Monumental Exchange. My hero, your terrorist.

A couple of years ago, Benedict Anderson visted Graz to give a talk on Why we believe our nation is good. I had the pleasure to take him on a city tour before the talk. On the Schlossberg, we looked at the monuments to different causes, commemorating resistance to Napoleon and commemorating the so-called “Kärtner Abwehrkampf”, i.e. the conflict between Austrian troops and troops of the State of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes over the border of Carinthia, settled later in a referendum. 662px-Graz_Schloßberg_Gedenkstein_an_den_Kärntner_Abwehrkampf

On this sunny October day, he remarked poignantly that it is probably only scholars of nationalism that notice these monuments, whereas ordinary citizens walk past and ignore these monuments to an era that seems of little relevance today. To some degree, this is a relief, as most European cityscapes are littered with tributes in the form of monuments and street names to people whose contribution to the nation seems rather dubious today ( such as Conrad von Hötzendorf in Graz, von Hindenburg in numerous German cities, Gugielom Oberdan –thanks to Gregor Mayer for the hint in Italy). Some of the most odious cases have  been corrected, such as changing the name of the Karl-Lueger-Ring, previously named in honor of the the notoriously anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna (famous for the line Wer Jude ist bestimme ich–I determine who is a Jew). While it is desirable to change names of streets or remove monuments honoring anti-Semites and other extreme nationalists of the past, the void also leaves a gap in the history of city when they were honored. In brief, the city can forget its past. Belgradem not for that reason, but due to the contest nature of street names, put up a history of street names on some most prominent streets in the centre. This helps to map the different ideologies dominating, but implicitly also admits that the current name might be just temporary.

Now, unlike what Benedict Anderson remarked to me, the discussion over monuments and other forms of commemoration on the centenary of World War One, suggest that the past can attract a lot of attention and controversy (including on facebook). So the initiative build monuments to Gavrilo Princip in Republika Srpska and Serbia triggered negative reactions elsewhere (see article in Der Spiegel and esp. reader comments). While an assassin who killed a person is not a particular positive figure to celebrate, European states more broadly are fond to celebrate murders rather than peace makers (including of course the rider on a horse in Skopje, a.k.a. Alexsander the Great). A good approach to remedy this morbid European habit would be a European exchange program. Let’s exchange the ‘heroes’  of one country with those of another. Why not exchange the statue of Franz Joseph II in the University aula in Graz with a monument to Gavrilo Princip in Serbia, or exchange a street name.

The Gavrilo Princip Street in Belgrade would come to Graz to call the main street leading out of the city to the south, while that street’s name, Conrad-von-Hötzendorf Strasse could migrate to Belgrade, some of the statues in Skopje could go to Thessaloniki or Sofia, nobody would notice them missing and nobody would find them strange there. Ban Jelačić could visit Belgrade, while Knez Mihajlo could travel to Zagreb. Adem Jashari could leave Prekaz for Belgrade, the Eternal Flame in Belgrade (that lasted less an an eternity) could travel to Prishtina. Such exchanges would create unease, but also a need to explain, to justify: one hero in Europe is another one’s nemesis. It would provoke and maybe look more carefully at ones ‘owns’ monuments.

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.”

%d bloggers like this: