Sarajevo, 1929

You need to be careful when talking about Sarajevo…

Sarajevo vista

A view of Sarajevo looking west along the Miljacka River, around the turn of the 20th Century. The Town Hall and the Ottoman Old Town are on the river’s north bank.

It’s a city of many cliches, and many of them are true. So much has been written about it, and so much of that is true as well…

But there’s an important reason I chose this city as the location for Reinhardt’s story. I chose it because I know it, having lived there for four years, and I came to understand when trying to write this book that a location – particularly a city, especially an iconic one – is as much a character as any of the others the author creates.

I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there, or in Sarajevo, for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia really is a historical and cultural crossroads, and it’s so contested. It defies any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify it, there’s no one way to read it or play it, and a place and time like that gives you so many options as an author, for drama, action, reflection, for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.

Sarajevo: a very (very) brief history

This page is not a history of that city, cradled in the steep folds of a valley in the heart of Bosnia. Nevertheless, some history is in order, I think, particularly that history of the city that occurred during Reinhardt’s lifetime.

The map of Sarajevo is from 1929, over 10 years before the events in The Man From Berlin, but as close a map as I could find. I’m pretty sure I moved him around accurately enough… And where I didn’t, I’ll cross my fingers no eagle-eyed reader will spot the mistake, and if they do, I’ll just admit it and claim author’s privilege!

Three main periods mark Sarajevo’s modern history. That is, its history since the end of the 19th century, the period that has most relevance for Reinhardt’s novels. These are the Austro-Hungarian annexation; the turmoil engendered by the First World War; and the city’s occupation during the Second World War by the Germans and the Croatian Ustaše.

Sarajevo was the westernmost of the Ottoman Empire’s cities, but towards the end of the 19th century the empire was increasingly weak, beset by rebellions, corruption, and a faltering reform process. Taking advantage of the Ottomans’ weakness, and citing the need to maintain law and order, its great rival, the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Habsburg dynasty, occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878. Although de jure Bosnia stayed part of the Ottoman Empire, de facto the Ottomans had lost it, with the Treaty of Berlin recognising the Austro-Hungarian occupation. In 1908, Austria-Hungary went a step further and formally annexed the province, triggering an international crisis that brought Europe perilously close to war.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife leaving the Town Hall, just minutes before their assassination in July 1914

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife leaving the Town Hall, just minutes before their assassination in July 1914

The annexation was to have significant consequences as it was in Sarajevo during a troop inspection in July 1914 that the heir to the Habsburg throne, the Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip (an act that triggered widespread violence against the city’s Serbs). This was the act that ultimately triggered the start of the First World War. In occupying and then annexing Bosnia, the Austro-Hungarians had hoped to dissipate or control the rising tide of South Slav nationalism within their own borders, and along their frontiers. Their actions did nothing of the kind, with Bosnia’s Serbs particularly alarmed and upset. Serbs in Bosnia had long fought against Ottoman rule, and saw no reason to think their future would be any freer under the Habsburgs. Aided by their brethren in Serbia, Bosnia’s Serbs contested Austro-Hungarian rule openly and clandestinely, fighting for a union with Serbia, and a wider Southern Slav state.

The end of the First World War saw Sarajevo as something of a forgotten backwater in the newborn Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, an entity that quickly fell victim to contested concepts of what it ought to be, and which direction it ought to take. In essence, the Kingdom was divided between Serb desires for greater centralisation, and Croat ones for greater autonomy. The tensions were such that in 1929 the Serbian royal dynasty engineered a coup d’état, renaming the country the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Kingdom stumbled on, beset by rising tides of, mainly, Serbian and Croatian nationalism, and ultimately falling victim to invasion by Nazi Germany in April 1941.

Strange bedfellows... A Catholic priest, a Chetnik, and a German officer

Strange bedfellows… A Catholic priest, a Chetnik, and a German officer

During the Second World War, Sarajevo was part of the Independent State of Croatia, a fascist puppet state set up by Germany and run by a party called the Ustaše that conducted genocidal campaigns against Serbs and Jews.

The years until its liberation by Tito’s Partisans in April 1945 were dark ones. Its Jewish population was all but annihilated, and the city’s occupiers—Ustaše and German—proved themselves incapable or uninterested in providing for its administration and the care of its citizens. Many of its sons, and not a few of its daughters, slipped out of the city to join the Partisans. As many left, many more poured in, refugees in their thousands fleeing the internecine fighting in the countryside between Germans, Ustaše, Partisans, and Chetniks (Serbian nationalists).


