Following Gavrilo Princip’s Sarajevo footprints through history

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The first time I saw Gavrilo Princip’s footprints, it was 1984. The Winter Olympics were in Sarajevo and the replica footprints in the cement of the sidewalk where Princip stood and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were what passed for a tourist attraction back then.

The day I was there, it was spitting snow. The town was crowded with visitors, as you would expect. People took turns in a pretty continuous flow, taking a picture of the footprints and then standing in the footprints had having their picture taken, sometimes with the adjacent Latin Bridge in the background. Except they called it the Princip Bridge on all of the maps.

A friend of mine, another sportswriter, did it the day before. The feet were not in a line parallel to the street, the front foot splayed out just a bit, and he said, “Princip had his foot in the bucket.” To a baseball fan, this makes sense. I promptly stole the line from him and put it in the paper the next day.

And that was it. The footprint memorial had been in the sidewalk since the 1950s. There also was a plaque. It was written in Bosnian, so I don’t know what it said, but from what I have read, it was a replacement for an original plaque that, following the Nazi occupation, was gifted to Hitler on the occasion of his 52nd birthday in 1941. Here is how that original plaque was translated by Rebecca West in her book, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”:

“Here, in this historical place, Gavrilo Princip was the initiator of liberty, on the day of St. Vitus, the 28th of June, 1914.”

Initiator of liberty. That was the original feeling, that the kid with the pistol did a solid for all of the south Slav people who had been repressed by the Hapsburgs — even if he was a Serb and the people mounting the plaque were Bosnians. The unity of Yugoslavia was always tenuous, but this was one uniting symbol — and it was used as such through the decades, from World War I to World War II to the dictatorship of Josip Broz, known to you and me as Tito.

By 1984, though, Tito was dead and the only thing holding together the Serbs and Bosnians and Croatians and Slovenians and the rest was the Olympics. Even that, though, was at least part fiction. When a favored Yugoslavian ski jumper failed miserably, he was whistled and hooted off of the hill by the local crowd. Disappointed, OK, but why so harsh? “He’s Slovenian,” somebody told me later.

Within just a few years, the war came. Sarajevo, a multiethnic city unlike any in the region, was under siege. You can still see bullet-scarred buildings there today, nearly 20 years after the war ended. And while a lot of the old town of Bascarsija looks the same — you can still buy a brass bust of Tito from an artisan in a stall, even if it is easier to find an ashtray fashioned from a spent mortar shell — the short walk from there down to the Latin Bridge reveals a significant change: Princip’s footprints are gone from the sidewalk. Instead, they are on display inside a one-room museum on the corner.

Again, you read different stories. One says that the original footprints were destroyed when the Serbs bombed the city. Another says that the cement block containing the footprints was pried out of the sidewalk and preserved for safe-keeping before the bombs fell. This kind of thing happened in other places in the city, too. The head of the Olympic Museum, Edin Numankadic, told me that he feared what eventually happened and had all of the exhibits crated up and stored in the museum’s basement in the weeks before the start of the war. So as not to alarm anyone, he told people that they were merely clearing things out so they could paint the place. “So they shot an empty museum,” Numankadic said, smiling.

But here is the thing: unlike those museum exhibits, the footprints were no longer seen as a treasure of Bosnian culture by the 1990s. So other people say that this is what really happened: Princip was a Serb, the Serbs were bombing the Bosnians of Sarajevo, and Bosnian Muslims destroyed the footprints in a rage.

After the war, though, the Bosnian Muslim government in Sarajevo brought them back. But footprints that once, literally, were a touchstone are now hidden inside a small museum that marks the Austro-Hungarian times, amid a lame collection of costumed mannequins and crockery and crap. For what it’s worth, Princip’s foot is still in the bucket.

Outside, on the new plaque, he is no longer the initiator of liberty. In this complicated place, the words written in Bosnian and English are simple:

From this place on 28 June 1914
Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir
To the Austro-Hungarian throne
Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia

It is just a fact of history now, not a rallying cry.


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