July 29, 2014
Mihailo Papazoglu is the ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to Canada.
Sarajevo, Bosnia, 28 June 1914: After some 400 years under Turkish Ottoman and almost 40 under Austro-Hungarian occupation, people of some dozen nationalities shared the same dream of freedom. Gavrilo Princip was among them when he fired two shots at Austria-Hungary’s Crown Prince. For many of his countrymen he is a freedom fighter.
You’ve probably never heard of Dusan Donovic. A sixteen-year-old Serbian Army volunteer shot in Belgrade by gunfire from an Austrian Danube flotilla vessel that day, he was the first victim of WWI. He died like 1,250,000 other Serbs – a death toll amounting to 28 per cent of population, both soldiers and civilians. Maybe you’ve heard of George Lawrence Price? Born in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, aged twenty six, fatally shot by a German sniper at 10:58 a.m. on November 11, 1918. He died just 2 minutes before the armistice that ended the war, making him the last victim of WWI. He died like 61,000 fellow Canadians. Like 17 million people in Europe and around the world.
In between, we Serbs fought. For one year on our soil, on our frontiers, mostly alone. The first allied victory took place in Serbia, in the mountains of Cer. Then the second one in Kolubara, almost like the battle of Vimy Ridge. This success drew worldwide attention to Serbia and won the Serbs the sympathy of both neutral and Allied countries, as it marked their first victory over the Central Powers. The next year we had our share of defeats. Belgrade, the capital, was the last stand for more than 2,600 Serbian Army soldiers, aware of the fact that their names had already been erased from the list of the living by the Serbian Army’s headquarters – left behind as an
For those three years of war in exile we lost a country – but saved the idea of Serbian statehood. The population was left to the occupiers, but we saved the nation. We never lost faith. Finally, along with the allies, in 1918 we were free.
And what was Gavrilo Princip doing at that time? He was imprisoned in the dungeon of the fortress in Theresienstadt (Terezin in today’s Czech Republic) that was later used, during the Second World War, as a Nazi
An underage, self-proclaimed freedom fighter, he never got to see the Armistice in 1918 and the national liberation he gave his life for. He died six months earlier and was secretly buried, so that his body is never to be found. This leaves no empathy, no nostalgia, no second thoughts about the Austro-Hungarian institutions’ operational mode. Why did it all happen? Simply because he refused to switch from being a Turkish Ottoman to a Kaiserlich und Königlich colonial subject, from a Middle East model of apartheid to a Mitteleuropa one.
Gavrilo Princip had a pistol. Just one. He himself was a trigger, but the stage was set long before the bloodshed began. For the colonial empires of the time, their era was about to finish. The Serbs fought against a couple of those empires. To survive. For the right to exist. We fought bravely. Like others. We fought to see another day. We are still standing, proudly, with no lessons to give to anybody. Especially not to history. Just for the record.
Serbia and Canada fought on the same side of history. For the right cause. The aftermath of the First World War led Canada to a sense of full independence and Serbia to full self-confidence in the international arena of that time. Serbia, along with others, paid a high price in human lives during the Great War. Never to recover, as some say. Collective memory of the First World War became the cornerstone of our respective nations’ identities.
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