How to Celebrate a War’s Beginning

How to Celebrate a War’s Beginning

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — In the heart of Bosnia’s capital city, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed in 1914, a young man clad in an imitation of the archduke’s military garb opens the door of a car. It is a replica of the vehicle in which the royal pair was riding, parked right at the spot where the assassination occurred. For a small fee, visitors can hop inside, hold a parasol, don a hat, and snap a photo. Some smile gaily, others lean back in mock terror.

The car, which made its debut on Friday, sat over the weekend beside wreaths laid in honor of the would-be heirs to the Austro-Hungarian throne, whose deaths famously precipitated the start of World War I 100 years ago this week. The scene was thronged with hundreds of tourists, milling under a banner proclaiming the spot "the street corner that started the 20th century."

The young man dressed as the archduke, 15-year-old Emir Kapetanovic, said he and his father built the car together, and based on its popularity during the commemoration of the beginning of the Great War, they plan to now offer tourists rides around Sarajevo. "I’m not a historian," Kapetanovic said, but added that he has enjoyed meeting people who came from around the world to Bosnia for the centennial.

His car alone marks a big change from the days before the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, which pitted the country’s three main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats — against one another. Until 1992, visitors would often go to the same street corner in Sarajevo where Kapetanovic put his car, but to stand in the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist who shot the Habsburg royals in the name of freeing his country from the grip of empire. (Literally, footprints were emblazoned on the pavement.) Visitors could also go to a small museum dedicated to Princip and his co-conspirators, who were celebrated as freedom fighters, and read a plaque honoring the assassination. 

But at the outbreak of the war, Princip’s footprints were ripped out of the ground, and the museum was re-branded as one documenting 1878-1914, the years that the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied Bosnia. Historians reassessed: Because Princip was a Serb, and the new war pitted Serbs against other ethnic groups, he was deemed to have been motivated by a desire to found a greater Serbia in which Bosniaks and Croats were subjugated. He was no longer lionized — at least not publicly and officially. 

The war ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which created an ungainly power-sharing constitution based along ethnic lines and which gave broad powers in Bosnia to an international overseer, known as the high representative. Peace has held, but the country still struggles with corruption, political stagnation, and a shattered economy. Earlier this year, there were mass protests against the government across the country, forcing the resignation of several officials.

Many Bosnians, especially those in the ethnic Serb community, blame Europe and the rest of the international community for the country’s woes. So today, while some recall the archduke and his wife as symbols of regional stability and European standards to which the Balkans aspire, others are seeking to reinvigorate Princip’s legacy: to reinforce the idea of shaking off Europe’s yoke. 

Indeed, centennial commemorations across Bosnia were fragmented. While official events in Sarajevo generally recalled the assassination as a tragedy and emphasized the importance of a united Europe of which Bosnia is a part, many of the country’s Serbs boycotted these proceedings and honored Princip. Other Bosnians staged protests or counter-programming, in Sarajevo and elsewhere.

Less formally, at one moment over the weekend, someone drove by and shot a water gun at Kapetanovic’s vehicle, letting out a peal of laughter. The switch from celebrating the assassin to celebrating the assassinated, it seems, is far from complete — a fact that is arguably more telling about Bosnia’s future than it is about the country’s past.


The official central event of the 100-year anniversary was a performance on Saturday evening by Vienna’s Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo’s City Hall, which conductor Franz Welser-Most said was a symbol of peace that sent a message of "never again" to the world. The concert closed with Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy," the European Union’s anthem. (Bosnia is not yet in the EU.)

Austrian President Heinz Fischer was the guest of honor at the concert in the recently refurbished city hall, which was destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992. After the concert, he called for "a century of peace after a century of war." Several hundred people watched the event on a big screen set up outside. 

The concert and other official commemorations were organized and funded primarily by European countries, namely Austria and France. But as dignitaries, foreign diplomats, and local politicians hobnobbed in government buildings, a cluster of protesters gathered just across the river that runs through Sarajevo. Some wore homemade paper cutouts with Gavrilo Princip’s face printed on them as masks. Others stood facing the city hall holding a banner that read, "We are occupied again — by nationalism, capitalism, the EU and international community." 

"This concert was absolutely unnecessary," said protester Aldin Arnautovic. "It is strange to commemorate the beginning of any war, and it is precisely the people inside that building who are to blame for our current situation." 

Meanwhile, the country’s Serb leaders actively celebrated Princip. On Friday in East Sarajevo, a predominantly Serb suburb of the capital, a statue of Princip went up. It stands over six feet tall. "These fighters for freedom 100 years ago set the course we should follow for the next 100 years," Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, said at the statue’s unveiling, referring to Princip and his co-conspirators.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s majority-Serb region, said that disagreements over Princip are indicative of a deeply divided Bosnia. "People who live here have never been on the same side of history and are still divided," he told journalists. "We are sending different messages, and that says it all about this country which is being held together by international violence." (He was referring to the 600 European soldiers still stationed in Bosnia.)  

On Saturday, the official Serb commemoration of the assassination took place 75 miles away in the eastern town of Visegrad, on the border with Serbia. The Belgrade Philharmonic played a Vivaldi concert. In the town of Andricgrad, there was a dramatic restaging of the assassination in three acts, written by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica and entitled "Rebel Angels." (A mosaic mural of Princip and his co-conspirators put up in Andricgrad is inscribed with words Princip wrote on his cell wall in the prison camp where he died: "Our shadows will walk through Vienna, wander the court, frighten the lords.") And Princip’s restored boyhood home in the northwestern town of Bosansko Grahovo was unveiled on June 28 as a museum, funded by a wealthy Serbian businessman. 

"The Serbs are trying to prove that he is a nationalist, while in Sarajevo now people are against him only because Serbs are for him," Arnautovic said at the protest in the capital, "and all this just perpetuates nationalistic revisionist history."


But Bosnians are divided over more than Princip’s legacy. They also disagree about what image their country should project and how Bosnia should interact with the world — and not just during the centennial.

Speakers at the official commemorations over the weekend were adamant about offering a positive picture of Bosnia. "For the past 100 years, the information that the world has received from here was about war and atrocities," said Ivo Komsic, Sarajevo’s mayor. "Now we’re sending a different message of peace, love, and understanding." 

But Arnautovic worries that this message will only serve to distract from Bosnia’s fracturing and lack of political or economic progress, for which he believes many of the centennial’s honored guests bear at least some responsibility. "All the [international diplomats] will go home," he said, "and we in Bosnia will remain with our huge problems, only with the hope that someone will look at us in another hundred years."