The Bosnian Knot Conflicts Unchanged in Birthplace of WWI

The 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo came in the midst of a bitter power struggle among major European powers in the Balkans. One hundred years and three devastating wars later, peace still eludes the multi-ethnic region.



In a six-part series, SPIEGEL examines the modern-day consequences of World War I. Bosnia, where the war began with shots fired in Sarajevo, was the scene of the last mass killing on European soil, in a war that began in 1992. Rebel Serbs have ensured that the country remains a trouble spot today.

Among the rows of apartment buildings in the far eastern section of Sarajevo, near the airport, murderer Gavrilo Princip remains a hero to this day.

Some Bosnian Serbs living in this neighborhood openly venerate their most famous son. On a cloudless Sunday in June 1914, Princip, a student who sported a moustache, shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with a single bullet to the carotid artery, fired from a 7.65 Browning pistol.

The deadly attack by the young Bosnian Serb on the scion of the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy turned out to be an overture to an unprecedented tragedy. Some 15 million died in World War I, and when it was all over, the rulers from the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov royal families had lost their thrones.

Was Princip's bloody attack justified from the Serbian perspective, an act of revenge against the Habsburgs, who had occupied Ottoman Bosnia in 1878 and then annexed it in 1908? In eastern Sarajevo, at any rate, a large portrait of the assassin hangs on the wall of the Soho Café today, a century later. Princip's last words, once scratched into a cell wall in the Bohemian town of Theresienstadt, are also displayed: "Our shadows will be walking through Vienna."

Princip and his fellow conspirators with the pan-Slavic "Young Bosnia" movement were motivated by an explosive mix of ideas: radical nationalism, combined with skepticism toward the Western lifestyle and rage over their own economic backwardness. Encouraged by the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the Balkans for centuries, warmongers in the region were already gaining ground before the Sarajevo assassination, especially in the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia, where some dreamed of a nation that would include all regions populated by Serbs in the territory of Austria-Hungary.

Even today, nationalists in the region once held by the defunct multi-ethnic Republic of Yugoslavia pose a threat to stability in the heart of Europe. This is especially apparent in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- a patchwork quilt that is home to Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

Princip's Great-Nephew

A white-haired man nicknamed "Bato," or buddy, who is sitting under the 1914 assassin's portrait in the Soho Café on this afternoon, agrees with the assessment that surprisingly few lessons have been learned from the suffering of the last 100 years, brought on by two world wars and the Bosnian war that began in 1992.

The 61-year-old businessman, who holds a degree in economics, is named Gavrilo Princip. He's the great-nephew of the young man who committed the most momentous murder of the 20th century only a few kilometers away. The stories Bato heard from his father, who lived under one roof with the budding assassin, are the first-hand accounts of his famous ancestor.

Princip, the assassin who shaped world history with his gunshots, was apparently a puritanical, ambitious young man from a very poor background. But was he guilty? "I'm no historian," says the great-nephew. "All I know is that he was still very young."

Although the only physical trait Bato has in common with the 1914 assassin is his long, narrow nose, he shares his Serb nationalist pride and his loathing of all forms of foreign control. Bato is irritated that Princip the rebel no longer fits into the modern view of history in independent Bosnia. "When I attended high school in Sarajevo, pictures were still displayed in his honor, and Young Bosnia was venerated as a revolutionary organization," he says in amazement. "And now that Yugoslavia no longer exists, are we suddenly supposed to believe that they were all terrorists?"

This is where post-Yugoslav opinions diverge, especially now that the 100th anniversary of the June 28, 1914 assassination is approaching. Proponents and critics of Princip's legacy are as irreconcilable as they were during the bloody Bosnian war of secession that began in 1992. There are parallels between today's dispute over the historic significance of the assassin of Sarajevo and the events that unfolded 20 years ago.

Freedom Fighter or Nationalist Murderer?

The one camp, predominantly Croats and Muslims, views Princip as a Greater Serbian nationalist and murderer, and believes that there should be no reason to celebrate him in an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina. Those in the other camp are mainly Bosnian Serbs and venerate Princip as a freedom fighter with national and anti-imperialist ideals.

Unlike the Catholic Croats and the Bosnian Muslims, most of whom were loyal to the emperor in 1914, the militant Serbs were viewed with suspicion in the Habsburg empire as Belgrade's fifth column. The divides between ethnic groups and religions in Bosnia are deeper than ever today. In the 1990s war, another 100,000 people, mainly Muslims, died on the region's already blood-soaked soil.

"Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred," says one of the characters, a doctor of Jewish origin, in the story "Letter from the Year 1920" by the later Yugoslav Nobel laureate Ivo Andric. "This uniquely Bosnian hatred should be studied and eradicated like some pernicious, deeply-rooted disease. Foreign scholars should come to Bosnia to study hatred, recognized as a separate, classified subject of study, as leprosy is."

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that what Serbs did to their former fellow Yugoslavians in Bosnia near the end of the 20th century has roots in events that occurred at the beginning of the century. Some 550,000 Serb soldiers and civilians, close to a fifth of the entire population, died between 1914 and 1918. In relative terms, no other people suffered comparable losses in World War I.

Yugoslavia and the Germ of the Dispute

The Serb-dominated Kingdom of Yugoslavia, created in 1918 and abbreviated as the Kingdom of SHS, the letters representing its three ethnic groups, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was a precursor to the later Yugoslavia and conceived in part as compensation for the horrific death toll of World War I. But the problem was that it united the Serbs with some of those who had fought against them on the other side of the front.

