Splash! I was standing in the very spot where 18 year old Gavrilo Princip fired his 1903 .32 caliber Colt at Archduke Ferdinand and his wife 84 years earlier. It had just rained, a string of storms that doused the Sarajevo valley, leaving the Miljacka River across the road rushing and ruddy from mountain runoff. Suddenly a dark blue VW Rabbit rounded the corner, hardly 5 feet away, splashing a puddle and soaking the front of my jeans. 16 years later that moment is as clear now as it was the moment it happened. All that has changed is the recrimination for being too surprised to yell something at the guy.
I stepped across the oily puddle. The street there, the trees and old Mosque across the river, the narrow and cobblestoned Latin Bridge, arching lazily across the canaled river, the buildings along the river are surprisingly similar to how they appeared that day. There are scars from the most recent war. The city hall, where the Archduke visited that day, and from which he was leaving when assassinated had been gutted and still stood nearly in ruins a few blocks away. As I stepped into the street I acted out Princip’s fateful step that day. I could feel the tension as he lifted the gun from his side, feel the sweat of his palm on the grated metal grip, and feel the weight of the weapon.
I wondered, as he looked down the barrel, the Archduke’s open auto paused momentarily in front of him at the corner, was he focused on the royal couple or on the end of the pistol. One thing is certain, Princip held the weapon with relative confidence. He squeezed off two shots in quick succession. Both hit their mark. He was unaffected it seems by the explosion from the barrel and the kick of the weapon, which would have been small. Accounts have the young man calmly raising the gun to his head. In his trial, Princip was calm and forthcoming.
The 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, his wife and unborn child in Sarajevo has passed, both on the calendar and through the filter of false history. Too simply the killing is considered the start of the First World War. I use to brag about standing on the spot where the War started, culminating in the deaths of between 16 and 18 million people. It is not the place where the war began. On the 100th anniversary I have also heard musings on whether the war might have been avoided. Allow me to dispel just a few misconceptions.
First, the war was not inevitable, sort of. The Austrians would have preferred not to go to war against Serbia, but Germany pressed for war, promising to support the Austrians. The Germans feared pan Slavism binding Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. The crafted with the Austrians a 10 point ultimatum which they believed the Serbian government would reject. It was an all or nothing demand. If the Serbs quibbled on even one of the points it would mean war. The ultimatum was a direct assault and violation of Serbian sovereignty. They could only refuse, or so the Germans believed. Instead the Serbs accepted 9 points and offered the 10th for international arbitration. The Germans pressed for war. War began, not because of Gavrilo Princip, but because of Germany. It began in July, on the 28th of July 1914 to be exact.
The Germans betrayed their Austrian cousins. They all but left the Austrians to fight a war on two fronts. Ultimately the Germans opened multiple fronts. The Serbs and Austrians slogged back and forth in the Serbian hills and mountains for 4 years.
The conspirators, including Princip, were not fanatic. Wild holding strong beliefs, they were more animated by politics and freeing fellow slavs from Austrian occupation. Vaso Čubrilović, an ardent Serbian nationalist, a professor at the University of Belgrade, was the last conspirator to pass away in Bosnia in 1990. Rather they were average young men, perhaps exceedingly so. My mother in law was close with his niece. Vaso liked his Turkish coffee and was understated when asked about his infamous background.
The war was phenomenally costly in terms of civilian deaths. Some 8 million innocents died. It is likely the number is much higher, owing to the rudimentary census and birth records. This number is overlooked in most history texts. Simply the number is misleading and used to mislead casual students of history. The mythology of the war is of troops slugging it out in more or less static muddy trenches. The war devastated Europe, caused mass starvation and disease and was notable for mass atrocities. Serbian civilians alone numbered almost 1million.
Details, right? Why quibble over details? But the details are important. They are critical to every war, and necessary to the memory and justice of every innocent killed. They are the facts and details of a crime, which is how we should view war. Not as some noble cause, but as a breakdown and failure in our humanity. Each of those victims is entitled to justice. For now justice only comes as an accurate record of the truth. Anything less, any simplification makes us all a party to a crime.