Gavrilo Princip as Anti-Imperialist Traditionalist

Had he been born in South America, Gavrilo Princip would have been an equal to Che Guevara and Emiliano Zappata; in Africa, he would have been a counterpart to the glorious martyrs who fell in the struggle against colonialism.

The “hero or terrorist” question is a moral one and an ever-dangerous simplification aimed at superficial and indolent media consumers and public reasoning that interprets it in line with political, cultural, ethical and other trends. For that reason and completely unambitiously, I attempt to present a short, phenomenological point of view on the matter — as analysis and reconstruction always imply something that leaves the bare historic factography behind. For reconstruction, the philosophic methods, scientific approaches and literary procedures are important, and require a strong awareness of context and causality — especially when bearing in mind the extent to which philosophical extremisms themselves may be in the service of the relativization and subjectivization of facts. Moreover, a more detailed treatment of the emergence of the Young Bosnia organization (a revolutionary movement that was active before WWI and consisted of primarily school students) and the causes of World War I far surpasses the capacities of a short essay.

Indeed, nowadays when there are certain historians and other scholars who compare Young Bosnia to Al-Qaeda, it is important to understand the origins of such a narrative, and to note that such views are undoubtedly related to the spirit of the time, including political horizons and events. When Anglophone historians, philosophers and political scientists make such a comparison, one should look into what they — when communicating their own societies (which, as a rule, include dominant political aspirations) — mean by terrorists. In addition, the trick is to remember that the very act of assassination is identified with barbarity and brutality, and therefore is often treated separately from its causes and motives.

Terrorism as the only way of fighting

Glancing at official lists of “terrorist” organizations, which are compiled by countries of the so-called developed world and Western democracies, is sufficient to conclude that we are dealing mainly with groups which use “terrorism” as a way of fighting in asymmetric wars and conflicts in which they are the weaker opponent. Let us recall that it wasn’t only the Palestinian PLO, the Irish IRA or the German RAF that have been labeled as terrorists — at some point, even fighters for the abolition of Apartheid were called terrorists, as well as the members of the Indian National Congress and radical environmentalists. Margaret Thatcher even went as far as to label the British unions and their leaders as terrorists. In that sense, everything is crystal clear and there is no need to moralize and point out the impertinence of quasi-scholars with such a framework of analysis. For them, it is self-evident that they are dealing with instances of “terrorism.”

The hermeneutical approach to history has always been fruitful as it is important to know the motives and thoughts of its actors. However, the “psychological analysis” of one certain character has caused deformities in the truth, and is always beset by partial interpretations — for Princip and Young Bosnia were not some hot-headed youngsters or risk-takers with no historical or political awareness. This argument is usually used to prove their recklessness, complemented with the story of how they were but pawns in someone else’s game. On the contrary they had read the socialist and anarchist classics, and the libertarian literature — and there is not a single proof that sentiments for a greater Serbia were present in their motives. From today’s perspective, their commitment and martyrdom may appear naïve, but it is because of their obsession with libertarian ideas – and the idealism they harbored, which no longer exists nowadays — that they eclipse our present-day civilizational dullness and conformism.

Public opinion(s) in the former Yugoslavia approach history with the same political code and the same moral tone as they view the latest Yugoslav war. Those who insert Princip into the Serbian nationalist pack — thereby demonstrating utter historical ignorance — provide wind in the sails of a Serbian nationalism that already categorizes and posits him as a permanent exhibit in its metaphysics of victimization, thus relegating him in the assemblage of martyrs and iconography alongside other characters that have nothing in common with Princip at all. Attempts at “Serbinizing” him represent a radical denial of his mission and of Princip himself, not only because he called himself a “Serbo-Croat”, but because it negates the life achievements and the habitus of Young Bosnia members.

On the other hand, those who are ardently trying to renounce him, accepting the semi-colonial narrative of contemporary Europe and other powers — according to which freedom fighters are perceived as terrorists — are generally Serbian chauvinists infected with a myth-mania that leads inevitably to hopelessness and self-destruction. For those who prefer neo-imperialism, the fact that certain Serbian warlords have reclaimed him offers an expedient way to distance themselves from him, although they know that he died dreaming of setting all the South Slavic peoples free. This is a self-evident syllogism behind which lie poorly disguised attempts to humor the modern-day heirs of that very same idea, then espoused by the Austro-Hungarian hawks and the German militants who, instilled with Prussian militarism, had war on their minds much before the assassination [of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914].

