“Look,” I said, “the river at Sarajevo runs red. That I think a bit too much. The pathetic fallacy really ought not to play with such painful matters.” “Yes, it is as blatant as a propagandist poster,” said my husband.
SARAJEVO IS ONE of my favorite cities in the world. I never had the occasion to visit Bosnia for work while living in Brussels so I took a week in the summer of 2010 to make my first visit. The experience was even more extraordinary than I anticipated and resulted in completely random encounters that made me new, lifelong friends. I can still hear the muezzins calling my friend to prayer at Salat al-‘isha my last night in the city.
Today Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority enclave in a country half-split by the Dayton peace agreement between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a self-proclaimed Serb Republic. Once the most cosmopolitan city in the most diverse republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs cleansed themselves of Sarajevo and left Bosnia under virtual European protectorate status that endures to this day.
As with many of the cities West visited, Sarajevo survives as an amalgam of the many empires that have possessed it. The Old Town, which survived the war of the 1990s, was built under Ottoman possession. Walking the Old Town is a delightful experience, its very human scale a reminder that cities can be beautiful at the street level for pedestrian pleasure. Rebecca West records the corso in Dubrovnik and during the spring and summer this is true for Sarajevo as well.
The culverted river and national monuments from that era are mostly Austrian, including the Town Hall, which is done up in a rococo, self-conscious Moorish style. West immediately sees this as a colonial imposition and no genuine reflection of the Islamic or Turkish character of Sarajevo and Bosnia, “stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes.” She is correct. A feline partisan, West notes the neighboring mosque’s minaret “has the air of a cat that watches a dog making a fool of itself.”
In retrospect this judgment feels unjust. The Town Hall was converted into the Bosnian national library in 1945, housing the earliest documentation of the nation. For that reason Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo in the 1990s shelled it without mercy. Incendiary rounds gutted the structure and burned it from floor to ceiling. (Happily, it has been completely restored with international help during the last 15 years, although the documentation is a total loss.)
Historically Sarajevo has been a true mix of the Abrahamic faiths, including Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews. It is known as the city of 100 mosques but also hosts cathedrals, churches, and synagogues. West’s account is sympathetic to the Muslim community, but here she sets them aside along with the Christian community to spend ample time with Jewish artists, bankers, and intellectuals who called the city home. The intent of this focus becomes more clear in retrospect. Fortunately West provides an individual touchstone who foreshadows events to come.
The reconquista of Spain in 1492 included the expulsion of Spanish Jews, who scattered across the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. These Sephardim brought with them their unique faith practiced over centuries in Iberia, which included their language of Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called Ladino, an Old Spanish dialect incorporating Hebrew vocabulary and syntax. West spends time with a colorful figure she calls the Bulbul (“nightingale” in Persian), a beautiful Ladino singer whom she met on her first visit the year before. Lingering on the Bulbul is worth some additional time, not least for the impression she made on West:
“The Bulbul was not as Western women. In her beauty she resembled the Persian ladies of the miniatures, whose lustre I had till then thought an artistic convention but could now recognize in her great shining eyes, her wet red lips, her black hair with its white reflections, her dazzling skin.”
The Bulbul is a real person, a Sephardic Jewish Sarajevan named Nina Šalom Vučković. The Canadian ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen identified her almost by accident in 1984. A scholar of Sephardic music, Cohen met Nina while participating in a concert that included Flory Jagoda, another refugee Sarajevan Ladino singer who only died in January 2021 not far from where I live in Virginia. (You can hear her singing in the YouTube link below). Cohen had read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and after learning Nina’s story quickly put two and two together. “‘Nina,’ [Cohen] said quietly, ‘you must be the Bulbul!’ Tears filled her eyes.”
(Cohen asserts that West got a detail wrong about Nina, ascribing to her proficiency in the gusla, a traditional string instrument, instead of the guitar which she actually played.)
