Mihailo Papazoglu is the ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to Canada.
Sarajevo, Bosnia, 28 June 1914: After some 400 years under Turkish Ottoman and almost 40 under Austro-Hungarian occupation, people of some dozen nationalities shared the same dream of freedom. Gavrilo Princip was among them when he fired two shots at Austria-Hungary’s Crown Prince. For many of his countrymen he is a freedom fighter.
Belgrade, Serbia, 28 July 1914: Just one month later, the first artillery shells in First World War began to fall on the city’s Danube and Sava river banks and neighbourhoods under the hot, burning summer sun. For Serbia this is the end of a month-long diplomatic prelude that started with Mr. Princip’s shots, followed by a written 48-hour ultimatum delivered to Serbia, a nation of 5 million, by Austro-Hungary, an empire of 52 million. There was nowhere to hide. The declaration of war was sent by a telegraph message. The term “blitzkrieg” had not yet been coined, but a punitive military campaign in the Balkans was imminent.
You’ve probably never heard of Dusan Donovic. A sixteen-year-old Serbian Army volunteer shot in Belgrade by gunfire from an Austrian Danube flotilla vessel that day, he was the first victim of WWI. He died like 1,250,000 other Serbs – a death toll amounting to 28 per cent of population, both soldiers and civilians. Maybe you’ve heard of George Lawrence Price? Born in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, aged twenty six, fatally shot by a German sniper at 10:58 a.m. on November 11, 1918. He died just 2 minutes before the armistice that ended the war, making him the last victim of WWI. He died like 61,000 fellow Canadians. Like 17 million people in Europe and around the world.
In between, we Serbs fought. For one year on our soil, on our frontiers, mostly alone. The first allied victory took place in Serbia, in the mountains of Cer. Then the second one in Kolubara, almost like the battle of Vimy Ridge. This success drew worldwide attention to Serbia and won the Serbs the sympathy of both neutral and Allied countries, as it marked their first victory over the Central Powers. The next year we had our share of defeats. Belgrade, the capital, was the last stand for more than 2,600 Serbian Army soldiers, aware of the fact that their names had already been erased from the list of the living by the Serbian Army’s headquarters – left behind as an ultimate sacrifice. Not to be forgotten. Ask any kid in Serbia today about this episode of war – they know it!
For those three years of war in exile we lost a country – but saved the idea of Serbian statehood. The population was left to the occupiers, but we saved the nation. We never lost faith. Finally, along with the allies, in 1918 we were free.
And what was Gavrilo Princip doing at that time? He was imprisoned in the dungeon of the fortress in Theresienstadt (Terezin in today’s Czech Republic) that was later used, during the Second World War, as a Nazi concentration camp for more than 150,000 civilians, most of whom were sent to death in extermination camps elsewere but some 33,000 of whom died there from starvation or disease. They shared the fate of Mr. Princip, who officially died from tuberculosis, with his arm and shoulder amputated.
An underage, self-proclaimed freedom fighter, he never got to see the Armistice in 1918 and the national liberation he gave his life for. He died six months earlier and was secretly buried, so that his body is never to be found. This leaves no empathy, no nostalgia, no second thoughts about the Austro-Hungarian institutions’ operational mode. Why did it all happen? Simply because he refused to switch from being a Turkish Ottoman to a Kaiserlich und Königlich colonial subject, from a Middle East model of apartheid to a Mitteleuropa one.
Gavrilo Princip had a pistol. Just one. He himself was a trigger. bit the stage was set long before the bloodshed began. For the colonial empires of the time, their era was about to finish. The Serbs fought against a couple of those empires. To survive. For the right to exist. We fought bravely. Like others. We fought to see another day. We are still standing, proudly, with no lessons to give to anybody. Especially not to history. Just for the record.
Serbia and Canada fought on the same side of history. For the right cause. The aftermath of the First World War led Canada to a sense of full independence and Serbia to full self-confidence in the international arena of that time. Serbia, along with others, paid a high price in human lives during the Great War. Never to recover, as some say. Collective memory of the First World War became the cornerstone of our respective nations’ identities.
History made Serbia and Canada allies in both world wars. Modern world and globalization made us neighbours. Let’s make the future seal this partnership.