Do you believe in Fate?
It isn't a question that one can answer quickly without seeming zealous. Say yes immediately and you may be considered a fundamentalist, a person whose belief structure is so unshakable they may consider killing themselves and you to prove it. Say no immediately and you may be considered too logical, emotionless, Vulcanoid (or Spock-like). A person so rooted to reason and what they believe is science that until a phenomenon is measured, studied, peer-reviewed and has become part of the middle-school curriculum, it isn't even worth being entertained as even whimsical.
I think that most people fall somewhere along the continuum between these antipodes. Many of you may have heard of, or indeed read to works of a psychologist named Carl Gustav Jung. He first described the term Synchronicity. This essentially translates to a Meaningful Coincidence. Many people today make their whole life's work about this term and it is prevalent in prestigious publications as it is in the most ludicrous of pseudo-science. Synchronicity is what many people think of today when they talk about subjects such as fate or destiny.
Before I show my colours on the subject I'd like to relate a story which I feel informs the debate in many ways.
It's about a man. A man whose story and actions influenced the history of the twentieth century and by extrapolation the world we see around us today, arguably more than any other. Yet I'd wager that the vast majority of the people reading this would not know his name.
His name was Gavrilo Princip and he killed two people.
The story begins in Sarajevo, in a bar. It's around early spring 1914. Fifteen or so young men, no older than 19 or 20, were sitting around a table. Their minds and mouths stirring with nationalistic fervour. These young men, with Princip in their number, were Serbs. They wanted more than anything else in life, to free their brethren, whether sought or unsought, from the tyranny of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and form a Pan-Slavic state. As they sat in this bar, under the influence of a heady concoction of alcohol and patriotism, a co-conspirator walks into the room and places a package from an unknown sender on the table. Inside the package a sole newspaper clipping. On that piece of newspaper was an announcement that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were to visit Sarajevo. The article went on to specify the date, time and crucially the parade route the Duke's open-topped car was to take.
The Duke and his wife were well aware that this was a dangerous trip. After all the Duke's uncle, Franz Josef I, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary, had an assassination attempt on him by the Black Hand, a Serbian Separatist group, on his last visit to the region. Security was on alert. Nonetheless on the 28th of June 1914, Princip and his coterie lined up and waited for their chance. Unfortunately for them, relatively early on in the parade, one of their number ran out from the crowd and threw a bomb (essentially a kind of hand grenade) at the motorcade. The bomb hit the Duke's car and fell underneath the following vehicle before going off. Twenty or so people are seriously injured, the bomber tries to kill himself with an out-of-date cyanide pill after shouting pro-Slavic slogans. The pill fails and he runs into a nearby river to drown himself, but the river is too shallow. He is arrested and dragged off for interrogation. The parade is over. Gendarmes fill the street. The chance to make history for Princip and his friends, has gone.
Princip fades away from the scene, despondent and incensed in equal measure. He makes his way to his favourite restaurant for some food and a drink.
Meanwhile the Archduke and His wife are taken to a place of safety and make a complaint to the Mayor. After a remarkably restrained discussion in light of the circumstances, the Duke and his wife, bravely, decided to stay in Sarajevo and visit the injured. This was despite protestations from his bodyguards.
So the party, now bolstered with extra security including some aristocrats, set off for the hospital. Only the driver of the Duke's car is unfamiliar with the roads around Sarajevo. He makes a mistake and turns down the wrong road. After being informed of the error he panics and tries to reverse the car. This was a car in 1914 and at that time cars weren't especially sophisticated, though their occupants usually were. Reversing was not a simple matter and could often cause the cars to stall, which meant a long time trying to restart the engine. That is exactly what happened. The car, its occupants and the entourage are now sat still in the street.
At this point Gavrilo Princip exits the restaurant he was just reconciling himself in and sees this scene before him.
He is only five feet, or 1.5 meters away. The occupants and the car were slightly below him on the street. The Archduke was wearing a light blue jacket and hat which was adorned in bright green feathers, his wife Sophie, was all in white, with matching parasol and hat.
