Nationalist copyright on World War One

As we are entering the anniversary of the centenary with the outbreak of World War One, controversies over how to commemorate the past are heating up. A few day ago, I published comment  in the Austrian daily Die Presse on debates and controversies over the commemoration of World War One. As unfortunately these debates are mostly published in German (and Serbian) only. Thus, some key points and links here.

Anti-Serb propaganda postcard from Austria-Hungary

German anti-Serb propaganda postcard from WWI

In my comment, particularly focus on how in Serbia and in the Republika Srpska there is a fear that the established national narrative is challenged in the context of the centenary. This is also an aspect Norbert-Mappes Niediek and others have recently commented on. The most recent example was  dramatic press conference in Andrićgrad–the newly built ethnocity as a tribute to Andrić close to Višegrad–by Miroslav Perišić, the director of the Archive of Serbia and Emir Kustrica, director of the Andrić Institute and part-time movie director (the RS, the main founder of Andrićgrad also boycotts of the EU-France-led commemorations in Sarajevo in June 2014). At the press conference Perišić presented a letter by the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia 13 months before the war urging-preparing war against Serbia. The supposed “smoking gun” turned out not to be one. First, the Serbian translation did not match the German original and second, scholars were long aware that there were hawks in Austria-Hungary (as elsewhere) lobbying for war. In the case of Austria-Hungary, it was not only the author of the letter, Oskar Potiorek, but also the chief of staff of the army, Conrad von Hötzendorf, as explored in a recent excellent biography of Hötzendorf by Wolfgang Dornik, who lobbied for a “preventive war” against Serbia.  This does not mean that they were unopposed.

Le Petit Journal. July 12, 1914

Le Petit Journal. July 12, 1914

The fear of national(ist) historians is that new historiography will might shift the blame to Serbia for the outbreak of the war and the figure of Princip. Indeed, recent books on World War One move away from the long dominant thesis of Fritz Fischer that German’s quest for global power was the prime cause of the war. The bestseller Sleepwalkers by Christoper Clark  in particular locates the responsibility in all the major European capitals were key actors openly heading towards war (thus the title of the book is a bit misleading). However, the book also too easily links Serb nationalism in 1914 to the 1990s, as Andreas Ernst recently noted in the NZZ and thus also is careless in linking the interpretation of World War One to the recent past. This is exactly the implicit and explicit concern in Serbia, namely that the responsibility of Serbian nationalism for World War One also established guilt for the wars of the 1990s. However, interpreting the two events have to be kept apart to not fall into the trap of an ahistorical analysis of actors and specific circumstances.

The question over the monopoly of interpreting the war also effects the effort to have a scholarly debate over the war. The main academic conference on the war, “The Great War: Regional Approaches and Global Contexts”, to be held from 19-21.6.2014 in Sarajevo (disclaimer: I am a member of the organizing committee) was attacked for seeking to reinterpret the past. The former Bosnian ambassador to France and Egypt Slobodan Šoja, for example complained that the conference only brings together the losers of the war (the organizing committee includes research institutions from Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Hungary) and would not give sufficient honor to Gavrilo Princip, whom he had described in a hagiography of Princip in Slobodna Bosna as the “purest source of national power and its consciousness.” Of course, historiography should be neither concerned with determining whether Princip is a hero (or a terrorist for that matter). These controversies suggest that much of the discussion during the upcoming commemorations will not be shaped by reflecting on the past, but making use of the past for the present. As such, the present is catching up with the past.


Commemorating Gavrilo Princip in Socialist Yugoslavia:
“From this place on 28.6.1914 Gavrilo Princip through his shots expressed the people’s protest against tyranny and centuries-long aspiration of our peoples for freedom.”

8 Responses to Nationalist copyright on World War One

  1. Pingback: “Nationalist Copyright on WW1?” | delirium clemens

  2. Zoran Sretic says:

    “Preventive” war against Serbia and “part-time movie” director? For to be an expert for Balkans you need to be cynical I guess? Well the cause of WWI, what ever it may be, I just hope that atrocities that ensued after invasion of Serbia and all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Serbian population will not be qualified as mere anti-nationalist campaign.

  3. Florian Bieber says:

    Zoran, I used the term ‘preventive war’, because this was the term used at the time. I do not wish to justify this concept in any way–the idea of a ‘preventive war’ was promoted by war mongers in Austria-Hungary, in particular Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of staff.

  4. Pingback: Florian Bieber za list Die Presse o konferenciji | The Great War: Regional Approaches and Global Contexts

  5. Josephine Peabody says:

    To be fair to the historical records, nationalism expressed in 1914 was so called ‘yugoslavian’ as written in the transcripts from hearing and court litig. held aginst assasinators of the Ferdinand, while 1990 nationalism marked re-awakening of the serbian idea as in the Balkan wars mid 19th century. I can’t see parallel but only not deep enough analyses fed by poor newspaper sources instead of the historically accurate sources. To your credit many of serbian nationalists of today seems to be equally poorly educated and try to promote G. Princip as big Serbian netionalist and hero, while he declared himself as Serbo-Croat and confirmed he did it for the idea of yugoslavian growth.

  6. terraborealis says:

    Your translation of the original commemoration plaque contains one significant inaccuracy. The word “people” in “…aspiration of our people for freedom” should read “peoples”. The pronoun “nasih” indicates plural. Peoples, as in Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, etc. This is important as Princip was primarily a Yugoslav nationalist.

  7. Pingback: 10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014 | Florian Bieber

Leave a Reply to terraborealis Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: