The assassination of Franz Ferdinand
One morning in Sarajevo
Sep 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition
One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914
By David James Smith
Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 336 pages; £18.99
THE rebellious Slav subjects of the sclerotic Habsburg monarchy called it the “graveyard of nations”. However, for most people in the east and south of the Austro-Hungarian empire the early years of the 20th century were, in retrospect, a golden age: peaceful and law-governed in a way that contrasts poignantly with the totalitarian decades that followed. The great pity is that Emperor Franz Josef II, who ruled the empire from 1848 to 1916, enjoyed robust good health, living to the overripe old age of 86 and blocking the changes that modernity required of his country. Under a different monarch with a more reformist bent, the empire might have survived for many happy decades more.
The shots that killed the heir-apparent to the imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 unleashed the destruction of the Habsburg empire, the most advanced multicultural and multi-ethnic state that Europe had ever seen. The imperial government in Vienna believed that the assassination was a Serb-backed plot; an ultimatum was followed by war; Russia came to Serbia’s defence, Germany to Austria’s, France to Russia’s and so on. A Balkan squabble about Bosnia-Herzegovina, a province grabbed by the Habsburgs from the declining Ottoman empire, caused the destruction of a whole world.
It is not only those who hanker for the Pax Habsburgiana who find the story of the assassination gripping. It also has echoes of present-day terrorism. Self-obsessed youngsters from middle-class families, convinced of the rightness of their muddled nihilistic creed, raging at the unfairness of the grown-ups’ world, and willing to murder those who represent it: the conspirators of 1914 had at least something in common with today’s Islamist terrorists. They also planned to commit suicide, in order that their plot’s secrets would die with them.
David James Smith tries to paint the story of the Sarajevo murders on a wide canvas. His book is the story not only of seedy, neurotic drifters, but also of the clash of civilisations: Russian revolutionary and anarchist ideas, mixed with the fervid myths of Serbian nationalism, against the stifling, snobbish autocracy of the dual monarchy. Poignant ironies abound. One of the main goals of the self-professed revolutionary socialists was to create a south-Slav state—under a Serbian monarch, no less. Nothing very left-wing about that. After the assassination, most Sarajevans were distraught, not ecstatic. Loyal Muslim and Catholic citizens rioted side-by-side against the treacherous Serbs. (Islam in those days was a private affair, not a political one.)
And the archduke, although foul-tempered, and bloodthirsty when it came to hunting, was a notable dove when it came to Serbia. He supported equal rights for the southern Slavs within the empire and raged against the protocol-ridden royal court. It is only a minor exaggeration to say that Gavrilo Princip and his pals shot the one man who could have brought prosperity and freedom to the people that the archduke cared most about. “If it hadn’t been for them we’d still be in Austria,” says a cross taxi-driver in modern-day Sarajevo, when asked about a memorial to the conspirators.
Sadly, the author seems to miss the point of that, and much else. The book uncritically recycles the Serbian romantic (and largely invented) version of history. It crams the complex politics of the time into a straitjacket of modern political correctness: empires are bad and freedom fighters good. The potted history is garbled in places, and the book is peppered with tiresome errors of fact and transcription. Rebecca West, a British author, published her epic book on Yugoslavia in 1941, so certainly did not research it in the “1940s”. Pijemont may be the Bosnian word for the Italian province of Piedmont, but is unlikely to mean much to the English-speaking reader. The book would have benefited from better editing and proofreading. The Croatian wartime fascists were “Ustashi” not “Utasa”. Flippant jokes about Freemasons, bizarre punctuation and leaden travelogue about the roast lamb that the author ate for lunch add to the reader’s feeling of frustration.
Most of the book, as Mr Smith acknowledges, is based on other people’s scholarly efforts. His own research, particularly in tracking down relatives of the assassins and those who knew them, is commendable. Yet even when Mr Smith finds the conspirators’ memorial in a neglected Sarajevo graveyard, he seems to miss the irony of the inscription on it: a line by a famous Montenegrin poet-prince that says, roughly, that being remembered makes you live for ever. Does living in infamy count?