Friday, 10 December 2010

Commemorating the Sarajevo Assassination of 1914


The 'Memorial to Murder'

When Serbian artillery began pounding Sarajevo in spring 1992, Bosnian Muslims struck back by destroying a potent memorial symbol to Serbian nationalism, the footprints marking the exact spot that Gavrilo Princip stood when he shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 28 June, 1914. The assassination aimed to remove Austria-Hungary from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thus clear the way for a unified South-Slav state. Yet the consequences were far more than Princip and his co-conspirators had bargained for, as we all know this event became the euphemistic 'spark that lit the fuse' igniting the First World War. What I didn't know was the amazing story of the assassination site, which was going on behind the wars of the 20th century to the present day, until a few weeks ago when I was thinking about historic locations id like to visit -(that might also have great restaurants in the vicinity).




While the various monuments, memorials and museums that have adorned the street corner where Princip fired his famous shots can be telling in terms of how independent South Slavs have struggled to understand the assassination as part of their national history, the memorial process, has also rarely broken free from outside influence. In the memory of many contemporary Westerners, the Sarajevo assassination merely confirms their stereotypes of Balkan backwardness and barbarism, and thus has provided a convenient means to divert blame for the escalation into war in 1914 from their own leaders. For many South Slavs, however, June 28, 1914, will always be seen as the beginning of their liberation from centuries of foreign control. Moreover, while the assassination is as inseparable from the city in which it took place as the camp at Dachau, how Sarajevo's population and that of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself have sought to remember this history is a more complex matter. For although an event as scrutinized as the Holocaust in terms of memory and identity is in little danger of being glorified in official representations, the Sarajevo assassination has always been looked upon more ambivalently by those who must accept it as their own.

The First Monument

The earliest illustration of this incongruous past is, indeed, the first memorial created to mark the assassination site. This was a grandiose work of sculpture entitled 'Memorial to Murder,' which was designed and crafted by Hungarian sculptor Eugen Borry. On June 28, 1917, the third anniversary of the Sarajevo Assassination, the monument was mounted across the street from the site of the assassination, on the edge of the Latin bridge in an overtly Catholic religious ceremony. The memorial had three parts, two large columns of about ten meters high and central medallion engraved with the faces of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, in front of which lay a space to put flowers and light candles. The memorial was around twelve meters high and it remained on the same spot until the end of 1918 when the new independent south Slav state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, removed it and kept it in the Zemaljski Museum, where it remained until the end of the Second World War when it was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Institute for the Protection of Monuments.

The Second Monument

While it may appear understandable to remove from its capitol what was essentially a memorial to Bosnia’s occupiers, the same cannot be said for the way in which the leaders of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes seemingly sought to moderate attempts to glorify the event that, arguably, led to the country’s conception which one might expect. It took more than 11 years before they decided upon their own  memorial for the assassination site which took the form of a simple, black plaque placed high above the street that announced, rather tamely: 'Princip proclaimed freedom on Vidovdan 15 (28) June 1914'. Then, just three days before its dedication on February 2, 1930, according to a London Times correspondent in Belgrade, the plaque’s provenance was revised. Seemingly uneasy Yugoslav State authorities, likely due in part to their growing reliance on Western aid during the Depression, suddenly made great pains to announced that Princip’s family and friends had created the tablet and that they were powerless to interfere with this wholly private initiative.
Winston Churchill deemed the act of memorializing the assassination an 'infamy'. For most Western commentators in 1930, the Archduke’s murder remained, as the London Times editorialized, 'an act which was the immediate cause of the Great War, of its attendant horrors, and of the general suffering which has been its sequel.' Any monument to it was unacceptable.
Yet, despite Western accusations of indifference to foreign public opinion, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did seem to make serious efforts to appease the West by dampening the impact of the memorial and its unveiling ceremony. What a witness later described as a 'modest' tablet engraved with words that were 'remarkable in their restraint,' was not only unveiled without a single government official on hand, but a ceremony at the National University that was to feature several speakers and the participation of cultural, humanistic and patriotic groups was canceled at the last minute. In fact the date of the ceremony itself, the program of which was buried on page 5 of Sarajevo’s Vecernja Pošta, could only have been intended to further muffle the international outcry. February 2, 1930, was the 15th anniversary of the execution of three men involved in the assassination plot -Danilo Ilic, Miško Jovanovic and Veljko Cubrilovic. It was a date, in short, rather illogical even for the local population. It is therefore no surprise, but more than a little revealing, that the London Times mistakenly reported it as the 50th anniversary of Princip’s death. Even the Belgrade press reined in any enthusiasm by stating, blandly, that the plaque was a tribute to the memory of those who had risked their lives for the Fatherland. The first opportunity for the newly independent Yugoslavia to commemorate the Sarajevo assassination found the site transformed into a World War I memorial.
The Nazis were, unsurprisingly, hardly fooled by these official attempts to underplay the memory of the assassination in the construction of Yugoslav national identity. With their own sense of ceremony, the Nazis removed the plaque in the first days of their occupation of Sarajevo in April 1941. A few weeks later, it was presented to Adolf Hitler for his fifty second birthday. The official Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, went so far as to depict Princip and his collaborators as Jews and Freemasons. Accordingly, it was now the so-called Jewish menace that had long denied South Slavs their true freedom.


