SARAJEVO: Bosnia marked 100 years since the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked the First World War I, but the divisive legacy of the gunman Gavrilo Princip meant Serbs were shunning the event.
It was on a Sarajevo street corner on June 28, 1914, that the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist shot dead the archduke and his wife with a Browning revolver, setting off a chain of events that sucked Europe’s great powers into four years of unprecedented violence that redrew the world map.
Many of those competing powers commemorated the centenary on the sidelines of an EU summit on Thursday with a low-key ceremony at Belgium’s Ypres, where German forces used mustard gas for the first time in 1915.
But in the Balkans, the legacy of the Great War continues to stir up ethnic divisions between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, preventing heads of state from coming together to mark the event at the site of the assassination in Bosnia’s capital.
“It would have been impossible to bring everyone together on June 28 in Sarajevo,” said Bosnian Serb historian and diplomat Slobodan Soja.
There are wildly differing interpretations of 20th century history in the region where the scars of sectarian wars in the 1990s are still fresh.
The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is among the most divisive figures in that history — either a fervent Serb nationalist who sought to liberate Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian occupier, or a terrorist who unleashed horrific bloodshed on the world, depending on who you ask.
Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders refused to take part in the main commemorations in Sarajevo yesterday that were set to feature a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic in the late afternoon — a highly symbolic envoy from the capital of a once-loathed empire.
The Serbs instead unveiled a two-metre-high bronze statue of Princip in eastern Sarajevo on Friday and held their own ceremonies yesterday in eastern Bosnia.
Top leaders, including Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik were to join the ceremony in the eastern town of Visegrad, where a street was named after Princip’s revolutionary movement “Young Bosnia”.
“We are here to pay homage to Gavrilo Princip, a key historic figure of last century,” said 58-year old Ljubisa Simonovic, who had traveled from Serbia for the ceremony along with hundreds of others.
“The divisions are regrettable but so are attempts to change the facts, particularly if they are motivated by recent history.”
Until the Bosnia war in the 1990s, Princip was Sarajevo’s favourite son. Two years after he died in prison in 1920 his bones were dug up and brought to be buried in the city, where a bridge was named after him and plaques put up in his honour. During the 1990s conflict, he was worshipped as an icon of Serb nationalism by Bosnian Serb forces as they besieged Sarajevo in one of the war’s most brutal episodes.
“For the army bombing Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip was a cult figure,” said Bosnian Muslim historian Husnija Kamberovic.
That ensured Princip was even more loathed by Muslim and Croat civilians trapped in the city, who wasted no time in tearing down his plaques and renaming his bridge after the war ended.
Princip’s brazen attack 100 years ago dragged almost half the world’s population into a cycle of violence of unprecedented scale and intensity.
What became known as the Great War lasted more than 52 months and left some 10 million dead and 20 million injured and maimed on its battlefields. Millions more perished under occupation through disease, hunger or deportation.
Four of the world’s most powerful empires—Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman—collapsed in the aftermath. The ruin of Europe cleared the way for the rise of a new superpower, the United States.
World War I fanned the emergence of many of the ideologies that fashioned the 20th century and its conflicts, including anti-colonialism, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.