Top 12 of 2014. No.12: a month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead on this spot, the first world war began. Almost a hundred years later, Tim Judah went to Sarajevo to see how it coped with the memory down the decades
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2014
BUILDERS ARE CRASHING about, foremen are barking down their phones, a lorry is disgorging building materials and no one seems to be noticing two men trespassing on their site. Security seems to be a little lax. But then it was on June 28th 1914 too. I am standing on the steps of Sarajevo's old town hall with Osman Topcagic, Bosnia's former ambassador to London and Brussels. If it had not been for what took place in this city in 1914, almost exactly a hundred years ago, who among us would be where we are today, or perhaps even have been born?
Trams clank by as Topcagic looks out from the top of the steps. For a moment he is quite still, staring across the river to where he grew up, perhaps thinking of how different things could have been. In 1914 his grandfather was a member of the city council. He would have been somewhere here as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie came up the stairs, one of the crush of local dignitaries welcoming the heir to the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian throne. In 2006 Topcagic showed the building to Otto von Habsburg, the pretender to the imperial crown, and then they went for lunch nearby; in 2011, Otto died peacefully in his sleep, aged 98. His great-uncle Franz Ferdinand's visit ended rather more memorably when he was shot dead by Gavrilo Princip. The rest is the history of the past hundred years. Here, on this street, we are at the ground zero of the 20th century.
The building, known as the Vijecnica, stands at the tip of the old Ottoman part of town. It is a fanciful Austro-Hungarian Moorish confection, built in 1892-94 in the course of the Habsburg-era redevelopment of Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarians seized Bosnia and Hercegovina from the Ottomans in 1878 and ruled it until 1918. In 1914 the Vijecnica was the town hall; later it became the national library. As a student in the 1970s, in the heyday of Tito's Yugoslavia, Topcagic liked to come and study here with his friends. In 1980 Tito died and the country began to unravel. Then came the war, and in Bosnia, when they say "the war", they mean the one that began in March 1992. Five months later, struck by shells fired by Bosnian Serbs from the hills just above us, the Vijecnica went up in flames.
Soon afterwards it played host to an unforgettable scene when a cellist, Vedran Smailovic, led an anti-war protest by dressing up in white tie and tails, finding a perch in the rubble and playing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. The siege of Sarajevo and the war ground on nonetheless until 1995. For years afterwards the building remained an ugly reminder of the past, but the Sarajevo authorities slowly found the money to rebuild it, and while they were about it, install stone memorials noting that it had been burned down in 1992 by "Serbian criminals". But then the question began to creep up of how to handle 2014. What should the city do?
Years ago an idea circulated that all the western Balkan countries could celebrate joining the European Union on the centenary of the assassination, thus bringing Europe's long 20th century to a symbolic close. It was not to be, and especially not for Bosnia, because its people and politicians are divided by ethnicity today as in 1914. Its Serb, Croat and Bosniak (as Bosnian Muslims are now called) leaders cannot agree on what needs to be done to join the EU, let alone on the Princip question: was he a terrorist or a freedom fighter
LIKE THE BUILDERS, the diplomats, city officials, artists and historians began running around planning something. But what? As one friend put it, "what exactly are we supposed to celebrate?" Then someone had a brainwave. Sarajevo could be a European Capital of Culture for 2014. Friends were called in to lobby on its behalf. At the end of an interview with a senior European official, I said I just wanted to raise something else. He clapped his hand to his forehead. "Not you as well! We have already told them a thousand times it can't be done." Not being an EU member, Bosnia was ineligible for this coveted title and besides, when the Bosnians came up with the idea, it was already far too late for next year.
But in the end all was not lost. A momentum had built up, and now, with French help in particular, all sorts of events are going to be held to commemorate what happened here, which is why the builders are too busy to bother with us. They are in a rush because on June 28th 2014, in a nice touch, the Vienna Philharmonic will give a concert at the Vijecnica to mark its official reopening. It will also host an exhibition about the period. Roland Gilles, the French ambassador and a cycling enthusiast, tells me that the Tour de France of 1914 began on the day of the assassination. So this year he has fixed it for former champions, including Eddy Merckx, to come and race round Sarajevo and then lead a massive procession of yellow-jerseyed cyclists from the now-Serbian east of town to the now largely Bosniak centre. The event, like the concert, will be televised. "The whole world will see Sarajevo," Gilles says. "The idea is a message of peace and reconciliation which can come from here." Sarajevo is remembered for 1914 and the 1990s war, so now "the idea is to look ahead."
Yet within Bosnia, anything to do with Franz Ferdinand's assassination can be politicised, linked and related to both the second world war here and the war of the 1990s. When I meet Amra Madzarevic, the director of Sarajevo's museums, she talks about how Princip, his group and their sponsors in Serbia, "had similar ideas to Radovan Karadzic [the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs] and Slobodan Milosevic [then president of Serbia] who wanted to have a Greater Serbia". Karadzic is on trial for genocide and war crimes in The Hague now, and Milosevic died during his trial there in 2006. Still, Madzarevic wants to use the anniversary to change minds. "To show that we are known for other, good things, to prove we are not nationalistic. Some people in Europe have a very wrong picture of us. We don't want to interpret history, just to show it happened."
Above Retracing footsteps: Osman Topcagic in front of the Vijecnica, the old town hall. His grandfather would have been among the dignitaries welcoming Franz Ferdinand when he arrived here on June 28th 1914