Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

A Blood Red Line Running From Lviv to Sarajevo – The Assassination of Andreas Potocki (Lviv: The History Of One City Part 29)

There is a theory that threats to empires, nations and alliances usually begin on the fringes. Two recent examples come to mind. The European Debt Crisis began in Greece, a nation whose size, economy and geographical situation make up a miniscule portion of the European Union. Yet it was the possibility of a Greek default that threatened to collapse the European Union. Currently, a migrant crisis has been sweeping across Europe. It only came into the European consciousness when waves of migrants bottlenecked on the Hungarian – Serbian border last summer. Before that, the majority of Europeans hardly gave a second thought to the plight of Syrians. Even fewer cared about Hungary’s external border with a non-EU member. Then suddenly the issue moved from the fringes to the heart of Europe.

Historically, one of the best examples of “fringe theory” was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which ignited the First World War. Bosnia-Herzegovina was an imperial backwater, though on the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one murderous event there led to worldwide conflagration and irreparable change in the European order. No one could have imagined that a single event in a fading empire’s hinterland would cause such a cataclysm. It would be easy to say that the assassination was without precedent, but it was not. Before the assassination in Sarajevo there was an earlier event that warned of tensions in another fringe region of Austria-Hungary. It was also an assassination, a product of the same kind of ethnic friction that would eventually cause the empire’s implosion. This first act took place in Lviv (known then by its German name of Lemberg) in 1908.

Count Andreas Potocki - Governor-General of Galicia

Count Andreas Potocki – the Governor-General of Galicia who was assassinated in 1908 (Credit: Kazimierz Pochwalsk)

An Audience With An Assassin
In Austro-Hungarian times, Galicia’s top provincial official, known as the Governor General, was available each Sunday to meet with citizens. They could request assistance with a problem, air a grievance or submit a petition. These meetings were completely confidential with not even a single security officer present. In retrospect, it seems a quaintly paradoxical notion that despite a rigid class system with rampant inequality between ethnic groups, aristocrats and peasants, in addition to city and rural laborers that once a week anyone could address the Emperor’s handpicked, top provincial official. Many of these meetings dealt with minor problems caused by the tangled web of bureaucracy. These meetings gave the citizens a feeling of empowerment. While the ruling class felt that holding such an audience was a symbol of justice and fairness.  On April 12, 1908, Governor-General Andreas Potocki, a wealthy scion of the Polish aristocratic Potocki family, held his regular audience with citizens that wanted to meet with him.

The first meeting involved a man who asked for help in clearing up bureaucratic problems so he could open a pharmacy. Potocki dutifully promised to ease the administrative logjam.  The second man entering Potocki’s office had an unknown petition, but immediately made his intentions clear. Right after closing the door behind him, the man pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot Potocki five times. The Governor-General was somehow still conscious after the attack, but among his wounds, the worst one was just above his left eye. The assailant did not attempt to flee, instead he just stood there. A clerk ran into the room, saw what happened and immediately called for medical help. As he lay dying Potocki dictated a brief telegram to Emperor Franz Josef. After suffering for two hours he uttered his last words, “Tell the Emperor I was his most faithful servant.” That servitude had cost Potocki his life. The assassin was Miroslaw Siczynski, a university philosophy student, who held radical pro-Ruthenian (Ukrainian) sentiments.  He had been part of Ruthenian student protests, demonstrations and hunger strikes. A brother suffering from mental illness had recently committed suicide. This was thought to have triggered Siczynski’s fatal act. His sister quoted him as saying, “If someone is going to renounce his life, he should first achieve some great deed, a deed for the whole people.” The deed had been done, but what followed was totally unexpected.

Miroslaw Siczynski

Miroslaw Siczynski – the student who assassinated Count Andreas Potocki

Crime & Punishment
The assassination made news around the world. A New York Times headline gave a brief and accurate summation of the act’s underlying motive, “Count Andreas Potocki victim of the bitter enmity between Ruthenians and Poles.” There was no love lost in Lviv between the Poles who controlled the levers of power in Galicia and the Ruthenians who were the majority population in the eastern half of the province. Poles enshrined the use of their language in civil administration and universities, marginalizing the Ruthenians. The crux of the matter was that Ruthenians refused to become Poles and Poles refused to allow Ruthenians equality in the economic, political and cultural arenas.  For radical Ruthenians, such as Siczynski, the only solution was violence. It held the possibility of toppling the entire system of Polish power in Galicia.

The Potocki assassination would not lead to major changes right away, but it exposed the combustible ethnic tension found throughout Galicia and Austria-Hungary as a whole. It also led to unintended consequences in the life of Siczynski.  Like many a zealot, he had hoped to achieve martyrdom. A jury sentenced him to death by hanging. This was reinforced by the highest courts in Vienna.  In a dramatic turn of events, at the eleventh hour his death sentence was commuted by the Emperor. He was now to serve 20 years in prison, but he actually only served little more than three. One night Siczynski, with the aid of an accomplice, walked out the gates of the prison where he was confined in Stanislalviv (Ivano-Frankivsk). He made his way to Sweden and later immigrated to the United States. He would spend the rest of his life as a free man. Siczynski had suffered relatively little for the murder he committed. Other would-be revolutionaries must have taken note.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

The nightmare to come – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo

The Most Dangerous Precedent
The assassination in Lviv may not have transformed the Ruthenians immediate situation in Galicia, but it did set a dangerous precedent throughout the empire. It was the first time in Austro-Hungarian history that a direct representative of the emperor had been murdered. It was now possible to conceive that assassinations would become the preferred method of effecting change. No one, including the Emperor or his heir apparent – the Archduke Franz Ferdinand – was safe from ethnic violence. There was a line that ran between the assassination in Lviv during the spring of 1908 and the one in Sarajevo at the end of June 1914. That line ran red with the blood of the powerful murdered by the powerless. Out along the fringes of an Empire, radical change was being promulgated. Eventually, it bled straight into the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.