Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Event that Sparked World War I

                                                               THE ASSASSINATION



                                  Franz Ferdinand, Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Sophie

Hundred years ago a tubercular young man, standing at the junction of two streets in Sarajevo, fired two shots at a couple in a car. The woman died on the spot while the man died a few minutes later.

The killer was an impoverished Bosinian Serb named Gavro Princip. The couple he killed was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, and his wife, Sophie.

The shooting would catapult Europe into a destructive (and largely pointless) war and millions would be slaughtered, a consequence Princip probably was not aiming for when he, almost randomly, took up a position in front of a Jewish general store and delicatessen, at the junction of Franz Joseph Street (ironically enough, named after the uncle of the Archduke and the reigning emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Joseph) and Appel Quay, on the morning of 28 June 1914.

The Archduke had survived another assassination attempt that morning. A man had tried to kill the Archduke by throwing a bomb at his car. The man’s name was Nedjo Cabrinovic. Cabrinovic was a friend of Princip. The bomb he threw at the Archduke’s car was handed to him by Princip, along with a cyanide capsule. This was the agreement among the conspirators: to commit suicide after the killing. Dead conspirators do not talk (and betray their colleagues).

Before he threw the bomb that he thought would ensure his place in history, Nedjo wanted to have his photograph taken that morning—‘so that,’ (he would say in his trial) ‘something would remain of me.’ With a friend, whom he ran into by chance, Nedjo went to an open photographic studio. There, he posed for a photograph.



                                                                 Nedjo Cabrinovic

The last photograph taken of Nedjo Cabrinovic as a free man shows a tall, handsome man sitting on a low arm-chair and staring intensely at the camera. He is sporting a moustache that makes him look somewhat older than his 19 years. He is wearing a jacket, a coat and tie. His legs are crossed and in his right hand he is holding a rolled newspaper. His lips are pursed and he looks tense.

It was nine o’clock in the morning of 28 June 1914 when Nedjo posed for his photograph. He reckoned that the royal couple would be dead by eleven. The photographer developed print copies within an hour: Nedjo ordered six. Lying to his friend that he was leaving for Zagreb, Nedjo requested him to send a copy each to his grandmother, his sisters, and a few friends he had in Belgrade.

Nedjo then went to the Appel Quay and spent some time strolling, thinking in his mind where he would stand when he threw the bomb. His aim, as he would later assert in his trial, was to kill only the Archduke and no one else. (He was challenged about this in the trial and it was pointed out that when he threw the bomb at the car it was inevitable that the Archduke’s wife would die too. Nedjo replied that he wanted to kill only the Archduke, but, if that was not possible, his wife would need to be ‘sacrificed’ too—in the name of revolution.)

A number of witnesses would claim in the trial that they had seen Nedjo —a tall dark man wearing a black hat—standing by the electric pole, riverwards, on the Appel Quay when the Archduke’s parade passed. Archduke and Archduchess were in the third car of the cavalcade.

Nedjo had unscrewed the bomb and kept it in his belt, his hand covering it. As he saw the ‘green cap’ in the third car, Nedjo hit the bomb against the lamp pole to activate it, and threw it at the car.

What probably saved the Archduke on that occasion were Nedjo’s hurry and the instinctive reaction of the royal chauffer when the chauffer heard the sound of the bomb being hit against the lamp pole.

Nedjo did not follow the instructions given to him to the letter. He was asked to count to ten slowly and then throw the bomb, but in his excitement, he threw it without waiting. As a result the bomb still had almost twelve seconds to go before it exploded.

In the meanwhile the chauffer had instinctively accelerated when he heard the sound of Nedjo priming the bomb. As a result the bomb landed on the folded roof of Archduke’s automobile (rather than on Archduke’s person), bounced off it, and fell on the ground.

According to one eye-witness Ferdinand stood up in his car, looking ‘jittery and shaken’. According to Nedjo himself, the Archduke looked at him with ‘cold, inflexible gaze’.