In this respect, the Kingdom of SHS contained the germ of the dispute from the very beginning. The bloodiest battles in World War II and later in the 1990s occurred in precisely the same spots where the winners and losers of World War I continued to live together in close quarters: in the Bosnian Krajina region and along the Drina River.

But Bato has little interest in the many tales of hatred and the Balkan "original sin" his ancestor allegedly committed with the Sarajevo assassination. He prefers to speculate on the dark powers working behind the scenes. Why, he asks, did the Austrians send their Franz Ferdinand, the future ruler of an empire stretching from Trieste on the Adriatic Sea to Lviv in Galicia, to troubled Bosnia with so few bodyguards?

Bato points out that the archduke was in a morganatic marriage and was not really even tolerated within the royal court in Vienna, and that a condition of his marriage to his wife Sophie was that their children would have no succession rights to the throne. This suggests the possibility, says Bato, that perhaps a few cunning court lackeys associated with the old Emperor Franz Josef may have orchestrated the assassination.

Bato, smiling at his conspiracy theory, takes his VW Golf for a spin around East Sarajevo, an outlying district of the divided Bosnian capital. Since the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, East Sarajevo has officially not been part of the Muslim-Croat dominated federation, but of the other half of the country, the "Republika Srpska."

Civilian life has now returned to East Sarajevo, where Serb leaders Radovan Karadžic and General Ratko Mladic once ran their ruthless regime. While the two men face charges of genocide before a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, students in Serbian East Sarajevo stroll around the former grounds of the military barracks in Lukavica. There is little left today to suggest that the grounds were once the headquarters of an almost four-year occupation and effort to destroy Sarajevo, the duration of which made it an unprecedented act of barbarism in 20th-century European history.

Gavrilo Princip, his pack of Drina cigarettes constantly within reach and his destination in view, drives briskly across the historically charged grounds. He stops the car at the now-abandoned guardhouse of the former military site, named during the war after Uncle Slobodan Princip, a partisan leader and posthumously decorated national hero of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. He points to the airport, where UN aircraft carrying essential supplies landed during the siege of Sarajevo, and to a few buildings in Dobrinja, the athletes' village during the 1984 Winter Olympics.

During the Bosnian war, Dobrinja became a daily hell for tens of thousands of residents of the front-line zone who were trapped there, and who smoked tea, ate dandelions and buried the victims of Serbian artillery attacks in their front yards. The trapped residents used gallows humor to shrug off the fact that white UN jeeps and armored personnel carriers would drive past their houses without helping them. "As long our gravediggers don't strike oil with their spades here, the world couldn't care less about us," went one local saying.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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sirajul 01/16/2014
1. Lessons of WWI
Russia’s seemingly unconditional and ultimately disastrous commitment to Serbia in the name of 'Pan-Slavism' as well as the infamous 'blank check' issued by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm to Austria after the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand may indeed hold important lessons for today that great powers often face the dilemma that their very support for smaller ones encourages their clients to be reckless. And their clients often slip the leading strings of their patrons. The U.S. has funneled huge amounts of money and equipment to some of its 'allies' Israel and Pakistan, for example, as China has done to North Korea, yet that has not given either the Americans or the Chinese commensurate influence over the policies of those countries.
vladmoss 01/17/2014
2. optional
It's amazing that people should still be proud of the man who fired the shot that started World War I and changed the face of Europe and the world forever. It shows that the most basic lessons have not been learned. Radical nationalism of this kind could start World War Three.
Gasa 01/17/2014
3. good article
however, it seems that the author forgot to mention some facts or perhaps I missed it. Garvilo Princip and the group of young Bosnian believed in Yugoslavia, he was a Serb but he was not a nationalist, he was rather a communist. He was not fighting for "Serbian interests" as some would like to say. On the contrary he stood up against the ruler and believed that by killing the ruler he would help to liberate all nations who lived on the territory. He was a victim of Serbian nationalism, terrorist, communist and atheist.
History Hacker 01/18/2014
4. In search for the root cause
We are addressing the grand sum of historical effects without discussing the causes - these being removed from the present and yet, oh, so present in the great scheme of things. The collapse of the Balkan population from 8 million in 16th. century to less than half that three centuries later showed how wars, stoked by religious hatred, caused great losses of human lives. Go back in Balkan history and inquiry will reveal that it was owed to religion, and religion only, the incontrovertible reality ( I was just about to write "truth"). It is religion that spurs and fuels wars, the lasting ones, when hatred is venom and all attempts to bring rationale will crash in the unyielding lies upon which all religions have been established. Irrationality, thy name is Religion!
stevej8 01/22/2014
5. Toxic Nationalism
The extreme form of Serb nationalism led to large scale massacres of Albanians and Macedonian Muslims in the Balkan Wars and again soon after WW1, documented by such witnesses as Trotsky, the Serb Socialist Dimitrije Tukovic, and the British Consul in Durres, as well as the Carnegie Commission Report. Of course such things did not only happen in the Balkans, but there are still today many who deny they happened there at all, despite the clear and credible evidence. Fortunately there appear to be many in Serbia and Bosnia-Hercegovina who wish to move on from such extremism, and live peacefully with their neighbours, free of the poisonous hatreds of the past. However, those who seek to deny such crimes should not be allowed to go unchallenged, to prevent the likelihood of such things ever happening again.
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