Who do you suppose is the most influential person of the last century? You might pick some famous world leader, Churchill perhaps, who helped shaped post World War 2 Europe. You might choose a famous scientist, Einstein for example. But for me I would have to say the bearer of this title is none other than Gavrilo Princip.
Now you will be forgiven for not knowing who this person is. Before I explain my choice I would first go into detail about the life of Gavrilo so that it is easier to see how an unknown person could possibly have such exalted status in my mind.
Gavrilo Princip was born in Bosnia in 1894, the son of a simple postman. His parents had 9 children but because they lived in squalor 6 of them died while still young. Due to the poverty of his household Gavrilo suffered from poor health and grew up to be small in stature. He also suffered a lot of rejection in his life; his parents were unable to look after him and so sent him off to live with an older brother. Later he would be expelled from school because he had taken part in a political protest against the ruling authorities. He would not be allowed to join the First Belgrade Gymnasium either because he was not bright enough to pass the entrance exam. Later, he tried to join the Serbian guerrilla forces but he was rejected from this because of his small stature.
This was the last straw. It was argued later that this final rejection was “one of the primary personal motives which pushed him to do something exceptionally brave in order to prove to others that he was their equal.” So having associated himself with an underground terrorist organization he and several others went out and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. If anyone is familiar with the history of the First World War they will know that this was the spark that ignited the terrible slaughter.
This dreadful war claimed the lives of millions and it completely reshaped the face of the world. Two empires, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian, collapsed as a direct result of this war. Harsh repercussions were placed on Germany who were made to pay out enormous sums of money and materials, which ultimately crippled its post-war economy causing massive inflation and political unrest. In this climate extremist leaders rose to the forefront. Hitler, promising to redeem Germany from the treachery of the Versailles treaty and blaming the Jews for stabbing German troops in the back, would take the world into its second war. From the ashes of the Second World War a new world order would arise – America became a super power, as did its ideological rival the Soviet Union, and for the rest of the century there was a very real threat of nuclear war.
Additionally the creation of the state of Israel was a result of the war, when the British Empire turned its former protectorate of Palestine into a homeland for the suffering Jews who had survived the tragedy of the holocaust. The repercussions of this are still being played out in the Middle East.
Just one man, whose name only claims a small by-line in the annuals of world history, had such a massive impact on the world today. What would have happened if things panned out differently? What if Gavrrillo had found acceptance in the gymnasium? Would 911 have happened if Gavrillo died at birth? If he had eaten a healthy diet, would there be wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I don’t know. But that doesn’t stop the feeling of wonder at the way the waves of history work. Even the smallest actions can have massive and unpredictable results- the butterfly’s wings and all that. It’s fascinating to think that your decision to drink tea or coffee one day might have terrible implications for the rest of humanity.