The Boy Who Started WWI: Hero or Terrorist? (Opinion Piece)

May 24, 2021

The following is an opinion piece by reporter Ella Dezelak

The infamous First World War was no small or glorious event. The international state was gripped tightly in chaos. All of these catastrophic events were immediately pinpointed on 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip from Sarajevo, the capital city of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact in this situation is that Princip assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There is, however, one question that remains subjective to many; is the boy who started WWI a hero or terrorist?

To briefly summarize that fatal day of June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were visiting Sarajevo, when Nedeljko Cabrinovic, member of Young Bosnia (Mlada Bosna in Serbo-Croatian), a revolutionary movement, threw a hand grenade at their moving carriage. His attempt failed, striking the accidental target of the crowd. The royals decided to visit those who were affected by the grenade attack gone wrong.

Returning from their act of generosity, the carriage turned left onto today’s street Obala Kulina Bana from Zelenih Beretki, where their lives were destined to end. Gavrilo Princip, another member of Young Bosnia, anticipated their arrival and fired the shot that allegedly began WWI, killing two important figures of one of the greatest empires in Europe in its time. All of these rudimentary statements are not disputable, but there are, however, many subjective factors that can be.

To begin with, the goals of the so-called nationalist group Young Bosnia should be taken into account. The sole purpose of this composition was political and national liberation through revolution. This want for liberation was not just a greedy whim that the nationalist group had, yet it was this: if we, the south Slavs, all speak the same language, share the same culture, and have lived in this region, the Balkans, far longer than any empire that has colonized us has, why should we not unite? 

As already mentioned, the Austro-Hungarians were not native to the land. After the Ottoman Empire weakened and began to draw back into Istanbul and other present-day Turkish land, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to slowly enter the unoccupied south Slavic countries. This quickly became an annexation, and countries that are now Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were claimed as part of the empire. 

To say that the empire did not benefit the region in any way would be a lie. There were a few things that turned out to be useful. It is because of them that the first railroad was built in the previously occupied land, but this was not a gift to the Slavs. Instead, the railroad was built so that the importation of ores, timber, and various other goods would be more convenient for the occupants. They also did leave behind quite a few architectural treasures. 

For many, however, the empire did more harm than good. The people, who already had their Serbo-Croatian language, had to accept the Austrian language, as it was the official language of the empire. After the annexation, the ethno-Serbs, whose country was not annexed, were denied the right to language, school and identity. Again, the Serbian revolutionaries, which also consisted of Croats and Muslims, saw this as something that stood in the way of them leading their own people. Princip himself stated, “I am a Yugoslav natioanlist, aiming for the unification of all south Slavs.”

Since this was the case, opposition to the oppressor seemed like an obvious solution, and revolution is what instigated the shot that ended the empire. There are still people who oppose this view. Those who opposed Princip and Young Bosnia’s actions were against unity of the south Slavic people, believing that the lives of an innocent man and woman (whose death was actually accidental, Princip’s only target was the Archduke) were lost in a nationalistic attempt to form a “Greater Serbia,” which was not the case at all.

Upon the assassination, Serbia received an ultimatum from Austro-Hungaria, and they agreed to all terms except for one, and this begun the war between Serbia and the empire. A common and well-believed myth that is often spread when discussing this topic is that Princip began WWI. This, however, is false. Across the world, tensions were rising. The aspiration to divide global colonies and occupied territories had struck every country and empire, this goal was very prevalent between Austria and Germany. This controversial territory was being chased after left and right, the empire claiming in-land territories and Italy making persistent attempts to claim the Slovenian and Croatian coast Istra. These territorial disputes were showcased internationally and were the true motive behind WWI. Princip carrying out the assassination of an important political figure was as some would say the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was the perfect opportunity for nations across the world to blame their tensions on the Balkans. Thinking critically, major Western powers would not have joined a conflict between Serbian rebels and an Archduke.

While the West may not see this topic as a big deal, rarely ever discussing it, former Yugoslav countries view this as a key point in their history, just as the U.S. does the Civil War. To this day, areas of the region are torn on whether Princip was in the right or wrong. Rajna Removic, who grew up in Sarajevo, stated, “In my perspective, Gavrilo Princip was a hero. With his actions, the young man single-handedly fought imperial oppression brought to our region by the Austro-Hungarians.” 

Not all from the Balkans hold the same opinion, as mentioned previously. Paula Previsic, a student from a coastal Croatian city, Dubrovnik, explained, “I believe that, although Princip had good intentions, he still was one of the causes of WWI, which means that he brought an immense number of casualties and in some places famine (like Germany). It’s a tricky question, but I lean more towards the war criminal side.”

While the actions had great consequences, I fully believe that Gavrilo Princip and other members of Young Bosnia were heroes who wanted nothing but to liberate people who looked, talked, and acted the same. If it were not for the revolutionary act that this nineteen-year-old had carried out in the name of every south Slav in the region, our rich and beautiful culture would have been stripped from us the same way it had been under the Ottoman rule. 


“Our shadows will walk through Vienna, strolling through the court, frightening the lords.”

-Gavrilo Princip.


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