June 28, 2014 7:00 pm

Bosnia marks moment when World War I started 100 years ago

This April 4, 2014 photo shows a reproduction of a London newspaper front page from 1914, which writes about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. On the last Sunday of June in 1914, a 19-year-old student fired two pistol shots that killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. The echoes of those shots have never really died away. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Charlie Riedel

SARAJEVO – Artists and diplomats declared a new century of peace and unity in Europe on Saturday in the city where the first two shots of World War I were fired exactly 100 years ago.

On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, where he had come to inspect his occupying troops in the empire’s eastern province.

The shots fired by Serb teenager Gavrilo Princip sparked the Great War, which was followed decades later by a second world conflict. Together the two wars cost some 80 million European their lives, ended four empires – including the Austro-Hungarian – and changed the world forever.

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READ MORE: Bosnian Serbs erect statue of assassin who ignited WWI

Visiting the assassination site Saturday, Sarajevan Davud Bajramovic, 67, said that in order to hold a second of silence for every person killed just during WWI in Europe, “we would have to stand silently for two years.”

A century later, Sarajevans again crowded the same street along the river where Princip fired his shots. And the Austrians were also back, but this time with music instead of military: The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was scheduled to perform works of European composers reflecting the century’s catastrophic events and conclude with a symbol of unity in Europe – the joint European hymn, Beethoven’s “Ode of Joy.”

The orchestra wanted to pay tribute to the history of Sarajevo, a place where religions meet, said the first violinist, Clemens Hellberg.

Austrian President Heinz Fischer said Europeans “have learnt that no problem can be solved by war.”

The continent’s violent century started in Sarajevo and ended in Sarajevo with the 1992-95 war that took 100,000 Bosnian lives.

“If anything good can be found in this repeating evil, it’s more wisdom and readiness to build peace and achieve peace after a century of wars,” said Bosnia’s president, Bakir Izetbegovic.

The splurge of centennial concerts, speeches, lectures and exhibitions on Saturday were mostly focused on creating lasting peace and promoting unity in a country that is still struggling with similar divisions as it did 100 years ago. The rift was manifested by the Serbs marking the centennial by themselves in the part of Bosnia they control, where a performance re-enacted the assassination.

READ MORE: European leaders mark 100th anniversary of start of World War I

As Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Moest raised his baton in Sarajevo, an actor playing Gavrilo Princip descending from heaven on angel’s wings, raised his pistol in the eastern town of Visegrad, at the border to Serbia, to kill Franz Ferdinand again in a spectacular performance designed for the occasion.

For the Serbs, Princip was a hero who saw Bosnia as part of the Serb national territory at a time when the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His shots were a chance for them to include Bosnia into the neighbouring Serbian kingdom – the same idea that inspired the Serbs in 1992 to fight the decision by Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats to declare the former republic of Bosnia independent when Serb-dominated Yugoslavia fell apart.

Their desire is still to include the part of Bosnia they control into neighbouring Serbia. Serbia itself flirts with both – the EU opposed unification with the Bosnian Serbs and its own EU membership candidacy.

Serbian crown prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, President Tomislav Nikolic and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej attended the ceremony in Visegrad where Serbian flags flew and the Serbian anthem was played although the town is in Bosnia.

Vucic said he was proud because in Visegrad “the Serbs are protecting their good reputation.”

In Sarajevo, French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henry Levy said Europe owes Bosnia because it “stood idly by” as Serb nationalists bombed besieged multiethnic Sarajevo for 3.5 years. Levy started a petition Saturday among European intellectuals requesting the EU to “pay Bosnia back” by promptly giving it full membership in the European Union because it defended European values by itself 20 years ago.

“What Europe will gain from Bosnia is part of its spirit, part of its soul,” he said, referring to efforts of some Bosnians to preserve the multiethnic character of the country and resist national division.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former hard-line nationalist-turned pro-EU reformer, previously said he considered going to Sarajevo for the centennial but gave up after realizing he would have to stand beside a plaque depicting Serbs as criminals.

Indeed, a plaque at the entrance of the recently reconstructed Sarajevo National Library building where the concert was taking place states “Serb criminals” had set the library ablaze in 1992 along with its two million books, magazines and manuscripts.

Karl von Habsburg, the grandson of the last Austrian emperor Charles I, was also attending the ceremonies.

“We need united Europe and one thing is for sure: Europe will never be complete without Bosnia,” he stated.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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