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Princip, the Great War, and the Modern Prisoner State

June 25, 2014

So 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.

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