Across the Balkans: Assassination in Sarajevo


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Last Tea in Sarajevo: Frank Ferdinand and his wife shortly before the assassination, June 28, 1914.

On one of my days in Sarajevo—in lingering snow and ice—I went in search of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife, touching off the crisis that led to World War I, and the end of many empires.

In summer 1976, on my first visit to Sarajevo, I had seen the street corner where the assassination had taken place and stood over the footprints, outlined in sidewalk concrete, that showed where Princip was standing when the archduke’s car passed by for a second time, allowing him to take his fatal shots. But then there was no Princip museum (it’s formal name is the Museum of Sarajevo 1878–1918) in what had once been the Moritz Schille café, and other traces of Princip were invisible to me.

In Tito’s Yugoslavia, Princip inhabited a nether world. He might not have been a national hero, but he wasn’t a villain either, and quietly he was appreciated for having challenged the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Only during the 1992-95 civil wars was he associated with the uglier forms of Bosnian Serb nationalism, and his footprints (literally and figuratively) were covered over.

* * *

There is not a lot to see in the Museum of Sarajevo 1878–1918, which is limited to one room and filled with curios from Princip’s life, the Bosnian annexation (although I saw nothing on the Sandžak Railway), and the Archduke’s visit to Bosnia on June 28, 1914 (which he failed to recognize as St. Vitus Day, a day of national remembrance on the Serbian calendar, to recall the country’s defeat by the Turks in Kosovo in 1389).

In less than an hour I had made my way around the room and inspected Princip’s pistols and bomb, the Archduke’s blue suit, his death notice in the local paper, some ribbons, and a summary of the Treaty of Berlin that assigned Bosnia to Austria-Hungary on the European chessboard (Article 25 granted “thanks to the benevolence of the great powers and with the consent of Istanbul’s Porte…the right to occupy and rule over Bosnia-Hercegovina…”).

An imperial map in the museum made it clear that the Sandžak was the corridor between the Turkish empire and Bosnia, and how, if completed, the rail line to Salonika might well have been a noose of steel around Serbia’s neck.

Unfortunately, there was nothing more in the museum on Gavrilo Princip’s life and times—I was hoping for a map showing the places where had lived—so I filled in the gaps of my knowledge by reading Tim Butcher’s biography, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the Word to War, now the most complete portrait that we have of Princip’s life.

What is great about the book, which is the story of a long walk that Butcher took across Bosnia in search of Gavrilo Princip, is that it includes accounts of the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica, both of which Butcher covered as a war correspondent for the London Telegraph.

After a while, I found myself reading his book at night over dinner and during the day, whenever I had a pause in my schedule or was hiding from the cold. Butcher concludes that Princip wasn’t so much a Serb nationalist (yet another paramilitary figure advancing the agenda of Belgrade and Greater Serbia), but an early Yugoslav (as was Ivo Andrić) who believed in the union of the South Slavs as the best way to rid Bosnia of its Austrian or Turkish overlords.

Butcher begins his book during the siege of Sarajevo, when he happens across the small chapel where the remains of Princip and other conspirators (he did not act alone) are buried.

The chapel was literally in a shambles (as was much of Sarajevo), prompting Butcher to write: “So why were Sarajevans now desecrating the tomb of someone who fought for their freedom? Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb – the same ethnicity as the extremists attacking the city – but spite alone could not explain what I had found. There had to be more to it.”

Long after the war ends he decided to find his answers by walking across Bosnia, following the route that the young Princip took with his father when they left the family village and headed to Sarajevo so that Gavrilo could attend high school.

Along the way, Butcher meets many families with connections to the Princips, including some who remember Gavrilo’s parents or siblings.

What’s amazing about the book is that a hundred years after the assassination Butcher is still able to do primary research about the life of Princip. A typical passage in the book reads like this one:

…the village boys all knew he was ferocious if you tried to wrestle him.’ Nikola [his walking companion] was now beaming with pride. ‘As he grew older he became more and more resentful of the foreign rulers here, the Austrians,’ he continued. ‘We were always told that he came back to the village for the winter before the assassination because he had got into a fight with an Austrian policeman. The gendarme had forced himself onto a girl, and Gavro beat him up. The cops were looking for him, so he came here. But that was his way. He took on the bullies.’

