Gavrilo Princip and Serbian nationalism

If any of you subscribe to Google’s Alerts for “Ungarn,” you will encounter absolutely hundreds of articles in the German and Austrian press on World War I. Austria-Hungary’s role in the events that followed the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy, naturally looms large in these writings.

One hundred years after the event there are still deep divisions about how to interpret the assassination itself, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.  A few days ago The New York Times reported that scholars from the United States and 25 other countries gathered in Sarajevo to mark the centennial of World War I. The conference “set off an ethnic firestorm in the Balkans that reached the highest political circles.” There were several points of serious disagreement and, in the end, no research papers were submitted from Serbia proper or from the so-called Republik Srpska, the Serb-dominated area of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Serb politicians accused the conference of bias against their country, and the president of Republik Srpska called the conference “a new propaganda attack against the Serbs.”  In general, the Serbian view is that no revision of history that would put any blame on Serbia is acceptable. To them Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, is a hero and German, Austrian, and Hungarian historians, “the losers of the war,” refuse to afford Princip the honor he deserves.

The book that really inflamed Serbian historians and politicians was Christopher M. Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which became an international success of late. In it Clark argues that Princip was an arm of Serbia’s intelligence services, not just some Bosnian teenager acting on his own. Clark puts a greater emphasis on the responsibility of Serbia than most historians had done previously. According to other, non-Serbian historians, the Serbs misunderstood Clark’s conclusion, which places the blame on all the great powers, including Great Britain and France. In any case, the effort to organize a civilized international conference on World War I failed due to nationalistic passions.

The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is deeply divided over the very person of Gavrilo Princip. In the Serb-controlled East-Sarajevo the Serbs erected up a full-size statue of Princip, who is considered to be a hero of Serbia. The Muslims and the Croats, on the other hand, do not consider Princip a hero at all. On the contrary, they view him as a terrorist who killed a politician and his pregnant wife. More than that, they look upon him as the man who put an end to a prosperous period in the life of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The Bosniaks, the Muslim Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, fought on the side of Austria-Hungary throughout the war and apparently suffered huge losses fighting against the Serbs. Eighty years later Serbs and Muslims were again on opposite sides.

Emir Kusturica, Serbian filmmaker, and Gavrilo Princip's statue at Tovarisevo Source:

Emir Kusturica, a Serbian filmmaker, and Gavrilo Princip’s new statue at Tovarisevo

As for Gavrilo Princip, Serb politicians and historians can argue that they were not responsible for the outbreak of World War I. Indeed, when Princip aimed his revolver at the Archduke and his wife he didn’t think in terms of such far-reaching consequences. But Serbian nationalism had reached such heights that it was bound to end in some kind of conflict. In fact, two serious wars had already broken out in the Balkans. It was clear that the goal of Serbian nationalists after 1878, when Austria-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the gathering of all Southern Slavs into one country, naturally under Serbian leadership. Originally the Serb nationalists envisaged a “Yugoslavia” that even included Bulgaria. It was natural that Slovenia, under Austria and Croatia under the Hungarian Crown, would have been part of this new state. But there was another area that was an integral part of Greater Hungary, not like Croatia that had limited home rule, that was in danger as far as the Hungarians were concerned. That was the Bánát-Bácska (Vojvodina) area, just south of  Szeged and Makó all the way to the Danube in the south. In this area lived about 500,000 people who declared themselves to be Serbs in the 1910 census.

How did these people end up north of the Danube river? Most of them came as a result of what is described in historical literature as the Great Serb Migrations. The first occurred in 1690 during the Great Turkish War when Leopold I allowed Serbian refugees to settle in Hungarian territories. The second migration took place after 1739. How many people are we talking about? There are different estimates, but the most often cited is 37,000 families. The majority of these people stayed in the Vojvodia region, but some of them went as far as Szentendre, just north of Budapest, and even Komarno in Slovakia.

In closing, let’s look briefly at the attitude of Prime Minister István Tisza toward the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war in 1914. According to the structure of the Dual Monarchy as it was set up in 1867, the assent of both the Austrian and the Hungarian prime ministers was necessary for a declaration of war. The Austrians enthusiastically supported the punishment of Serbia, but Tisza was reluctant. His reluctance can easily be explained by the large presence of Serbs in Bánát-Bácska (Vojvodina) and also in Croatia. If the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were to escalate into a larger war and Austria-Hungary were to go down in defeat, these territories would be lost to a victorious Serbia. In the end, however, he changed his mind, mainly because Austria-Hungary received a so-called “blank check” from the German Emperor that promised military support in case of a larger war. He believed that the presence of a strong German army behind Austria-Hungary was a guarantee that Hungarian territories would be safe. But what seemed impossible for Tisza and fellow politicians in Germany and Austria-Hungary became a reality four years later: they lost the war and the territories.

Finally, an interesting bit of news I picked up the other day: some relatives of Princip have over the years become Hungarians. A strange part of the world.