was doing it, he answered, “One day people will know my name.”

Who knew his boast would be fulfilled four short years later.

As a teenager, Gavrilo Princip moved nations. His one violent act propelled emperors onto a path of destruction. I wonder if we, today, recognized the power of young people to change the world? Have we forgotten that most movements—political, spiritual, and social—begin on the college campus?

We forget to our own detriment. [tweet_quote]The youth of the world are not the future, they are the present.[/tweet_quote] Time spent shaping young minds is time well invested.

Gavrilo Princip made a choice

According to Princip’s school records (published for the first time in The Trigger), he was an A student his first years in Sarajevo. He was bright and motivated. However, as he became more involved with the political society Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna) his grades worsened and his interest in education faded.

Tim Butcher does an excellent job showing the influences at work in Princip’s life. He was a product of his time—the annexation of Bosnia by Austro-Hungary changed him. He was a product of his upbringing—the impoverished son of a peasant farmer.

But at some point, he made a choice. He decided to pursue the path of violent rebellion. What if he had chosen differently?

Do we attribute to our choices the weight they deserve? Do we recognize the residual affects of even our smallest decisions? If we did, would that change the way we live?

Gavrilo Princip triggered world change

Whether Princip is a villain or a hero, he made a difference. Within a month, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia and Germany then entered conflict. And soon, the whole world was at war.

The 20th century—the bloodiest hundred years in history—started with one individual.

What will trigger a different, better, more hopeful next century? Do we give too much credit to the decisions of governments and bureaucrats? Do we underestimate an individual’s power to transform society?

It wasn’t the United States Congress that broke the bonds of segregation in the American south, it was the tireless effort of a young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.
It wasn’t a well-funded non-profit organization that brought attention to the dismal conditions of lower-class Indians, it was the sacrificial life of an Albanian nun, Mother Theresa.
It wasn’t the work of the United Nations that sowed peace and reconciliation throughout divided South Africa, it was the character and forgiveness of a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

My hope for the next 100 years is not found in the decrees and alliances of nations, but in the work of God-fearing individuals dedicated to the good of others.

The story of Gavrilo Princip leaves us with one clear question: What will I trigger with my life?

81HsiL6LBUL._SL1500_Want to read more? Check out Gavrilo Princip, Weaponized History, and the Role of the Historian. An Interview with award-winning author Tim Butcher about his new book, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War.

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