Gavilro Princip: Hero or Terrorist? The Origins of the First World War and the Blame Game

June 28 is Vidovdan (Saint Vitus’ Day), a sacred day for all Serbs. It marks the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (1389), when the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. This is also the anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which kicked off WWI. That these two events share the same anniversary is not accident. The young Gavilro Princip, who shot the Archduke of Austria and his wife Sophie, was a Bosnian Serb and a member of the Serbian nationalist terrorist organization Ujedinjenje ili Smrt (Union or Death also known as the Black Hand). The Austro-Hungarian Empire had recently acquired the Bosnian territories, previously part of the Ottoman Empire, to administer per the Congress of Berlin (1878). But this was an inopportune time to acquire these territories. Nationalism was on the rise and the peoples of these regions desired independence. They didn’t fight to throw off the yoke of the Turks to then gain a new master. The Serbs in the newly independent Serbia were not content with their independence they also wanted their Serbian brothers in Bosnia to have the same freedom that they had. Here’s where the connection between the Battle of Kosovo and the Archduke’s assassination comes in. Ferdinand, knowing full well that June 28 was a sacred day for Serbs, decided to visit Sarajevo on that day anyway. He was already hated as a figure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but this decision sealed his fate as a target.

It may seem strange that the Battle of Kosovo plays such an important role in Serbian history. But the defeat that marked the beginning of 500 years of oppression (at least in myth) created and cultivated the distinctive Serbian character. As Thomas Emmert explains “the Kosovo ethic…expressed a basic attitude toward life itself: democratic, anti-feudal, with love for justice and social equality.” The myth that grew in the aftermath of the battle, skillfully turned a defeat into a victory. In the most popular version of the myth Czar Lazar, the Serbian prince, choose defeat because he would be rewarded with a heavenly kingdom if he did so, thus making the Serbs a “heavenly” people rather than an “earthly” people.

Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo

Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo

Princip and his co-conspirators had been inspired by the heroes of the Battle of Kosovo. They too wanted to be Serbian heroes. This made Princip a perfect candidate to carry out the killing of the Archduke. He was young, idealistic, and willing to die for his cause. But given that Princip had been assigned the last position (five others were stationed before him) along the Archduke’s route through Sarajevo, it seemed unlikely that he would be the actual assassin. He had even left his assigned post after he heard a bomb go off and assumed that Ferdinand had been killed. But the bomb, thrown by Nedeljko Čabrinović, had rolled off the car and only injured an officer rather than the Archduke. Another chance event brought the Archduke face to face with Princip. The driver of the car made a wrong turn and stopped to turn around providing the shocked Princip the perfect opportunity to carry out his mission. This series of chance events set off one of the most destructive wars in European history. It is a reminder of the important role chance plays in history.

Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip

Princip was immediately arrested. He and his co-conspirators were convicted and Princip was thrown into prison because he was a minor. His living conditions were harsh and he died of tuberculosis twenty years later.

Since the war Princip has become the martyr that he so wanted to be. A statue of Princip was unveiled today in Sarajevo, although the Serbs boycotted the event and another one tomorrow to mark the anniversary (June 28). (Rueters) They will hold their own event in Visegrad. The Serbs were provoked by the addition of the Vienna Philharmonic to the ceremonies. On the other hand, the Austrians and other Europeans believe that Princip was a terrorist and deserved his fate.

The centennial has provoked the nationalist fervor that first sparked the assassination in 1914, as the above story testifies. This is after a conference last weekend in Sarajevo sparked the tensions.

The debate isn’t really about Princip, it is about what he represents. If he is remembered as a terrorist it is seen as an indictment of Serbia, if he is remembered as a hero it is an indictment of Austria and Germany. So rather than trying to understand what happened and why many have been more concerned about defending their nation. This is unfortunate but not unusual. The problem is it only contributes to an “us vs. them” mentality. This only serves to create animosities and fuels the drive further purify the past where “we” are good and “they” are bad. This is a sad testimony to the fact that we haven’t learned the lessons of the twentieth century.

In the tragic story of WWI there is a lot of blame to go around but to assign blame to this or that group is unproductive and even dangerous. To assign collective guilt is never a good thing. It is what has fueled so many wars and violence. We should be learning from WWI not repeating the mistakes of the past. It is unfortunate that the conference did not achieve its goal as expressed by Amir Duranovic, one of the organizers of the event, “We wanted a conference for historians, not for Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats, and Muslims,” he says. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2014)

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