Updated: Friday, 03 January 2014 12:26 | By Agence France-Presse

WWI centenary stirs Balkan passions

Former foes from World War I will come together in Sarajevo to mark the war's centenary in June, their rivalries long buried though the conflict is still a source of bitter division in the Balkans. 

WWI centenary stirs Balkan passions

Officers arrest Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Empire of Austria-Hungary, while on visit to Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914

As schoolchildren are taught the world over, the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, was the trigger for the Great War. 

Although the underlying causes of the 1914-18 conflict are well known -- simmering tensions between rival blocs, bound by a complex network of alliances -- Serbs remain highly sensitive about Gavrilo Princip's role.

Next June, some 130 historians from 30 countries will gather in Sarajevo -- the mostly Muslim capital of Bosnia -- to confront their visions at an international conference on World War I.

In both Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia, politicians see the conference as an attempt to "revise history" -- and lay the blame for the war, with its 10 million dead on the battlefields and millions more among civilian populations , on the shoulders of the Serb pepole.

"Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor it will forget who are the main culprits in World War I," Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic warned in an interview with AFP.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has also slammed European plans for a series of memorial events to be held in Sarajevo in June 2014.

Preparations are already afoot with a foundation called "Sarajevo, heart of Europe", set up by France with co-funding from its former foe Germany, to mark the centenary with a mix of culture, sport and memorial events.

Dodik charged that the events would be "a new propaganda attack against the Serbs... falsifying history." 

France's ambassador to Bosnia Roland Gilles said the concerns were unfounded.

"The idea is simply to meet and gather, especially younger generations, and say, look, the only path ahead for the coming centuries is to live together in peace and reconciliation," Gilles told Bosnian television.

Cast as a Serbian 'terrorist'

The Sarajevo historians' conference is being organised by Husnija Kamberovic of the city's Institute of History, himself a Bosnian Muslim.

"After 100 years, it is time to re-examine everything related to World War I. The assassination on the eve of the war, the background to the assassination... without suggesting an answer," he told AFP.

"There are no topics we cannot discuss."

In Yugoslav history books, Princip was described for decades as a heroic freedom fighter whose act was an "expression of popular protest against the tyranny" of the Hapsburg empire over the Balkans.

Since the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, however, cracks have appeared in that story.

Princip's hero image is intact in both Serbia and in Republika Srpska.

But in Sarajevo, his cause is portrayed as an ethnic one: Princip is cast as a Serbian "terrorist", and likened to the Serbs who were pitted against Muslim Bosniaks and Croats in the bloody 1992-1995 Bosnian war.

Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic firmly rejects that view.

"He was a Yugoslav nationalist," she told AFP. "Members of the same movement were also Muslims, Croats and Serbs who fought against the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

She says Princip is unfortunately a "perfect figure for political exploitation."

Belgrade politicians are keen to stress the cruel wartime sacrifices of Serbia, which fought alongside France, Britain and Russia against the Central Powers led by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

Some 15 percent of Serbia's population was lost -- 125,000 military and 650,000 civilians through disease and privation -- making it the country worst hit by the war proportionally to its population, according to the British historian John Keegan.

"There can be no reconciliation to the detriment of truth and justice... We cannot remain indifferent," said Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

Dodik meanwhile says he intends to organise a separate "international conference to present the truth and facts" related to the Great War.

He said he would be joined by the Serbian director of Bosnian origin, Emir Kusturica, who plans to shoot a movie about the archduke's assassination to "show the story as it really was."

"Princip defended the idea of ​​freedom... He killed an aggressor," Kusturica said in a recent Bosnian Serb television interview.

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