Sarajevo: Where the Century of Terror Began

The archduke’s assassination was the opening scene of a drama that has not ended. Gavrilo Princip put a bullet through Europe’s heart

Features History
Memorial to a murder: A Tito-era commemoration of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife glorified Gavrilo Princip's deed

It is hard enough in London properly to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. But how to do it in Sarajevo, where the first shots — those that killed the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on Sunday June 28, 1914 — were actually fired?

Sarajevo has other, more pressing problems, which stem from the bloody and destructive wars of Yugoslav succession. It is today the seat of a dysfunctional government, paralysed by incompetence and corruption. The economy depends almost entirely on foreign handouts and remittances. Returning after a few years’ absence, one is struck not by progress but by regression. True, not everything is stagnating. There is development out of town. A magnificent, new, state of the art, shining white building, set in in the leafy old Austrian spa of Ilidža, houses the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. It is a private university, where only English is spoken, where the Margaret Thatcher Lecture Auditorium has just been opened, and which works in partnership with the University of Buckingham. But the venture is untypical.

In old Sarajevo, showcased public buildings may give the impression of progress. But it is an illusion. The city centre is unswept, decaying, unrepaired, and with serious investment deterred by unresolved disputes of title.

Sarajevo remains a city of extraordinary charm, a romantic mix of the Middle East and Central Europe. Ancient minarets and secessionist-style blocks stand side by side. The muezzin calls and the angelus rings. Baščaršija market’s kebab houses pour enticing fatty fumes and spice scents into the shopping mall. And, typically on a winter’s morning, but whenever the wind changes, everything can be plunged into thick mist descending from the chalet-studded, tree-lined, snow-topped mountains.

Sarajevo is good for nostalgia but bad for depression. It is not just the overfilled cemeteries that give the place its indefinable sense of morbidity. The weight of memory is too great.

In the Balkans, history sometimes promotes wars, but always provokes an argument. Indisputably, however, a century ago this summer, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was brutally assassinated, along with his wife, by a young Serb, Gavrilo Princip, standing in front of Schiller’s delicatessen near Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge. Six potential assassins had been deployed along the route. Nothing was left to chance, though chance, as usual, stole the show. An earlier attempt that morning failed. Nedeljko Čabrinović threw a bomb which bounced off the lead car and exploded under the following one.  He then swallowed a suicide pill, which failed to work. Čabrinović jumped into the Miljacka River, which was too low to drown but not to stun him. He was pulled out, beaten by the crowd, and detained.

The royal couple, meanwhile, continued to the town hall. The archduke interrupted a flowery speech of welcome, objecting that he had not expected to be greeted with bombs. But he regained his composure. Lunch followed. Sophie met local Muslim women. Franz Ferdinand dictated a telegram to tell the emperor he was safe. They then returned along the Appel Quay.

The intention was to visit those injured in the earlier explosion, at the hospital. It was decided to avoid the city centre. But the driver had not been told. He turned right into Franz Josef Street, and was then angrily admonished. The magnificent Gräf und Stift open-topped coupé stopped. Princip stood forward and fired at close range. The couple were dead by the time the car got them back to the Konak palace, across the bridge. Franz Ferdinand’s final words were: “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children!”

The archduke was not much loved. He was stiff, pompous and short-tempered. But he was no fool. He wanted to reform the dual monarchy’s structure, in which power was wielded from Vienna and Budapest, and in which the Slavs felt they had no voice. Had he done so, it would have cut the ground from under Serbia’s claim to be the South Slavs’ champion. It was another good reason for him to die.

It was a shocking crime. Today one can imagine the media impact. All sympathy would be with the victims, all enmity levelled against the assassin and his backers. But, that summer in Britain, it was hardly noticed, partly because Ulster was threatening civil war, and partly because the focus quickly fell on Germany’s sinister intentions. The imaginative lacuna remains. The murders in Sarajevo appear still as a picturesque incident, all but unconnected from what followed. Little attention is paid to the wider conflict’s Balkan origins. The First World War thus seems a kind of dry run for the Second, with a similar cast of villains, heroes and story lines. But, as Christopher Clark demonstrates in his superb and authoritative account, The Sleepwalkers (Allen Lane, £10.99), this is misleading.

