World War I Conference in Sarajevo Triggers Ethnic Tensions

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tags: World War I



This week, scholars from the United States and 25 other countries will gather in Sarajevo to mark the centennial of World War I.

Entitled "The Great War: Regional Approaches and Global Contexts," the conference is meant to expand and elevate the historical discussion about the war and its outbreak 100 years ago this month. The anniversary has been widely featured in European media.

But rather than a respectful salutation of Europe’s triumph over parochial nationalism, the conference has triggered an ethnic firestorm in the Balkans that has reached the highest political circles. The controversy speaks to how the scholarly interpretation of a crucial turning point like the Great War remains disputed and entangled in present-day politics...

Revisionist History?

Nationalist Serbs have called the conference "biased" against Serbia. They fear that a revisionist history of World War I is laying the blame for the war, which claimed 37 million lives, at their feet. The controversy has so piqued the Serbs that political figures like Ivica Dacic, a former Serbian prime minister, and Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, have joined the fracas. "Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor will it forget who are the main culprits in World War I," said Mr. Dacic. Mr. Dodik called the conference "a new propaganda attack against the Serbs."

The antipathies that have flickered over the conference have their roots in the complicated and tangled ethnic identities in the Balkans. The choice of Sarajevo for the conference, for example, was loaded from the very beginning. It was in the Bosnian capital in June 1914—exactly 100 years ago—that Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, an event that triggered a chain reaction leading to World War I.

Princip’s nationalist politics and the Serbs’ role in the war remain highly contentious issues with wide-ranging implications, particularly in the ethnically mixed Balkans. The Serbs tend to consider Princip a hero who struck a blow against the repressive Habsburg monarchy, which ruled Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time. In recognition of the centennial, monuments to Princip are being constructed in downtown Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and in Serb-dominated eastern Sarajevo.

Mr. Soja, the Bosnian Serb diplomat, explicitly complained that the conference brings together the "losers of the war." (Universities from Austria, Hungary, and Germany are among the organizers). Mr. Soja says this alliance of countries will fail to afford Princip the honor he deserves. Although opinions are in no way hegemonic, most historians from the region and elsewhere in Europe tend to see Princip as a terrorist, not a hero...





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