Gavrilo Princip’s Grave: The Interwar Years, 1920-1939

Gavrilo Princip was first buried in secret in an unmarked grave at the Theresienstadt or Terezin prison following his death on April 28, 1918. His remains were exhumed and transferred to Sarajevo on July 7, 1920. This was Gavrilo Princip’s grave until 1939 when a Chapel was built to replace the grave.

The other conspirators were also interred in this grave. Bogdan Zerajic’s remains were also reburied here.

The assassination occurred on the Orthodox holiday, Vidovdan or St. Vitus’ Day, Sunday, on June 28, 1914. For this reason the conspirators were called the “Vidovdan Heroes” and the Chapel memorial was named “The Tomb of the Vidovdan Heroes”.

After the war, the remains of the conspirators were located and exhumed by the government of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and brought back to Sarajevo from the burial sites within Austria-Hungary. They had been buried in unmarked graves in the vicinity of the prisons where they had been incarcerated. They were reburied in the common grave in Sarajevo on July 7, 1920. Exactly 19 years later, on July 7, 1939, the Chapel of the Holy Archangel was built and dedicated to them. This was the grave of Gavrilo Princip that remained up to the time of the centennial in 2014.

But for 19 years, from 1920 to 1939, Gavrilo Princip’s grave was a three-layered stone tombstone. There were three tiers or slabs arranged in an oblong shape. The grave was near the cemetery fence. The palings of the cemetery fence can be seen in photographs to the left of the grave made of black metal spikes or stakes. The grave itself was surrounded by large chains which were attached to short columns. There were round bushes in the corners. This is the grave that Rebecca West described in 1937 in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) before the Chapel was built in 1939. The old grave had a slab on top with a Serbian or tetragrammatic cross with the Cyrillic letter “c”, “s” in Latin, in the four corners. They stand for the motto: Samo sloga Srbina spasava. Only unity saves the Serbs. This was the national symbol, coat of arms, or crest of Serbia. The crest appeared on the royalist Serbian flag from 1882 to 1918 and was the coat of arms of Yugoslavia along with the Croatian checkerboard symbol on the right and the Slovenian symbol on the bottom. The tetragrammatic cross is also the symbol of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record of a Journey through Yugoslavia in 1937, Rebecca West, the pen name of British author and journalist Cicely Isabel Fairfield, sought to understand the country and its people. West had visited Yugoslavia with her husband in 1936, 1937, and 1938. Her 1937 trip, which took her across Yugoslavia, was the subject of her book, which was first published in 1941 by Macmillan in London. One of the major themes of her travels was to determine the legacy and influence of Gavrilo Princip. Throughout the book there are lengthy discussions and analyses of his life and death and the Sarajevo assassination. She grapples with his role in history and attempts to come to a conclusion. In that regard, one purpose of her travels was to search for Gavrilo Princip’s lasting impact on Yugoslavia and the Balkans. Yugoslavia was the end product of Princip’s assassination, constructed in the aftermath. It was a fragmented country that emerged from World War I, a war triggered by the assassination.

In her quest to pinpoint Princip’s legacy in and on Yugoslavia, in 1937 she made a visit to his grave in the Orthodox cemetery in the Kosevo section of Sarajevo. She described not only what she saw but also tried to ascertain its meaning and implications for the present.

She had visited Sarajevo in her journey that year. She discussed Gavrilo Princip and the assassination in the course of her travels in Bosnia and Hercegovina. This led her to visit the historic places in the city that touched on the assassination. Her companion Constantine suggested that they go to see Gavrilo Princip’s grave in the Sarajevo cemetery.

“‘You must come up to the Orthodox cemetery and see the graves of these poor boys,’ said Constantine. ‘It is very touching, for a reason that will appear when you see it.’ Two days later we made this expedition, with the judge and the banker to guide us. But Constantine could not keep back his dramatic climax until we got there. He felt he had to tell us when we had driven only half-way up the hillside. ‘What is so terrible,’ he said, ‘is that they are there in that grave, the poor little ones, Princip, Chabrinovitch, Grabezh, and three other little ones who were taken with them. They could not be hanged, the law forbade it. Nobody could be hanged in the Austrian Empire under twenty-one. Yet I tell you they are all there, and they certainly did not have time to die of old age, for they were all dead before the end of the war.’”

“The judge and the banker said, ‘Look, they are here.’ Close to the palings of the cemetery, under three stone slabs, lie the conspirators of Sarajevo, those who were hanged and five of those who died in prison; and to them has been joined Zheraitch, the boy who tried to kill Bosnian Governor General Vareshanin and was kicked as he lay on the ground. The slab in the middle is raised. Underneath it lies the body of Princip. To the left and the right lie the others, the boys on one side and the men on the other, for in this country it is recognized that the difference between old and young is almost as great as that between men and women. The grave is not impressive. It is as if a casual hand had swept them into a stone drawer. There was a battered wreath laid askew on the slabs, and candles flickered in rusty lanterns. This untidiness means nothing… After all, a stone with a green stain of weed on it commemorates death more appropriately that polished marble. … It does not imply insensibility. The officer swaying in front of the cross on the new grave might never be wholly free of his grief till he died, but this did not mean that he would derive any satisfaction at all in making the grave look like part of a garden. And as we stood by the shabby monument an old woman passing along the road outside the cemetery paused, pressed her face against the railings, looked down on the stone slab, and retreated into prayer. Later a young man who was passing by with a cart loaded with vegetables stopped and joined her, his eyes also set in wonder on the grave, his hand also making the sign of the cross on brow and breast, his lips also moving.”