Young Bosnia and progressive thought

The Serbian nationalists on the one hand and the anti-Serbian nationalists on the other nurture their attitude towards Young Bosnians in an identical manner. As a result, those harboring Balkanophobe and anti-Serbian sentiments profit from the “Serbization” of Princip and his fellow men since, by attacking Serbian nationalism, they attack the libertarian heritage of Young Bosnia that has no connection whatsoever with traditional Serbian nationalism which, as a rule of thumb, is conservative. Indeed, national liberation, cultural freedom and anti-imperialism were integral parts of the most progressive thought of the time. On the other hand, Serbian folklorists and traditionalists see the Serbophobe attacks on Young Bosnia as proof that Serbdom itself is under attack, which only reinforces their myth of Princip as being exclusively “Serb.”

A significant part of the Western intellectual elite, alongside its citizenry, shows an acute lack of understanding for the vocation and goals of people such as Gavrilo Princip because they fail to understand what anti-imperialism really is, both on a rational and on a sentimental basis. For them, freedom has a completely different meaning from that in the areas where people have been humiliated and oppressed throughout history, often for the sake of a “civilizing mission.” In that sense, it is important to note that there is a certain repressive tendency present in the attempt to assign the enlightening role to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy — which tried to establish its position and role through alleged Trialism [the balance between its German, Hungarian and Slavic populations] and pacification of the South Slavs, guaranteeing them their national and civil rights. It was during the first days of the war that Serbian civilians could witness just how advanced and enlightened the Monarchy truly was.

The extent to which the infamous Black Hand (a secret military society formed by members of the Serbian Army) had influenced the Young Bosnians is a matter of debate, despite the fact that it is simply implausible that the two could have had similar motives and goals, given the nature of those two organizations and the people in them. Even if the claim that Young Bosnia was but an instrument in the hands of Serbian officers and the secret service were taken at face value, historiography would still be hard pressed to answer the question as to how the possibility of another war would have been in the interest of Serbia, battered as she was at the time by the Balkan Wars, and therefore significantly weaker than Austria-Hungary. However, history is not an exact science, and its scholars — who were classified by nationality and pigeon-holed into predetermined historical stereotypes and predilections at the time of the centenary of the assassination in June 2014 — will hardly be able to answer this question.

In my mind’s eye, branding Princip a terrorist serves the political agenda of creating a clientelistic mentality and conformism required by the new power consolidations of our day, be they military, economic or political — since it is through Gavrilo Princip and the likes of him that that small freedom-loving segment of the people living in the lands of the South Slavs will be enabled to learn about the essence of anti-imperialism in all its glory. For anti-imperialism — regardless of all claims and counter-claims (or the historical context for that matter) — transcends all divisions, not just local ones, thus inevitably conferring a timeless and universal quality on his martyrdom.

Matija Gubec, Vaso Čarapić, the Hajduks and Uskoks and all those whose legacy of outlawry has been delved into by Eric Hobsbawm, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, have granted us with an intuitive sense of libertarianism, the same that lived within Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata — who always walked a fine line between outlawry or “terrorism” (from the viewpoint of the hegemons) and libertarian rebellion (from the viewpoint of freedom-loving peoples). Had he been born in South America, Gavrilo Princip would have been an equal to Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata; had he been a Turk, he would have been greater than Deniz Gezmis; in Ireland, he would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Connolly and Pearse; and in Africa, he would have been a counterpart to glorious martyrs who fell in the struggle against colonialism.

Consequently, I find it far from coincidental that the voices trying to discredit Young Bosnia as a controversial organization are doing so at this time when we are witnessing the loss of sovereignty of post-Yugoslav countries. The only point in time when the organization’s legacy was truly treasured was the period of independence of the South Slavic peoples in the heyday of their political, economic and cultural prosperity and prominence.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

Post-Conflict Research Center
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