The Lingering Death of Gavrilo Princip
Where the First World War Began, and Why Its Effects Are Still Felt There to This Day
The legacy of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, which together dominated the territory of the former Yugoslavia for almost five hundred years, and the subsequent national liberation ideologies that triggered the First World War in 1914, lived on in the nationalist civil wars that raged in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in the 1990s.
As the social philosophers Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson explain, nations are inventions of modern times. Previously, there were principalities, monarchies, and illiterate peasants, who made up the majority of the population and at most identified with their village or clan. It was only after the introduction of general compulsory education in industrialised societies, the invention of standardised national languages, and the growth of the market for books and printed matter that people over larger areas were able to define themselves through ‘imagined communities’.
The nation: an artificial entity
In other words, nations can be invented and nations can fade away. In the case of the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, they are the result of the process of nation-building that took place in the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century. Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian intellectuals, students and scholars compared the ideals of the French Revolution and domestic economic developments in western European countries to their own backward reality under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Slovenia and Croatia) and the Ottoman Empire (Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo) and decided that the South Slavic peoples could only liberate, develop, and modernise themselves as nations.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had already been considerably weakened. The Habsburg monarchy (Austria-Hungary), on the other hand, had become Serbia’s number one enemy of state after its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. On 28th June 1914, the Bosnian-Serb student Gavrilo Princip, intoxicated and swept along by the wave of new nationalist ideology, shot the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, in order to liberate the South Slavic people from the ‘yoke of Austro-Hungarian rule’. Two world wars followed. At the end of the second, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was founded under the leadership of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
The break-up of Yugoslavia began in the early 1980s, caused by a complex web of ethnic, religious, national, and – most importantly – economic problems. The richer Socialist republics within the Yugoslav federation, Slovenia and Croatia, demanded a greater share of the income they were generating, while poorer regions such as Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia insisted that Yugoslavia’s system of fiscal equalisation continue. But it wasn’t only about money. A political power vacuum developed in 1980 after the death of Tito, the charismatic leader who had doggedly kept the multi-ethnic state together throughout his lifetime. Increasingly, this vacuum was filled by nationalist ideologies.
The legend of Serbia as a victim of Islam
Right from the word go, one of the main protagonists of this new nationalism was Slobodan Milosevic. As party chairman of the League of Communists and President of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, he used national reservations within Yugoslavia to build his own power base. He sold himself as the big, strong man who would help the Serbian nation back to past glory and honour. In 1988 and 1989, he replaced the political elite in the Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina with his own supporters and more or less did away with both provinces’ autonomous rights. The high point of this new Serbian nationalism was his speech on 28th June 1989 on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (also known as the Battle of Blackbird’s Field) in which a Christian-Orthodox Serbian army was overwhelmed by the Ottomans. Surrounded by Serbian intellectuals and the new Serbian power elite, and cheered by the Serbian people, he referred to the legend of Serbia’s victimhood and cast himself in the role of the leader who, by revoking Kosovo’s autonomous status, had reversed the defeat of 1389, put Islam in its place and, consequently, breathed new life into the ‘heart’ of the great Serbian nation.
The people in the other Yugoslav republics also began staking everything on the nationalism card. The Slovenes and Croats styled themselves as the last bastion of the Western, Roman Catholic, European community of values. The Serbs dreamed of an Orthodox Christian Greater Serbia that would distance itself from the realities of what had been the Ottoman Empire. For their part, the Islamicised Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians saw that they were surrounded by enemies from whom they could only protect themselves as an independent nation. Flags were waved; differences were emphasised; the enemy was painted as evil incarnate; historical legends were made up. There followed four wars: the Slovenian War of Independence (1991), the Croatian War of Independence (1991–95), the Bosnian War (1992–95), and the Kosovo War (1999). Serbia lost all of these wars and Slobodan Milosevic ultimately died, humbled, as a defendant in a prison cell, while on trial at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2006.
One hundred years on ...
It is the summer of 2013. The Serbian Foreign Ministry has invited a group of German and Austrian journalists (myself included) to take part in a press trip to Belgrade and Kosovo. The Serbian government would like to put the nationalist rhetoric of recent decades behind it and is determined that Serbia shall join the European Union. The plan is that we journalists will report about the credibility of this desire.
Belgrade has a population of 1.7 million. The streets are overcrowded; there is no underground; the heavy traffic is deafening. The city is built on several hills, its wide boulevards leading down to the Sava and the Danube, the two rivers that flow through it. On one of these hills stands the Cathedral of St. Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, which was built in the Serbian Byzantine style. A short distance below the cathedral is Slavija Square, a huge roundabout surrounded by functional stone high-rise buildings. It is a very compact, urban city with a mad mix of architectural styles: grey concrete Socialist carbuncles stand side by side with run-down city villas, elegant Art Nouveau buildings, crumbling facades, and stately examples of neo-Classical architecture.
