Princip, the Great War, and the Modern Prisoner State

gavrilo-princip-originalSo many anniversaries of meaning this summer! We now approach the hundredth anniversary of the shots that killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. These shots, of course, precipitated the cataclysm we call the Great War. The shooter was Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist a few days from his twentieth birthday.

Since Austro-Hungarian law did not permit the death penalty for persons under age twenty, Princip was tried, given a twenty-year sentence, and sent to the Bohemian fortress-prison of Terezin, confined to a tiny cell. The fortress sits on a wind-swept plain, a desolate and grimly cold spot in the winter. Princip was undoubtedly mistreated, losing weight, contracting tuberculosis of the bone. He died on April 28, 1918. He did not outlive the war he had started.

Princip was far from the only prisoner at Terezin. The fortress became one of the many wartime prisons which Austria-Hungary maintained for enemy aliens and other suspected civilians. Austrians cracked down on “Russophiles” and others suspected of enemy sympathies within the first few weeks of the war. These civilian prisoners were held in a wide variety of situations, and Terezin was one of these. Under harsh conditions, many of these “suspects” died.

While Princip’s individual role in history is so significant on an individual level, his imprisonment and death are connected with an institution accelerated by the war he helped begin: the internment camp—the indispensable tool of the modern state. Actually, Terezin itself represents a real pattern in the development of the prisoner state: the state owns property which becomes dated and obsolete, but which is recyclable. Increasingly bedeviled by potential enemies, the state makes use of facilities such as forts and camps, which can be recycled to intern large numbers of people. Barbed wire helps close up the gaps.

By the way, when WWI ended, the Terezin facility had not outlived its usefulness. The SS recycled it during the Second World War to intern and murder another set of state enemies in the infamous transit camp, now using its German name, Theresienstadt. The modern prisoner state of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, strangely, owes a great deal to the war touched off by Princip.


  1. Yes, I do know about the Boer War episode. I have written about it in the following article:
    And I have worked in the Isle of Man archives, studying in part the British internment camps during WWII, though mostly the WWI camps.

    As for your suggestion that I think Princip was a hero, I am sorry you got that impression. I don’t regard him as a hero, and I disapprove of murder.

    My point is that Princip was involved both in starting the war and by being in a prisoner in one of the institutions the war accelerated.

  2. You do know that the Concentration Camp was invented by the English during the 2nd Boer War to hold German and Dutch civilians who MIGHT HAVE assisted the Boer commandos, don’t you? And that the English immediately opened new Concentration Camps in Britain as soon as they declared war in 1939? And that the English shipped ALL foreign nationals from Germany to the camps, including German Jews who had escaped from the continent? A German Jew who had survived a stretch in one of the German camps committed suicide in an English camp because the conditions in the English camp were so horrible.

    And you start out the article by admitting Princip MURDERED 2 people. And he went to prison ONLY because the civilized Austro-Hungarians did not have a death penalty. You seem to be arguing that Princip was/is some kind of hero.

    So I don’t really see your point. Where governments exist, the first duty of that government is to protect citizens from crimes by other citizens.

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