Nedjo turned around, swallowed the poison—in his trial he said he took a double dose—and jumped over the wall into the river Miljacka. The poison did not work. The river was at a low tide and Nedjo lay sprawled and face down on the river bank. A Gendarme who had seen Nedjo throwing the bomb chased him down to the river A Muslim detective and two local men also stumbled down to the riverbank. Nedjo was dragged out of river. (During his trial Nedjo was visibly irked to hear the witnesses tell the presiding judge that they too had jumped into the river after him. He made it a point to clarify that none of them had jumped into the river—probably indicating that they lacked the courage—rather they had followed a side-road from Appel Quay to reach the river bank). The detective pulled out a revolver and wanted to shoot Nedjo there and then, but he was prevented by the gendarme. One of the men asked Nedjo, ‘You are a Serb, aren’t you?’ Nedjo replied, ‘I am a heroic Serb.’


       Miljacka River and Appel Quey to its Left: the Site of the assassination Attempt by Cabrinovic

Nedjo was taken to the police station. At the police station he told the police that he had got the bomb from his ‘association’. He was asked whether he had accomplices; he did not answer.

Sitting in Archduke and Archduchess’s car were General Oskar Potiorek, the governor of the increasingly unpopular Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bosnia, and Count Harrach, who owned the car. Potiorek was sitting in the back with the royal couple while Harrach was sitting in front with the driver. The two would be with the royal couple later that same morning when Gavro Princip fired his fatal shots.

After the failed assassination attempt, the Archduke told General Potiorek that he believed that two bombs were thrown at him; he also thought that one of the bombs landed inside the car, although he did not see where it exactly landed. However, he said nothing because he did not want to alarm his wife (!), and carried on sitting in the car (presumably waiting to be blown up.)

As it happened, the bomb did not land in the car. The Archduke had survived the first attempt to assassinate him. But he would not live for long. In fact he would be dead within hours.

Archduke’s car went a few yards in front on Appel Quay after the bomb was hurled at him before it came to a halt at Ferdinand’s orders. Ferdinand asked Count Harrach to go back and see whether anyone was injured (twenty people sustained injuries). As Harrach carried out his inquiries, Ferdinand and Sophie waited in the open-topped car in the middle of the road where a bomb was thrown at him minutes earlier. The Archduke remarked to general Potiorek, ‘the fellow [Nedjo] must be insane.’

As Nedjo had hinted at, following his arrest, at the police station, he was not operating in isolation. He was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Franz Ferdinand.

As the Archduke’s cavalcade drove along the Appel Quay on that sunny June morning in Sarajevo, a total of five assassins were lying in wait for him. They were all part of the same plot, but only one of them was aware of the identities of all of them. That man was Gavro Princip, who eventually killed Ferdinand later that morning.

Gavro Princip, with his childhood friend Danilo Ilic, hatched a plot to assassinate the Heir-Apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and the two recruited others.

The first assassin waiting for the Heir-Apparent was a Bosnian Muslim named Mehmed Mehmedbasic. Mehmedbasic was recruited to the plot a few weeks before 28 June. Although belonging to the Muslim Community traditionally loyal to the Empire, Mehmedbasic had spent the previous years associating with revolutionaries, majority of them Bosnian Serbs, who kept themselves busy, plotting the overthrow of the Empire.

As Franz Ferdinand’s car drove on Appel Quay, Mehmedbasic was waiting, with a bomb and a revolver; but he did nothing.

The second assassin waiting for the Archduke was a 17 year old boy named Vaso Cubrilovic. Vaso was standing more or less exactly opposite Nedjo Cabrinovic, armed, like Mehmedbasic, with a revolver and bomb; and, like Mehmedbasic, Vaso failed to act.

Vaso was recruited to the plot 6 weeks before the assassination.

Neither Vaso nor Mehmedbasic was aware of the identities of the other assassins, including Gavro Princip.

Years later, both Mehmedbasic and Vaso Cubrilovic (the only two of the plotters who lived to tell their tales) would give imaginative excuses why they made no attempt on the Archduke’s life. The real reason most probably was that their nerves failed them at the last minute.

