You are here:   Features > Sarajevo: Where the Century of Terror Began

Memorial to a murder: A Tito-era commemoration of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife glorified Gavrilo Princip's deed

It is hard enough in London properly to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. But how to do it in Sarajevo, where the first shots — those that killed the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on Sunday June 28, 1914 — were actually fired?

Sarajevo has other, more pressing problems, which stem from the bloody and destructive wars of Yugoslav succession. It is today the seat of a dysfunctional government, paralysed by incompetence and corruption. The economy depends almost entirely on foreign handouts and remittances. Returning after a few years' absence, one is struck not by progress but by regression. True, not everything is stagnating. There is development out of town. A magnificent, new, state of the art, shining white building, set in in the leafy old Austrian spa of Ilidža, houses the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. It is a private university, where only English is spoken, where the Margaret Thatcher Lecture Auditorium has just been opened, and which works in partnership with the University of Buckingham. But the venture is untypical.

In old Sarajevo, showcased public buildings may give the impression of progress. But it is an illusion. The city centre is unswept, decaying, unrepaired, and with serious investment deterred by unresolved disputes of title.

Sarajevo remains a city of extraordinary charm, a romantic mix of the Middle East and Central Europe. Ancient minarets and secessionist-style blocks stand side by side. The muezzin calls and the angelus rings. Baščaršija market's kebab houses pour enticing fatty fumes and spice scents into the shopping mall. And, typically on a winter's morning, but whenever the wind changes, everything can be plunged into thick mist descending from the chalet-studded, tree-lined, snow-topped mountains.

Sarajevo is good for nostalgia but bad for depression. It is not just the overfilled cemeteries that give the place its indefinable sense of morbidity. The weight of memory is too great.

In the Balkans, history sometimes promotes wars, but always provokes an argument. Indisputably, however, a century ago this summer, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was brutally assassinated, along with his wife, by a young Serb, Gavrilo Princip, standing in front of Schiller's delicatessen near Sarajevo's Latin Bridge. Six potential assassins had been deployed along the route. Nothing was left to chance, though chance, as usual, stole the show. An earlier attempt that morning failed. Nedeljko Čabrinović threw a bomb which bounced off the lead car and exploded under the following one.  He then swallowed a suicide pill, which failed to work. Čabrinović jumped into the Miljacka River, which was too low to drown but not to stun him. He was pulled out, beaten by the crowd, and detained.

The royal couple, meanwhile, continued to the town hall. The archduke interrupted a flowery speech of welcome, objecting that he had not expected to be greeted with bombs. But he regained his composure. Lunch followed. Sophie met local Muslim women. Franz Ferdinand dictated a telegram to tell the emperor he was safe. They then returned along the Appel Quay.

The intention was to visit those injured in the earlier explosion, at the hospital. It was decided to avoid the city centre. But the driver had not been told. He turned right into Franz Josef Street, and was then angrily admonished. The magnificent Gräf und Stift open-topped coupé stopped. Princip stood forward and fired at close range. The couple were dead by the time the car got them back to the Konak palace, across the bridge. Franz Ferdinand's final words were: "Sophie, Sophie, don't die, stay alive for our children!"

The archduke was not much loved. He was stiff, pompous and short-tempered. But he was no fool. He wanted to reform the dual monarchy's structure, in which power was wielded from Vienna and Budapest, and in which the Slavs felt they had no voice. Had he done so, it would have cut the ground from under Serbia's claim to be the South Slavs' champion. It was another good reason for him to die.

View Full Article
sd goh
June 26th, 2014
2:06 PM
A most informative article which clarifies the issue about most of which, I am in the dark. When I posed the question to a Bosnian Serb aeronautical engineer who is my younger brother's colleague, as to whether Prinsip started WWI, he said quite sardonically "ya, everyone, everyone says he did". The reality was, that the assassination was the spark that lit the tinderbox that was the Balkans then. If it hadn't been Prinsip's act, would some other thing have led to WWI?

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.