Fateful Sarajevo shot still divides Balkans 100 years on

Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders refuse to attend centennial events in Sarajevo

An image from illustrated supplement “Le Petit Journal” showing the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

An image from illustrated supplement “Le Petit Journal” showing the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images


Winston Churchill remarked that the Balkans “produce more history than they can consume”, and the centenary of the killing that sparked the first World War finds the region still struggling to digest its past.

The deadly bullet fired by Gavrilo Princip at archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, was dubbed “the shot that rang out around the world”, and its historical ricochets are again rattling former Yugoslavia 100 years later.

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, is already marking the event with conferences, art exhibitions, concerts, plays and films, and even an international cycle race sponsored by the Tour de France. The climax of the cultural festival will be a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic on June 28th in Sarajevo city hall, a neo-Moorish landmark that was reopened last month after long reconstruction.

Ferdinand and his wife Sofia attended a reception at the city hall, having already survived one assassination attempt that fateful day; after leaving in their open-top car, they were shot dead by Princip a short distance away.

Violent past

For both its beauty and its violent past, many Sarajevans see the building as a symbol of their city: erected in 1896, it later served as a major library from 1949 until 1992, when it was razed by Serb shelling early in Bosnia’s most recent war.

All the official talk at the city hall’s reopening, and during events to commemorate the assassination, focuses on strengthening peace in the Balkans and fostering reconciliation between its people.

But Serbia’s leaders – and even top officials in Republika Srpska, the mostly ethnic-Serb region of Bosnia – have flatly refused to spend June 28th in Sarajevo.

They complain about being excluded from preparations for the anniversary by Sarajevo’s mostly Bosnian-Muslim officials, and say the events will misleadingly depict Princip as a terrorist and by association blame Serbia for the war that ensued.

Princip, who was only 19 at the time of the killing, called himself a “Yugoslav nationalist” who wanted to help unite all “south Slavs” living in the Balkans and free them from Austro-Hungarian rule.

He was considered a freedom fighter in socialist Yugoslavia and still enjoys that status among many Serbs. But Croats and Bosnian Muslims now largely regard him as a forerunner of the violent Serb nationalism that would hurl Yugoslavia into bloody chaos in the 1990s.

In Belgrade and east Sarajevo, home to many Bosnian Serbs, statues to Princip are expected to be unveiled this month, and Serbs are collecting money to restore the now derelict house where he grew up.

While most of Europe will be watching Sarajevo on June 28th, Serbia’s leaders will spend the day in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, a Serb stronghold that hosts an extraordinary and controversial project by Bosnia’s best-known filmmaker.

Here, Emir Kusturica has built Andricgrad, a tribute to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ivo Andric and his classic 1945 book The Bridge Over the Drina, which tells the history of Bosnia through events around Visegrad’s 16th-century Ottoman bridge.

Kusturica says Andricgrad has been built in a spirit of mutual understanding and reconciliation between Bosnia’s communities. But his own strong defence of Serb causes makes some Muslims and Croats anxious, as does his choice of location: Serbs massacred Muslims in Visegrad during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war.

The director is expected to host Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders at the village’s official opening on June 28th, and it will hold historical conferences and cultural events that many see as Serb rivals to events in Sarajevo.

Princip’s role hailed

Meeting Serbian premier Aleksandar Vucic and Republika Srpska’s nationalist president, Milorad Dodik, last week, Kusturica hailed Princip’s role in helping break Austro-Hungarian tyranny over what would become Yugoslavia in 1918. “That shot was the beginning of liberation from serfdom and slavery,” he said.

Mr Vucic said it was only right that ethnic-Serb leaders were together on June 28th – St Vitus’s Day – on which many crucial events in the nation’s history have taken place, including defeat to the Ottomans in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

“It is my duty to be with our people – it is our biggest national holiday,” he said, before adding of Sarajevo: “I could not stand next to a sign that calls Serbia a fascist aggressor.”

Serbia is expected to launch its own commemorations of the first World War a month later, on July 28th, exactly 100 years after Austria-Hungary declared war on the country.