The third assassin was Nedjo Cabrinovic, the most uninhibited and flamboyant of the lot. He only had bombs on him, as he had not learned to shoot. Nedjo, itching to write his name in the history, threw the bomb, but missed.

As Nedjo’s bomb went off the remaining assassins present on the quay threw themselves on the road. We already know Mehmed Mehmedbasic and Vaso Cubrilovic. There were three more.

Just round the corner from Vaso Cubrilovic and Nedjo was standing Cvetjko Popovic. Only 16, Popovic was the youngest of the assassins. Popovic (and probably Vaso too) must have seen that Cabrinovic’s bomb had failed to kill Ferdinand. However, Popovic failed to act even as Ferdinand, who seemed to have no concerns for his safety, waited in the open-topped car (with his wife next to him) in the middle of Appel Quay for several minutes. Popovic did not act.

The two remaining assassins were Trifko Grabez and the eventual killer, Gavro Princip. Both of them were standing further down Appel Quay— Princip near the Latin Bridge (which, years later, would be renamed Princip Bridge) and Grabez near the Imperial Bridge. Both Princip and Grabez were standing some distance from Nedjo and probably not in a position to determine whether his bomb had done the job.

To summarise: of the five assassins waiting to kill the Heir-Apparent, only one acted. And he was unsuccessful. The remaining four did not act for one reason or another. Incredibly, the Archduke had survived. Surely he would not test his luck and go out again on the roads of Sarajevo where who knows how many more assassins were waiting to kill him.


                                       Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914

The Archduke’s cavalcade continued to the town hall. The first two cars, which had not waited after the explosion reached the hall well before the Archduke’s car arrived. A welcoming party of Muslims, Catholics and Serbs who were loyal to the Empire was waiting at the town hall. A red carpet had been rolled out.

The Archduke was incandescent with rage by the time he arrived at the town hall. As the Lord Mayor (who at the time was unaware of the assassination attempt on Ferdinand’s life—the party had heard the explosion but thought it was a cannon salute) began his welcoming speech, the Archduke interrupted him, saying, ‘What is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a friendly visit and someone throws a bomb at me. This is outrageous.’ (This suggests that the Archduke’s grasp of the political situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which the Empire had annexed only three years earlier, was as shaky as his assessment of the danger posed to his life on the streets of Sarajevo, as his subsequent actions would show.) The Archduchess whispered soothing words into her husband’s ears and he calmed down visibly.

The Archduke spoke after the mayor’s speech and added a line about the assassination attempt into his prepared text. During the reception Archduke regained his poise sufficiently to joke about the attempt. ‘You mark my word,’ he said, ‘the chap will probably, in good old Austrian style, be decorated with the Order of Merit, instead of being made harmless.’ He added after a pause: ‘Today we shall get a few more little bullets.’ Prophetic words.

Even though Ferdinand was determinedly making light of the situation a furious discussion ensued among the officers about how to get him out of Sarajevo alive. General Potiork opined that the order of the day should be changed and the Archduke should go straight to Konak (the official residence of the governor) by a different route, where he was due for lunch. The Archduke rejected the suggestion that he stay at the town hall while the troops cleared the roads. He insisted on going to the hospital to see a member of the procession who was injured in the explosion.

It was eventually agreed that Archduke would continue with the parade in his open top car! However, the cavalcade, instead of turning right into the Franz Joseph Street, as originally planned, which would have taken them through the narrow roads of the city centre, would go instead straight back on the Appel Quay, taking the long way round to the hospital.

Archduke sent a telegram to his uncle Franz Joseph, the Emperor (there was little love lost between the two men), informing him of the attempt on his life. He then sent his aide to the first floor of the town hall where the Archduchess was meeting the Muslim women of the city, with the message that he wanted her to go separately to Konak (and to safety). The Archduchess told the aide in a manner, he recalled later, that brooked no argument that as long as her husband appeared in public that day she was not leaving him.


                        Franz Ferdinand & Sophie posing for a Photograph Outside Town hall

The Archduke was now ready to leave for what would turn out to be the final journey of his life. The last photograph taken of the royal couple shows them sitting side by side in the back of the car.

