Exit Wounds – The Paradox Of Peace: Sarajevo’s World War I

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.

Sarajevo - Paradox of peace

Sarajevo – Paradox of peace

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.

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

Remnants of a Serbian tailors shop strewn on the street in Sarajevo

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.

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa - the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Destruction outside the Hotel Evropa – the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

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.

Moment Of Surrender – A Street Corner In Sarajevo: Visiting The Beginning Of The End (Travels In Eastern Europe #22)

I was picked up at the airport in Sarajevo by the proprietor of my accommodation. We drove back through Novo Sarajevo (New Sarajevo), a newer part of the city I had never heard of before. The typical Tito-era tower apartment blocks loomed over the city streets. It was not until we got close to the old town that I began to notice steeples and minarets piercing the skyline. I was nervous with anticipation. My goal was to get checked in as quickly as possible so I would have time to hurry down to the location of the assassination site. After dropping my bags off, impatience drove me to immediately order a taxi, A few minutes later I was being whisked through the winding streets above the Old Town. The taxi driver misunderstood the directions and dropped me off nearby. This turned out to be for the best as I was able be to get my bearings while approaching the site.

From the moment I first saw a photo of Gavrilo Princip being apprehended by police immediately after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the archduchess Sophie I was fascinated by that event. The assassination’s setting in Sarajevo, an exotic quasi-eastern city that was a cauldron of ethnic tensions had much to do with my interest. I can still remember when I first saw the photo. It was on page four in Volume One of the Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I in my high school library. The Encyclopedia had a detailed article on the assassination. I read and reread it several times. My interest in the story of that fateful day led me years later to eventually track down an entire set of the encyclopedia later in life. Such curiosity eventually led me to research a trip to the actual site. That is what brought me all the way to Sarajevo. I now stood on the verge of realizing a decades old dream.

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Realizing a lifelong dream in Sarajevo

Trigger Effect – Changing The World One Bullet At A Time
It is not often (or ever) that I travel thousands of miles to visit a single street corner, but the allure of what happened in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 magnetically pulled me to that place where the Obala Kulina bana meets Zelenih beretki just across from the Latin Bridge. A century ago, the Obala was known as the Appel Quay, while Zelenih berertki was Franz Josef Strasse. Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the southern frontier of that multicultural polity. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary in 1905 had caused the blood of Serbia to boil. Bosnia had a large population of ethnic Serbs. The nation of Serbia wanted to incorporate them into a Greater Serbia that would rule over all South Slavs. Ethnic Serbs in Bosnia were stoked by the Serbian government to overthrow Austro-Hungarian rule. One way of doing that would be to assassinate the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he visited Sarajevo. The man who carried out the assassination, Gavrilo Princip, was a rootless, Bosnian Serb nationalist. His act of murder changed history.

When I got to the actual site, I was surprised by how small everything seemed. The Miljacka River, running beside the Appel Quay and under the Latin Bridge was flowing tepidly. It took less than a minute to walk across this world famous bridge. The street corner on which Princip stood when he fired the shots was just another ordinary street corner in front of an unmemorable building. Today the building holds a museum about the assassination and Austro-Hungarian rule in Sarajevo. There was a plaque with historical information on the outer wall of the museum and that was about it. It was something of a letdown, but what should I have expected? I had built the event up in my mind to such an extent that almost anything outside of the actual moment itself would have been a letdown.

The incredible thing was that the event really was of outsized significance, beyond all proportion to the modest surroundings of the site. There is no understating the assassination’s effect upon the world, both then and now. It was quite literally the trigger event that led to the outbreak of the First World War and millions of lives being lost in the first great conflagration of the 20th century. Princip’s shots were the inaugural volley that started the 20th century on an ultraviolent trajectory. Standing in the exact spot where it all began should have been humbling. In truth, I did not feel much of anything, other than a sense of gratification that I had realized a lifelong dream.

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

The Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River

Murderous Foibles – Reign Of The Amateurs
As for the assassination itself, the entire operation was full of foibles, nebulous characters and outright amateurism. For example, there were six known potential assassins in the city that day. The first three completely lost their nerve, failing to carry out a number of prime opportunities to murder the Archduke. Another assassin did muster the courage to toss a bomb at the Archduke’s vehicle, which bounced off its open topped canopy and badly damaged one of his entourage’s vehicles following closely behind. The bomb thrower, tried to commit suicide by taking cyanide, which only proceeded to induce vomiting, then proceeded to leap into the nearby river which was less than half a foot in depth. So much for getting away. The police pulled him from the water and gave him a vicious beating.

The Archduke took this as more a personal slight than a potentially fatal threat. By the time he reached the town hall to give a speech, he was barking at the mayor about the ferocious hospitality shown toward him and his wife by the bomb throwing locals. His wife, Sophie, was able to calm him down, but his imperious, stubborn nature would come back to haunt them. Instead of getting out of the city as soon as possible, the archduke decided they should go to the hospital and visit those who had been wounded by the bomb. This meant going back through the city once again with the car’s canopy down.

The man in charge of the Archduke’s security (if there was such a thing on this day) decided they should avoid the maze of streets in the downtown area and hurry along the Appel Quay, more of a straight shot through town to the hospital. Unfortunately the archduke’s chauffeur was not told this information. He was still following the original route and turned right onto Franz-Josef-Strasse, back towards the city center. Just after making that turn, the chauffeur was dutifully informed (too late of course) that he was headed the wrong way (the right way by his incorrect calculations) and put the car in reverse, which jammed the gears causing the car to stall.

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

Princip was standing close to the middle of the crosswalk when he fired the fatal shots

A Fluke Of History – An Ordinary Street On An Ordinary Day
At right about this time, Princip, whose most notable features were his short stature and a pair of preternaturally dark circles under his eyes, was coming out of Schiller’s Delicatessan (you can’t make this stuff up). He proceeded to pistol whip an innocent bystander who was in his way and then unloaded two shots. The first struck the Archduke in a jugular vein. The second struck his wife Sophie in the abdomen.
Right away, a crowd developed around Princip that attempted to lynch him. That was until the police arrived and carried him away. The Archduke and Sophie did reach the hospital, but she was dead on arrival and ten minutes later so was he. His final words were a repetitive mumble, “it is nothing.” Well it most certainly was something.

As for Princip, he turns the great man theory of history on its head. Perhaps it is not great men who make history, but weak men who overcompensate for their own innate weakness. They summon anger as a replacement for courage and leave their mark on the world through incident or accident. Such an improbable series of events put the assassination site into perspective for me. The act occurred less by planning than happenstance. It was a fluke of history that Princip found himself standing on the sidewalk beside the Archduke’s stalled out vehicle. The sheer randomness of everything that happened that day has left countless historians grappling to make sense of it all. The assassination is a reminder of the role luck and chance play in history. That may also be why the site itself seems to be so mundane. It happened on an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, but as I would find out soon enough, Sarajevo is no ordinary place.