World War One: on the peculiar geopolitics of passionate, armed teenagers

On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated in Sarajevo the Austrian Archiduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (heir to the throne) and his wife Sofia. This act allegedly triggered the World War One.

History is not written by the victors but by the historical visionaries, and it's not about truth — it's about paradigms. It's an art to argue, a performance to convince, and the victory condition of history itself is to create a story that seem plausible, and also applicable to different times, in the future, in the past.

Consider the First World War, the first Great War, a war without precedent and supposedly impossible nowadays. The lad who pulled its trigger was Gavrilo Princip, a teenage Serb, a Bosnian Serb one might say, a Pan-Slavic conspirator against the Austro Hungarian Empire, a Yugoslav, an activist, a terrorist, a patriot, a national freedom fighter… what a lot of names he has.

Our world today doesn't lack for passionate teenage street fighters. In my neighborhood, in San Salvario in Torino, Princip might be a tattooed anarchist who ends up in prison because he threw stones on a cop, while protesting against the imaginary European high speed train between Turin and Lyon, the TAV. What passions this obscure train provokes, a white-elephant pro-EU project will never be realized anyway, because nobody really wants the train on either side of the French Italian border, and worse yet, nobody can afford it.

Gavrilo's fatal plan met with success, even though he never saw a Yugoslav nation (he was promptly arrested and died in prison four years later). More history passed and Yugoslavia itself ended in bloodshed. Now, a century after the deed that made him known worldwide, the figure of Gavrilo Princip has been used in this memorial centenary by contemporary visionaries for their own purposes.

He fits pretty well as a standard terrorist, as an evil zealot who destroyed a wonderful empire of tolerance and benevolence, the Austro-Hungarian empire. He threw his own life away to do it, but the violent suicidal method is common nowadays among Muslim martyrs. One of Gavrilo's armed comrades in the conspiracy was a Muslim, and just as ready to kill the Archduke as Gavrilo was.

Perhaps he's best understood as an embittered outsider with a crank's motivations to kill a celebrity, like the young men who murdered John Lennon, or President Kennedy. Or he might be a national martyr, a patriot who gave his life for the liberation of a long-suffering people, aspiring a better world, against a regime of royal foreign oppressors.

And yet, in the region where he killed and died, his name is fading. Young people in the Balkans find little to celebrate about him. They suffered too many recent losses of identity and family, to celebrate a remote act, which, during the span of a century, merely added to the turmoil.

Some presumptuous intellectuals dare to say: he could have been me, I understand, I might have done the same in those conditions. They are sitting in comfortable armchairs rather than stalking the streets for a motorcade, gun in hand. How many young men today are dying in irregular street wars, in paramilitary ambushes, raids and revenge attacks, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Xinjiang, the Caucasus and now even Ukraine. What a difficulty it can be to survive one's own historical visions! Are ancient nations any wiser in their old age than they were in their foolish youth?

What would Gavrilo Princip recognize in our world of patriots and terrorists? Where and how would he strive to make his name, if he were alive and unknown today? A policed world of austerity and globalized fundamentalism, of growing superstition and religion conquering science and secular politics. Perhaps he'd care nothing for the flags and coins of outdated nation states and choose to become a killer mercenary, out for the highest price. Who needs a gold coin with the face of some royal potentate when the world has Bitcoin?

In the former Yugoslavia, there used to be a joke about how to tell the difference between a Serbian girl and a Croatian girl. If you tell Croatian girl that she is pretty, she smiles. Say the same to a Serbian girl, and she scowls. What about the Bosnian girl? No jokes about her, but she is the third sister, the Cinderella of the region!

In Bosnia 28 June hundred years later Gavrilo is celebrated in the Serbian part as a hero (thanks to the famous director Emir Kusturica), while in Bosnian Sarajevo he is remembered as a terrorist.

The paradox of Balkan history is that killers become rulers, warriors become peacemakers, sisters become enemies then sisters again on new terms, and law exists mostly as a hoax to make this vicious circle seem like local politics as usual.

In Belgrade, Gavrilo Princip has his own road, which descends from the seven Belgrade hills, to the banks of the meeting point of two big rivers Sava and Danube. The flow of water unites the Balkan region in good and in bad: in recent tragic floods they were helping each other notwithstanding the ethnicity . Suppose that young Gavrilo Princip paid a compliment to the Croatian girl today, as well as to the Serbian and Bosnian one? Who would scowl, who would smile and who would pull the trigger?

Maybe those three girls could somehow offer this historic terrorist a chance to drop his gun, in a clinch between a kiss and a scowl, carrot and a stick, so that he can live in a country without borders instead of killing and dying for a song, a slogan and a bloodstained page in a history book.


(Image: Princip Gavrilo grafit, Magnus Manske, CC-BY-SA)