Germany did want an early war with Russia — though not necessarily in 1914 — because the generals thought war was inevitable, and the longer it was postponed, the more disadvantageous would be the odds. But it was Russia that mobilised first. Russian interest was firmly focused on the Balkans. France, too, was player not simply victim. Unreconciled to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, convinced that another round with Germany was required, French leaders reckoned that Germany could only be beaten if Russia were brought in. They understood that a Balkan inception was most likely to do it. Serbia’s actions towards Austria at this juncture reflected confidence that French financial and Russian political support were forthcoming.

Austria was, formally at least, the initiator. Its focus was on the Balkans too. The war party in Vienna had determined to crush Serbia for good. It seemed the only alternative to losing Bosnia and with it influence in south-east Europe.

So, all things considered, Sarajevo is not a bad place to consider what the Great War was about. But don’t expect the regularly rewritten local accounts to tell you. Where Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen once sold its sausage, the modest Museum of Sarajevo now stands. The building’s name has changed over the intervening years, as have its fortunes. It used to be devoted to the short, sad life of Princip. Now it houses a little-visited exhibition, Sarajevo 1878-1918. Just outside on the wall is a plaque. It reads: “From this place on June 28 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne Franz Ferdinand and his Wife Sofia.” The plaque is new. So is the subdued tone, the exhausted outcome of much polemic.

The first (royal) Yugoslavia, felt it had to commemorate the event. But it couldn’t find the safest option. The longer it waited, the more difficult it became. Finally, when in 1930 a memorial was erected, it was to loud international protests at the glorification of political murder. The authorities sought to portray the monument as a private initiative. Terrorism was again too close to home. Two years before, in the Belgrade parliament, the leading Croatian politicians had been gunned down by a Serb nationalist. The disorder was used by King Alexander to establish a dictatorship. But Alexander himself was assassinated, along with the French foreign minister, on a visit to Marseille in 1934, at the behest of the fascist, expatriate Croat Ustaša movement.

In April 1941, the Germans crushed Yugoslavia and entered Sarajevo. The Princip memorial was now removed. The plaque was presented to the Austrian-born Führer as a 52nd birthday present. But with the arrival of Tito’s partisans in 1945 Princip was a hero once more — as a proto-Communist revolutionary. A fresh plaque was erected. The inscription was still in Cyrillic script, to emphasise the assassin’s Serbian credentials. It now read: “From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip with his shooting expressed the people’s protest against tyranny and the centuries-long aspiration of our peoples for freedom”. (“Peoples” was a subtle nod in the direction of the non-Serbs in socialist Yugoslavia.) Beneath the plaque was set a pair of concrete footprints, representing Princip’s. Tourists liked to be photographed there. It was all a bit of a joke.

But then things became serious again. In the early Nineties, the Bosnian Serbs began shelling Sarajevo from the hills. During a four-year siege, 10,000 Bosnian soldiers and civilians died. New plaques to the fallen were erected. In the pockmarked streets “Sarajevo roses” (red resin poured into shell scars) indicate where people were killed. Nobody needed to have the historic connections pointed out. The Gavrilo Princip museum was shut. The concrete footprints were removed. Eventually, today’s anodyne replacement plaque appeared.

Time, though, never stands still. Sometimes it just goes backwards. There are discussions about displaying an earlier monument — the original one. This was raised by the Austrian authorities on June 28, 1917 at the entrance to the bridge — a large, sombre stone construct, consisting of stout pillars and a pietà. It was soon taken down, in 1918. But the material was too valuable to destroy. The central bronze medallion, depicting Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, is in good condition and stored in the cellars of the National Museum. These memorabilia have wider significance.

The effort is still made, particularly on the European Left, to place a liberal gloss on the bloody act of June 28. That effort is misplaced. One can speculate on what the rather naïve young men who lined up to kill the archduke thought they were going to achieve. Their accounts are detailed but ambiguous. But their controllers understood perfectly well. The object was the overthrow of Austrian power in favour of a Greater Serbia.

