What the WWI centenary means for Sarajevo

What the WWI centenary means for Sarajevo

With the WWI centenary coming up, Jonathan Bousfield looks at what it means for Sarajevo, the city where it all began 100 years ago.

With its fantasy-novel-meets-fairytale skyline of church belfries and minarets, the Bosnia-Herzegovinian capital of Sarajevo is the perfect place for a romantic long-weekend break. Or at least that’s what Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie thought when they arrived at the Ilidža spa resort just outside the city on Thursday June 25, 1914.

Most readers will know how their weekend ended. Driving around the city in a motorcade on Sunday June 28, the couple were assassinated by Bosnian-Serb teenager Gavrilo Princip, plunging Europe into a diplomatic crisis that culminated in the outbreak of World War I.

The heir to the Austrian throne was unenthusiastic about visiting Sarajevo and voiced misgivings about security measures in a city that had only been under Austrian rule since 1878. However he was determined to take his wife, and once there they set about doing things that any other tourists might have done. They insisted on being driven through the picturesque, oriental-flavoured Baščaršija with its mosques and bazaars on their first night. Franz Ferdinand spent the Friday and Saturday dutifully attending the military exercises that were the official reason for his visit, while Sophie took the opportunity to tour the sights and shop for hand-woven kilims.

Bosnia, Sarajevo. Bascarsija

They weren’t really supposed to be travelling together. Duchess Sophie’s middle-class origins meant that she was effectively frozen out of court ceremonial, and was prohibited by protocol from accompanying her husband on official business. It was only due to Franz Ferdinand’s obstinate refusal to follow the full logic of the ban that Sophie ended up sitting next to him in an open-topped car trundling around Sarajevo on the morning of the 28th.

The spot where the assassination took place, where ul. Zelenih beretki (Zelenih beretki street) reaches the River Miljacka, is marked by a simple plaque. Positioned almost at floor level, however, it’s quite difficult to read. The Museum of Sarajevo, occupying the building on the corner of the street, is the place to go for a more thorough account of the events of June 28.

Until recently, a relief showing a pair of footprints was set into the pavement to show exactly where Gavrilo Princip was standing as he fired the fatal shots. Designed by local artist Vojo Dimitrijević, it was a deliberately understated monument to the young idealist who unwittingly set in motion a century of war, nationalism, revolution and mass murder. Judging by the size of the prints, Princip wore size 4; nowadays you have to go to the children’s department to get shoes that small. Princip’s footprints were removed in 1992, put back in the late 1990s, and then removed again.

Latinska Cuprija (Latin Bridge) over Miljacka River, place of murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe

The strange case of the disappearing footprints speaks volumes about the way in which the events of June 1914 can still be the source of controversy. Yesterday’s hero can quite easily become today’s terrorist.

During the period when Bosnia-Herzegovina was part of Yugoslavia, Gavrilo Princip was universally perceived to be a freedom fighter who sought to liberate all the South-Slav peoples from foreign domination. The aforementioned Museum Of Sarajevo was originally called the “Museum of the Assassination”, and Princip was presented on a par with Che Guevara as a local symbol of iconic revolt.

With the collapse of Yugoslavia, however, the idea of Princip as some kind of proto-Yugoslav idealist suddenly lost its currency. If you were a Bosnian Serb, then Princip was a Serbian national hero. If you were a Bosnian Croat or Muslim, then Princip was a dark precursor of the Greater-Serbian ideologues of the 1990s.

There’s certainly very little Princip-worship on display at the Museum of Sarajevo nowadays. Indeed the Austro-Hungarian authorities that ran Bosnia-Herzegovina during the pre-assassination years seem to come off rather better than the revolutionary firebrands of Young Bosnia. History ghouls will not be totally disappointed, however: the trousers Princip wore on that fateful morning still hang here proudly, as well as the pistol said to have been used by the assassin. Coming face to face with the very weapon that launched a European apocalypse can be a numbing experience – although, inevitably, there is doubt about its authenticity (a pistol claiming to be Princip’s is also on display at the Military History Museum in Vienna).

Old Town Hall, The National and University Library Austro-Hungarian Building, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Europe

The ambiguity of what happened in June 1914 helps to explain why Sarajevo’s centenary plans look a little muted in comparison to the commemorative events taking place elsewhere in Europe. But there will still be a programme of events in the lead up to the fateful date: various cultural happenings under the “Sarajevo, Heart of Europe” banner will run from June 21 to June 28 and there’ll be an international veterans’ cycle race on June 22 – apparently, the 1914 edition of the Tour de France got under way just as the Archduke and his duchess were sinking lifelessly into their upholstered car seat.

Most symbolic event of 2014 in Sarajevo? The re-opening of the Vijećnica or Town Hall, a flamboyantly Moorish-style building built during the period of Austrian rule, and destroyed by Bosnian-Serb shelling during the siege of 1992–95. The Vijećnica also happened to be the last place visited by Franz Ferdinand and Sophie before their motorcade ran into a bit of bother. Rebuilt at huge cost, the Vijećnica will host a commemorative concert on the evening of June 28, 2014, to be given (appropriately enough) by Austria’s premier orchestra, the Viennese Philharmonic. Now that should blow away some of the cobwebs of the last 100 years.

9781409337362Find out about other events in Sarajevo this summer on sarajevo2014.com.
Explore more of this continent with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.