Times Past

History's heroes and villians often a matter of perspective

A statue of Gavrilo Princip was erected last week in Sarajevo. Bosnia.
A statue of Gavrilo Princip was erected last week in Sarajevo. Bosnia.

Images: (1.) A statue to Gavrilo Princip is dedicated by Serbian nationalists on the centennial of the assassinations near the actual site in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

(2.) Portrait the “pirate” Hippolyte Bouchard, oil on canvas by José Gil de Castro hangs in honor in Buenos Aires. Bouchard ravaged the California coast in 1818.

“Oh, when will they ever learn?”

A week ago yesterday in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Serbian nationalists erected a statue to Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old who assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, as the couple rode in an automobile through the streets of that city on June 28, 1914.

My initial response was to reflect on the actions of a Serbian nation run amuck just 20 years ago. Serbian forces mercilessly shelled Sarajevo and executed countless numbers of innocent Muslims.

I try to mollify my anger by reflecting that every nation, even Serbia, has a right to honor its patriots. What is anathema to some people can rise to the level of heroism to another.

Take the case of the French born privateer, Hippolyte Bouchard, who under the flag of Argentina shelled and burnt Spanish California’s little capital at Monterey in November, 1818.

Bouchard went on to raid the Ortega Ranch at Refugio Canyon, only 70 miles south of San Luis Obispo and then he despoiled the mission community at San Juan Capistrano.

To readers of California history, Bouchard is a great villain. In Argentina, Chile and Peru, he ranks just below José de San Martín, the great liberator of the Southern Hemisphere.

The bullets fired on a Sarajevo street corner by Gavrilo Princip had grievous consequences. The forces of militarism and often racist nationalism that had been bottled up in the European system of national and multinational empires since the fall of Napoleon a century earlier were unleashed, like the Furies of Greek mythology.

In a little over a month’s time, that event on a Balkan street brought the Great Powers into a war that lasted more than four years. In military losses, conservative estimates state the cost of that conflict in terms of the various armies and navies at 12 million dead and 20 million severely wounded. The real costs of that war are incalculable.

It was surely the wellspring of discontent for much of the 20th century.

“The Great War” brought about the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the rise of Bolshevism. Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism can be seen in part as a response to the threat posed by Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin.

The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to two decades of instability in the center of Europe where the Second World War broke out after a fragile 20-year armistice. A would-be Austrian artist became a German national and changed his name to Adolf Hitler. His efforts to lead Germany out of the humiliation of defeat culminated in total war and the incredible horror of the Holocaust.

As a young boy in 1944-45, I was taken by my grandparents to visit the Los Angeles Veterans Home at Sawtelle. We visited with American soldiers who were victims of Germany’s poison gas, bullets and shells. These men had been incapacitated since 1918.

My career as a historian was born in that experience. Fifty years ago, I began teaching college courses dealing with that war.

Little did I suspect that half a century later, I could visit military hospitals housing the casualties of the United States’ war in Iraq. Much of what has unfolded in Iraq and Syria is a direct result of the victorious allies, France and Great Britain, selfishly dividing up the supposedly oil rich lands of the once “Fertile Crescent.”

A Serbian nationalism, the match that lit the conflagration, is still active.

When will they ever learn?