This time round Franz Ferdinand sat in the middle. To his right was sitting his wife, Sophie; to his left, the despised general of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Oskar Potiorek.

Count Harrach, the owner of the car, was convinced that there would be another attempt on the Archduke’s life. He refused to sit next to the driver; instead he decided to stand on the sideboard of the car in order to shield the Archduke from further attack.

Harrach’s hunch was correct. There would be another attempt on Archduke’s life. Waiting for him at the junction of Appel Quay and Franz Joseph Street would be an assassin carrying a pistol and a bomb.

The cavalcade set off once more. At the Emperor’s bridge was standing Trifko Grabez; but Archduke avoided him, as the parade did not turn left on to the bridge and went straight ahead, instead, on the Appel Quay. Even then Grabez, who must have been in a position to see the Archduke in his open top car could have made an attempt on Archduke’s life if he wanted. He didn’t. (In his trial Grabez would tie himself in knots and change his story more than once as to what his intentions were on that day.)

Still on Appel Quay, the cavalcade approached another bridge, the Latin bridge. Just before the Latin Bridge, on the right, was Franz Joseph Street. The cars were not supposed to turn into Franz Joseph Street; they should have continued on Appel Quay. Inexplicably, the car in front of the royal car turned right into the Franz Joseph Street, and the chauffer of Archduke Ferdinand’s car also followed the car into Franz Joseph Street, instead of going straight ahead.

It is not known why this mistake happened. One (plausible) explanation is that the drivers were not properly briefed in the confusion after Nedjo’s bomb went off, and they mistakenly kept to the original route. The other explanation would be: this was a conspiracy and the royal couple was deliberately delivered into the hands of the assassin.

To the right, where the car, having turned into the Franz Joseph Street, would now have to pass, was a general store and delicatessen of a Jewish retailer Moritz Schiller. Standing in front of the shop was a hollow-eyed short man (according to a nearby witness) with a browning pistol in his hand: Gavro Princip.

In his trial Princip said that when he heard the bomb explosion he was sure it was by one the ‘associates’, but he wasn’t sure which one. He began running with the mob, and then saw the Archduke’s open-top car standing in the middle of Appel Quay. He assumed that it was all over and that Ferdinand was dead. He saw Nedjo Cabrinovic being arrested. He thought about rushing to him and shooting him dead, and then shooting himself. Then the cars began to move again. It was then that Princip realised, even though he had not seen him, that Franz Ferdinand was still alive.

Princip returned to the Latin bridge wondering where he was going to take his position. He knew the published route of Ferdinand’s procession and knew that it would pass through the Franz Joseph Street. He decided to cross the road and wait in front of Schiller’s grocery shop.

As Archduke’s car turned into Franz Joseph Street, General Potiorek, who was sitting on the other side of the Archduke, realised that the royal chauffer had made a mistake. Potiorek shouted at the chauffer, ‘What is this? Stop! You are going the wrong way! We ought to go via the Appel Quay!’

The driver pulled up the car and prepared to reverse back on to the apple quay. The car stopped directly in front of Gavro Princip.

This was the place, this was the moment, and Princip was the man.

Princip pulled out his pistol from his pocket and raised it. He was not an experienced shooter, having taken lessons for the first time only a couple of months earlier. He turned his head away, which meant that he was not even looking at his victims, and fired. Then he fired again. He fired only two shots. That was enough.

As General Potiorek still issued instructions and the car began to reverse, the Duchess fell forward and to her left, across Ferdinand’s lap, almost touching Potiorek. Potiorek also noticed a thin stream of blood coming out of the Archduke’s mouth. He saw the Archduke’s lips moving and realised that he was saying something to his wife, but could not hear the words. Potiorek thought that the Duchess had fainted.

Count Harrach, who was standing on the sideboard of the car, also saw blood oozing out of Archduke’s mouth. He heard the Duchess saying, ‘In God’s name what has happened to you?’ Then the Duchess collapsed, her face in Archduke’s lap. The Archduke called out, ‘Sopher! Don’t die. Live for our children!’

