There is a fascinating story out this week that reminds us of how people can view history and violence in vastly different ways, including attacks of terrorism or assassination. Take Gavrilo Princip. Most of the world view him as a fanatic who triggered World War I with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, Serbia just honored him with a statue — commemorated by President Tomislav Nikolic, who heralded Princip as a freedom fighter and hero.
The statue was unveiled at a ceremony in central Belgrade on the Serbian national holiday of St. Vitus Day (or Vidovdan). Nikolic declared “Today, we are not afraid of the truth. Gavrilo Princip was a hero, a symbol of the idea of freedom, the assassin of tyrants and the carrier of the European idea of liberation from slavery,” adding that “others can think whatever they want.”
That is not how he was viewed of course at his arrest and the bloody aftermath. He was a member of Young Bosnia with ties to the Serbian extremist group Black Hand. He lived to see the aftermath of his murder in the slaughterhouse of the trenches of World War I. He died in prison of tuberculosis in 1918. However, his action did succeed in ultimately destroying the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Yet from 1914 to 1918, Serbia would lose between 300,000-450,000 military deaths and between 450,000-800,000 civilian deaths. That constituted as much as 28% of its total population.
For Serbs, Gavrilo Princip resisted an occupation and authoritarian government by killing a dictator. For the world, he was an assassin. Few would have anticipated however that his actions would lead to the bloodbath of the Great War, including Princip. It would have been interesting to know if he felt the loss of up to 28 percent of the Serbian population and millions of killed and wounded worldwide was worth the cost to overthrow the Austro-Hungarian. He was only 19 years old.
Princip’s life is a tragic reflection of the time. His parents were serfs or “kmets” under abusive Muslim landlords. He was one of nine children, six of whom died in infancy. Before becoming an assassin, he fought in the Herzegovina Uprising against the Ottoman Empire and later worked a small plot of land as a farmer and had to give up one-third of his income away to his landlord. He later joined Young Bosnia to fight to separate Bosnia from Austria-Hungary and unite it with the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia. In the end, he saw the killing of the Archduke as a necessary moral and political act. Many appear to agree today with that judgment.
It is interesting however to see a head of state honor an assassin since many in Serbia could view his death as a morally correct act. Indeed, ISIS and others maintain precisely that type of moral reasoning.