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My Turn: The ghost and legend that ignited the First World War

Last modified: 7/27/2014 1:06:34 AM
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, an action that would engulf Europe in a conflagration that turned the world upside down. All ignited by a ghost and a legend that culminated in the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand as he was riding through the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

When treating events leading to the First World War, we glide over the historical significance of that fateful date, June 28 – a date that has reverberated in Serb folklore and collective memory for over 600 years, as a memory of martyrdom, as a memory of defeat.

Why did Franz Ferdinand select that particular date to manifest Austro-Hungarian imperial domination over a smoldering center of Serb national unrest in the Balkans? Was Ferdinand not aware of the dangers involved in riding through a sensitive area in an open car?

Such an assassination was not a new experience in political life. Just a year before, in June 1913, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, the prime minister/minister of war of the Ottoman Empire was assassinated in his automobile while riding through the streets of Istanbul.

Shevket was no ordinary person in the eyes of the Austrian government. In 1905 he became governor of the strategic province of Kosovo. Austrian reform officers assigned to the Kosovo province for carrying out Mürzsteg gendarmerie reform considered him the exception among Turkish administrators because of his willingness to support their efforts.

Shevket, caught in the middle of local strife, could do little to solve differences amongst Albanian, Serb and Bulgarian nationalist groups. On one occasion, to ward off an Albanian threat to the city of Uskub/Skopje, Shevket established defenses to protect the Austrian contingent. Tension eased. Uskub returned to normalcy. For his service, Shevket received the Austrian Order of the Iron Cross First Class.

In face of a possible assassination attempt, why then did Ferdinand proceed to Sarajevo? Did he deliberately want to flaunt Austria’s imperial power over his subjects? Or did he and his advisers act through cultural ignorance or disregard of local folklore and intense national emotions surrounding that date?

For that was the day commemorating the June 1389 battle in the Balkans between Serb and Ottoman forces at Kosovo Polje (“Field of Blackbirds”). Both leaders, Serbian prince Lazar and the Ottoman sultan Murat I, were killed. With the death of the sultan, the Serbs, if they had so desired, could have claimed victory. But that was not the case. The event instead became a legendary tale of resistance to a foreign power, first to the Ottoman empire, secondly to the empire of Austria-Hungary, thirdly to Yugoslavia itself.

In this tangle of fact and fiction, much has been covered over – for example, the fate of the Serbs under the Ottomans immediately after 1389. In his research on Kosovo, Noel Malcolm points out that, in contrast to the total disaster usually depicted, Prince Lazar’s widow, Queen Milica, accepted Ottoman vassalage, an agreement endorsed by a council of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Her family complied with the arrangement and supplied Serbian military forces on several occasions to help the Ottoman cause in the Balkans.

Despite all that, Prince Lazar’s ghost and the legend of the Field of Blackbirds would pass on to the teenager Gavilo Princip through folklore and poetry. Vladimer Dedijer reports that John Reed, as he roamed through the Balkans before the First World War, found the Kosovo cycle of folklore epics very much alive: “Among the Serbs, every peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for. When he was a baby, his mother greeted him: ‘Hail, little avenger of Kosovo!’ ”

Did Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand alone cause the First World War? No. But it did set off the series of events that led to its beginning. Austria-Hungary saw the Sarajevo assassination as an opportunity to take action. Claiming the right of self-defense and need to punish the culprits, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

The rest is history.

As for the ghost and legend, they resonated years later with speeches of the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic at the Field of Blackbirds in 1987 and 1989 commemorating the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo.

Robert D. Kaplan captured the emotional fervor in his book Balkan Ghosts, A Journey through History. He describes the “melancholy, hill-top monument” that Milosevic had ordered built to commemorate the anniversary – the words of Lazar “written on a block of grim, blood-colored stone, about 100 feet high.” Milosevic pointed his finger in the distance: “ ‘They’ll never do this to you again. Never again will anyone defeat you.’

“At that moment, as the crowd roared, the Serbian revolt against the Yugoslav federation began: It soon spread laterally to the other republics.”

The coffin of the martyred Prince Lazar toured Serb towns and villages, drawing large crowds of mourners before returning to its original resting place in Ravanica.

Have Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia turned the corner? There is hope.

Centennial celebrations have been held this year. Yet there remain the legends and ghosts, and the unresolved animosities among sectarian hard-liners driven by ethnic and nationalist passions – passions that galvanized Gavilo Princip that June day in 1914. The day the world turned upside down.

(Glen W. Swanson lives in Peterborough.)


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