Count Harrach saw the Archduke holding his right side. He grabbed the collar of Archduke’s tunic to stop him from slumping forward and asked him, ‘Is something hurting you?’ The Archduke, his face distorted, whispered, ‘That’s nothing.’ He repeated, his voice fading rapidly, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.’ He repeated this 6 or 7 times and then choked convulsively on the blood in his mouth.

It is not known whether the bullet that struck Ferdinand was the first or the second shot Princip fired. The bullet entered the Archduke’s neck through the right hand side of his coat-collar and severed the jugular vein. It then travelled further and lodged itself in the Archduke’s spine. The bullet that killed his wife went directly through the side of the car where she was sitting and hit her in almost straight line. The entry wound was in the right groin, four centimetres above the hip bone. The opening wound was six centimetres wide.

The car drove quickly across the bridge to Konak, the Archduke seeping blood at an alarming rate. Some doctors ran alongside the car and tried to administer treatment. The Duchess was unconscious, most probably dead. The Archduke collapsed as the car arrived at Konak. Both were taken into the building. The duchess was placed on a bed on the first floor, while the Archduke was placed on a chaise-longue.

By 11.30 in the morning (of 28 June 1914) deaths were confirmed. (Nedjo Cabrinovic’s estimation was exactly right). The Heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lay dead, and the distant drums of the First World War began to sound.





Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Book of the Month: The Spy Game (Georgina Harding)


The narrator of The Spy Game, Georgina Harding’s second novel, is Anna Wyatt. Middle aged and well settled in life, Anna is leading a comfortable middle-class English existence. She has no financial worries, and has a grown up daughter. Anna also has a brother, Peter, who lives in Hong Kong with his Chinese family. Anna’s relations with her only sibling have become distant over the years. Yet, as children, the two were very close, united as they were in grief. The two also shared a secret—more like a suspicion—when they were growing up. This related to their mother. In 1961, one foggy Monday morning, in the middle of a freezing winter, Anna and Peter’s mother, Caroline, drives into the fog and never comes back. Eight year old Anna and her older brother, Peter, are later told that their mother’s car skidded on the black ice as she drove to London, killing her on the spot. From then on, their mother is never mentioned again. She is rubbed out: it is as if she never existed. Their emotionally distant father does not remarry, and raises the children with the help of their neighbours.

The same day as Anna and Peter’s mother disappears, a sensational story breaks out—the arrest of the members of the Portland Spy ring (a real life Soviet spy ring that operated in Britain in the 1950s and involved spies who operated without the embassy cover, and led, for all outward purpose, ordinary lives: two members of the spy ring were notorious spies who were accomplices of the Rosenbergs and ran an antiquarian book shop). Anna’s brother Peter, blessed with an overactive imagination, is convinced that their mother did not really die. His theory? Their mother was a spy, possibly linked to the Portland Spy ring, and disappeared just in time when she realised that the balloon was going up. Their mother, they know, was a German, an East German too, who had met their English father in 1947, in Berlin. The children know remarkably little about their mother’s past. Other than her name—Karoline which she had anglicised to Caroline after marriage— and her surname, the only thing the children know about their mother’s past is the German city she said she came from—Konisberg. This city, at the height of the Cold War, cannot even be found on the map. After the German defeat in the Second World War, the city in which their mother said she was born, had become part of the Soviet Union, was renamed Kalinigrad, and  was not open to the Westerners. The children, especially Peter, become obsessed by this notion that their mother, a Soviet spy, is alive. They decide to observe everyone in the sleepy village, and communicate with each other in codes. They start compiling dossiers on others, and, putting two and two together, arrive at the conclusion that it is twenty-five. The children do not discover anything that throws light on the disappearance of their mother, but they get a glimpse into the lives of some of the people in the village: such as the their neighbours, the Laceys, still traumatized by their experiences in the Japanese prisoner of Wars camps during the Second World War; and the young Jewish refugee, Miss Cohen, from whom young Anna takes piano lessons, and who is slowly going mad in the stifling English culture so far removed from her childhood in Germany. Miss Cohen has a mysterious—mysterious to the children, in any case—lover, who, Peter is convinced, is a spy and is connected in some way to the disappearance of their mother. Indeed, during one Christmas, when the children are shopping with their neighbour in Oxford, Peter gives them all a slip when he spots Miss Cohen’s lover—the children (and the readers) do not know his name—and follows him, claiming, later, that he saw the man meeting a woman who was wearing almost exactly the same coat their mother wore when she stepped out of their home for the last time.