“On their faces there was none of the bright acclaiming look which shines in the eyes of those who talk of, say, Andreas Hofer. They seemed to be contemplating a mystery, and so they were, for the Sarajevo attentat is mysterious as history is mysterious, as life is mysterious. Of all the men swept into this great drawer only one, Princip, had conceived what they were doing as a complete deed.” (West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Sarajevo VII, pages 380-381. New York: The Viking Press, December, 1968 11th printing, One Volume Edition).

She noted the ambiguity and ambivalence that visitors to the grave exhibited. She described the grave as “shabby” and “not impressive”. What she noticed was the “untidiness” of the memorial. There was, however, a sense of “wonder” and of “mystery”. For West, only Gavrilo Princip was committed to the assassination and only he had grasped the gravity and the consequences of the act. The other conspirators stumbled into the plot in a haphazard and irresolute manner. Only Princip had the determination and the conviction to carry it through to its logical conclusion.

“At the cemetery we forgot for a moment why we were there, so beautifully does it lie in the tilted bowl of the town. It is always so in Sarajevo. Because of the intricate contours of its hills it is forever presenting a new picture, and the mind runs away from life to its setting. And when we passed the cemetery gates, we forgot again for another reason. Not far away among the tombs there was a new grave, a raw wound in the grass. A wooden cross was at its head, and burning candles were stuck in the broken clay. At the foot of it stood a young officer, his face the colour of tallow. He rocked backwards in his grief, though very slightly, and his mouth worked with prayer. His uniform was extremely neat. Yet once, while we stared at him in shocked distress, he tore open his skirted coat as if he were about to strip; but instantly his hand did up the buttons as if he were a nurse coolly tending his own delirium.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. NY: Viking, 1968 printing, p. 379.)

West attempted to come to a conclusion or to reach a judgment on Gavrilo Princip and on the assassination. But she could not. Was he a hero? Was he a terrorist? Was he a liberator? Was he a murderer? Did he bring on the war? Was he responsible for the carnage and the deaths of millions? Was it appropriate and morally correct to see him as a person who ushered in freedom and liberty? Was he a martyr? Was he a criminal? In the end, West concluded that a final judgment that was unanimous and accepted by all was impossible. There could only be subjective and self-interested and self-serving interpretations based on which perspective or viewpoint you consulted or relied on. For “Westerners”, the assassination is incomprehensible and is seen as a crime. But for Serbs, the assassination has been transmogrified and adapted to fit in with Serbian national identity and history. He is needed to rationalize and to justify that history. The ultimate judgment and final assessment, thus, depends on who you ask.

“What these youths did was abominable, precisely as abominable as the tyranny they destroyed. … It shows also that moral judgment sets itself an impossible task. … I write of a mystery. For that is the way the deed appears to me, and to all Westerners. But to those who look at it on the soil where it was committed, and to the lands east of that, it seems a holy act of liberation.”

In 1939, the Gavrilo Princip grave was transformed into a Chapel in Sarajevo constructed by the Serbian Orthodox Church with a red cross on the front wall in the center. The Chapel also contains the remains of the other conspirators and of Bogdan Zerajic. The Chapel was built in Kosevo, in the centuries-old Orthodox cemetery of Archangel Michael, at the behest of the Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church in Sarajevo. It was designed by Aleksandar Deroko, a Serbian architect who had been a volunteer pilot during World War I.

At the front of the Chapel is a marker with the names of the conspirators. They are described as Vidovdan Heroes. There is a cross above their names. At the bottom is the date “1914”. Above the portal their names are inscribed in Serbian Cyrillic: Gavrilo Princip, Bogdan Zerajic, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Danilo Ilic, Trifko Grabez, Nedeljko Cubrilovic, Mihajlo-Misko Jovanovic, Mitar Kerovic, Nedjo Kerovic, Jakov Milovic, and Marko Perin. There are also verses from The Mountain Wreath (1847) by the Montenegrin poet, Petar II Petrovic Njegos, which are written in Serbian Cyrillic across the top: “Blago tome ko dovijek zivi, imao se rasta I roditi.“ In English, the lines are: “Blessed are those who live forever, they were not born in vain.”

Both the 1920 grave and the 1939 Chapel survived the vicissitudes of the more politically oriented plaques and memorials erected at the assassination site. The 1930 and 1945 plaques were removed and replaced while the 1953 memorial was destroyed during the Bosnian civil war which began in 1992. A politically neutral memorial was erected in 2004 at the site by the Bosnian Muslim government.

The post-1918 government of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which became Yugoslavia in 1929, transformed Gavrilo Princip’s image from an atheistic anarchist and revolutionary to a nationalist. In the process of mythopoesis and idealization, he was added to the Serbian historical narrative and made a part of the nationalist palingenesis and teleology. For the Serbian Orthodox Church, he was made a part of the Kosovo saga or mythos. He was compared to Milos Obilic who had killed Murad in 1389 during the Battle of Kosovo. Concomitantly with his political or nationalist transformation, there was a religious one as well.

The Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito that emerged in 1945 recast and reformulated Gavrilo Princip’s image as a proto-Communist and as a key founder and proponent of Yugoslavism, of brotherhood and unity. As a consequence, he was incorporated into the Partisan or Communist national ideology and depicted as a “national hero”, a symbol of Communist Yugoslavia.

During the 1992-1995 civil war, the Chapel was neglected and vandalized. Bosnian Muslims used it as a public lavatory.

In 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the assassination and the start of the war, many visited the Chapel and placed flowers on the grave. Others condemned Gavrilo Princip as a terrorist and murderer. After a hundred years, Gavrilo Princip’s legacy remains unsettled and in flux. Like Rebecca West in 1937, historians and commentators have grappled with his legacy. But also like West, they could not come away with any definite conclusion or judgment.


By Carl K. Savich

Source: Serbianna