At its core Butcher’s Bosnian ramble is a philosophical investigation asking questions such as these:

Where did his revolutionary zeal come from, his hatred of the Austro-Hungarians, his anger at the indignity heaped on his people throughout history? And were his interests purely Serb, as some observers have claimed, or was he acting on behalf of all south Slavs?

Passing through Banja Luka on his walk, Butcher reflects on his growing conviction that Princip was more a Yugoslav than an ardent Serb nationalist:

… my ears buzzing after the concert, my mind dwelt on why young Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka did not know Princip. He is, without question, the Bosnian Serb with the greatest historical impact of all time and yet it was clear, from what I had heard, that a hundred years after the assassination he was not cherished, and was scarcely recognised, among his own people.

* * *

Few documents from Princip’s life have survived. He was from a small village in northwest Bosnia, and only attended high school in Sarajevo for a few semesters, leaving behind some poems and jottings from which, for years, historians have tried to divine his anarchist intentions.

Butcher relies heavily on the transcripts of Princip’s trial for murder, in which Gavrilo took the stand to explain why he acted as he did. Butcher writes, quoting from Princip’s testimony:

‘I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria,’ he told the courtroom. ‘The plan was to unite all south Slavs. It was understood that Serbia as the free part of the south Slavs had the moral duty to help in the unification, to be to the south Slavs as the Piedmont was to Italy.’

Butcher concludes:

But what became clear from my research was that Princip was not predominantly committed to Serb nationalism. His greater goal was freeing all south Slavs, not just ethnic Serbs like himself. Princip supported what became known as the Yugoslav ideal of driving the Austro-Hungarians back not just from Bosnia, but also from the areas to the north where other south Slavs – the Croats and the Slovenes – were under the same occupation.

The bonus footage in Butcher’s book is his connection of his exploration of Princip’s short life (he died of tuberculosis in an Austrian prison during World War I) to the more recent Bosnian civil war, which allows Butcher to write, firsthand, about the Sarajevo siege and the massacre around Srebrenica.

He does so to delve into what drove the violence of the Bosnian conflict and to come to terms with the legacies of Serb nationalism, which drew siege lines around Sarajevo and filled shallow graves around Srebrenica with shot prisoners.

Butcher comes to many melancholic conclusions about the last hundred years of Bosnian history. He writes:

Through my journey I had heard Princip referred to by some as a hero, by others as a terrorist, yet I had come to see him as an everyman for the anger felt by millions who were downtrodden far beyond the Balkans. He was a dreamer whose short life had exposed him to the same political streams that inspired so many others fighting for freedom from unelected, reactionary structures.

For me the book made for sad reading. I had first come to Sarajevo in the Yugoslav era (in summer 1976), when it was hoped that European wars were a thing of the past. I had made my own passage across Bosnia (albeit on an Austrian narrow-gauge railway) in search of another graduate of Princip’s high school (Ivo Andrić), and between the arches of the bridge on the Drina and the skyline of Sarajevo’s minarets had come to the mistaken conclusion that Yugoslavia should be applauded for its ethnic tolerance and middle class society.

When Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s (while Europe and the United States did little, except fan the flames), I could not connect the dots on a history that began with Princip’s shooting and was now ending with the destruction of Sarajevo.

I wanted to believe that Yugoslavia and its constituent republics had stood for something more. It had, after all, absorbed the brunt of two German attacks in two world wars, numerous holocausts, Soviet threats, and economic isolation, but still had managed—at least for a while—to have the schools open on time and organize some worker councils.

Butcher’s book allowed me to fill in some of the blanks, especially those concerning how things can fall apart in seemingly prosperous, European societies. He concludes:

By that time [the more recent civil war] the south-Slav nationalism he [Princip] championed had failed and his message had been so distorted that he could be vilified, not just because he was a Bosnian Serb like the gunners firing their shells into the city, but because the Yugoslavia he had worked for had failed so completely to protect one of its component parts, Bosnia.

* * *

I cannot say it was a great pleasure to walk around Sarajevo in the cold and slush, but I quickly figured out the street cars (second-hand trams from around Europe, as if liberated from a Swiss transit museum) and used them to ferry along the river between the old Turkish quarter and the museums, which tended to be clustered around the American embassy.

