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Cleopatra, Gavrilo Princip and 1914


He who will know fully the vanity of man has only to consider the causes and effects of love…. Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1669)

Blaise Pascal’s comment on history is directed to the issue of causation.  What actually drives the vehicle of history?  Is it changing the gears, altering speed, and finally arriving at a destination, if at all possible? For Pascal, the size of Cleopatra’s nose mattered.  She was history’s glamorous queen, an Egyptian ruler who, at least in some measure, stoked Julius Caesar’s embers and tamed Marc Antony.  Nose size can change history – one bulbous and rough in appearance might have been less enchanting to foreign dabblers.  But in this view, so do reproductive organs (an unstable Adolf Hitler rendered insecure and narky because he was short of a testicle) and guns.

The gun is significant, because its use is about the only thing you tend to hear regarding the member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a certain Gavrilo Princip who made history by as much dumb luck on his part and sheer stupidity on the part of his victims on June 28, 1914.  Anyone visiting Sarajevo at that time would have known that auspicious day of St. Vitus or Vidovdan, one crowded by Serbian nationalist exploits, the Battle of Kosovo Polje from 1389 being foremost amongst them.

Princip’s target was the Austro-Hungarian successor to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s role, and that of Austro-Hungarian rule, is contested in the history books.  Some Austrian and German historians point to the mission civilisatrice role between 1878 and 1918, a time of administrative and economic progress.  Ferdinand was the benevolent figure, promising reforms, considering the prospects of better representation.  Serbia, in contrast, was a failed state needing Russian support at the expense of Austro-Hungary, a view emphasised in such works as Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (2012). (It is important to note that Clark resists dipping into the waters of blame.)

Asim Sarajilic, a senior MP of the Muslim-nationalist SDA party, insists that, “When the Austrians first occupied in 1878, Bosnians refused to accept the empire, but in nearly 40 years, they did more for Bosnia than all the other rulers did in centuries – building railways, cities and institutions.”

But occupation, control and dictation, however enlightened, remain that.  The Austro-Hungarian empire, one of history’s most complex ethnic units, could only exist if nationalist fervour was kept in tow.  Monarchy was the defusing material, its water dampening the powder of such nationalism reflected by such hopes as a Greater Serbia.  In 1914, that bond, and those assumptions associated with that, broke.  Bosnia-Herzegovina, an area contested between Serbs, Muslims and Croats, was kept in check under the yoke of a central force.

Despite much bungling on the part of Princip and his conspirators, the bullets found their target. Both Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophie were killed.  The wheels of war went into motion. The royal houses, and the various military staffs, mobilised. The trains started to move. The death machines sped inexorably to their goal.  The paradox of the European alliance system had been preventing war when, in actual fact, it was anticipating it.  The lights, as Britain’s Foreign Secretary Edward Grey rightly prophesised, would not come on in his life time.  Efforts to stave off conflict proved shabby.  Even today, old sins cast long shadows: the European Union operates in a dim light, fearing fracture and dissolution. Even Prime Minister David Cameron has been seen in some circles to be a Princip of sorts, with fewer plotters (Guardian, Jun 26).

Princip is the convenient monster, saddled with the cause of World War I, an act of drunk patriotic zeal that ballooned into the slaughter of the trenches and the murderous nature of industrial warfare. It is, perhaps, the most grotesque saddling imaginable – one man, deemed responsible for the war to end all wars; one man who was responsible for the death of a generation, perhaps irreparably so. He is not the prodigal son but the peerless scapegoat, the ivory crutch upon which historical calamities rest.  Princip’s gun, in this self-serving, indignantly childish view of history, led to the slaughter house of Mons, the mud blood of Passchendaele, and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik triumph in Russia.

The personal portraits, drawn out by the scribes of cold, objective history, see a man whose blood is warm, whose mind is fevered, whose ideas are faulty.  He is the madman of history, but he is also the one to be vengeful about.  This is Cleopatra’s nose by another name.  To find cause and attribute blame is certainly something a historian such as Paul Kennedy insists upon.  As he notes in The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (1980), “to dodge the search for a culprit by blaming all or none of the belligerent states” is a “flaccid” exercise.

Today, Princip’s castigation is the castigation heaped upon the Bosnian Serbs, who are treated as the lunatic costume bearers of modern Europe.  They are deemed unworthy of the historical assertion that the shots of Princip gave them the basis of liberty, even if a costly one.  Serbians, like their various fraternal rivals, have tried to push their way to the front in hope of European recognition.  They have often been disappointed.  But as things stand, most of Europe is disappointed.

To understand why a modern Bosnian Serb might not shun the killing exploits of Princip, a few pointers are useful. The Serbs, after huge cost, did end up on more positive historical ground, becoming a main component in the monarchy of 1919.  But it was a flawed compact, one with grumpy mutterings from all sides.

During World War II, the monarchy dissolved under the invasive pressures of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. The Croats galloped off with what was assumed to be an independent state – finally, a chance to be rid of those overbearing Orthodox brothers.  The other nationalities hunkered down for a vicious occupation. Out of the post-war mess came an artificial creation, the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. It was cemented and caked by blood, and in the material remained ethnic narratives that continued to be told.

In the 1990s, the story tellers, and the gun holders, reappeared. The iconic city of doom was, yet again, Sarajevo.  Princip’s gun, at least metaphorically, was turned on himself, only this time, it was wielded by Croats, Bosniaks and Slovenes.  Yugoslavia disintegrated. The Bosnian Serbs found themselves in historical retreat, hankering for a Greater Serbia that was only going to get smaller.  The ghosts of Franz Ferdinand and Princip hovered in contest.

In attempting to tidy such a manically cluttered history, the record is narrowed, its field of vision honed off in favour of villains and innocents.  It ignores the fact that power is never innocent, is never wielded virtuously, and tends to veer badly at the hands of the barely competent.  It also flows like a toxin, contaminating agreements, arrangements and assumptions. Princip was the release, the explosive, the virus. The system he exposed by those fatal, and fateful shots, hummed into murderous operation the moment news of his deeds reached Europe’s monarchies.

The entire alliance system structured by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was a pantomime, frightfully clever but doomed to fail.  By 1907, a bipolar Europe was heading for a conflagration.  Princip satisfied the most outrageous urge of all, the fall guy for the killing machine held back by precarious checks.  It was a regicidal affair between monarchs, an incestuous suicide in action.  As for centuries before, monarchies went to war with each other, throwing subjects into the sanguinary grinder, redrawing territories.

This time here was one vital difference: many would not survive. Like Joseph Roth’s funereal Radetsky March (1932), this was the last great war of monarchies, the murderous joust of divine right.  In its wake came reactionary nationalism, liberal democracy and socialism. Down with the monarchy; up with everything else.

Each European nation of 1914 has its story about the fitful events of June. Spasms of nostalgia tend to be mixed with unsettling righteousness, the nonsensical notion that nations can be appalling or virtuous. Even as the hundredth year of the assassination was being remembered, reactions differed.  Within Bosnia, there was condemnation and praise, expressed in heady doses. Princip has a freshly erected statue in his favour on the Serb side; the rest of Sarajevo prefers to see him as a common criminal with a sordid and addled mind.  But the story, as with such cases, lies somewhere in between. Guns and noses might well matter, but history is always bigger than that. That is the nature of something that offers us tortuous questions rather than lucid answers.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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