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Gavrilo Princip, a hero?

za blogIt is less than a year before the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the bloodiest war in human history thereto. As 28th June 2014 approaches, it is more certain that the German government will take part in the organization of the celebration of the centennial in Sarajevo, where Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince and his wife. The greatest nightmare of our grandmothers and grandfathers begins to worry us as this date approaches. The question that bothers us is ‘What will the world say?’

When analysing the role of Gavrilo Princip in world history, it is necessary first of all to point out the epistemological error in the dominant but, unfortunately, revisionist interpretation of the assassination in Sarajevo. Almost all the literature dealing with the causes of the First World War on the very first page stresses the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as a cause of the war. Despite the fact that, in the subsequent analysis, this conflict, which had an impact on the world, is connected with the clashes between the imperial pretensions of the Great Powers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there somehow is still a bitter taste when the name of Gavrilo Princip is mentioned.

That the act of murdering a colonial subject by the persecutor is a sign of true self-liberation, we learned from Jean Paul Sartre. Since colonisation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was followed by the promotion of so-called ‘scientific racism’, according to which colonisation is justified, because it is carried out against those who are unable to manage themselves, colonised people in these areas were placed in the position of an inferior race.

Although Aristotle is often considered the father of ‘scientific racism’, there are a fairly large number of modern, primarily liberal thinkers, who used this concept to justify colonial conquest led by their countries. Thus JS Mill thought it was justified to embark on imperial campaigns, if that would mean that the ‘uncivilized’ would become ‘civilized’. Tocqueville himself, writing about Algeria, articulated the characteristics of the French ideal of ‘civilizing missions’. Only Bentham was against British imperialism, and only because he thought it was not feasible, because he thought that such campaigns are a waste of precious resources. Besides Great Britain and France, there were of course the united Germany, Austria-Hungary and Czarist Russia. Each of these countries favoured imperialist campaigns. Of course, the conflicts of the Great Powers over territory occurred throughout the history of the modern state, and in addition to the countries listed, from 16th century onwards, there were also Spain and the Netherlands. So the world in a historic moment became narrow because the West progressed precisely because the race for world wealth included only a limited number of countries. The West, according to many, progressed only because highly developed countries like China and India were ravaged by exploitation. Suddenly, the exploitative campaigns included too many countries, and it was a matter of time before the conflicts of the Great Powers would escalate. And then, right out of nowhere, appeared a Gavrilo Princip, assassinated an occupation symbol, experienced ‘Sartrian’ self-liberation and started World War I?

It is said that Gavrilo Princip was a nationalist. In the region people do not like him because he was a member of an organization that aimed to unify the Serbs under Austro-Hungarian rule (and other South Slavs). World-wide he is called a terrorist because, in any case and under whatever circumstances, murder is considered a barbaric act – especially the assassination of an heir to the throne. Let’s start with the first charge.

All (successful) anti-colonial movements in the twentieth century, around the world, were movements of ‘national liberation’. As Alan Ryan writes, nationalism is a dangerous gift that colonisers inadvertently gave to the colonised. Even Marx thought that colonial conquests are progressive, in the sense that they may lead to the expansion of the capitalist mode of socio-economic organisation, which would result in the formation of national liberation movements, which would, as those European, firstly free themselves from colonial rule, and then take part in the world socialist revolution. These movements would firstly be national. Liberation from ‘imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism’ (as Lenin’s famous work on this phenomenon was called) starts with the grouping of the nation, the group that, modelled on the Western nation-state, wants to be freed from occupiers, and to then form an independent state. Hence the definition of ‘non-aggressive nationalism’ under the doctrine ‘to each people its own polity’ and a clear distinction in relation to the ‘aggressive nationalism’ which undermines conquests. This classification is reserved for the period of the early twentieth century, and especially for the period of anti-colonial struggle, and is not relevant to the present analysis of nationalism as a primarily retrograde social tendency. This struggle, in all parts of the world, from the beginning of the twentieth century, was often very radical, and, because it was such, it does not mean that it should be classified as ‘aggressive’ – if you use the aforementioned categorisation. In this sense, Gavrilo Princip was a nationalist as, for example, was Simon Bolivar, the symbol of anti-colonial struggle in South America. The same can be said for the other allegation, that Gavrilo Princip was as much a terrorist as, for example, Ernesto Guevara (without any intention to compare their historical or ideological roles). Here we come to what I consider the main epistemological error in the analysis of the historical role of Gavrilo Princip.

From the perspective of the historical role, it is completely irrelevant whether Young Bosnia, of which Princip was a member, wanted to liberate the Serbs and then the others, or just the Serbs, or all the South Slavs (although the first would be the most likely). Also, it is less important whether this organisation was working in conjunction with the Serbian ‘Freedom or Death’ (although it was), and that the main ideologist of the Young Bosnia, Vladimir Gaćinović, was a follower of Russian anarchism (Kropotkin and Bakunin), and was a friend of Trotsky, whom he met in Switzerland.It is less important whether Gavrilo Princip, if he had by chance survived and lived in free Bosnia, would perhaps at some point have changed his mind regarding his beliefs (which we cannot precisely define anyway), as did the Egyptian anti-colonial fighter named Sayyid Qutb, who at first was considered a hero, and then was killed by Nasser Regime because he did not support military dictatorship but advocated the Sharia (he wrote a book called ‘Social Justice in Islam’ in 1949). So, for the analysis of the historical significance of the assassination in Sarajevo and its perpetrator, variables such as the character of Young Bosnia, its connection with the ‘Freedom or Death’, or the beliefs of Princip, are totally irrelevant. The only thing that matters is- the historical context in which this event took place, because the assassination was an expression of the anti-imperial struggle of people who had lived under foreign rule for centuries. The people who were treated by the Great Powers in a ‘scientific racist’ manner, through Gavrilo Princip, experienced self-liberation. The people who still speak the same language, and are of different religions and ethnicities, has waited for a hundred years for another Princip in this modern empire that, as Hardt and Negri say in their Empire, is not formed on the basis of power itself, but on the ability to present power as being in the service of peace.


By Filip Balunovic

Filip Balunovic is a PhD candidate at Scuola Normale Superiore at the department of Political Science and Sociology in Florence; executive editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Serbia; author of the book "Freedom Notebooks", member of "DiEM 25"

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