Sunday, 4 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

world-map bosnia


Still in Sarajevo, this week I travel out to the suburbs and then to the site where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. On the eve of Remembrance Sunday, it serves of a reminder of just how pointless and tragic war can be, and in Sarajevo such reminders come from wars far more recent than that of 1914-18. Lest we forget.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?




Ilidža, the end of the tramline, is a suburb of the capital these days although it was once a separate village entirely, built by the Austrians as a place to relax after a hard day’s work governing the Bosnians. It still is however, a place of pleasure, its thermal waters, which attracted both the Austrians and the Romans, providing the impetus for many a day tripper from the city but these days the tone is much more proletarian and when I alighted from my carriage I was assailed by a collection of shabby snack joints, bars and tat-laden shops. It was like a Bosnian Blackpool or Bognor.

Walking through the commercialism and over the river – the guidebook talked about a Roman bridge but the only ones I found all dated from the 1960s – the park was pleasant with shady trees, fountains and various hotels named after parts of the Austrian Empire. However, whilst it was all pleasant, it was also extremely Mitteleuropean and it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the country that surrounded it. It was clear that the Austrians had built the place as some sort of attempt at forgetting that they were in the backward and barbaric Balkans by creating a faux Hungarian spa. All in all, that didn’t sit quite right with me and what’s more, I wasn’t the first:

“‘But here is Ilidzhe, here is our marvellous Ilidzhe!” He leaped in one second from well-buttered reverie to shaking indignation. “Ilidzhe, our Potemkin village! They built it to show the foreign visitors how well they had imposed civilization on our barbarism, just as Potemkin built villages on the steppes to impress the foreign ambassadors with Russian prosperity, hollow villages that were built the day before and were pulled down the day after. Come, look at their civilization, at our barbarity!”… “I find this grotesquely unpleasing,” I said. “I did not bring you here to please you,” said Constantine, “when I take you to see things that were left by the Turks and Austrians it is not to please you, it is so that you shall understand.”… These people [the Austrians]… had come to Sarajevo, the town of a hundred mosques, to teach and not to learn.’[1]

Constantine and West were right, Ilidža doesn’t sit right because it is not Bosnian. If I’d come across the place in Slovakia say, then it would have been all good for that is where it was designed for, but here in the land of Ottoman mosques and Orthodox monasteries it didn’t quite fit in and was like a slightly discordant note in an otherwise beautiful symphony. And it was discordant because, as West said, it betrayed a mentality of railroading over the local norms and culture since that was clearly inferior in the eyes of the new governors. I realised too why I had also found the Mass at Sarajevo Cathedral so dissatisfying; it wasn’t that the church had been Catholic, more that it had been alien, an Austrian brushstroke smeared across a Balkan masterpiece.

Sadly, foreigners have held such attitudes about the Balkans ever since the advent of modernity. Andrew Hammond, in his introduction to the fascinating anthology of Balkan travel writing over four centuries, Through Another Europe states ‘Before the twentieth century, a sense of superiority was the most common response to the peoples and cultures of the region’[2] and that sadly, ‘The disparagement of South East Europe has persisted and actually reaches a climax in our own, supposedly more tolerant age.’[3]Sadly, I can only agree. I vividly remember reading Robert Carver’s travelogue on 1996 Albania, The Accursed Mountains and discovering a country so wild and lawless that it seemed more akin to the Congo than Croatia. I later learnt that it was all a gross exaggeration and when I gave one of my students the book to read, he was so offended that he promptly sent off a letter of protest to the publishing house. “Albania was bad in 1996,” he said, “I know that because I was there, but believe me, it was never that bad!” I only hope that I do not inadvertently carry on this sad tradition with my own musings.[4]

Despite its alien roots, the Bosnians have made Ilidža their own and the crowds enjoying the park were obviously less bothered about Austrian imperialism than I was. What’s more, I perked up too when I saw the official coach of the Bosnian National Football Team parked outside the main hotel, (I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Asmir Begovic, the aforementioned Stoke City keeper), but all the players were firmly ensconced within the luxury confines of the hotel itself, and so instead I took myself to the thermal spa – I am a long-time aficionado of such establishments; a sojourn in Japan does that to a man – where I booked in for a relaxing hour or two. This place however, a bland communist era hotel, proved disappointing; there was only an indoor pool and the water was tepid, not warm and so thoroughly unimpressed by Austria’s addition to Sarajevo’s leisure scene, I quickly took the tram back to the Stari Grad.


Sarajevo (4)

I dined again at Zeljo’s and then headed out to the railway station, a gloriously grand Titoist edifice near to the Holiday Inn, to organise tickets for my forthcoming trips out of the capital. That done I then returned to the centre and had a look at a site that I’d been meaning to investigate every since studying A-level European History under Mr. Cooper at Sixth Form.

