Lucky shot? Remembering the Sarajevo assassination a century on.
They didn’t know they were going to change the world.
As the handful of Serb conspirators moved, a hundred years ago this week, from village to village through what they considered occupied Bosnia, trying to escape the attentions of the Austro-Hungarian police, their precious pistols and bombs being smuggled in by other trusted hands, obviously they had no idea of the carnage that would follow once they had converged on Sarajevo on June 28th 1914.
As it happens, they did dream of changing the world – as they saw it. 19 year-old Nedeljko Cabrinovic had angered his father by refusing to raise the hated Habsburg flag, and told him that ‘King Petar of Serbia will rule here within a year’. After throwing his bomb at Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car, swallowing poison and jumping into the Miljacka river, and then finding himself with a scalded throat and standing in six inches of water, Cabrinovic declared to the policemen who demanded his identity: ‘I am a Serbian hero!’
They were kids: teenagers with under-strength cyanide doses, fired up on ideology and dreams of glory by older wiser men who themselves ran no risks on that June morning. (In that sense they foreshadow would-be ideological martyrs of different wars today.) They weren’t well co-ordinated, most of them flunked their chances to kill the Archduke, and that staggering event was only possible with a once-in-a-century coincidence of incompetence and luck.
But the coincidence did happen, and the Archduke’s driver went the wrong way, and stopped to reverse, and for a world-shattering second put the Habsburg heir stationary and a few feet from a Serb patriot with a pistol and a dream of glory. Princip fired, and the clockwork of Great Power pride and fear and calculation and alliance deals and mobilization schedules began irreversibly to tick, and millions of men went to war and those who returned did so to a new world.
How should we commemorate this? Perhaps it’s possible to feel an echo of pride at the soldiers who would go off to fight for something they believed in, or to feel humble at the futile carnage that was all they won. But a hundred years later there can be no glory in that devastation, whatever your nationality; and political attempts to re-wrap the commemoration in the flag seem distasteful and foolish.
(It’s also a bit of a challenge trying to write an historical novel around the outbreak of war: everyone knows what happened, and it’s hard to make anyone look good. The Spider of Sarajevo focuses on the Great Power intrigues in the weeks before the assassination, and the troubled infancy of British intelligence, and while there’s plenty of courage and conspiracy there’s precious little glory.)
Perhaps, as we mark the centenary of the assassination and then the chimes of the July diplomacy and the outbreak of war, we should try to put a little less emotion into it and a little more thought. The strange overstrained political landscape through which those young assassins slipped was the product of European states meddling with societies they did not properly understand, and trying to draw lines on maps for their own convenience. And brave men went to war with dreams born in prejudice and ignorance. It resonates today more powerfully than we might like or think, and we should reflect more thoughtfully on the events of a century ago not because they’re now so far in the past, but because of how much they still have to teach us.
Writer-diplomat Robert Wilton has been working on and in the Balkans for more than a decade. The Spider of Sarajevo, the latest in the series of novels drawing on documents from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, is published on the centenary of the events it illuminates He’s tweeting the context and countdown for war @ComptrollerGen, and there’s more at www.robertwilton.com.