What must Princip have been thinking in that exact moment when he sees this, as he pulled his pistol from his coat pocket?
He took aim. He fired twice.
At this point I will defer the story to Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach, the Duke's bodyguard:
"As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness's mouth onto my right cheek. As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, 'In Heaven's name, what has happened to you?' At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees.
I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright. Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, 'Sophie, Sophie, don't die. Stay alive for the children!'
At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain. He answered me quite distinctly, 'It's nothing!' His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, 'It's nothing!' Then, after a short pause, there was a violent choking sound caused by the bleeding. It was stopped as we reached the [Governor's Mansion]."
It's difficult, for me at least, to read those few lines, spoken by the nearest eyewitness to the deaths that set the world on fire. That is because it brings into sharp focus the terrible reality of the murder of a husband and wife. A father and mother. Whoever they were, in the end they were just two people, dying together through an act of violence.
That murder was the spark that ignited the Great War. That war saw the deaths of 37 million people. It marked the end of Multi-Polar Europe, with the dismantling of the old Empires.
Five years to the day of that murder, 28th June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The Treaty is cited as the originator of the vehement upheaval and radical politics that engulfed central Europe, culminating in rise of Nazi Germany and a Second World War. That war is estimated to be the bloodiest conflict in Human history with a death toll up to 72 million, including the attempted annihilation of Jews, Gypsies and anyone unfortunate enough to be labelled as "defective" by the Nazi hierarchy.
That war also demonstrated the absolute folly of extremist political ideology, whilst simultaneously ushering in an era of Cold War. A war fought by proxy and essentially over an economic model. Yet this war lead to an arms race which threatened, in perception at least, if not in actuality, world wide nuclear extinction. It also lead to a space race, which lead to the Apollo missions and contemporaneously the International Space Station.
The Cold War also lead to the formation of groups such as the Mujahaddin, some of which would later become al-Qaeda, and so the narrative of perpetual violence careers through to the present.
I find it hard to blame Gavrilo Princip for all of this. Partly because I think that if someone were to use a time-machine and showed the consequences of his actions to him he would not have done it.
I also think I don't want to blame Princip, because it is a rather unnerving realisation to apportion such blame to one man. That the action of a single individual could set in motion a sequence of events that literally changed the world. All with the pull of a trigger, nearly one hundred years ago.
Gavrilo Princip died of Skeletal Tuberculosis in 1918. He was 23 years old.
Princip's story is indeed a fateful one. So many factors had to come together to make possible the one event that define his life and that of so many others. He was the spark indeed, it seemed that he was destined to be so. He wasn't the architect of the vast industrial militaries, squaring off against each other. Nor was he responsible for the failing diplomacy of the old Empires. A diplomatic web so intricately designed by Bismark that only he could unravel it without damaging it, but he had already lost his position by this point after falling out with the German Kaiser.
The war was coming anyway. It just needed an excuse and Princip unwittingly provided it. He was a young man at a time where he felt the only thing left for him and his people was revolution. Freedom from an old world tyranny and the right to self-determinism (pun intended.) He was and still is revered by some as a Serbian hero. Up until 1992 the place where he stood was marked by embossed foot-prints until they were destroyed by war. The spot still has a plaque commemorating his actions.
Synchronistically I am reminded whilst writing this of another historical figure whose assassination is probably the most talked about and theorised. John F. Kennedy once said, at speech in the Whitehouse 1962, about Soviet run eastern European countries,
"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
Perhaps if the Crown Heads of Europe were privy to such thought, they would have seen the French Revolution as a harbinger for the coming turmoil to come amongst their occupied lands. But it's all speculative. We are where we are now in history, not where we would like to be. The story of Princip and that portentous day is part of our history.
What would have happened if he didn't do what he did? Well, you'd have to ask the Fates.
I'd love to hear what you think, until next time,
You can contact the Filosofer at: email@example.com or twitter @xmphilosophy