Professor, Minister, Assassin: The fascinating life of Dr Vaso Čubrilović


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On the centenary of the end of the First World War, we take a look at a man who was partially responsible for its ignition, and who then lived to see the consequences of his actions for the next 76 years.

In 1914, Europe was an extremely volatile place. We all know the narrative of the Great War’s beginnings – that it started with the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian Archduke and culminated in the triggering of Europe’s opposing alliances. However, whilst the name Gavrilo Princip is forever etched in infamy as the man who carried out the murder, it is the life of his fellow conspirator, then-17 year old student Vaso Čubrilović, that stands out to this author.

Like Princip, and indeed the rest of the Black Hand secret society who organised the murder, Čubrilović was a young Bosnian-Serb nationalist who hated the Austro-Hungarian rulers in charge of the Bosnian province and dreamed of a united Yugoslavia. It was a dream the young men were willing to die for, and one that inexplicably dragged the rest of Europe into four long years of slaughter.

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However, with the group being convicted, Princip succumbing to tuberculosis, and Vaso’s older brother Veljko being executed for his part in the plot, the younger Čubrilović was under the age of 20 and therefore couldn’t be executed.  Čubrilović was one of the conspirators ready in waiting on the Archduke’s route through Sarajevo, but apparently upon seeing the Archduke’s wife Sophia chose not to either fire his Browning pistol or detonate the bomb he had. After spending the war years in prison, he was released following the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s defeat and collapse, a consequence that allowed his dream to be realised as the state of Yugoslavia was created. By the age of just 21, it appeared that Čubrilović was already a hero of the Yugoslavian people.

However, in addition to being a radical nationalist and conspirator, Čubrilović was also highly educated. He spent the interwar years completing his studies, eventually becoming a professor of history at the University of Belgrade in the late 1930’s. However, following the outbreak of another world war he was to suffer three more years of difficulty, as in 1941 he was captured by the Nazis. Despite being imprisoned in Banjica concentration camp, Čubrilović became one of the very few 1914 conspirators to survive both world wars.

It was around this time towards the end of the Second World War when Yugoslavia became a communist state. Despite still being an ardent nationalist, his intelligence and devotion to the Yugoslav state caught the eye of the Tito administration, who promptly made Čubrilović a minister within the fledgling regime, responsible for agriculture.

Vaso Čubrilović later progressed to be Minister of Forestry and a regular contributor to the Yugoslav and Bosnian academies of science and arts. In an interview with The New York Times in 1973, Čubrilović explained the conspirators’ thinking behind the targeted assassination of the Archduke:

We young men were part of a national liberation movement that had begun in the 19th century…

We knew it was not possible to defeat a strong state like Austria-Hungary by peaceful means. The only way, to achieve change was by violence.

In spite of this, he began to feel a sense of regret around this point in his life and started to distance himself from his lifelong revolutionary nationalism, later saying:

We destroyed a beautiful world that was lost forever due to the war that followed.

He was awarded in 1987 the Order of the Yugoslav Star, the highest national order of merit during Yugoslavia’s existence. In his old age, he saw his beloved Yugoslavia begin to unravel at the seams following the death of Tito, and when Čubrilović himself died in 1990 at the age of 93, the Balkan state had almost completely fallen apart as the world entered a new era.

Čubrilović’s story is an incredible example of how the actions of one individual can change the course of history. Always focussed on Slavic unity and independence, the radical path he chose as a teenager was shared by many young Bosnian Serbs at the time, but it was ultimately his and his associates’ decision to fight for this vision that inexplicably triggered two of the most devastating conflicts ever.

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What sets him aside from his fellow assassins and other historical figures is that he lived long enough to see some of the consequences of his actions culminate in extraordinary conclusions. He took part in an assassination plot to try and establish a new nation, saw this nation come into existence, served in its government and then died right as it was beginning to tear itself apart. Even today, international relations are still and seemingly forever more shaped by the conflicts that he triggered and lived to witness.

Are there more notable figures across the course of history? Certainly. After all, Čubrilović only committed one historically significant act, and wasn’t one of the arrogant leaders or clumsy generals who had an influence in escalating the following conflicts. However, in terms of one individual committing such a notorious action at such a young age and then living to see this act define the fate and dreams of both himself, his continental region and the world for so many decades afterwards, surely nobody can rival the fascinating life of Dr Vaso Čubrilović.


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