WWI centenary stirs Balkan passions

WWI centenary stirs Balkan passions
A man walks by a plaque commemorating the location of the assassination of former Archduke of Austria on December 11, 2013 in the center of Sarajevo. -AFP

SARAJEVO - Former foes from World War I will come together in Sarajevo to mark the war’s centenary in June, their rivalries long buried though the conflict is still a source of bitter division in the Balkans.

As schoolchildren are taught the world over, the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, was the trigger for the Great War.

Although the underlying causes of the 1914-18 conflict are well known – simmering tensions between rival blocs, bound by a complex network of alliances – Serbs remain highly sensitive about Gavrilo Princip’s role.

Next June, some 130 historians from 30 countries will gather in Sarajevo – the mostly Muslim capital of Bosnia – to confront their visions at an international conference on World War I.

In both Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia, politicians see the conference as an attempt to “revise history” – and lay the blame for the war, with its 10 million dead on the battlefields and millions more among civilian populations , on the shoulders of the Serb pepole.

“Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor it will forget who are the main culprits in World War I,” Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic warned in an interview with AFP.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has also slammed European plans for a series of memorial events to be held in Sarajevo in June 2014.

Preparations are already afoot with a foundation called “Sarajevo, heart of Europe", set up by France with co-funding from its former foe Germany, to mark the centenary with a mix of culture, sport and memorial events.

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