By Walter Mayr SPIEGEL.DE
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.
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