The Teenager Who Shot at History

One hundred years ago this summer, a disgruntled teenager decided to take matters into his own hands and exact revenge for what he felt were numerous injustices perpetrated against him, his family, his culture and his people by others who were not his own. He had plotted for weeks; with the assistance of like-minded accomplices, he literally aimed to redress a historic wrong. He positioned himself on a city street and waited for history to come into his sight. And when the time came, he aimed his gun, fired twice, and blasted a hole through it, by assassinating (in his view) the personification of his historical grievances. By doing so, he put into motion a cascading series of events which culminated in the global carnage that became World War I—which, in turn, spawned the even more grievous conflicts of the future—conflicts that are continually being felt, even to this day.  

What the teenager did back then is remembered today. But the teenager himself is not. And if he is remembered at all in the land where he came from, he is spoken of in a dismissive tone (by most people) and conversation is quickly passed over to other immediate concerns. That teenager was a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip, and he is the one that is mentioned in the history books as the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Princess Sophie, as they rode through the streets of Sarajevo one Sunday afternoon in June 1914. Historical memory can be selective. As is usually the case with history, the assassin is paired with the assassinated, e.g., John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln, Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy—but not Princip. Could it be because of his relative youth, that he was an obscure figure, that he didn’t amount to much? You could say that about others who commit such crimes, to varying degrees. But somehow, this young man was almost immediately enveloped into the historical mists and is not remembered as the others are. 

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When you think about it, you come to the startling realization that all this came about because of a teenager, a not-yet adult, who committed such an adult deed. He was nothing more than a mere youth, caught up in the swirl of history, emotion and personal grievances. Much will be written about this anniversary of the First World War. The events will be analyzed and the geopolitical implications disected in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible. And after all this time, the human cost of 9 million lives still has the power to shock. But this anniversary should be a stark reminder of what little is gained—and how much is lost—when an act of violence escalates to war, all because of misplaced ideals. 

Princip was just a schoolboy who left home in search of a better life through education. The son of a postmaster, he was just one of three surviving siblings of a family on nine children. He believed that leaving his home in a small village and joining his brother in the big city of Sarajevo would provide him with opportunities for a better life. On his way there, he got an education of another kind, one in virulent nationalism. Caught up in the nationalist politics of the day, the youth saw how people (Bosnians, Croats and Muslims) were treated by their rulers from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and vowed to seek redress on behalf of his people. The only difference between him and the other nationalists he came into contact with was that he wanted to work on behalf of all groups in society, not just any particular one. Unfortunately, this desire for justice ruined the youth’s life. The academic achiever became the anarchist destroyer who ultimately failed in his objective. The land he sought unity for has been fighting with itself on and off a hundred years since that day he pulled the trigger, and the country he loved has never really been at peace with itself—or with the wider world.  

The beginning years of the 21st century will be times of historical remembrance, an evocation of events of the early years of the century past. Unfortunately, when you parse through the pages of that history, there is not much to be proud of; whatever advances human beings accomplished then (or now, for that matter) were tarnished by the constant resort to war—the record of death, human suffering and displacement makes civilization really not so “civilized.” And a teenager who should have been looking forward to a long life of happiness, accomplishment and renown of a more appropriate sort became, instead, a part of that maelstrom. If anything on this 100th anniversary of the “Great War,” we should meditate on that—how disaffection can corrupt not just a single person, but society as a whole. 

War, hatred, violence and disagreements obviously didn’t start in 1914. It has been there from the very beginning of human history, right back to biblical times, since the time when Adam and Eve pointed fingers at each other over who did what or when brother killed brother in a jealous rage as in the case of Cain and Abel. After all, it was hatred and violence that led to the crucifixion of a just man named Jesus on a cross two millennia ago. You can call to mind every instant of hatred and war in every culture and in every nation, including our own. Every day when we watch television news, listen to a radio broadcast or glance at a newspaper headline, we are reminded anew what misplaced feelings can lead to, with tragic results. It can be war between geopolitical adversaries, or a lone ideological terrorist bent on imposing twisted religious/political beliefs on the rest of the world. Or, it can just be an unfortunate high school student acting out his insecurities in the most violent way possible—it is all the same, the lust for power, the seeking of redress of grievances. 

In retrospect, perhaps the greatest tragedy of a hundred years ago is that a teenager like Gavrilo Princip believed that he could shoot at history and feel that he had accomplished something. If only an understanding hand could have reached out to him and pointed him in another direction, perhaps things could have been different. We will never know. Perhaps the lesson—the challenge, really—is that we ought to be more cognizant of the vulnerable among us so that they may never become vitriolic against us. And maybe, just maybe, horrors of this sort will remain where it belongs—in the past.

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