On the 28th June, 1914, whilst on a visit to the city, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary, was shot dead just in front of the Latin Bridge by one Gavril Princip, a young Serbian nationalist. By itself, this was not such a remarkable event; people were regularly taking pot shots at members of the ruling families of Europe’s Great Powers during the early years of the twentieth century and often they were successful. This shooting however, mattered far more than all the others for it turned out to be the catalyst that sparked off World War I, the largest and bloodiest conflict that the world had even seen then, a conflict that claimed the lives of around forty million, resulted in a communist revolution in Russia, the collapse and dismemberment of the Russian Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, (including the incorporation of Bosnia into the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and creating a German Republic so humiliated and victimised that one young colonel named Adolf Hitler found cause and support to start an even bloodier and costlier war just over twenty years later in which he attempted to wipe out an entire race. In terms of world history, one can safely say that there are few spots on earth as important as this one.

The thing is, World War I was probably the most ridiculous war in history. It was ridiculous in its scale and in the suffering that it caused, but more than that, it was ridiculous in cause. It pitted countries with no deep-seated animosity against each other in a titanic duel to the death. And it was all so avoidable.

It was all a product of the Alliance System, a system ironically set up by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s. In those days Europe was where it was at and in Europe there were five Great Powers that mattered: Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Austro-Hungary. Obviously a whizz with Maths, Bismarck made a simple deduction: On your own you’re always vulnerable; potentially four-to-one, and thus one should therefore seek allies. And since there are only five powers, then so long as one has at least two allies, then everything is well, no one attacks the other and the Balance of Power is maintained. All his life he worked hard to maintain that status quo and as a result, Germany prospered. After his death though, it all went wrong.

What the simple Five Power Alliance System strategy did not take into account of however, were other alliances that the Great Powers might have with lesser nations. Bismarck once said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier but in the end they proved to cost far more than that. The reason was simple: in 1914 Germany found herself with only one ally, Austro-Hungary, whilst France and Russia sat in an opposing camp. Britain, in time-honoured fashion, had decided to keep out of European affairs, preferring to concentrate on ruling the rest of the world instead. Anyhow, on the 28th June, 1914, the aforementioned Gavril Princip, a member of the Serbian nationalist group ‘The Black Hand’, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Enraged, Austro-Hungary blamed Serbia. The Serbian government protested their innocence, stating that Princip was acting independently, but the Austrians, who rather fancied taking Serbia anyway, blamed the Serbians regardless and threatened to declare war. Unfortunately for them though, the Serbs, as Orthodox, were under the protection of Russia who promptly told Austro-Hungary that if they declared war on Serbia, then Russia would declare war on them. And here is where the Alliance System went awry, for Austro-Hungary went ahead and declared war on Serbia anyway and thus Russia then declared war on Austro-Hungary but because they were allied with the Austrians, then Germany declared war on Russia and because they were allied with the Russians, then France declared war on Germany. Thus Europe steeled itself for an almighty bun fight with only Britain uninvolved. But to win the war, the Germans knew that they had to knock out France quickly, (as they had done in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War), whilst the Russians were still mustering their troops from all over their vast and backward empire, before then turning their attentions to Moscow. But to knock out France quickly, they had to march through neutral Belgium which was had an alliance with Britain. And thus the moment that Belgian neutrality was violated, Britain too became involved and Germany faced Bismarck’s worst nightmare: a war of the five Great Powers, with Germany having only one ally. It was, in short, the classic mountain made out of the classic molehill.

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West dedicates two whole chapters, some sixty-four pages, to describing every detail of Franz Ferdinand’s last day in Sarajevo, attempting to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Archduke’s assassination was not only avoidable, but indeed that it was only possible due to an astonishing degree of incompetence from the Austrians detailed to protect the Archduke, and indeed she even goes to far as infer that certain elements in the Austrian establishment may have even wanted his death. She does all this with a certain degree of anger and exasperation which might surprise us as we tend to look at the events in a far more detached manner. But we forget, West was writing in the 1930s, less than twenty years after the slaughter had stopped and of a generation that was deeply scarred by the war. And too she was acutely aware that another war with Germany was looming on the horizon, a war in many ways caused by the nature of the end of the First World War. To someone in such a time and position, anger and exasperation that it could all have been prevented is indeed entirely understandable.

I however, am further removed. I only ever knew one man who fought in the conflict[5] and he died years ago. Therefore I could look at the events with a degree of detachment and even humour. I stood on the spot where it all happened and took some rather silly photos re-enacting that fateful day before then retiring to the small park over the Latin bridge for a coffee.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 388 Trans Balkan Trip 2011 387

Re-enacting the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand: Princip takes aim… fire! Oh no! A passer-by realises that Europe has been plunged into war!