The wars of the 1990s ruined the country. At only US $ 4,943 per inhabitant, Serbia’s gross national product is lower than that of even Jamaica and Ecuador. The average monthly wage here is € 500; unemployment stands at 30 per cent. The youth unemployment rate is even worse: every second young person here has no job. In recent years alone, 30,000 well-trained young Serbs have left their country and gone west.
Right in the heart of the city stands the enormous ruin of the former Defence Ministry, one of the few visible reminders of NATO’s 78-day bombardment of Belgrade. The building was completely destroyed in the NATO bombing campaign during the Kosovo War of 1999. I ask a passer-by whether this ruin is a kind of war memorial. The man I stop is called Tomislav and just happens to have spent many years working in Frankfurt am Main. In fluent German, he says: ‘No, no. The Serbian government just doesn’t have the money to rebuild it.’ When Tomislav, a stockily-built 53-year-old of impressive girth, learns that I am a journalist, he adds, ‘Please tell the people in Germany that Belgrade is an open-minded, tolerant city that belongs to Europe. We are fed up of all the wars and the nationalism. We don’t want anything more to do with that. We belong to Europe!’ And it is true, foreign observers in the city really do get the impression that the people here just want to live a quiet, normal life.
The Kosovo conflict: a relic of the First World War
The journey to Kosovo begins at eight o’clock in the morning. Nicola, our male driver, drives very fast and – as we will find out on the two days that follow – has a penchant for Serbian folk music. We are accompanied by Milan and Sofia from the Serbian Foreign Ministry, who will be our guides and interpreters during the trip. The journey to the border takes five hours. The border checkpoint is a makeshift shack made of wood and iron. On 17th February 2008, the parliament in Pristina declared Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. In terms of international law, however, the country’s status is controversial. Neither Serbia nor EU members Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Cyprus recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Our passports are stamped, all the same.
Our first stop is the village of Goraždevac in western Kosovo. The village is a small Serbian enclave that is guarded by KFOR troops twenty-four hours a day. In recent years, riots between the feuding Serbs and Albanians have broken out again and again. We are the guests of the Dakic family. The man of the house welcomes us with a schnapps. Mother, father and son sit together on the sofa; pictures of Serbian Orthodox saints and a photo of their son Pando, who was shot dead by a Kosovo Albanian sniper while swimming in a lake nearby, hang on the wall. The father, Milislav, a tall, strong man with bushy eyebrows, tells us what happened. ‘In August 2003, my thirteen-year-old son went swimming with some other children. An Albanian shot at them. Just like that. Out of hatred. Six children were wounded. My son Pando died in my arms at the hospital. The Albanian doctors didn’t raise a finger to help him. Although everyone knows who fired the shots, he’s still walking around a free man. The Albanian authorities are shielding my son’s murderer. No one helps us. The world must see that we Serbs are the only victims in Kosovo.’
Mr Dakic’s speech sounds learned by heart, as if he rehearsed it before our arrival. All the time he is speaking, our two guides from the Serbian Foreign Ministry nod sadly at his story. The Dakic family are presented to us as victims, their horrific story used for propaganda purposes. The statement that the Serbs are the only victims in Kosovo is, of course, utter nonsense. Milosevic did away with the extensive rights to autonomy of the Muslim Kosovo Albanians and placed Kosovo under direct Serbian rule. Throughout his regime, the Kosovo Albanian majority was discriminated against, expelled, and killed by the Serbs.
Our next stop is the monastery of Decani. Our car has a Belgrade number plate. Although we don’t need an escort, from time to time we see Kosovo Albanian farmers standing at the side of the road, shaking their fists at the car and cursing us. As we drive along, it looks as if everyone is building something. In the shimmering heat of the midday sun we see lots of newly-built mosques and houses in all conceivable stages of construction: the framework of a house, buildings that have not yet been plastered, houses without balconies, houses that will soon be completed ... The Kosovan and Albanian flags fly on all buildings in the villages and towns. We are told that, out of gratitude for American intervention in the Kosovo War in 1999, restaurants, business, and cafés have been given names like Bill Clinton, Washington, and White House. We cannot help noticing the large number of recent graves that line the roads. On the gravestones are pictures of UÇK (Kosovo Liberation Army) soldiers in uniform, carrying machine-guns. A report for the UN War Crimes Tribunal in 2002 put the number of Kosovo Albanian victims at more than 10,000.
