SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — A century after Gavrilo Princip ignited World War I with a shot from his handgun, the baby-faced Serb teenager who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian crown prince in Sarajevo in 1914 still provokes controversy.
His legacy has been molded time and again to meet political agendas in the Balkans, which remains a smoldering patchwork of ethnic and religious rivalries.
Nikola Princip crossed himself and stood silently recently in front of a Sarajevo chapel plaque that read “The Heroes of St. Vitus Day.” The list starts with Gavrilo Princip’s name for the assassination he carried out on that sacred Serb holiday of June 28 – 100 years ago Saturday.
“He lived and died for his ideas to liberate and unite the southern Slavs. May he rest in peace,” the 81-year-old man said, lighting a candle.
A few blocks away, another plaque marks the spot where Princip killed Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand. There, Halida Basic, a 72 year-old Bosnian Muslim, has a different view.
“He was a killer, a terrorist. He did it because he wanted Bosnia to be part of Greater Serbia,” she said.
Barely a month after the 19-year-old fired his shots, Europe, and eventually the world, was at war.
Austria accused Serbia of masterminding the assassination. Backed by Germany, Austria attacked Serbia, whose allies, Russia and France, were quickly drawn in. Britain, its sprawling Commonwealth empire and the United States also joined the fighting.
When the mass slaughter known as the Great War ended in 1918, it had claimed some 14 million lives – 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen – and left another 7 million troops permanently disabled.
For his part, Princip was immediately arrested and died in captivity months before the war ended.
With the centenary remembrance of the assassination approaching in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the old entrenched positions are resurfacing.
“Gavrilo Princip will, just like the past 100 years, remain a hero for some and a terrorist to others,” said the head of the Sarajevo History Institute, Husnija Kamberovic. “It is a matter of feelings toward what he did, and not a matter of serious historical arguments.”
The split follows Bosnia’s ethnic divisions.
Christian Orthodox Serbs celebrate Princip as someone who saw Bosnia as part of the Serb national territory. The same idea inspired the Serbs in 1992 to fight the decision by Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats to declare the former republic of Bosnia independent when Serb-dominated Yugoslavia fell apart.
In Serb history books, the “great liberation act” of Princip and his comrades is described for over 20 pages.
“They were heroes who were ready to sacrifice their own lives for freedom and liberation,” said Jovan Medosevic, a primary school history teacher in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale, near Sarajevo.
That’s exactly what makes Princip unpopular among Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats. In their official textbooks, Princip is mentioned in just one sentence as a member of a secret terrorist organization who “did not assassinate Franz Ferdinand to liberate Bosnia from the occupier, but wanted Bosnia to become a part of Kingdom of Serbia,” high school student Ermin Lazovic said.
A century ago, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats preferred to stay in the big Austrian empire that had brought progress, law and order. Serbia was already in the process of destroying all mosques on its territory after it had liberated itself from the Ottoman Empire.
Accordingly, authorities in the Serb part of Bosnia plan to erect a monument to Princip and refuse to take part in the planned commemorations in Muslim Bosnian-dominated Sarajevo.
For the Serbs, it is beyond doubt that Austria and Germany were the instigators of World War I, not Princip or the Serbs.
The Sarajevo commemoration includes a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and an international historical conference at which no Serb academics will attend.
“We have no new facts and we can only reinterpret old documents,” Bosnian Serb historian Draga Mastilovic said. “So are we now supposed to accept the Austro-Hungarian position that Serbia caused that war?”
He said he understood why Germans and Austrians want to promote their version of events. “It is not easy to carry the burden of having caused two world-wide bloodbaths in the 20th century,” he said.
For Kamberovic, the professor organizing the conference in Sarajevo, everything is open for academic review.
“People who accuse us of trying to revise history before the conference has even started are aware that we do intend to open discussions they do not really like,” he said.
“We will talk about how much the expansionist policy of the German monarchy has contributed — but also how much the expansionist policy of Serbia toward Bosnia has contributed to the outbreak of that war,” he said.
A Bosnian rock group has even written a song about the sunny morning in 1914 when, according to their lyrics, Princip became a “hero to some, a criminal to others, while probably his own soul is still wandering, somewhere in between.”
Fixing the flower arrangement he laid in front of the little chapel in Sarajevo, Nikola Princip admitted he had a personal stake in the debate.
“Gavrilo Princip was my uncle,” he said.