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Sarajevo’s old City Hall, the last place that Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie visited before being assassinated, is seen in Sarajevo June 24, 2014.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

In Sarajevo, they have been getting ready for the centennial commemoration of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The corner where it took place has been cordoned off with barriers; all day, film crews, local and foreign, take pictures of the plaque on the wall, the graceful arched Latin bridge nearby and the long esplanade that runs along the river. By coincidence, it is also the start of Ramadan, and this most Muslim of Balkan cities is already awake most of the night with the feasts that follow the day of abstinence.

I have been here for a couple of days for a symposium organized by the Carnegie Foundation, which has spent a century working for a peaceful world. It is hard to think of a more appropriate place at such a time. This, after all, is where the First World War started.

Others at the symposium, Michael Ignatieff among them, saw Sarajevo in the 1990s when so much of it lay in ruins. With help from outside, its citizens have rebuilt their city. If you look about, though, you can easily pick out the pockmarks from bullets and find the piles of rubble that were once buildings.

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(Sarajevo lies along a river valley, and its red-roofed houses climb up the hills. Serb artillery and snipers found perfect positions there from which to rain down mortar shells – 150 per day at the height – and pick off Sarajevans as they ran from corner to corner to try and find food or collect their children from schools.)

We were welcomed by the genial and imposing Grand Mufti of Sarajevo. The speakers – we were a thoroughly international mix of Bosnians, Canadians, Americans, a New Zealander, an Englishman and a Croatian – talked about war and peace. Did we offer any useful advice about how to avoid the first and keep the second? Who can tell, but we all stressed that we must never accept that either is inevitable.

What I learned in return from talking to locals is that commemorating even the far off past is difficult in the Balkans. In the Serb part of Bosnia and Serbia itself, Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed the Archduke, is widely seen as a heroic freedom fighter. Statues of him stand there and in Belgrade. In the rest of Bosnia, he is usually described as a terrorist.

Luckily, I have had some time to wander about among old Sarajevo's churches, mosques, market places, Ottoman fountains and schools, and its highly ornamented buildings from the Austrian period.

I saw the former city hall where the Archduke went after a bomb exploded under the car behind his as they drove in a procession through Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The old hall is now the National Library. In the fighting in the 1990s, Serb incendiary bombs set it on fire and much of Sarajevo's history went up in flames. A notice proudly proclaims that the library has been rebuilt, a tribute to Sarajevo's determination to survive. I also stood where the Archduke's car made that fatal wrong turning as it was leaving the city hall afterward, and headed by chance to where Princip happened to be standing.

I sat for some minutes in a café and drank the excellent local beer and watched people wandering by. They were doing what people do on a lovely sunny afternoon – shopping, bumping into friends and chatting. A tiny girl ran by followed by an anxious grandfather. Everyone was in summer clothes. The women tripped along on high-heeled sandals, a few wearing head scarves, but rather jaunty ones.

They were all getting on with life, but I could not help wondering what they would have been doing 20 years ago during Sarajevo's agony. I also thought – and certainly not for the first time – how much I loathe those who would divide us all up into mutually hating groups. On Saturday night (June 28), the Vienna Philharmonic will give a concert in the Town Hall. It's a good gesture.

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Margaret MacMillan is the author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 and the Warden of St Antony's College at Oxford University.

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