The free walking tours that have become popular across Eastern Europe are an unreliable guide to local history but a good way to learn how a city is trying to market itself to outsiders. In Sarajevo, the powers that be seem to have settled on multi-faith cosmopolitanism as their main selling point. Sarajevo is “the European Jerusalem,” a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians have peacefully coexisted for centuries. Recent history has an unfortunate tendency of intruding on this hopeful story. Yes, those are bullet holes. No, the two synagogues are no longer used for religious services. Yes, your tour guide knows someone who fought in the war.
It’s not that Sarajevo’s efforts to rebrand itself for backpackers and travel websites is misleading. But the events that loom largest in the public imagination—the outbreak of the First World War and the Balkan wars of the 1990s—inevitably raise awkward questions about this idealized vision of multi-faith comity. One moment your guide is explaining where the baroque architecture of Austria-Hungary gives way to the older Islamic section of town. The next she’s pointing out where Serb snipers targeted Bosnian civilians from the city’s picturesque hillsides during the 1992 siege.
The sad irony is that Sarajevo’s faltering attempt at rebranding actually undersells its cosmopolitan history. The city that set Europe on the path to destroying itself is perhaps the last living link to Eastern European society before the First World War. In the century following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the human geography of Eastern Europe was bloodily redrawn by war and revolution, destroying a region that was once home to some of the most cosmopolitan societies on Earth. In Bosnia, under a jury-rigged government “temporarily” established by the 1997 Dayton Peace Accords, at least a fragment of that world lives on.
Bosnia’s enduring pluralism is particularly striking when compared to other formerly cosmopolitan regions in Eastern Europe. In Krakow, the city’s historic Jewish Quarter has become a hub for local nightlife, but actual Jewish residents are thin on the ground. Transylvania is home to many beautiful Lutheran churches but few remaining German parishioners. Surviving Hungarian communities in Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania are slowly but surely fading away.
NATO, the European Union, the memories of two devastating wars, and the Soviet threat have been variously credited for the decades of peace Europe has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. The uncomfortable reality is that this enduring peace is also the result of the often violent resettlement of ethnic groups within coherent national borders. The cultural, linguistic, and religious fault lines that exploded into violence during the first half of the 20th century have been largely erased from the map, replaced by a series of uniform national blocs.
It’s no accident that the one place in Europe that wasn’t completely reorganized along these lines is still a tinder box. The Balkans erupted in the 1990s because Yugoslavia temporarily defied this pan-European trend of state building, thanks largely to Marshall Tito’s charismatic authoritarianism. After Tito died, communism and a unified Yugoslavia followed in quick succession. Slovenia and Croatia were able to detach themselves relatively easily, but Bosnia, home to Muslim Bosniaks plus large minorities of Orthodox Serbs and and Roman Catholic Croatians, was not so lucky.
Although Sarajevo was permanently deformed by the Yugoslav wars, it persists as a multi-ethnic enclave under the awkward auspices of Bosnia-Herzegovina, perhaps the most dysfunctional of the Yugoslav successor states. The governing system installed under the 1997 Dayton Accords is a shambolic mess of overlapping responsibilities and ethnic carve-outs that makes American federalism look like Plato’s idealized Republic. This supposedly temporary arrangement is universally derided by Bosnians—the only reason it hasn’t been replaced is that none of the stakeholders can agree on what would replace it.
The messy realities of Bosnian politics highlight an important but under-discussed feature of multicultural societies: they tend not to arise under liberal democracies. Bosnian pluralism is a product of three empires: the Ottoman Turks, the Austrian Habsburgs, and Tito’s Yugoslavia. None of the three were models of enlightened liberal governance, but their hard-edged methods did serve to keep cultural and religious tensions in check. Whether Bosnia’s fractious ethnic groups can peacefully coexist without an external power holding the whip hand is still an open question.
Sarajevo’s story is more interesting than what gets relayed by credulous backpackers, but there is something undeniably charming about its enduring cosmopolitanism. Visiting the city just before the outbreak of World War II, Rebecca West wrote about the wonderful incongruity of seeing spring snow on mosque rooftops, and her brief but revealing glimpse of a devout Muslim woman’s fair complexion as she daintily lifted her veil to take a sip of strong Bosnian coffee. Something of that pluralism remains in a city where crowded nightclubs comfortably coexist with public displays of Islamic piety. Sarajevo is undeniably a link to Europe’s past. Its place in Europe’s future has yet to be decided.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.