The politicians in Belgrade did not themselves plan or authorise it. Not even the Austrians suggested they had. Nikola Pašić, the Serbian prime minister, incompetently and unspecifically tipped off the Austrian authorities beforehand, but the latter, even more incompetently, ignored the tip. Nevertheless, the assassination was made in Serbia. It was planned by the “Black Hand” which, in the person of “Apis”, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, coincided at this juncture with Serbian military intelligence.

Apis had form. He and his fellow conspirator officers were behind the gory despatch of the Obrenović dynasty in 1903 in favour of the restored Karadjordjevićs — the Obrenović having proved too pliant towards Austria.

Apis was by 1914 persona non grata to Nikola Pašić, because he was out of control. That is why he was executed on trumped-up charges three years later. But in 1914 it was Apis’s agents who directed, trained and armed the gang of assassins. Most importantly, the whole Serbian state apparatus, within which — then and since — one must include prominent intellectuals and key elements in the Serbian Orthodox Church, was fully behind the broader strategy of “liberating” the South Slavs to include them within what amounted to a Greater Serbia (by whatever name). In that regard, the Austrian authorities were fully justified in blaming Serbia.

Viewed from the angle of Belgrade — rather than perspectives more familiar in London, Paris, or even Berlin — the conflict that began in 1914 was a Third Balkan War. The First Balkan War (1912) against the Ottoman Empire saw Serbia gain control of Kosovo, while the Second (1913) against Bulgaria saw it gain much of Macedonia. These two wars left the Serbs as the most powerful Balkan state. They also fed the violent, aggressive aspects of a deep-rooted and enduring Greater Serbian ideology. Belgrade began to feel strong enough, with Russian support, to take on its larger Austrian neighbour. And, especially since the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, Serbian state policy regarded Vienna as the principal obstacle to its ambitions.

In terms of regional state interests it was entirely appropriate that the starting point for a new Balkan War, which just happened to become the First World War, should be Sarajevo. But there is another sense too, for Sarajevo became the epicentre of a wider ideological struggle with profound implications for the shape of Europe. That entailed a clash between the forces of radical nationalism and conservative imperialism. The debate over which Sarajevo monument is more appropriate to mark the murders of June 28, 1914 — a pietà for the victims or a plaque for the assassin — is ultimately one about systems and values, and it has implications for the way in which the Great War is viewed as a whole.

Princip and his controllers certainly wanted to liberate Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Habsburg Empire. But did the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina wish to be liberated? And even if Serbs living there wanted it, could and did it benefit non-Serbs? Did it, in particular, benefit Sarajevo? Here the answer is both clear and revealing — no, it did not.

Sarajevo is the work of two empires, the Ottoman and the Austrian. Their cultural imprint is everywhere. The Ottomans chose the site and erected the city. Their vakufs — religious or charitable endowments — funded the institutions of education and welfare. The Ottoman city was divided into mahalas — residential neighbourhoods, each built around a mosque or other place of worship, for three or four mahalas were non-Muslim. One was Jewish, originally populated by Sephardim expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, joined in the 18th century by Ashkenazim. But in early times, one of the largest was the Catholic mahala — it is still the Catholic (Croat) quarter, Bistrik. This was based on people from Ragusa (Dubrovnik). The Ragusans, tributaries of the sultan but maintaining on the Adriatic an exclusively Catholic mini-state, had no scruples about helping to build Sarajevo’s imposing mosques. It is a microcosm of a contradictory yet harmonious system. Without overlooking the unspeakable cruelties visited on those who sought to throw off Ottoman domination, one can otherwise admire the order, sophistication, diversity and tolerance that the Porte, at the height of its powers, sustained in this, its regional capital.

