Of the twenty-five defendants tried by Austrian justice for the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, sixteen were convicted, but only nine were charged with capital crimes. Six of these were under the age of twenty at the time of the assassination and therefore too young to be killed by the state, a legal consideration that preserved the life of the actual assassin, Gavrilo Princip.
But the seventh accused conspirator, Danilo Ilic, was twenty-four years old at the time of the killings. Trying to escape the death penalty, he offered Hapsburg justice everything they wanted — a full confession — but to no avail. Found guilty along with his friends in October, Ilic is hanged today with two other men: Misko Jovanovic, who helped smuggle the weapons into Bosnia, and Veljko Cubrilovic, a teacher who helped smuggle the assassins themselves.
The execution takes place at Francis Joseph barracks while the world burns. For the rampant horrors and chaos these three anarchists have sparked, there is no justice, and no comfort or closure for all the millions who choke, sicken, starve, bleed and freeze to death before the Great War is done. Plots and acts of terrorism, sabotage, and mutiny are everywhere abroad in a world gone mad from treason and broken loyalties.
In his History of the Twentieth Century: The Concise Edition of the Acclaimed World History, historian Martin Gilbert writes that “When the twentieth century began, assassination was regarded as one of the evils of the nineteenth century that would not be perpetuated in ‘modern times.’ The handiwork of a discredited ideology — anarchism — assassination was thought to have no place in the new century.” He might have added that the evil of assassination was a domain of amateurs.
Before enacting their rather bush league plot, Ilic and Princip visited the Sarajevo grave of Bogdan Žerajić, their revolutionary hero who resisted the annexation of Bosnia by the Hapsburgs with an attempted assassination in 1910. Firing five shots from his revolver without leaving a scratch on his intended victim, the military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Žerajić used his final bullet to end his own life. Žerajić seems to be the rule in 1915, not an outlier.
Yesterday’s bombing of a bridge on the Canadian-American border was almost a cartoonish affair. The South Asian men who carried out a mass shooting in Australia on New Year’s Day, 1915 were inspired by the Ottoman fatwa of jihad — itself a direct result of the Kaiser’s lobby at the Sublime Porte — but carried out their deadly purpose without slaughtering nearly as many innocents as they might have. An experienced British imperial intelligence apparatus is growing by leaps and bounds: the Kingsmen of 1915 are having the sort of actual, real, not-imaginary adventures from which spy movies and potboiler television drama are made as they uproot German spies supporting revolutionaries across the British Empire.
Yet just as the limits of cinematic technology and habits of theatre have held back the development of cinematic art, the actors on this stage seem unready in retrospect — even naive. Princip only shot his victims because (1) Austrian security arrangements were pathetic, and (2) the archduke’s driver stalled the engine right in front of the café where Princip was sulking after the first failed attempt on Ferdinand’s life. This is the stuff of potboiling television drama, but with an inexperienced and unready cast producing the world’s most violent farce.
In contrast with the Hapsburgs’ demonstrated care and concern for upholding the letter of their imperial justice with the assassins, there is no justice for the hundreds of Serbs who were lynched or arrested in the city of Sarajevo and its environs before the war, or the thousands of Serbs who have died of official injustice and oppression since the war began, or the tens of thousands of Serbs already displaced from their homes in imperial territory to starve and freeze in the Winter.
During all three of Austria’s failed invasions of Serbia — commanded by Oskar Potiorek, the same incompetent governor whose security arrangements left the archduke vulnerable — the Imperial and Royal Army has arrested and summarily hanged or shot thousands of Serbian civilians. Meanwhile, imperial Serbs have been fighting and dying for the dual monarchy in Galicia and Poland since the fighting began, sometimes deserting but mostly remaining surprisingly ‘kaisertreu‘ in spite of the bloody, bitter conditions of the war. It is a further injustice of the war that war crimes and ethnic recriminations in the collapse of the Hapsburg army detract from its record as an otherwise proud and valiant, if underfunded and equipped, service.
Most of the other convicted men, including Princip, will not survive the war due to the abysmal sanitation, rampant disease, and poor food in Austrian prisons. The assassins sought to inspire imperial overreach in Vienna with the objective of sundering the Austro-Hungarian Empire forever. Though success comes at the cost of their lives, in the end their conspiracy does succeed in its objective.