The Third Monument and Princip's footprints
In the oratory and mythologizing of the communist Partisans who liberated Sarajevo from the Nazi's, 1945 became the fulfilment of everything that 1914 had stood for: the struggle and courageous self-sacrifice of Bosnia’s youth for justice and freedom; the liberation from the Germanic oppressor; the awakening of a revolutionary consciousness; and the spirit of brotherhood and unity embodied in the mixed ethno-religious backgrounds of the Young Bosnians and Partisans alike.
Most likely motivated as much by their recent victory as they were by ideology, the Partisan liberators could not wait until June 28 to replace the commemorative plaque. On May 7, 1945, in a mass meeting in Car Dušan park that was attended by the president of the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other local, national and foreign dignitaries, Princip was distinguished as a national hero and martyr. Following several speeches, the procession crossed 'Princip’s bridge' to dedicate a new plaque on the assassination site. To cheers of 'Glory to the unforgotten national hero and his comrades,' Borko Vukobrat, who hailed from Princip’s hometown of Bosansko Graho, unveiled a tablet that certainly went further than that of 1930 in terms of glorifying the Sarajevo assassination: 'The youth of Bosnia and Herzegovina dedicate this plaque as a symbol of eternal gratitude to Gavrilo Princip and his comrades, to fighters against the Germanic conquerors.'
Spring 1945 represented the onset of a new era of confidence among Yugoslavs concerning how to fit the assassination into their national history and mark it physically in the Bosnian capital. Over the coming years, the physical landscape in Sarajevo would be further altered to reflect that confidence, including street names honoring virtually everyone involved in the assassination; the establishment of the Museum of Gavrilo Princip and Young Bosnia; a new plaque honoring Princip and his comrades and perhaps most famously, Princip’s footprints etched into the exact spot on the sidewalk where he changed the course of history.
These bold new representations of Churchill’s 'infamy' could develop too because of changes in Western attitudes. Derogatory references to Yugoslavs (such as a London Times quote from 1930, which called them 'a rather primitive people, inured to political violence.') were far less common. Respect for Tito’s role in fighting the Nazis and admiration for his independently-oriented communist state also helped quiet the criticism. Nevertheless, it was above all a government imposed ideology and state-managed cultural practice, rather than any sort of sensible and objective approach to commemorating and historicizing the ideas and actions of Princip and Young Bosnia, that accounts for the communist glorification in this period.

The footprints, museum, street names and other emblems of the assassination, not to mention the heroic rhetoric surrounding it, would persist right up to the end of communist Yugoslavia. Then they swiftly, and quite publicly, became elements of fierce contestation between Yugoslavs. During a televised parliamentary debate over Bosnian independence in February 1991, a delegate from the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which opposed an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, threatened his Muslim and Croat colleagues with the words: 'The sovereign of your sovereign state would never make it past the Gavrilo Princip Bridge'. To which a Muslim representative responded that in an independent Bosnia, the Princip Bridge would not bear the name of a terrorist. Soon thereafter, someone scrawled the bridge’s original name, Latin Bridge, on the wall of the Young Bosnia Museum, and the plaque commemorating the Yugoslav people’s 'centuries-long aspiration for freedom' was defaced.
During the Bosnian War's of 1992-95 these contested symbols of Yugoslavia’s recent past were erased altogether. The museum was closed, the street names were removed, and the footprints were ripped from the footpath. As the ideology that held Yugoslavia together, and determined how it would remember the conspirators, disintegrated in a massive explosion of nationalist energy, the carefully constructed memory of the assassination evaporated with it. Just as in 1930, Western commentators with little or no experience in the region explained it all as more proof of the Balkan people’s inborn inclination for violence.

The Fourth Monument
After the fighting stopped in 1995 it was almost a decade before the new independent Bosnia decided how it would commemorate 1914. And, in 2004, city officials decided upon a simple granite plaque that states, truthfully enough: 'From This Place on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip Assassinated the Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne Franz Ferdinand and His Wife Sofia'. It is too close to ground-level to draw much attention and debate is still raging over whether to re-install the footprints and counterbalance them with a new memorial to the victims. But this time, at least, the memorial process seems more focused on using history in the name of truth and tourism rather than misusing it politically, or unconvincingly compromising the memory of the assassination for the sake of uneasy, though influential, outsiders. This plaque is still there today, but you will not find it on any tourist map.

 The assassination site today.
The elaborate concrete bench on the corner is the remains of the 'Memorial to Murder'


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