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Serbia officially endorsed what might be its most controversial historical figure on Sunday when it inaugurated a statue of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who fired the shot that started World War I, the AP reported. The unveiling came one year after a similar monument to Princip was installed in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
“Today, we are not afraid of the truth,” Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić, of the Radical Party, said at the ceremony. “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.” Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, also in attendance, said the statue symbolized the continued “fighting for freedom today.”
Princip was a member of Young Bosnia, a militant group that wanted Slavic independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On June 28, 1914, the 19-year-old shot the Hapsburg crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie while they were driving in Sarajevo. Austria immediately accused Serbia of orchestrating the murder, and with the help of Germany, it attacked Serbia. Serbian allies Russia and France fought back, and eventually Great Britain and the US were drawn into the fight. By the end of the war, Princip — along with 14 million people — had died.
Today, nearly 100 years after his death, Princip has become a symbol of a history he did not live to see. Many Bosnian Serbs remember him as an idealist who fought back against the Austro-Hungarian invader and so freed Slavic countries from its rule. Speaking to the BBC last year, Sarajevo Mayor Ljubisa Cosic argued that Princip is a hero to all Slavs, whether Serb, Muslim, or Croatian. “Our opinion is that he was not a terrorist. He had revolutionary ideas of liberty, not just for Serbs — he belonged to the Slavic movement,” he said.
But it might be difficult for others to embrace him. After the war, Bosnia was swallowed up by the new pan-Slavic state of Yugoslavia, where Bosnian Muslims and Croats soon became treated as second-class citizens (the former were not even recognized as an ethnic group until 1968). They now view Princip as a nationalistic terrorist who set in motion the events that led to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, when Serbian nationalists committed genocide against them.
“The consequences of [Princip’s] action were very bad for Bosnia,” Sarajevo resident Fedzad Forto told the BBC. “[The Austro-Hungarian emperors] were still much better rulers than the kingdom of Yugoslavia or communist Yugoslavia …. You can look at the historical records and see how Austria-Hungary cared about issues like the rule of law. We lost so much in 1918.”