It’s not every day I can open the column from such an exotic location as Sarajevo. I am sitting in a small cafe opposite the very bridge where Gavrilo Princip, the young Serb radical, assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, triggering a sequence of events leading to World War I.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of that war which involved more Irish soldiers than any war before or since. Over 80,000 Irish soldiers were killed and many thousands more were injured.
Here on this tiny bridge, the Latin Bridge, is where it all started.
But yet it could all have been so different.
The archduke had actually survived an assassination attempt earlier in the day when some of Princip’s cohorts had thrown a bomb at the imperial cortege which detonated but didn’t harm Franz Ferdinand.
Princip thought his chance has gone. Disappointed and hungry (as it was after lunch and he had been up early) he went for a sandwich at the cafe opposite the Latin Bridge, the Moritz Schiller cafe.
Unbeknownst to him, Franz Ferdinand told his driver to restart the cavalcade when the dust had settled but the Viennese driver didn’t know Sarajevo well and went up a one-way street.
In the confusion, the cortege got stuck between the bridge and a narrow street. Princip was sitting in the window of the cafe on a baking hot June afternoon, munching on his sandwich ruing his missed opportunity.
He couldn’t believe his luck as he looked out the window. There was his prey, five feet away from him, stuck in traffic. He calmly put down his sandwich, walked over from the terrace and shot the archduke.
Imagine that Princip had decided to go into another cafe? There would have been no sandwich and without the sandwich, there would have been no shooting and without the shooting, could 50,000 southern Irish soldiers and 36,000 Northern Irish soldiers been saved?
We don’t know. But the “what if” approach to history is always intriguing.
We are regularly taught that the war came almost out of nowhere.
However, that version doesn’t really tell the full story. The Serbs – driven by their recurring dream of a Greater Serbia – had been goading the Austrians for some time. I have just finished a wonderful book on the era, ‘The Sleepwalkers’ by Christopher Clarke, which documents the rise of extreme Serb nationalists who operated almost on licence from Belgrade.
Serbia calculated that it could coax the Austrians into another “limited” Balkan War. It proved to be a fatal gamble. Once the Germans decided to give the Austrians a “blank cheque” in terms of supporting whatever action Austria took in retaliation, the dominos were set to fall.
And so shots in Sarajevo, not five metres from where I am sitting now, led my relations in 1914 to board a ship from Dublin to fight in the muck and the filth of Flanders.
Sarajevo has remained a tinder box for decades. It erupted again in 1992, as Yugoslavia disintegrated. Once again, Serb nationalists took up arms, this time against a largely unarmed Muslim population, following a democratic vote for Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.
The horrific memories of the last war are never far away, from the bullet holes still in the buildings, to the harrowing memorial to the 1,700 children murdered in the siege of Sarajevo. The scars of the 1992-1995 war and the attempted genocide of the Muslim people of Bosnia are everywhere.
Like many emerging post-socialist European states, today Bosnia also suffers from very high levels of youth unemployment, income is falling and the political class is widely seen as siphoning off the goodies for themselves.
As a result of the war, everything is still seen through the ethnic prism. My friends here are a hotch- potch of everything: half-Serb, half- Muslim, with a Croat grandmother is not untypical. But my friends are the product of Yugoslavia – and those days are long gone.
However, the one bright shining star this year for Bosnia is its ethnically mixed and very brilliant football team who have qualified for the World Cup and will take their place amongst the greats in Brazil this June. For those of us who like the beautiful game, there was no better exponent of it in Europe than the brilliant Yugoslav teams of the 1980s and early 1990s. They were known as “the Brazilians of Europe”. Had they not been ejected from the 1992 European Championship, most people believe they would have won the competition in a canter.
Under the eye of the great former Yugoslav player Safet Susic, the Bosnian team play this exciting attacking football which is based on the notion that “if you score four, we will score five”. It is a joy to watch, but is a rollercoaster for the fans because the brilliant attacking in front of goal can be negated by an attitude to defence which could be described as “leaky” at best.
The football team has unified the country and is wholeheartedly supported by Muslims in Sarajevo, Croats in Mostar and Serbs in Banja Luka.
During the break-up of Yugoslavia, political tensions were often played out on the football pitch as fans (and players) of Dynamo Zagreb ran running battles with fans of Red Star Belgrade. It is lovely to see a team do the opposite.
We know in Ireland what impact a successful national team can have on the psyche. Imagine what a successful unified Bosnian team can do.
As a neutral in the World Cup, I for one will be supporting Bosnia, not only because they play the beautiful game but because of what it would symbolise for Zvjezdan Misimovic (an ethnic Serb and Bosnia’s most capped player) to put Man City’s Edin Dzeko (an ethnic Muslim and Bosnia’s record goal scorer) through to score in the opening game of the Brazil World Cup.
David McWilliams writes daily on international economics and finance at www.globalmacro360.com