The population of Sarajevo appreciated it too, at least when confronted with the alternative. Hence the fierce armed resistance offered to Austrian troops, who arrived in 1878 under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, which granted Austria the right to occupy and govern, but not to own, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The new rulers had, in fact, no intention of wiping clean the cultural slate. To the contrary, not just Orthodox Serbs but Catholic Croats, whose hopes had been raised, loudly complained that they were pushed aside in favour of the traditional Muslim elite. What the Austrians did bring to Sarajevo, and to Bosnia generally, was progress and prosperity.

From 1878, and with greater urgency after formal annexation in 1908, the Austrians dragged Sarajevo and Bosnia a long way into the modern world. They built roads, and not just for military purposes. They built narrow-gauge railways across the province and Sarajevo flourished as a centre of railway building. Trams began to circulate. The Austrians cautiously promoted the role of religious leaders to dampen the role of secular nationalisms, but they also later encouraged cultural organisations from which parties emerged. A Bosnian parliament was established, albeit with restricted franchise and seats effectively allocated on confessional grounds.

The authorities strongly emphasised education. In fact, they were too successful, because it was among students that radical opposition developed. Multi-confessional schools were founded. An elementary school solely for Muslim girls was opened, but it met resistance. Industrialisation and commerce were encouraged. Brick, tobacco and textile factories, sawmills, a reservoir and (in 1910) electricity generation transformed work and life in the city. Naturally, breweries appeared in the wake of Austrian officials and soldiers. The oldest of these, the Sarajevo Brewery, still in its old premises in Bistrik, produces the best dark beer in the region.

The public spaces of Sarajevo were entirely reordered. Amid new parks and squares, fine public or semi-public (religious) buildings arose, influenced in conception by Vienna but carefully reflecting the historic past and cultural realities. These included the Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox seminary, the Regional Government (now Presidency) Building, the Muslim Reading Society Hall, a Turkish-style bath, and the Regional Museum. The dominant style can be criticised for its “Orientalism”, an artificial blend of East and West, but it was highly appropriate and often — as with the town hall (bombed in the recent war, but now restored and reopened) — quite magnificent.

The system which Apis, Princip and the rest wanted to overthrow had proved itself in every sphere — except, perhaps, adaptability. But what empire can adapt to revolution? In any case, the immediate verdict of Sarajevo on the assassination was clear. The population rioted. During the evening of Sunday, June 28 and for most of Monday the city was in chaos as the Muslims and Croats attacked Serb shops, houses and meeting places. Two Serbs were killed. The riots were spontaneous and they were then checked with difficulty by the authorities.

Meanwhile, the mildness exercised towards the plotters and perpetrators is extraordinary, a notable contrast with the revenge and repression which might have been expected. No forced confessions, no Viennese equivalent of water-boarding, just plodding and methodical questioning, which eventually uncovered most of the culprits. Princip’s age was investigated and since he was found to be just short of 20, he was spared execution, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He died of typhus in April 1918 in Theresienstadt.

By then the war was drawing to its end, and so was the Habsburg Empire. Many Bosnian Serbs had volunteered to join the Serbian forces. But the majority of Bosnian Muslims and Croats had contributed enthusiastically to the Austrian cause. Bosnians came to be reckoned as among the empire’s elite forces. The four Bosnian regiments — the first drawn from Sarajevo — won a total of 27,243 medals for bravery. These are not the actions of an enslaved or intimidated people.

The First World War was not, of course, as Woodrow Wilson naively suggested, the “war to end all wars”. It was not even the war to end all empires. But it did transform the world — as Wilson wanted — by destroying three hereditary monarchical European empires, the Habsburg, Romanov and (parvenu) Hohenzollern dynasties, and substituting for them states based on nationality and populist ideology. Whether this is relevant to the debatable “justice” or otherwise of the war, itself, is a matter of definition. Quite clearly it has no bearing upon, and cannot detract from, the sacrifice made by those who died in it.

But the political question remains. Were states based upon Communism (the Soviet Union), or Nazism (the Third Reich), or the various extreme and exclusionary kinds of nationalism that came to prominence after the Great War an improvement on the system that preceded them? The turbulent and bloody experience of Sarajevo since that double murder on the Latin Bridge should confirm our doubts. Princip’s bullets tore through Europe’s heart.