Gavrilo Princip, Conspiracy Theories and the Fragility of Cause and Effect


Ashutosh Jogalekar in Scientfic American (Achille Beltrame's illustration of the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip (Image: Wikipedia)):

When you read the story of the shots that led to World War 1, what strikes you is how staggering the gulf between cause and effect was, how little it takes for history to change, how utterly subject to accidental and unlikely events the fickle fortunes of men are. Reading the story of Princip and the Archduke, one sometimes gets the feeling of being no more than wood chips being cast adrift on the roaring river of history.

The dark comedy of the assassination of the Archduke and his wife is succinctly narrated in skeptic and writer Michael Shermer’s highly readable book “The Believing Brain“, and the story is as good an example of the roots of conspiracy theories as any other. It sheds light on human psychology and illuminates conspiracy theorizing in all scientific quarters, ranging from creationism to climate change denial.

Shermer recounts how, on that fateful day, six conspirators waited in the shadows to carry out their deed. When the Archduke’s motorcade passed close by, the first two conspirators failed to take any shots because of the crowds and an inadequate line of sight. The next conspirator managed to throw a bomb at the Archduke’s car but it simply bounced off and fell into the car behind. The two conspirators quietly disappeared while the third tried to commit suicide by ingesting cyanide but simply vomited and was captured by the police. Unlucky Princip and the other two insurgents gave up and sauntered away. Meanwhile the Archduke made it all the way to the city hall and gave a speech, expressing outrage to the mayor that he had just been subjected to an assassination attempt.

Since the Archduke had just expressed outrage at an attempted assassination, he should have known better than to drive back the same way he came. However it seems that only one of the generals in his entourage suggested taking an alternative route back. But in the heat of the moment, for some reason this timely advice was not communicated to the driver who decided to again drive back through the city center. While this was happening Princip had purportedly given up and was hanging around a bakery, maybe enjoying a pastry. However when he saw the car return on the same route the opportunity was too good to pass; more so since the transmission seemed to be jammed and the driver could not back up. The rest is very much history.

More here.