Sarajevo marked the centennial on Saturday of a prince’s murder that lit the fuse for World War One, offering a message of unity to a divided country and a continent buffeted by deep social and economic strife.
The centrepiece of a string of cultural and sporting events will be a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in the Bosnian capital, where the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot dead with his wife on a bright June morning in 1914.
The murder of Franz Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip set the Great Powers marching to war.
More than 10 million soldiers died, as empires crumbled and the world order was rewritten.
Sarajevo closed the century under siege by Bosnian Serb forces during Yugoslavia’s bloody disintegration. Still coming to terms with that conflict, Bosnia’s former warring communities met Saturday’s centennial deeply at odds over Princip’s motives and his legacy.
Leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, who consider the assassin a hero, are boycotting the official commemoration in Sarajevo, angered by what they say is an attempt to link the wars that opened and closed the 20th century, and to pin the blame on them.
They will instead re-enact the murder and Princip’s trial in the eastern Drina river town of Visegrad, scorched into the memory of many in the Balkans for some of the worst atrocities of the 1992-95 war by Bosnian Serb forces driving out Muslim Bosniaks.
In Sarajevo, the Vienna Philharmonic will perform a repertoire harking strongly back to the days of the Habsburg Empire, including Haydn, Schubert, Berg and Brahms.
The concert will take place in the capital’s restored City Hall, known as Vijecnica, where Ferdinand attended a reception on June 28, 1914. He left in an open car with his wife, Sophie, but the driver took a wrong turn and Princip shot them from a Browning pistol on the banks of the river.
The Austrians attacked Serbia a month later and the Great Powers, already spoiling for a fight, piled in. The neo-Moorish Vijecnica, which later became the National Library, went up in flames in 1992 under fire from Bosnian Serb forces in the hills, almost 2 million books perishing in the inferno.
“This is a symbolic concert in a symbolic location,” Professor Clemens Hellsberg, the orchestra’s president and first violin, told a news conference on Friday. “We want to provide a vision of a common future in peace,” he said.
The conductor, Franz Welser-Most, noted that the Austrian composer Alban Berg “was in favour of the outbreak of World War One”. But, he said, the “Three Pieces for Orchestra” that he wrote at the time and was to be performed on Saturday “describes the marching to war and what disaster it brings”.
Asked about the significance of a Viennese orchestra marking the event, Welser-Most said: “You should not deny the burden of history.” The message, he said, was “never again”.
Leaders of the 28-member European Union marked the centennial on Thursday in Ypres, the Belgian city synonymous with the slaughter of the war, papering over divisions borne of economic crisis and growing support for the anti-EU right.
For visitors to the city, guides offered tours of Sarajevo, Princip’s haunts and the key locations on the day he killed Franz Ferdinand. Performers rehearsed for a midnight musical planned on the bridge near where he fired the fatal shot.
On Friday, Serbs in Bosnia unveiled a statue of Princip in East Sarajevo. They have rebuilt his family home, razed during the 1992-95 war, and will open it on Saturday as a museum.
Serbs see Princip as a freedom fighter not just for Orthodox Serbs but for Bosnia’s Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats too, his shot bringing down the curtain on centuries of imperial occupation over the Balkans.
That was the official narrative for decades under socialist Yugoslavia. But the collapse of their joint state shattered perceptions of Princip, whom many Bosniaks and Croats regard as a Serb nationalist with the same territorial ambitions as those behind much of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.
Bosnia was divided into two autonomous regions after the war, in a highly decentralized system of ethnic power-sharing that has stifled development and, critics say, only cemented divisions.
Asked about the absence of official Serb representatives from the Sarajevo commemoration, the city’s Croat mayor, Ivo Komsic, told reporters: “They demonstrate their attitude not to the past but to the future.”
(Editing by Alison Williams)
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