It is one of the great ironies of history that Sarajevo, the city where World War I ignited, was untouched by military violence during the war. This is both incredible and understandable. Incredible from the standpoint that Sarajevo was a hotbed of ethnic tension which exploded in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Violence flared with the targeting of ethnic Serbians and their property, but this was civilian rather than military inspired violence. The shots that Gavrilo Princip fired to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914 were among the first and last to echo through the streets of the city during the next four and a half years.
Since the assassination triggered the war, rather than being a part of it, it might even be said that no shots were fired in Sarajevo during the conflict, at least not as part of a skirmish or battle. The lack of military operations in or around Sarajevo during the war is understandable since Bosnia-Herzegovina was on the war’s periphery throughout the conflict. That does not mean Bosnians came through the war unscathed. On the contrary, there was privation and loss felt on a personal level. The citizens of this multi-ethnic city might not have been dodging bullets in the streets. Nonetheless, they were deeply affected by the war.
Mob Mentality – Professions Of Loyalty
One of the strangest parallels regarding Sarajevo and the assassination is that only two people lost their lives in the post-assassination rioting. That is the same as the royal couple murdered by Gavrilo Princip. This is rather remarkable because anti-Serb demonstrations and riots broke out in the hours following the assassination. On that Sunday evening, less than twelve hours after the Archduke was murdered a large crowd assembled outside the Hotel Europa. They began to toss stones at what had been a meeting place for many Bosnian Serb politicians. A handful of troops finally arrived on horseback and dispersed the crowd. The next morning a demonstration was held where Croat and Muslim politicians gave speeches denouncing the assassination and professing loyalty to the empire. The area was festooned with black flags and the Austro-Hungarian anthem was sung. These speeches served to whip up emotion among the crowd.
When the rally ended, many of the participants joined gangs that vandalized Serb-owned businesses and homes. These gangs stoned a Serbian Orthodox Church and the nearby Metropolitan’s residence. They proceeded to ransack a Serbian Orthodox school while continuing to bust windows and pilfer goods from Serb-owned shops. Other belongings from businesses and homes were stolen, flung out into the street or destroyed. Some Sarajevans were seen cheering from the windows of their apartment buildings while the riots were in progress. Then two ethnic Serbs were killed by rioters. Only through the intervention of Imperial troops did the looting finally subside.
Anything But Normal – The Home Front As A War Front
During the First World War, Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to be under the control of Austria-Hungary. As such its men were pressed into service just like millions of others in the empire. Men in Sarajevo volunteered or were drafted into the Imperial armed forces. They were sent far away from their homes to fight in lands that most knew nothing about. Sarajevans found themselves on either side of the conflict. Many Bosnian Serbs sided with their ethnic brethren in Serbia while others fought for Austria-Hungary. The ethnic mosaic of Sarajevo, like that of Bosnia-Herzegovina led to complicated loyalties. The home front was repeatedly touched by the tragedy of war. By one count, ten percent of all Bosnian men were lost in the war. Many wives in Sarajevo suddenly became widows, fathers and mothers lost sons. The battlefront may have been far off in a geographical sense, but mentally it weighed on the minds of Sarajevans. The closest that Sarajevo ever came to being touched by military operations during the war was in the latter part of 1915. Troops from Montenegro threatened to overrun the city. In response, the authorities evacuated part of the city. When the threat subsided, citizens were allowed to return home. Yet life was anything but normal during the war.
Sarajevans were subject to a war tax, an attempt to help alleviate the increasing cost of the war. Rationing went into effect less than a year into the war and continued throughout. Acquiring life’s basic necessities became increasingly difficult. There was little opportunity to have a say in these strictures. Government as it existed before the war had ceased to exist. Sarajevo was governed by a trustee appointed by Imperial authorities. Rule was by decree rather than representative institutions. Freedom of speech was proscribed. Suspicions of anti-government elements were rife. Politics no longer accommodated the people, only the state. City life was slowly transformed by the war, but the biggest change would come at the end of the conflict. By the autumn of 1918, the worldwide conflagration that had started four years before on a Sarajevo street corner had led to a political transformation in the affairs of all South Slavic peoples.
With Or Without You – Sarajevo & The War
On the first day of December 1918, less than a month after the Great War ended, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed by Prince Regent Alexander of Serbia. Eventually this state would come to be called Yugoslavia. It is telling that Bosnians were not mentioned in the first iteration of the state’s name. Bosnia-Herzegovina was absorbed to the point of vanishing by the new polity. Sarajevo’s fortunes declined in unison with the province it had once helped govern. Institutions of government were doled out to the cities that were hubs for the largest ethnic groups, Belgrade for Serbs, Zagreb for Croats and Ljubljana for Slovenes.
The days of Austro-Hungarian largesse in building the city up as its Balkan showpiece were long gone. Austria-Hungary had been swept away by the war. Sarajevo had provided the trigger that started that process. Without the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo the First World War might not have happened, but no can know for sure. What is certain is that Sarajevo and the war became inextricably linked, not with military operations, but tied in with an event that led the world to explode.