Thursday, July 10, 2014

PURGING PRINCIP, THEN AND NOW / By Carl Savich / "Reiss Institute" June 17, 2014

Reiss Institute
Carl K. Savich
June 17, 2014

Hitler examines the plaque aboard Sonderzug Amerika, April 20, 1941
(Heinrich Hoffmann/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München/Bildarchiv)

The German invaders occupied Sarajevo on April 15, 1941. Two days later, the local population looted and torched the Grand Synagogue. And on April 19, the local Germans (Volksdeutsche) removed a memorial plaque to Gavrilo Princip; it was sent to Hitler as a trophy and birthday gift.

In 1930, a memorial plaque was erected above the street corner where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with the following inscription:

“At this historic place Gavrilo Princip heralded freedom on Vidov-Dan, June 15 [28] June 1914”

(Serbian: „На овом историјском мјесту, Гаврило Принцип навијести слободу, на Видов-дан 15 [28] јуна 1914“)

The removal of the plaque was marked by a special ceremony. A group of ethnic Germans, wearing white shirts and ties, were photographed and filmed marching in formation and carrying a banner to the assassination site. A German newsreel shows them carrying two ladders, used to climb to the plaque. Scaffolding has been erected underneath.  Two German soldiers, part of a military band, stand with a bass drum and cymbals in front of the façade. The two Volksdeutsche remove the screws and dismantle the plaque, which they hand down to another man on the ladder. They then bring the plaque down. Two Volksdeutsche are photographed holding the plaque, as two Wehrmacht officers look on.

Volksdeutsche show off the removed memorial plaque, Sarajevo, April 1941
(via Ullstein Bild.)
The removal ceremony was filmed for the German newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau (The German Weekend Show)  number 556, for April 30, 1941. [1]

After its removal, the plaque was flown to Hitler’s mobile headquarters, the special train (Sonderzug) “Amerika”, in the Austrian town of Mönichkirchen. This was Hitler’s command post for the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia (Unternehmen Strafgericht) and Greece (Unternehmen Marita).

Three Kriegsberichter – German war correspondents – presented the plaque to Hitler on April 20, as a birthday gift. Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, took pictures of the event; they were published in the Berliner Volkszeitung, on April 24, 1941.

Hitler examines the plaque aboard Sonderzug Amerika, April 20, 1941
(Heinrich Hoffmann/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München/Bildarchiv)
The photograph with the plaque first appeared in the issue 18 of the German magazine Illustrierter Beobachter, in 1941.

Subsequently, it was reprinted in 1966, in the book called  ”The Remains of the Double-Headed Eagle: On the Trail of the Lost Monarchy,” by Ernst Trost. [2]

As for the plaque itself, it was kept at the Berlin Zeughaus, the German Military Historical Museum. A photograph dated April 28, 1941 shows a German visitor observing the plaque displayed on a wall of the museum. Another part of that collection was the railway carriage from Compiegne – the very car in which the Germans signed the 1918 armistice that ended the Great War, and in which Hitler insisted the French surrender in 1940. The carriage was destroyed by the Germans in 1945. The plaque disappeared, and is presumed destroyed as well. [3]

From Godsend to Insult

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote at length about the Sarajevo assassination. He characterized Gavrilo Princip and the other assassins as “Slavic fanatics”. Yet he had welcomed the assassination of the Archduke, because he saw the Hapsburg heir as not a genuine German nationalist, but “the most mortal enemy of Austrian-Germanism” and the “patron of Austria’s Slavicization”. As a proponent of “Germanization,” Hitler vehemently opposed any attempt to merge the German and Slavic populations of the Hapsburg monarchy. Franz Ferdinand was considered a champion of “trialism” – a plan to elevate the monarchy’s Slavs into equal status with Germans and Hungarians.

Therefore, to opponents of “trialism” such as Hitler, the Sarajevo event was a godsend, destroying the policy of community with the Slavs – and the resulting war against Russia and Serbia was welcomed as a means to assert German dominance. Hitler was photographed in Munich on August 2, 1914, amidst a cheering and exuberant crowd after the German declaration of war against Russia.

The Great War, however, ended in Germany’s defeat and Austria-Hungary’s collapse. From the post-war collapse and devastation, Hitler emerged as a political leader whose mission was to redress German grievances with the Treaty of Versailles and the wrongs of the War Guilt Clause.

Yet though the chain of events begun in Sarajevo shaped Hitler’s life and career, the plaque celebrating “freedom” for the Serbs was an affront to him, a reminder of the defeat – like the railway carriage at Compiegne. By making the carriage the site of the French surrender, and capturing the Princip plaque as a trophy, Hitler wished to erase the insult and restore the image and dignity of Germany as he envisioned it.

British and Germans Outraged

When the plaque was unveiled, in 1930, it was met with protests and outrage from Germany – but Britain as well. The government of Yugoslavia insisted that the memorial was a private endeavor, neither endorsed nor funded by the authorities.

The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung called the plaque “a monstrous provocation which cannot be suffered.”

The Times of London editorialized that the assassination was “an act which was the immediate cause of the Great War, of its attendant horrors, and of the general suffering which has been its sequel.”

British historian R.W. Seton-Watson wrote that the memorial to Gavrilo Princip was “an affront to all right-thinking people.”

And in his 1932 book The Unknown War, Winston Churchill wrote:
“Princip died in prison, and a monument erected in recent years by his fellow-countrymen records his infamy and their own.”

From Hero to Villain

The Communist regime established in 1945 cast Princip as a hero of “the peoples of Yugoslavia”. In 1953, a new plaque was put up, and Princip’s (alleged) footprints were cast in the pavement on the corner where the assassination took place. The new inscription (in Serbian Cyrillic) read:

“From this place, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip’s shot expressed the people’s protest against tyranny and centuries-old desire of our peoples for freedom.”

(Serbian: “Са овога мјеста, 28. јуна 1914, Гаврило Принцип својим пуцњем изрази народни протест против тираније и вјековну тежњу наших народа за слободом”)

The 1953 monument to Gavrilo Princip, plaque and footprints.
Both the plaque and the footprints were demolished by Bosnian Muslims in 1992.

After the end of the civil war in Bosnia, the plaque was replaced (in 2004) by a more politically correct inscription, this time in English as well:
“From this place on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.”


[1] Die Deutsche Wochenschau, newsreel Nr. 556 for April 30, 1941 (seen here, from 0:41 to 1:09).

[2] Original: Das blieb vom Doppeladler: auf den Spuren der versunkenen Donaumonarchie, E. Trost, Wien: Verlag Fritz Molden, 1966

[3] In October 2013, Bosnian-born journalist Muharem Bazdulj tracked down Hoffmann’s photograph and wrote a feature about the plaque’s fate for the Belgrade weekly Vreme (original here)


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