The Difficulty Of Remembering WWI Where It All Began


A simple plaque on a street corner marks the assassination
Sarajevo is gearing up for events planned to mark the centenary of the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

As schoolchildren are taught the world over, Bosnia was then part of Austria-Hungary, and the Archduke's assassination by a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Pincip led directly to the outbreak of war between the Habsburg Empire and Serbia, which led to a chain reaction of political, diplomatic and military events which drew in Russia, Germany, France and Britain.

But Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska, said in November last year that Bosnia's mainly Serbian entity will not take part in events planned in Sarajevo to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. He said this was because the events in Sarajevo would not be "well grounded", historically, and would not contribute to reconciliation among peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Next June, some 130 historians from 30 countries will gather in Sarajevo to reconsider the origins of the great war at an international conference at the Sarajevo School of Science & Technology. In both Serbia and Republika Srpska, politicians see the conference as an attempt to "revise history", to lay the blame for the war, with its 10 million dead, on the shoulders of the Serb people."Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor it will forget who are the main culprits in World War I," Dacic warned.

Dodik added that Republika Srpska would instead collaborate with neighbouring Serbia over a programme of events.

Tension over the centenary in Bosnia reflects the fact that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks [Muslims] naturally view Princip's action and legacy differently. To most Serbs, Princip was a national hero whose memory is to be celebrated. Many Croats, on the other hand, recall Princip as a terrorist and do not rejoice in the destruction of Austria-Hungary, which was a direct consequence of the war.

The locals of Sarajevo have always had difficulty remembering and commemorating the 1914 assassination. Over the last hundred years almost a dozen different monuments, memorials and museums have adorned the street corner where Princip fired his famous shots, each one has been telling in terms of how the people of Bosnia have struggled to understand the assassination as part of their national history. Then, like now, the memorial process has rarely broken free from outside influence. In the memory of many contemporary Westerners, the Sarajevo assassination merely confirms their stereotypes of Balkan backwardness and barbarism, and thus has provided a convenient means to divert blame for the escalation into war in 1914 from their own leaders. For many in Sarajevo, however, June 28, 1914, will always be seen as the beginning of their liberation from centuries of foreign control. Moreover, while the assassination is as inseparable from the city in which it took place as the camp at Dachau, how Sarajevo's population and that of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself have sought to remember this history is a more complex matter. For although an event as scrutinized as the Holocaust in terms of memory and identity is in little danger of being glorified in official representations, the Sarajevo assassination has always been looked upon more ambivalently by those who must accept it as their own.