Two Young Assassins and Two World Wars

Gavrilo Princip was an 18-year-old Serbian Orthodox Christian who, in 1911, joined “Mlada Bosna”, Young Bosnia, a secret revolutionary society that wanted to separate Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and unite it with the Kingdom of Serbia.

At the age of 16, he left school and made his way to Belgrade where he joined the Serbian Revolutionary Party and learned how to shoot and how to make bombs. He was a devout young patriot whose mission was to free his native country from Austrian control.

On Sunday morning, before 10 o’clock, on June 18, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, arrived with his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, by the royal train from Vienna to Sarajevo and from the station they proceeded in a convoy of cars to the center of the city for a royal reception.

The royal couple preferred to ride in an open car in order to wave greetings to their subjects.

At about 10:30 that morning, Gavrilo Princip approached the royal procession, drew his pistol and at a distance of 1 ½ meters (4.9 feet) he fired twice into the car hitting the Archduke in the neck and the Duchess in the abdomen. Both died before 11 o’clock.

Princip was 19-years-old at the time, too young to be executed according to Austrian law. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

At his trial he declared, “I am a Yugoslav nationalist aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavia, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria”.

He died in prison of tuberculosis at the age of 22, three years and ten months after the assassination.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia on the very same day of the assassination. And so, on June 28, 1914, the First World War began. All because of a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, who became a national and admired Serbian patriot, and who remains as such to this day.

* * *

Herschel Grynszpan was born in 1921 in Germany of Polish Jewish parents and at the age of 15 he was sent to live with a relative in Paris. Not able to speak French and without friends and subject to the demands of his relative, the young boy fell into depression and longed for his parents in Germany.

He wandered the streets of Paris alone at night, hopping in and out of bars, until he found a bar that catered to homosexuals. There he made some friends and participated in sexual activities.

In October 1938, the Nazis decided to forcibly deport some 12,000 Polish Jews who had been living many years in Germany. They were forced into cattle cars at gunpoint and transported across Germany to the Polish border. The Polish authorities did not want to admit them back into Poland and the Germans would not allow them to re-enter Germany. They now became stateless.

So the Jewish refugees were forced to live in temporary refugee camps, enduring rain and snow and wintry weather until the Polish government allowed them to be re-patriated into Poland.

Herschel Grynszpan received a letter from his father describing their pitiful conditions and he became bitter at the treatment of his parents and fellow Polish Jews.

He bought a revolver and some bullets in a Paris gun shop and made his way to the German Embassy in Paris. The date was November 7, 1938.

At the entrance to the Embassy he informed the guard that he had important information to convey to the Ambassador. When he was told that the Ambassador was not present in the Embassy, he requested to speak with another diplomat, and was directed to the office of a low-level diplomat, the Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath.

Herschel recognized him from the homosexual bar and it had been rumored among bar patrons that he and the German diplomat had a short love affair.

Grynszpan pulled out his revolver and shot vom Rath dead and he fled out of the German Embassy.

Within hours of the assassination in Paris, Hitler unleashed his pre-planned campaign to drive all the Jews out of Germany and to make Germany totally of all Jews.

On the very same night of the assassination in Paris the infamous Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) began.

More than 200 Jews were killed. 1,300 synagogues across Germany were set on fire and burned down, 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked and destroyed. Many Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

The actions of a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris were the immediate cause of the beginning of the Second World War.

When Germany invaded and occupied France, Herschel Grynszpan was arrested and sent to a prison in Germany. Nothing further was ever heard about him. Is it possible that he survived the war?

Two young assassins. Two World Wars. And the tragedies of war continue.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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