Nina was at that time living on the Kahnewake Mohawk reserve near Montreal, where her doctor husband was administering to the First Nations community. She fled the German occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, first with Jagoda to Korčula in the Adriatic and then to the United Nations refugee camp at El Shatt in the Sinai, where she joined 20,000 displaced Yugoslavs. There, a Red Cross nurse introduced Nina to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Opening the book, she immediately identified herself in the pages.
The Bulbul’s story is even more astonishing than that. A refugee narrative written by Mira Altarac in 2008 corroborates Cohen’s research to fill out Nina’s biography. Before the war Nina had been married to her own uncle, Braco Poljokan (whom West names as Selim while missing the fact that he was Nina’s blood relation, describing him approvingly as “a god sculpted by a primitive people…”) before fleeing the Nazis. While sheltering in Korčula, the childless Nina left her husband and was relocated to the Sinai. (A separate refugee narrative by Dr. Jacob Altaras reports that Poljokan was part of an Emigration Committee set up by the Jewish community of Split to help refugees flee Nazi occupation.)
In El Shatt, Nina met Dr. Vučković, whose own wife had just committed suicide by throwing herself into the Suez Canal, leaving him with their two small children. They married and the new family finally settled in Canada. Nina lived on the reserve and in Montreal for 30 years before her death in 1986.
West lingers in Sarajevo and visits Ilidža, Trebević, Travnik, Jajce, and Jezero. These smaller towns serve as backdrop for her dramatic retelling of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip—the most consequential individual act of the 20th century.
The result of the chance encounter between a minor royal and a consumptive teenager drove Europe into the abattoir of the Great War that killed some 22 million people, not including an additional 100 million during the resulting Spanish Influenza, which spread after the war as tens of millions of men demobilized. It destroyed the Austrian and Turkish Empires, precipitated the Armenian massacre, gave rise to Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany and their genocidal regimes leading to World War II, created the modern Middle East, established the United States as a great power, and formed the League of Nations. Every major geopolitical crisis in the last 100 years is the direct result of World War I and its accelerant: two shots fired by Gavrilo Princip.
Modern observers express horror at the cascade of poor political decisions and battlefield blunders that led to the slaughter. The outcome appears inevitable in retrospect, but the reality is war is a choice. It is not foreordained. European leaders chose poorly. It is possible to imagine a different course of human events if wiser, cooler, and smarter heads were involved. But likewise it is also impossible to imagine the war breaking out at all if it weren’t for the assassination. There were tensions and competitions, of course, but no underlying casus belli to spark a major conflagration. Gavrilo Princip was the match.
Rebecca West makes clear, if not explicit, that this almost random encounter in recent history was populated by characters least likely to star in a modern drama. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an entirely representative noble of the age, the personification of the mediocrity and rot that populated the ruling class of Europe. He was a thoroughly disagreeable man with an extremely morbid pastime: he hunted, or rather, shot game virtually point-blank as they were flushed into range for his ease and pleasure. He killed hundreds of thousands of animals on four continents. West’s documentation of this baleful, unslakable thirst for animal carnage fills out an unnerving psychological portrait of the archduke. It also foreshadows his own death, as West concludes:
“Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”
Franz Ferdinand held no real power in the dual monarchy. The ostensible reason for his visit to this provincial capital was in his official capacity as Inspector General of the Army. He was restricted by the abstruse rules governing monarchies from siring an heir to the throne of the Austrian empire because he married a not-noble-enough Czech noble woman, Sophie Chotek. Their morganatic marriage was nonetheless a happy one and possibly the only good thing to say about Franz Ferdinand is that he genuinely loved his wife and three children.
Gavrilo Princip was also an entirely unremarkable young man who only took his place in history as a result of official incompetence and blind luck. West describes him as “physically fragile,” a poor boy of uncertain parentage from the mountains. He attempted to join the Serbian army but his constitution collapsed and he was discharged. He was 19 when arrested for the assassination, a minor for purposes of Austrian imperial justice.