At the National Museum, where I was the only visitor one chilly February morning, I saw the Sarajevo Haggadah behind its locked glass door, and passed an enjoyable hour or so looking at Roman fragments and oriental carpets, including a spectacular collection of rugs from Iran that were bought in 1894 by a retired Austrian diplomat, Mr. B. Rakovsky, who was given the mission to buy up “items of artistic handicrafts.” He came back with a trove of carpets from Mahan, in southern Persia (east of Persepolis), that had once lined a shah’s palace and shrine.

Next door to the National Museum I found the city history museum. It appeared to be struggling for funding, as many of the exhibits were locked up behind rusty fencing. The man who sold me my ticket walked ahead of me, flicking on the lights, and he pointed me up a darkened staircase, where I found an excellent exhibit of everyday life during the Sarajevo siege.

On display was a haphazard collection of canned foods, water jugs, cooking braziers, soiled mattresses, transistor radios, and drying clothes, as if the entire exhibition was a Sarajevo tenement enduring the torment.

One corner of the room had audio recordings from the siege, which sounded like the wailings of the doomed. Before leaving, I found a hallway in which were hung then-and-now pictures.

In the “then”photographs, most of the buildings are hulking wrecks, uninhabitable towers of rust and broken glass, while the “now” images (twenty years after the war) show glass-and-steel towers and the bright yellow exterior of the renovated Hotel Holiday.

* * *

From the history museum, on a whim, I decided to walk across the boulevard and call in at the National and University Library, the survivor of the institution that was burned in the war.

Earlier in my visit I had read the plaque on the old city hall, which then housed the library, relating that “over 2 millions of book, periodicals, and documents [had] vanished in the flames.”

My friend in Geneva, Eugene Schulman, had a splendid library of 6,000 books that he was looking to donate somewhere, and I figured I would try to find them a home at the National Library.

It took me a few tries to find the front door to the library, located in what feels like an Austrian university building, except this one remains pockmarked from the shells and bullets that exploded against the façade during the fighting.

After climbing a forlorn set of stairs, I found a reception desk, where in English I explained that I was from Switzerland and that I was interested in making a gift of books to the library.

In most national libraries around the world, such a request would be met by kind incredulity, and maybe I would be directed to a donation website. Here, on a February morning, I was asked to wait in a chair while the receptionist called around the building to explain (I am sure) that there was “a strange man in the lobby who wants to give us some books.”

After a few minutes, one of the library directors arrived and introduced herself. She handed me her business card, and I explained about my friendship with Gene (now 89 years old), and how he had been collecting and reading books his entire life. He was looking for a permanent home for his vast collection. Maybe Sarajevo could be the place?

What I didn’t tell the director, as we sat talking in a reference room of the library, was that the search for a home for Gene’s library had dominated the conversations of his friend circle for the last fifteen years.

The books, mostly non-fiction, covered history, politics, science, economics, and philosophy, and many of the books were fairly new, as he had made it a habit, throughout his life, to buy and read about three new books every week. He would read reviews online or in journals, and place his orders. For a time he had even owned Geneva’s only English-language bookstore.

That said, we could find no European library that wanted to take on the collection. Either they lacked shelf space for 6,000 books or they didn’t want so many books in English. That took the search afield to places in Africa—for a while a university in Tunisia seemed to want the books—and Asia, where another friend of Gene’s had a connection to the University of East Timor.

None of these inquiries had come to anything, and now I was shivering in the chilly National and University Library in Sarajevo, hoping that Gene’s beloved books might help replace some of those lost in the fire.

Having been to many meetings at which the books had been offered but politely declined, I was prepared for a non-committal answer. But Ms. Bedita Islamović, who had worked for many years at the library, immediately said that she would love to have the collection. I explained that the books would arrive without cost to the library. After that, she walked me around the building and showed me the existing shelves. In one cabinet were the ashes of a few books vanquished in the flames.

At one point she said that because of Bosnia’s economic troubles, it had been more than thirty years since the library had acquired any new books in English.

I left the library with the promise that I would try my best to persuade Gene that Sarajevo would be the best place to donate his collection of books.

