Sarajevo in historical aporia. 100 years after Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Paul Gradvohl · 28 June 2014
Anniversaries are often bad omen for historians. Luxurious publications and sometimes widely attended ceremonies do seldom contribute to genuine historical thinking. At best some kind of international dialogue emerges.

Though very stimulating, The sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (2003) did little to help either his corporation neither politicians to face the dynamics of nationalism and the contingent character of the events leading to the First World War. Economics and geopolitics still seem to be undisputed be-all and end-all if not dei ex machina. Because of the teleology involved in this mechanistic vision, the murderers in Sarajevo are now portrayed as national heroes by Serbian nationalists and their supporters. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie are simply set aside as necessary victims of the course of history. They join the millions now seen as victims while heroes are fading away but exceptions. Gavrilo Princip would be one.

Unfortunately for all nationalists, the Sarajevo murders tell an opposite story. Both deaths were fortuitous. The young terrorists were poorly trained and psychologically fragile, often stuck in family quagmires. Russian warmongers and Serbian secret services acted in order to launch a war against the initial bent of the Serbian Premier. And the organizer of the murder, the head of the Serbian military intelligence, “Apis”, was condemned on fake charges in 1917, when his masters contemplated a separate peace with the Alliance. Serbian Yugoslavia, created after the World War, did not result from a Hegelian move of history, but, among others, from strange calculations of the French political establishment, opposing the hopes of the French Navy, which foresaw a Yugoslavia aside from Serbia, built in order to ensure a proper access to the sea for Central Europe.

The murderers in Sarajevo are now portrayed by Serbian nationalists and their supporters as national heroes. Unfortunately for all nationalists, the Sarajevo murders tell an opposite story.

Paul Gradvohl

Yet the fate of Yugoslavia was not sealed. But alternating cults on the spot of the murder in Sarajevo did show for a century that Serbian myths seldom tried to meet the expectations of other Southern Slavs, and never dared coping with the negative reactions of non-Serbs (and of some Serbs) in 1914. The ongoing controversies show national views in former Yugoslavia and Europe have a hard time contending with the ambiguities of national feelings (in 1914 and later) and the uncertain fate of states. Having recently interviewed members of the families of Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Gavrilo Princip, it was striking that nationalism is no compass for them. As Tito’s daughter remained in Sarajevo and heads a foundation to foster all righteous in the world, the old Serbian ladies remained in the besieged town, while Anita de Hohenberg recalled the fact that the orphans of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie forgave the young murderers during the war.

Public spaces were successively filled with opposite hatred and asymmetrical reconciliations. But private spheres sometimes resisted the everlasting leaning of states towards historical legitimation. This is one of the challenges Martin Luther King aptly observed mankind had to rise through. To avoid the one-sided mirages of heroes or victims — despite the massive human destructions during the first modern industrial conflict — could help nowadays Sarajevo to step out of historical aporia and lead future European statecraft to reframe its all-encompassing reconciliation scheme.