Years later, Anna, while clearing the house after the death of her father finds her mother’s diary, which her father never showed her (but clearly wanted her to find after his death). In the diary, hidden under the trivia of the daily life of a village housewife in the sixties, Anna finds an intriguing quote her mother had copied from Elliot’s Waste Land:  ‘Lilacs out of the dead land’. Middle-aged, with old age round the corner, and a lot of free time on her hand, Anna decides to solve the mystery of their mother’s identity. Peter, her childhood co-conspiracy-theorist, is immersed in his hectic Hong Kong life and is no longer interested in finding out who their mother really was. Anna would have to make this journey of discovery—if it ever leads to it—on her own. She goes through the newspaper-archives detailing the Portland Spy Ring case, and is struck by the outwardly ordinary lives the spies were leading. Anna’s search for her mother sends her first to Berlin—where her parents had met—and finally to Kalinigrad—now the Cold War has ended, the town has been opened to the Westerners—a bleak Russian town, with Stalinistic cookie-cutter buildings, where all the evidence of its pervious Prussian influence has been rubbed out. There, in the drab building that stored what remained of the Konigsberg archives before the Soviet juggernaut rolled in, a building that ‘resembled a filing cabinet’, Anna  delves into her mother’s history that had lain hidden behind the Iron curtain all these years.

The Spy Game is a densely atmospheric novel. It begins with a foggy morning on a freezing day in January. The fog never really lifts; it engulfs everything that is described. The narrator is adult Anna, who is reflecting back on the seminal event that came to mark—almost blight—her childhood: the disappearance of her mother. It is a sober reflection on the meaning of loss and the elaborate identities we create to fit in with our version of truth.

The section of the book dealing with the efforts of young Anna and her brother to find out what happened to their mother has more than a passing thematic resemblance to Michael Frayin’s Spies. In Spies a young boy is convinced that the mother of his best friend is a German spy.  The difference is that whereas Frayn’s novel cunningly leads the reader up the garden path, so to speak, only to show, with the denouement, for what it really is—a tall story concocted by a couple of school boys with overheated imagination—Harding infuses her story with liberal doses of paranoia and surrounds it with ambiguity. When Anna embarks on her quest to unravel the mystery surrounding her mother’s background, the reader might be excused for expecting a dramatic resolution that would help make sense of all that precedes it. That does not quite happen: the uncertainty persists till the end.

This is the first novel of Georgina Harding I read. (I have since read her next novel, The Painter of Silence, set in Bulgaria, which has the same ambiguity as in The Spy Game). Harding used to be a travel writer before she made the switch a few years ago to fiction writing. Her d├ębut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave told the story of a man who stays in the Arctic for a whole season, in the seventeenth century. In an interview given at the time, Harding clarified that she did not of course travel to the Arctic where the novel is set; she spent hours in the British Library and did her research. I don’t know whether she travelled to Kalinigrad or to British Library while researching for The Spy Game. Whatever might be the case, she does not strike a single false note in her description that successfully conveys the desolation of the landscape.
Harding is a spare writer, and her lean, calmly quiet prose, with its lexical ambiguity, adds to the dark theme of her plot and contributes richly to the undertone of melancholy, even though, at times, you feel that it struggles to bring forth the pathos of the lives of two motherless children trying to make sense of the tragedy that has turned their lives upside down.


The Spy Game is elegantly written novel that deals with the universal themes of loss, grief and deception. It may not be the most gripping novel you have read, but it is still worth a read.