What brought these two parties together at that fateful moment would be considered an absurd farce if it had not resulted in such calamity. Reports of plots and intelligence were ignored. The archduke’s ruler-straight motorcade route and lax security are a remedial course for bodyguards in how to get your principal killed (see below). The motorcade drove down the left bank of the Miljacka, which alone drastically limited escape routes as a right turn would end up in the river. A failed attempt by Nedeljko Čabrinović to explode a bomb under the motorcade did not alter the route in the slightest. It continued to the City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand’s held a brief, strange, and strained audience, complaining about his explosive reception in the city. Despite this, he boarded his open car, which returned the way it came, that is, straight back into the kill zone.
There was a crew of five would-be assassins who lined the motorcade route. Each failed in their initial attempt. Armed with a bomb and pistol, Muhamed Mehmedbašić (notably a Muslim member of this mostly Serbian conspiracy) and Vaso Čubrilović failed to act. Following Čabrinović’s bombing attempt, Gavrilo Princip, Cvjetko Popović, and Trifun Grabež all missed their opportunity as the motorcade sped past them to the City Hall.
Princip had given up on the plot when the motorcade appeared again on its return down the quay. It made a wrong turn trying to reach the hospital where the injured from the bombing attempt were being treated. This mistake brought the archduke’s car directly abreast of Princip where it stalled. Princip stepped forward and fired and fired again. He did not miss his targets.
(West makes an error of fact here, describing Princip’s murder weapon as a revolver. It was a FN 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The difference is important because a balky revolver in the hands of this bumbling conspirator – a bad shot who washed out of army basic training – could have easily allowed Franz Ferdinand to escape, again, and the world to avoid the mass slaughter to follow.)
While not captured by motion picture as King Alexander’s assassination was 20 years later, the incident in Sarajevo is the most comprehensively documented act of terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. An official tribunal investigated the chain of events and released a detailed report of its findings. All 15 plotters survived and were arrested, tried, and sentenced—the adults to death, the minors, including Gavrilo Princip, to prison terms. Not that this early manifestation of tender mercy mattered. Tuberculosis killed Princip in prison three years later.
In Jajce, West unexpectedly meets Čabrinović’s sister Vukosava, herself a dentist and also an accomplished folk singer. Unusual among West’s unnamed characters, Vukosava Čabrinović is fairly well-documented. David James Smith in his book One Morning in Sarajevo details her sympathies, including a relationship with Princip and her correspondence with her brother, who like Princip also died in prison. She is portrayed by Vera Veljovic-Jovanovic in the 1990 film “Last Waltz in Sarajevo,” not incidentally the last film produced in Yugoslavia before its breakup.
It is important to consider one more thing. Princip was a Serb born and raised in Bosnia. The Young Bosnia organization he joined was pan-Slav in agenda and furnished weapons by the secret Serbian Black Hand organization. In 1914, the Kingdom of Serbia was sovereign while Austria-Hungary possessed the Central European Slavic states as well as Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. For the catastrophe that followed it is easy to miss something extraordinary in the assessment of the assassination: that this least likely, most fated individual in fact achieved his political objective. In 1914, Princip espoused a union of south Slavs free of Austrian domination. By 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire was destroyed and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats as Slovenes was a free, unitary state.
West also documents the sad afterlife of the Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is hard not to be sympathetic despite the fact they were simply bodies in boxes that had to be repatriated to Vienna. Emperor Franz Josef felt their death had corrected the wrong of their morganatic marriage. The emperor’s chamberlain used his position to delay their arrival to the capital. There he placed Sophie’s coffin lower than the archduke to indicate her inferior rank. No public respects were paid. The coffins had been moved by train to Pochlarn, Austria, arriving without reception at one o’clock in the morning. There, a deluge forced the coffins and mourners into the train station terminal to ride out the storm. In the morning they were transferred to a river ferry, but the continuing storm terrified the horses, and Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were spared just barely from being pitched bodily into the Danube.