Bosnia still divided over WW1 assassination

Shooting star: An actor impersonates Gavrilo Princip in front of his statue in Sarajevo © PA

A century ago in Sarajevo, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip fired the shots that sparked the train of events that led to a disastrous global war. But how should this event be remembered?

Exactly 100 years ago last Saturday, an event took place that dramatically altered the course of history. In the streets of Sarajevo — the capital of Bosnia — a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took aim and fired twice into an open-topped car. Shortly afterwards the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, were pronounced dead.

The assassination by Princip on 28 June 1914 triggered the First World War and set in motion events that, in the words of one journalist, ‘propelled the world into the bloodiest century in human history’.

Princip was a member of a Bosnian Serb militant organisation which wanted independence from Austro-Hungarian rule. Bosnia had been annexed in 1908.

Last weekend, this sombre event was commemorated in Sarajevo. But history casts a long shadow. A century after Princip's shots rang out, Bosnia’s mixed population of Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks remains deeply divided in its attitudes towards him. As a result, rival events marked the occasion in very different ways.

Many Serbs view Princip as a hero who fought against oppressive Austro-Hungarian rule. They boycotted the weekend’s official events, which they argue were meant to pin the blame on them for the First World War. In eastern Sarajevo, they unveiled a statue of Princip in a newly built park.

In contrast, in central Sarajevo, a commemoration recalled the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ‘a golden age’ according to many Muslims and Croats. The Vienna Philharmonic, Austria’s premier orchestra, performed in front of an audience including the Austrian president.

These views are are also shaped by another 20th-century conflict which exacted a terrible cost on the region. Between 1992 and 1995, 100,000 people died in the Bosnian War and Sarajevo was besieged for 1,425 days by Serb troops. Many Bosniaks and Croats regard Princip as a Serb nationalist with the same territorial ambitions as those behind the ethnic cleansing and dark memories of the 1990s.

Past, present, future

Some say that everyone creates their own version of history. Choosing to remember Princip as a heroic Serbian freedom fighter is not necessarily an act of aggression or a refusal to make peace with neighbours. History is just one of the elements in a people’s identity, that is, a sense of who they are.

But others argue that the conflicting histories in this part of Europe are poisoning its future. In a region still marked by bitter sectarian divides, Bosnia needs something that brings everyone together. All sides should recall the horrors of war and try to prevent them happening again, rather than argue over the past.

You Decide

  1. Does it matter if people have different interpretations of history?
  2. Was Gavrilo Princip responsible for the First World War?


  1. Draw a map that shows Europe in 1914. Identify which countries were allies, and which were enemies.
  2. Plan an essay answering the following question: what were the main causes of the First World War?

Some People Say...

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.’Napoleon”

What do you think?

Q & A

This happened ages ago — how is it relevant to me?
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand sparked a war in which more than 37 million people died and the empires of Germany, Russia and Turkey crumbled. The horrors and violence of the century since, including the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Second World War and conflict in the Middle East, all had their origins there. We need to learn what happened in order to prevent something similar happening again.
What happened to Princip?
He was arrested moments after the shooting. As he was under 20, under Austro-Hungarian law, he could not be given a death sentence, so was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He died of tuberculosis in prison in 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

Word Watch

When a state incorporates a piece of foreign territory, often by force. Russia has recently annexed Crimea.
Golden age
Under Austro-Hungarian rule, railways, government, education and healthcare were all improved.
Bosnian War
A territorial battle over Bosnia between Serb forces on the one side and Croat forces on the other, in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia. It was the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
Ethnic cleansing
The systematic removal of ethnic or religious groups from an area to create a territory inhabited by people of a single ethnicity or religion, usually by forced migration or mass murder.

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