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Feature 27 Jul 17

Bosnian Hostel Tells Story of Assassination that Changed World

A stay at an unusual hostel in Sarajevo takes visitors back to the event in 1914 that put the city on the map and unleashed the First World War.

Igor Spaic

A couple from Argentina say they appreciate the Austro-Hungarian style of the building. Photo: BIRN

A hostel in Sarajevo’s Old Town offers visitors a chance to wake up in the morning and see an assassin staring at them from the ceiling. Or, he may be a hero – depending on one’s interpretation.

They can also wake up and have a victim stare at them from the wall. Or a tyrant, again, depending on the interpretation.

The Franz Ferdinand hostel has chosen the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand as its principle theme, and its walls and ceilings offer visitors a history lesson on the event that put Sarajevo on the world map.

“If you never learned it, or forgot about it, you can learn a lot from these walls,” hostel manager Nirela Smajovic told BIRN.

Of course, many other assassinations have shaken the world across the centuries, going back to Julius Caesar’s, Abraham Lincoln’s, Mahatma Gandhi’s, Martin Luther King’s, and J.F. Kennedy’s. But none had the quite the impact of what some refer to as “the mother of all assassinations”.

The shots fired by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip ignited history’s first “world war”, which cost more than 40 million lives and toppled four empires – German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman. It changed the world forever.

It has also spawned an eternal-seeming historical and ideological debate among the peoples of the Balkans about whether Princip was a hero and freedom fighter – or a criminal and terrorist.

The walls of the hostel recount this story. They are covered with pictures and of Princip, Ferdinand, his wife Sophie Chotek, old newspaper articles on the assassination and the war, important facts, stories and historic quotes.

Smajovic says the owners wanted to give Sarajevo something that the town had never had before. It would be a hostel, but the name and design were not chosen until a friend of the owner’s suggested the name Franz Ferdinand.

“So they thought - Franz Ferdinand, a lot could be pulled out of that,” Smajovic said.

The lobby takes a guest through a brief timeline leading up to the assassination, which is covered on the first floor.

Soon after the hostel opened its doors to guests in 2013, the opportunity arose to add another floor. It was decided to theme this floor after the actual.

All the rooms here are named and themed after important personalities and battles linked to the war, such as Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinand, Sophie Chotek, The Red Baron, Mlada Bosna [the underground group to which Princip belonged], Gallipoli Battle and Verdun Battle.

The lobby of the hostel. Photo: BIRN

Business is going well. Young tourists crowd the lobby and the sitting room, asking staff about what to visit next and how to get there.

“We are the first boutique hostel in Bosnia, and we have slowly became a brand in the Balkans,” Smajovic said.

“There are also the Franz Ferdinand apartments now, and we plan to expand more in the future,” she added.

A couple in their thirties from Argentina sat in the kitchen area of the hostel. Both architects, they say they appreciate the Austro-Hungarian style of the building.

They chose to stay in the hostel mainly because it was well rated and had a good location – but admit they have learned a lot as a bonus.

“We knew of the assassination before, but here we learned about the other side of the story,” the boyfriend said.

With such a turbulent history, Sarajevo has managed to brand its tragedies for the growing number of tourists visiting each year.

Authorities report double-digit rises in the number of foreigners visiting the country yearly and much of this centres on Sarajevo.

For some, it is an eye-opener.

“Some first think it is about the band Franz Ferdinand, and then are surprised when they see the Archduke’s picture on the wall in the lobby. Some confess they knew nothing about the whole thing. But they are always interested and willing to learn,” Smajovic noted.

“I thought foreigners would be most interested in the last war [from 1992-95], but when you start talking to them, the conversation shifts to the Second World War, and then the First. It intrigues them,” she added.

“There is a lot of politics, a lot of history, it’s quite amazing,” said Saul, 18-year-old Saul from London, who was staying at the hostel with friends. They were doing a round trip through Eastern Europe and could not miss coming to Sarajevo.

“They teach you a lot here,” he said, recalling a huge map depicting Europe at the outbreak of World War I in the kitchen. He was also fascinated by the Black Hand, the underground organization that Princip and his associates were part of, which planned the attack on the Archduke.

“Next to my bed was a quote from Gavrilo Princip, as he was about to be transferred from one prison to another,” Saul said.

The quote goes: “There is no need to carry me to another prison. My life is already ebbing away. I suggest that you nail me to a cross and burn me alive. My flaming body will be a torch to light my people on their path to freedom”.

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