Religion and nationalism
The Prokletije mountains rise up in front of us; behind them are Albania and Montenegro. As night falls, we pass through the town of Decani, which is situated below the monastery. It looks as if the entire town is out and about this evening; the Kosovo Albanians are celebrating some kind of Feast Day; there are Albanian flags everywhere. As soon as we leave the town, at the bottom of the mountain road, we pass the first KFOR checkpoint. The monastery that gave refuge to Serbs, Kosovo Albanians and Roma during the Kosovo War has been hit by mortars four times since the arrival of the KFOR troops in 1999. We are told that, in total, it has been targeted twelve times by Albanian extremists.
Inside the monastery walls, a sacred peace reigns supreme. In the distance we see mountain tops and forests; the song of cicadas can be heard on the breeze. The monastery was the largest building in medieval Serbia. It was built between 1328 and 1335, and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. We are welcomed by Father Sava, the archdeacon of the monastery. Father Sava has long hair, a bushy beard, a round belly and black robes. He guides us around the impressive basilica with its nave and four aisles, soaring pillars, medieval frescoes, valuable icons, Gothic windows, and the sarcophagi of Serbian kings. For many Serbs, the medieval monasteries and churches in Kosovo are the cradle of their civilisation. During the Kosovo War, seventy-six Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries, and chapels were destroyed.
Over dinner, Father Sava tells us – in perfect English – how afraid he was during the numerous attacks on the monastery. The last riots took place at Christmas. The Kosovo Albanians tried to stop Christmas mass from being said. They were furious because they wanted half of the monastery’s lands, but the archdeacon refused. He tells us that the hatred still runs very deep. He has to be protected by KFOR soldiers whenever he goes shopping. Without the protection of the Italian soldiers, he adds, the monastery would no longer exist. The Kosovo Albanians would destroy it immediately and kill all the monks. Over a glass of schnapps at the end of the meal, he tells us that he hopes the situation will get better in the coming years and that they will soon be able to live in peace with the Kosovo Albanians.
We spend the night in simple monks’ cells. The next morning, we attend Sunday mass in the basilica. The Serbs from the surrounding region are bussed to the monastery, escorted by KFOR soldiers. Father Sava and the other monks sing holy, Slavic songs. The air is thick with frankincense; candles burn; the monks celebrate the liturgy; the faithful kiss the holy icons. It is strange that such a peaceful place should have to be protected by soldiers. After the mass, we leave the monastery and drive back to Belgrade, leaving Kosovo behind us. For two days, we have been introduced to Serbian victims. We never got to speak to any Kosovo Albanians. Discrimination, churches that have been shot at, fear, killed sons ... there can be no doubt that these stories are tragic and painful. But if we had visited the other side and spoken to Kosovo Albanians, we would have been told similar horrific stories. It is likely that the Serbian government wanted to use this propaganda trip to show us the kind of problems they face in Kosovo. It is just a pity that they neglected to tell us the whole story, including that of the Kosovo Albanians.
It is absurd that former nationalists, who not so long ago were dreaming of a Greater Serbia, are now the ones loosening their grip on Kosovo and slowly releasing it into independence. The political power elite in Serbia is moving with the times: ruthless nationalists have become agile democrats. But that’s the way it goes. And anyway, only they, the former nationalists, could have signed such a contract. A left-wing Serbian government would not have had the support of the people for such far-reaching decisions.
On 28th June, the heads of state and government of the member states of the European Union agreed to start accession negotiations with Serbia in early 2014. At the same time, the EU intends to conclude a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo. This is a preliminary step towards later accession negotiations. What is important now, says Brussels, is that Serbia and Kosovo really implement their recently-signed agreement on the normalisation of relations. In December, before a final decision is made about the start of negotiations, the EU intends to monitor progress again.
Gradually, the major national Balkan stories of the twentieth-century are drawing to a close. What began as a national liberation ideology became over the decades a kind of collective frenzy, turning into an substitute religion that presented itself as a pseudo-alternative to modernisation and pragmatic change, and ultimately revealed itself to be no more than empty rhetoric that self-destructed in the face of reality. In this era of globalisation, nations are obsolete models from a bygone era. Slovenia and Croatia are already members of the EU; Serbia and all the other states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia will follow in their footsteps in years to come. The irony of the whole story is that, after all the bloody nationalist civil wars waged in the 1990s, these states will once again be united, albeit this time under the umbrella of the European Union. Welcome to the twenty-first century.
works as a freelance author and journalist in Berlin. He is German with Croatian and Bosnian roots. In his opinion, thinking in terms of what he calls ‘national identity power containers’ is a relic of the twentieth century.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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