January 17, 2014 7 Comments
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.
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.
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.