Sarajevo Marks War Centennial with Message of Unity to Divided Country

A woman sells pictures of Gavrilo Princip on the hundredth anniversary of his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Sarajevo marked the centennial on Saturday of a prince's murder that lit the fuse for World War One, offering a message of unity to a divided country and a continent tested by deep social and economic strife.

The centerpiece of the commemoration will be a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in the Bosnian capital, where the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot dead with his wife on a bright June morning in 1914.

The murder of Franz Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip set the Great Powers marching to war. More than 10 million soldiers died as empires crumbled.

Sarajevo closed the century under siege by Bosnian Serb forces during Yugoslavia's disintegration. Still dealing with the aftermath, Bosnia's former warring communities greeted the centennial deeply at odds over Princip's motives and his legacy.

Leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, who consider the assassin a hero, are boycotting the Sarajevoevents, angered by what they say is an attempt to link the wars that opened and closed the 20th century, and to pin the blame on them.

They will instead re-enact the murder and Princip's trial in the eastern Drina river town of Visegrad, seared into the memory of Muslim Bosniaks for a wave of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs early in the 1992-95 war. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic will attend. In Sarajevo, the Vienna Philharmonic will perform a repertoire rooted in the days of the Habsburg Empire, including Haydn, Schubert, Berg and Brahms. The concert will take place in the capital's restored City Hall, known as Vijecnica, where Ferdinand attended a reception on June 28, 1914. He left in an open car with his wife, Sophie, but the driver took a wrong turn and Princip shot them from a Browning pistol on the banks of the river.

The Austrians attacked Serbia a month later and the Great Powers, already spoiling for a fight, piled in. The neo-Moorish Vijecnica, which later became the National Library, went up in flames in 1992 under fire from Bosnian Serb forces in the hills, almost 2 million books perishing in the inferno.

The building bears a plaque condemning the "Serb criminals" who fired the shells, a reference Serbia's Vucic said prevented him from attending.


"This is a symbolic concert in a symbolic location," Professor Clemens Hellsberg, the orchestra's president and first violin, told a news conference on Friday. "We want to provide a vision of a common future in peace," he said.

Asked about the significance of a Vienna orchestra marking the event, conductor Franz Welser-Most said: "You should not deny the burden of history." The message, he said, was "never again".

Leaders of the 28-member European Union marked the centennial on Thursday in Ypres, the Belgian city synonymous with the slaughter of the war, papering over divisions borne of economic crisis and growing support for the anti-EU right.

French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy chose Sarajevo on Friday night to premiere his play, "Hotel Europe", a monologue on crisis in Europe. It ended with a petition calling for Bosnia's admission to the EU, an ambition held hostage to sectarian divisions.

Europe "is a place where populism and nationalism are on the rise", said Levy, who lobbied for Western intervention to end the war in Bosnia. Intervention came too late for the 100,000 who died. "The admission of Bosnia to the bloc means fresh blood, fresh air and Europe's second chance for redemption."

For visitors to the city, guides offered tours of Sarajevo, Princip's haunts and the key locations on the day he killed Ferdinand. Technicians prepared a midnight musical planned on the bridge near where he fired the fatal shot. Tourists milled around a replica of the car that carried Ferdinand to his death.

Some Sarajevans seemed bewildered by the fuss.

"Poor old Gavrilo should be left to history," said retired professor Leila Seleskovic. "Some praise him, others criticise him, but it's all a matter of century-old history."

On Friday, Serbs in Bosnia unveiled a statue of Princip in East Sarajevo. They have rebuilt his family home, razed during the 1992-95 war. Serbs see Princip as a freedom fighter not just for Orthodox Serbs but for many of Bosnia's Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats too, his shot bringing down the curtain on centuries of imperial occupation over the Balkans.

That was the official narrative for decades under socialist Yugoslavia. But the collapse of their joint state shattered perceptions of Princip, whom many Bosniaks and Croats regard as a Serb nationalist with the same territorial ambitions as those behind much of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.

Bosnia was divided into two autonomous regions after the war, in a highly decentralised system of ethnic power-sharing that has stifled development and, critics say, only cemented divisions.

Asked about the absence of official Serb representatives from the Sarajevo commemoration, the city's Croat mayor, Ivo Komsic, told reporters: "They demonstrate their attitude not to the past but to the future."