Gavrilo Princip and the Butterfly Effect

One of the most notorious Terezin prisoners was neither Jewish nor an artist. He was instead a Serbian teenage assassin whose actions lit a fuse that ignited the First World War and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis. His story is a sobering reminder of how the unintended consequence of a single action can affect the lives of others  in another time and place.

In 1914, Terezin was not yet a ghetto. The Large Fortress was a garrison town inhabited by a Czech-speaking population, and the Small Fortress was a military prison. It was to the Small Fortress that nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip was sent for assassinating Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary.

Who was this teenage assassin? He was born in 1894 to a poor Serbian family living in Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gavrilo first attended school at age nine, and was a very successful student. At thirteen, Gavrilo was sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to attend a merchant school. He came to admire a Bosnian Serb who tried and failed to assassinate an Austro-Hungarian governor. He also joined a group called Young Bosnia, which wanted to free Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and join it with the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia. After being expelled from his school for demonstrating against Austria-Hungary, Princip was recruited and given military training by a Serbian guerilla organization.

In 1914 Princip became involved in a plot to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. During a June 28th visit to Sarajevo, the Archduke and his wife were taken by car through the city. Princip and six other conspirators were among the spectators, armed with grenades and pistols. One of them threw a grenade, which missed the Archduke’s car and wounded the occupants of another vehicle. Chaos ensued, and the conspirators were unable to continue their plot.

Ferdinand later decided to visit the victims of the grenade at the hospital. On the way there, the driver of the car made a wrong turn into Franz Josef Street. Gavrilo Princip was also on Franz Josef Street at the moment, standing outside a café, when he spotted the car. The driver was turning the vehicle around when the engine stalled. Princip raced toward the car, pulled out his pistol, and fired twice at the vehicle, mortally wounding Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They died within minutes of the shooting.

Princip then attempted suicide but his weapon was snatched from him and he was taken into custody. At 19, he was too young to receive the death penalty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was sent to the Small Fortress in Terezin, where he died from tuberculosis four years later.

Princip’s action set off a chain of events that he himself could never have envisioned. A month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia, which had an alliance with Serbia, declared war on Austria-Hungary the following day. Russia then mobilized against Germany, which was allied with Austria-Hungary. In response, Germany declared war on Russia. After disputing with France and Belgium, Germany declared war on them as well. That same day Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun.

By the end of the war, Imperial Germany ceased to exist, replaced by the Weimar Republic. Weimar signed the Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to disarm, surrender territory and colonies, and pay billions in war reparations. It also forced Germany to accept total responsibility for the war.  Many Germans denounced the Treaty and blamed it for the near collapse of their economy. Later, Nazi propaganda would take advantage of the widespread view that the Treaty was unfair, and Hitler would blame the Weimar for accepting the Treaty. It helped to create an atmosphere that allowed the Nazi party to thrive and set the stage for the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

Gavrilo Princip did not live to see the massive consequences that resulted from his assassination of the Archduke. He was dead long before the Nazis occupied Terezin and transformed it into a ghetto. He could never have imagined the long-ranging consequences of his action. And we can never know what would have happened had he not assassinated the Archduke. Would the world have just plunged into war anyway? Or would war have been avoided, and millions upon millions of lives saved? We can never know, but we can reflect on the story of Gavrilo Princip and how one act of violence can flare and blaze wildly, triggering destruction that spreads far and wide. But as the stories of people such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Franta Maier show, one act of goodness can also radiate into the world, across vast distances of space and time. May we never forget.

2 thoughts on “Gavrilo Princip and the Butterfly Effect

  1. Wow. This post cast quite a different emotional shadow – which you wisely led into by the way you framed Princip’s story, and beautifully exited by the contrast you made at the end. The perspective you created by these authorial comments added quite a bit for this reader.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. I saw Princip’s cell when I visited Terezin and learned of how his action fueled the start of World War I. A friend suggested I write a post about it and it was definitely a challenge. I really appreciate knowing you found the post effective.

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