Touched by history: Meeting a witness to WWI assassination

Roundup
tags: World War I, Gavrilo Princip



Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.

Sometimes history punches you right in the face, and there's no time to duck. It happened to me when I was a teenager in Vienna, accompanying my parents on a business trip. My dad's local contact -- Dr. Radler -- piled us into his Mercedes for a Sunday morning spin. We sped to a Danube village in time to see the entire population -- kids in lederhosen, sturdy moms and dads, respected grandparents -- tumbling out of the onion-domed church, across the square, and into the wine garden.

Under its exotic steeple and fortified towers, the town seemed marinated in history. To bring that history to life, Radler pulled up an extra chair, poured a glass of wine, and invited the oldest man in the village to sit next to me. Radler announced, "This man has seen with his own eyes the start of the Great War . . . the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914."

I thought Radler was being theatrical until the old man opened his mouth. With two gray horsetails for a mustache and a droopy ivory pipe carved fine enough for a Habsburg, he spoke in streaks, allowing Radler to translate.

"I saw the assassin Princip the Serb step out of a shop. Stopped at the corner was the Archduke Ferdinand in the back of his open car. Princip pulled out his gun, took two steps forward, and shot him in the neck . . . dead."

Radler, pleased by my fascination with this eyewitness account of one of the defining moments of the 20th century, asked the old man to back up a bit.

The man explained that Gavrilo Princip and his Serb nationalist partners -- upset with Habsburg control of Bosnia -- went to Sarajevo to kill Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, who was visiting from Vienna. They threw a bomb at his car. But they miscalculated the speed of the entourage, and the bomb landed on the car behind Ferdinand. The assassins scattered.

Pausing as if to rewind the videotape of his life, the old man stared at his lard-covered bread. After twisting a pinch of salt on it with nicotine-stained fingers, he continued. "Princip went into a shop to hide . . . and have a schnapps. Later, as he left the shop he stood before his target."

Incredibly, the archduke's car -- which took a detour so that Ferdinand could visit the bombing victims at a hospital -- had stopped on the street in front of the demoralized assassin.

Leaning forward, as if we were the first to hear this part, the old man said, "Princip rubbed his eyes. How could this be true?"

My parents and I leaned forward as well. Even Radler was on the edge of his chair. As we huddled together over our table, the translating continued. "The assassin pulled out his pistol. He shot both the archduke and his wife. And soon after this . . ."

He paused and I said, "World War One." ...




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