Back in Geneva, after hearing the story about the library and the 1992 fire, he agreed immediately, and it took Gene, several mutual friends, and seven months of bureaucratic wrangling to deliver the books to Sarajevo.

It’s another story, and it involves shipping companies, customs inspectors, 103 large boxes of English books, excise taxes, and the search for container trucks heading to the Balkans.

In the end the 6,000 books arrived in perfect order, and in September 2019, amidst much fanfare from a book-starved public, the National Library dedicated the Eugene Schulman Reading Room.

Even his bumper sticker, “Any book worth banning is a book worth reading,” made it to Sarajevo.

In his dedication remarks, Gene wrote:

May my meager gift help contribute to the replacement of the two million volumes lost in the holocaust that was the Bosnian war. And may its contents help teach us to hate and avoid war, heal our planet, and help us to find meaning in life. May it be a seed in the renaissance of a new enlightenment.

Now the same group of friends is looking for more books for Bosnia, and how best to cover the shipping costs.

* * *

One of my days out from Sarajevo, wanting to pay more homage to Ivo Andrić, I went to the town of Travnik with a car, driver, and guide.

Northwest by about an hour from Sarajevo, Travnik is where the author was born, and it’s where he sets his incomparable novel, The Days of the Consuls, a book that has been published in English under the titles Bosnian Chronicle and Travnik Chronicle. It and The Bridge on the Drina were the reasons that Andrić later won the 1961 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The drive to Travnik, first on a divided highway and then along a national route, was memorable, if only because, at various moments, the guide would point out locations where either Croats or Muslims had died in large numbers during the civil war.

Both nationalities had communities along this route. Now, where Croats had died, there were large crosses in graveyards, and where Muslims were killed there were headstones with engraved portraits of the dead.

For a brief period around the turn of the 18th century, Travnik was the capital of the Ottoman vilayet in Bosnia, and it was to Travnik, during the Napoleonic wars, that France and Austria sent ambassadors.

The Days of the Consuls is a description of diplomatic life in Travnik during the years of Napoleon, and to give a fair warning (although I love the book) not much happens in the novel.

Diplomats arrive, and sometimes their families follow. Letters are drafted to the Sultan, and missions are undertaken to the River Drina or down to the coast at Split. Wives and husbands grow bored of Travnik’s isolation. Houses are refurbished. A few love affairs punctuate the Bosnian winters, and occasionally, after enduring shared hardships, diplomats—for the most part rivals—become friends.

The book takes its title from this passage: “There was a saying among the people that ‘trade moved across Bosnia,’ and Napoleon himself was alleged to have said somewhere, ‘The time for diplomats is over, these are the Times of the Consuls.’”

The pleasure of the novel is the richness of Andrić’s language. Of Travnik he writes: “But it was another thing for the foreigners whom chance had stranded in this narrow valley, which at this time of year was gloomy and full of damp and drafts, like a passage in a dungeon.”

Of a diplomat’s passionate wife, he writes: “He knew her sudden enthusiasms, her ‘wanderings’ as he called them, and could easily foresee the evolution and their ending. Thus the Colonel saw at once what was happening with his wife and could tell in advance the whole course of the affliction: the first kindling of the imagination, the enthusiasm with Platonic overtones, dismay at the coarse male desire for sensual contact, panic, flight, despair—‘everyone desires me and no one loves me’—and, at last, oblivion and the discovery of new objects for enthusiasm and despair.”

There are many asides in the story, as characters come and go through the consulates, bearing goods and dispatches, and often Andrić is able to describe Bosnia as he writing about the characters at the vizier’s court. For example, of a Levantine he writes:

Such is the fate of a man from the Levant, for he is poussière humaine, human dust, drifting wearily between East and West, belonging to neither and pulverized by both. These are people who speak many languages but have no language of their own, who are familiar with two religions but hold fast to neither. They are victims of the fatal division of mankind into Christian and non-Christian; eternal interpreters and go-betweens, who carry within them so much that is unclear and inarticulate; they are good connoisseurs of the East and West and of their customs and beliefs, but are equally despised and suspected by both. To them can be applied the words written six centuries ago by the great Jelaleddin, Jelaleddin Rumi: ‘. . . For I cannot tell who I am. I am neither a Christian, nor a Jew, nor a Parsee, nor a Mussulman. I am neither of the East nor of the West, neither from dry land nor from the sea.’ They are like that.