Arriving in the hotel late after time in the internet café writing and researching my Višegrad story, I fell into conversation with a young man named Igor who turned out to be the youth coach of the Republika Srpska tennis team. I’d seen a lot of kids hanging around the hotel that morning wearing tracksuits with ‘REPUBLIKA SRPSKA’ emblazoned all over the back and remembered thinking that Sarajevo was not really the place for such attire, but chatting to Igor it all became clear.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina is one country,” he explained, “but we have two tennis federations. I am involved with the Republika Srpska one and we choose players and train as one federation but then we come here and play players from the Muslim-Croat Federation and the best players get picked for the national team.”

“So you never compete as Republika Srpska then?”

“Occasionally we do, in Serbia, Montenegro or perhaps Macedonia. But usually we are Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“But isn’t it hard for you to come here? I mean, I saw all your kids with Republika Srpska on the back of their tracksuits and I thought it was a bit strange, that it might make some of the locals angry…?”

“There have been moments it is true, but generally it is ok. They are kids after all and we have come to play tennis, not to start a war. I have more trouble with their parents, phoning all the time, worrying if they’re ok, if they’ve eaten enough or have enough clean clothes.”

“So in the national team who usually does better, Republika Srpska or the Federation?”

“This is tennis and we are Serbs. I need say no more than that.”

Igor’s reply may have sounded a little arrogant, but that arrogance was justified for the recent rise of Serbian tennis is a tale of some note. The tiny nation of just over seven million has, since the end of the Kosovo Conflict, produced players like Ana Ivanović (one French Open, former World Number One), Jelena Janković (former World Number One, one Wimbledon Mixed Doubles title), Jenko Tipsarević (current World Number Nine, World Doubles Number One and seven Doubles Open titles) and, most of all, Novak Đoković, the current World Number One with one Wimbledon title, one US Open and three Australian Open triumphs to his name – the last one won only the day before I wrote this! – and 2011 was unofficially named the Đoković Year. Oh yes, and in 2010 Serbia won the Davis Cup as well. So, Igor did have a right to be a tad arrogant, or at least proud, of the achievements of Serbian tennis although one must add that all those glories belong to Serbia itself. As of yet Republika Srpksa – and indeed Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole – hasn’t produced anyone very special.

All this reminded me strongly of a passage in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon when West is visiting a British-owned mine in Kosova and a Serbian professional tennis player comes to play the local British ex-pats.[6] Naturally, the Serb wins, he is a pro after all, but the fact that he is willing to spend time sparring with British amateurs demonstrates just how much the balance of power in the world of tennis has changed. Back then Britain won Wimbledon and the Serbs occasionally competed. Nowadays they win it and we merely host the damn thing.

We moved on to talk about Igor’s personal career. He told me that he’d had a brilliant youth career and had later turned pro. He recalled playing in the Bosnian Davis Cup team when he’d got to travel to such exotic destinations as Mauritius, Riga and Antalya, as well as competing once in the Australian Open. But when I asked him what was the hardest thing in tennis, his reply was not what I’d expected:

“It is turning pro after being a youth player. As a youth player your expenses are all paid yet as a pro you have to fund everything yourself and outside of that magical top thousand that is almost impossible, particularly when you’re from a poor country like Bosnia. That is why I gave it up in the end and that is why most players give up. Here in the Balkans we don’t have the Lawn Tennis Association to look after us you see.”[7]

Next part: Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley


Technorati Tags: travel,blog,matt pointon,bosnia herzegovina,sarajevo,bosniaks,muslim,christianity,islam,austria,austro-hungary,world war one,great war,archduke franz ferdinand,gavril princip,ilidza,balance of power,tennis,igor racic,novac djokovic,republika srpska,dayton accords,black lamb grey falcon,rebecca west

[1] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p. 386-90

[2] Through Another Europe, p.xi

[3] Through Another Europe, p.xiii

[4] Although in defence of many of the modern travel writers who have turned their attentions to the Balkans, during the 1990s it was extremely difficult to be positive about the former Yugoslavia and Albania.

[5] A former neighbour. He volunteered as an (underage) lad in 1914 and spent four years in the hell of the trenches, rising to the rank of sergeant. For the rest of his life he suffered from the sounds of explosions going off inside his head and he only got compensation when he was past ninety.

[6] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, p.946

[7] The man I met was Igor Racić who peaked at #904 in the world.

Black Night, Grey Falcon

[2] The Days of the Consuls, p.28

[3] Bradt Bosnia-Herzegovina, p.193

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