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Where it all began

  • Published at 06:17 pm February 29th, 2016
Where it all began

My first stop in Sarajevo was the street corner where, on June 28, 1914, the 20th century began to fall apart. It is in the middle of the town, across from the “Latin” Bridge over the Miljacka River.

On that day over 101 years ago, the 19-year-old Serbian nationalist assassin, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be standing right at the corner when the open car of the visiting Austrian Archduke mistakenly turned right. Princip was not more than five feet away from his target, and didn’t miss.

For a landmark that changed the course of history, the spot is modestly marked. I suppose Bosnians would rather not have Sarajevo be remembered for the assassination that led to the bloodiest century in modern history, although Bosnia suffered more than many other countries.

A simple stone marker set in a wall is all that there is. A small museum holds out in the corner building, overlooking the spot, almost out of sight, with some interesting photos. We were its only visitors, I suspect, on that particular day. Princip was a Bosnian Serb, but perhaps one who wanted a multi-ethnic Slav nation that was independent of the even more multi-ethnic Austrian Empire.

At least that is the inference one can make from his statement at his trial for the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He said: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.”

There is some reason to believe that he might have been of that mind. Sarajevo had a history of inter-ethnic and inter-religious tolerance and harmony for much of its preceding history. (Since ethnicity is closely aligned with religion in the Balkans, inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony are basically the same thing.)

After the Ottoman Empire annexed Bosnia in 1463, the first Ottoman ruler made Sarajevo into the capital, building a mosque, a public bath, a covered market, and some official buildings. 

In the next 200 years, Sarajevo became the largest and most important city in Ottoman-controlled Europe. At its height in the mid-17th Century, it boasted having 80,000 inhabitants, six times more than Belgrade, and five times more than Zagreb.

These centuries of growth and progress also fostered a tradition of ethnic/religious co-existence that would be the envy of many countries today (including Bosnia). As the military fortunes of the Ottoman Empire turned sour in the 17th century, Bosnia became a frontier state in the empire, and its fortunes also declined.

At the end of the 17th Century, Sarajevo was attacked by the Austrians and the city was burned down. By the early 19th Century, internal instability was growing (the 1830s revolt against the Ottomans foreshadowed major changes) so that Sarajevo’s population had shrunk to about 60,000.

The second half of the 19th century saw the Ottoman Empire continue to weaken and lose territory to Russia and others. The “sick man of Europe,” as the Ottomans came to be called, was unable, inter alia, to control and administer its European territories, and conditions in Bosnia continued to deteriorate.

In 1878, in an effort to fix the problems that the deteriorating Ottoman power and grasp had created, as almost an afterthought, the “great powers” (UK, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire) gave to Austria-Hungary the responsibility to occupy and administer Bosnia while keeping it under de jure Ottoman sovereignty.

How they expected this to work while recognising in the same conference the independence of Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, and an amputated Bulgaria, is a mystery.

Paradoxically, Sarajevo prospered under Austrian occupation, in part reflecting the sad state of the administration of the Ottomans.

The city was rebuilt, and for me this has given the city a unique charm, blending the remaining Muslim parts of the city with 19th century Western European styles. Austrian investment also brought rapid economic progress.

But in 1908, Austria-Hungary took it one step too far and annexed Bosnia. This action increased the agitation among Bosnians to break away from Austria, and brought Princip to Sarajevo on that fateful day in 1914.

World War I brought the end of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. Sarajevo joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as the centre of the Bosnian region of the kingdom. World War II brought a quick end to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Sarajevo fell to the Axis Powers in April 1941. The German/Italian occupation authorities created an independent state of Croatia, which was an Axis ally from the very beginning, into which they forced Bosnia. Many heroic myths about the Yugoslavian resistance against the Germans are still current, and some are even true.

But as in all of the occupied countries of WWII, the truth is much more intricate and hard to make out. In the great majority of occupied countries, ideological and/or ethnic groups used the resistance as much to advance their own agendas and fight their domestic enemies as to fight the Germans.

In many of those countries, their domestic enemies were sometimes collaborators with the Germans, sometimes not.

What could account, otherwise, for the fact that there was a Waffen SS regiment of Bosnian Muslims recruited to fight against Tito’s Communist partisans?

And how to explain the famous photo of the celebrated Serbian partisan fighter about to be hung -- by soldiers of the collaborationist Serbian government.

And often the Germans were not even involved. Istvan Deak sums it up best: “After the triumphs of 1941, the occupiers effectively controlled less and less territory. More and more, the Balkans were dominated by various guerilla groups -- communists, republicans, monarchists … nationalist Chetniks (whose aim was a greater Serbia, not a restored Yugoslavia) and Josip Broz Tito’s communists in Croatia, Serbia, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.”

The war ended in Yugoslavia when the Soviet and British Army teamed with Tito’s partisans to establish order. Sarajevo became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And, for a while, life was good.

A sense of the pre-war co-existence returned (religious conflicts were simply not allowed under communism), and the communist federal government invested heavily in building up Sarajevo. It became one of the Balkans’ major cities again. In 1984, it hosted the winter Olympics, and its charms became better known around the world.

The modern history museum in Sarajevo is divided into two parts. The first covers this period of progress and prosperity under Tito’s socialist regime. As I went through it, the positive feelings about that period were clearly on display. This was, for the present generations, their halcyon days.

But around two-thirds of the way through, I began to pick up a subtle change of tone -- well, it was a great period, but Sarajevo wasn’t getting its share of the nation’s resources.

This became more insistent toward the end of this first part of the museum. Of course, Tito, half Croat and half Slovene, had died in 1980, and his successors had been Serbs (Serb nationalists perhaps). Moreover, after the Soviet Union broke up, other Yugoslav states began to declare independence.

It is a short and slippery step from declaring independence to civil war, as we all know.

Wait a minute! A member of a federation that feels it is being discriminated against by a larger, more powerful, national federal center which sees its parts disappearing -- I have seen this movie before, and the ending is not necessarily a happy one. But that will come in Part 2, after the intermission.