* * *

Unfortunately for Travnik, the town is less evocative today than it is in the novel (“‘Travnik! Travnik!’ He rolled the word slowly over his tongue, like the name of a mysterious disease, or a magic formula that was hard to memorize and easy to forget…”). In many ways it is just another jumbled town in central Bosnia.

A national road cuts the town in half. Up the hill are the old Turkish fortress and a few hotels and restaurants, while down the hill and across the highway are the town’s main street, schools, shops, churches, and mosques.

In between, on a side street is the house where Andrić was born, which is now a museum. It was rebuilt in the 1970s, when his fame was at its peak.

When I first arrived at the house, several large groups of school children were pushing their way through the several rooms of the museum, making it impassable. They bored quickly and were off, and I was free to wander among the display cases that tell his life story.

Although Andrić was born in Travnik in 1892 and is now its celebrated native son, he only lived there until the age of two, when his father died and his mother sent him to stay with relatives in Visegrád, which is where he lived until he won a scholarship to attend high school in Sarajevo.

His university education came in Zagreb, Vienna, Krakow, and Graz, which is another reason why every nationality from ex-Yugoslavia regard him as their own.

Andrić was always a gifted student and linguist, and by his early twenties he spoke a number of languages and had joined the diplomatic corps of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

In all he would serve in diplomatic posts (while writing at night and on the weekends) in Italy, Romania, Austria, France, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland. And he was serving in Germany when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia at Easter, 1941, and came back to Belgrade on the last train.

During the war years he lived in isolation in Belgrade and worked on his novels. The Days of the Consuls was published in 1945, just after the war ended. He carried the manuscript around in a suitcase.

My sense is that Andrić was a modest and kind man who worked well with others and retained friendships through his life. When the town council decided to rebuild his birth home and turn it into a museum, he mused: “Believe me, I always wondered what’s the purpose of that birth house in Travnik? It’s not Chateaubriand’s castle in Bretagne, Victor Hugo’s house in Paris, nor Tolstoy’s Jasna Poljana…”

With the one million dollars he was given for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he donated it “to improve the people’s libraries in Bosnia and Herzegovina…. to invest these resources in a most useful way”—another reason I was so pleased that Gene’s books made it Sarajevo.

The director at the Andrić Memorial museum was also an engaging and kind man, and, in answer to some of my questions, he rooted around in his files to find for me a short biography of the writer.

When I told him how much I admired The Days of the Consuls (many first editions in many languages are on display in the museum library), he showed me a passage in the booklet in which Andrić says:

I started Travnik Chronicle in 1925 or 1926, it doesn’t matter when, and nearly 15 years I carried around all of those notes, gathering materials and even came to Travnik making, as soldiers do, sketches of the battlefield, sketches of the town in order not to forget where the streets are…

From the museum we drove along the town’s main street. At one point I got out of the car to inspect an old steam engine in a park. Austrian narrow-gauge service had also once run in this valley, making me wonder if perhaps Travnik would have been a stop between Vienna and Salonica.

We also stopped in front of a school building, painted blue on the right side and yellow on the left—although it is all one building. Catholic Croatian students study on the right while Muslim children have their classes on the left, and in between the twain never meets.

Nevertheless, it charmed me that ambassadorial building described in The Day of the Consuls is still standing. It’s a law office and on the side a café (Café Consul, of course), and the elegant arched windows and stone front look unchanged from the Napoleonic era. About it Andrić wrote:

These two rooms of the Residency were the only ones Daville [a French diplomat] would ever get to know during his stay in Travnik, and they would be the scene of his trials and satisfactions, failures and successes. Here, in the years to come, he would learn to understand not only the Turks and their peculiar strengths and terrible weaknesses, but also himself, his own capacity and limitations, and mankind in general, and the world and human relationships within it.

Napoleonic Travnik was Andrić’s metaphor for Bosnia, if not Yugoslavia as a whole. He said: “Praising me, people from Travnik praise themselves. I don’t resent that. The whole of Bosnia is very similar to Travnik. Eventually, the Balkans as a whole are like that.”

Next up: Srebrenica and its sorrows. Read the earlier installments here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.