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Global Geopolitics

Balkans Still Overshadowed by World War I

BELGRADE, Jul 3 2014 (IPS) - The 100-year anniversary of World War I (1914-18) may have come and gone, but the role of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip – the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – remains controversial in the turbulent history of the Balkans. For some he was a terrorist, for others a hero.

The Bosnian capital of Sarajevo marked the 100 years since assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie over the weekend in series of ceremonies dedicated to the event that triggered the 1914-18 war, and numerous messages of peace were delivered with calls that history should not be repeated and that violence should be excluded from the modern world.

But if many are looking to the future, historians agree that the tragic event of June 28, 1914, still haunts the region, after Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats were plunged into an atrocious inter-ethnic war more than seven decades later.

Historians agree that the tragic event of June 28, 1914, still haunts the region, after Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats were plunged into an atrocious inter-ethnic war more than seven decades later

“Unfortunately, it is possible to link World War I and its influence to recent events in the Balkans,” historian Danilo Sarenac of the Belgrade Institute for Modern History told IPS in an interview.

“World War I led to the creation of Yugoslavia, which disintegrated in the 1990s; there is a predominant idea among its former republics that this state was a sort of illusion, a mistake, a kind of ‘dungeon of nations’, and that it had to disappear,” he said.

When Yugoslavia fell apart, six new states – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia – were created. Ethnic Albanian-populated Kosovo declared unilateral independence from Serbia in 2008, but has not yet been widely recognised as a state.

Socialist Yugoslavia itself was an heir to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, created at the end of WW I. Its biggest portion, Serbia, an ally of Great Britain and France, was rewarded for participation in victory over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany by obtaining South Slav-populated areas of Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

The assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was Gavrilo Princip, a 20-year-old Bosnian Serb and member of Young Bosnia, a revolutionary movement seeking the unification of all South Slav nations. He claimed to be “a Yugoslav (South Slav) nationalist” at his trial in 1914. At the time, Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungary Empire that disintegrated in WW I.

According to Sarenac, “Princip’s action is being interpreted differently, depending on periods we observe in consecutive Yugoslavias.”

“When needed, Princip is a hero who helped create Yugoslavia; but, as newly carved out states (former Yugoslav republics) renounce Yugoslavia, they describe him as a ‘cruel Serb nationalist’. Divisions along such lines were visible in World War II, and came full circle in the 1990s. They were used or abused by everyone at will,” he added.

Princip is blamed by many outside Serbia as the man who triggered World War I, but historians say the world was practically ready for a major war due to many complicated circumstances.

“Princip’s act was just an ingredient that was needed to ignite it,” says Sarenac.

History books say that the Austro-Hungarian Empire blamed Bosnia’s neighbour Serbia for masterminding the assassination of the Archduke; Germany backed the Empire in declaring war against Serbia on June 28, and in a matter of days Russia, Great Britain, France and many other nations were drawn into an unprecedented conflict that took 16 million lives and left 20 million wounded.

For university history professor Predrag Markovic, there is a paradox among the states created by the disintegration of former Yugoslavia.

“They deny that Yugoslavia was created as a deliberate project after World War I, that it was a secular state, designed to bridge religious and regional differences between its new member nations,” Markovic told IPS.

“At the time, Yugoslavia was created much like the European Union today, as a union of entities that share same values. It is absurd that newly created states (since 1991) deny its progressive essence, because many of them – like Macedonia or Slovenia – would not exist had there not been the Yugoslavia after the WW I and Serbia’s victory in it,” he added.

“Their people would cease to exist or would be blended into the ethnicity of the country they’d gone to; Croatia would have been split by Italy, Hungary and Austria,” according to Markovic.

However, he points out, Yugoslavia was a “noble idea”, but with inadequate solutions and deficiencies.

“It inherited all the problems of the empires it helped bring down – Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman (Turkish) state: large numbers of minorities, and an inability to efficiently steer and govern”, he says.

The inter-ethnic problems continued until the Communists took over after World War II, but the two pillars of their regime – late leader Josip Broz Tito and socialist ideology with a human face – helped Yugoslavia to survive.

Markovic says that when these two pillars collapsed, with death of Tito in 1980 and the end of cold war in the 1980s, nationalisms revived and took over in Yugoslavia, setting the scene for the disintegration that began with secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. Bosnia followed in 1992. The secession was opposed by the largest republic of Serbia which was engaged in bloody wars that took more than 100,000 non-Serb lives.

“The experience of Yugoslavia is very ominous for the European Union, bearing in mind the differences that are arising now between the member states,” Markovic argues.

“The circumstances of 1991 were poorly understood by many, the European Union in particular,” The independence of the newly-created states “was hastily acknowledged without any exit strategy or awareness on the consequences, on the next steps; it is much like the rush into the war in 1914, or recently in Iraq,” he added.

In a recent essay on ‘Shots fired by Gavrilo Princip’, Bosnian historian Slobodan Soja summed up the political abuse of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by saying that there is a paradox in recent efforts to establish “whether Princip was a terrorist or not.”

According to Soja, a university professor and former Bosnian ambassador to several countries, “the noble idea of liberation of oppressed and unity among Slav nations is giving way to manipulation” in the deeply divided Bosnian society, where its Muslims, Serbs and Croats are still not mentally at peace.

“Had they known what kind of people would live 100 years on, I doubt that the members of the Young Bosnia movement would give their lives for the generations to come,” Soja wrote.

“The majority of people living today in Bosnia are simply not up to the task of criticising or praising the Young Bosnians. Those were the idealists whose ideas we badly need today,” he added.

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