As part of the Ottoman Empire, Sarajevo was a city that showed much of the Ottoman architectural and cultural influence. It was one of the most important cities in the western part of the empire, the site of some stunning architectural marvels, most notably its mosques.

Under the Austro-Hungarians, Sarajevo experienced something of an urban renewal. The Austro-Hungarians had a different vision of Sarajevo’s urban architecture, and used Sarajevo as something of an experiment in urban and social engineering. To this day, the division of Sarajevo between the Ottoman Old Town, and the Austro-Hungarian ‘new town’ (together with a post-Second World War communist ‘even newer town’) is clearly visible. The city is mostly clustered along the north bank of the River Miljacka, exhibiting clearly the cultural and architectural characteristics of two Empires. It turns, in the east, from one of winding cobbled streets and low, white-walled houses, with most of the grandiose architecture devoted to places of

worship to, in the west, one of grids and squares and Secessionist styles (an Austro-Hungarian movement that rejected conservatism in art and architecture, and the first president of which was none other than Gustav Klimt), with most of the signature buildings devoted to administration. The barracks in Bistrik, where Reinhardt awakes, and where his journey begins, was evocative of this style. The city’s post office was another. Alongside this focus on the administrative and functional, the city was endowed with, amongst other things, theatres, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and synagogues.

This period of Austro-Hungarian rule saw the construction of Appelquai (what Reinhardt knows as Kvaternik), the installation of the city’s first tram system, the construction of many municipal buildings such as the Residency, the National Museum, the city market, the post office, theatres, as well as the construction of barracks and other structures of imperial administration new industry, schools, and improvements in transportation and sanitation. The period also saw the construction of buildings that attempted to blend—so far as Austria-Hungary’s engineers and architects understood them—the styles of east and west. Thus Sarajevo contains buildings constructed by the Austro-Hungarians that drew inspiration from Moorish or Mameluke architecture, the most famous of which remains to this day the Sarajevo library (what was then the Town Hall—the Rathaus). Other examples include the Law School.

The end of the 19th century in Europe was the height of Orientalism, that movement which sought to depict a vision of the east in literature, art, and architecture. Neither of these building styles—Secessionst Austro-Hungarian, or Orientalist—had much to do with Bosnia’s extant traditions. Yet, they were absorbed, and made part of the city’s fabric, to the extent that, today, no Sarajevan could imagine their city without such an eclectic skyline.

For Reinhardt, they are landmarks around which the city turns, and around which his investigation will wind, tighter and tighter.

Confessional Sarajevo

Lift your eyes to Sarajevo’s skyline, and it will be needled with the minarets of dozens of mosques, with the spires and steeples of churches and cathedrals, both Catholic and Orthodox, and the towers of synagogues. Several of the mosques, notably the Gazi Husref Bey Mosque, are among the finest examples of Ottoman religious architecture. Around the city—on hillsides, by riverbanks, squeezed between walls, in municipal parks—are Muslim graveyards. In Breka, south of the river, Jewish tombstones cluster thickly together.

When the Austro-Hungarians occupied Sarajevo in 1878, the three main religious communities—Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox—all owed allegiance to leaders outside the country. Therefore, it was important for the city’s new rulers to secure the communities’ support, and one of the ways this was done was through a major building programme. Sarajevo already had dozens of mosques, none of which were touched in the Austro-Hungarians’ extensive rebuilding programme, but cultural centres, churches, and synagogues were all built or given new importance. Importantly, whereas the Ottomans had restricted where non-Islamic structures could be built, the Austro-Hungarians constructed new religious buildings all through the centre of the city, hoping thereby to increase the city’s diversity and dilute its overtly Muslim character.


The Old Town

Together with its confessional density, nothing else in the city is quite as iconic as Sarajevo’s Ottoman Old Town—the Stariy Grad—a place of winding, cobbled streets and low, white-walled houses, with most of the grandiose architecture devoted to places of worship. The Old Town is the site of Bascarsija, the square across which so much of the city’s life took place. Open-air market, a place for meeting and relaxing, bounded by mosques and shops, Bascarsija was (and still is) a nexus for the city.

Another famous element of Sarajevo’s Old Town is the Vratnik Fortress, built by the Ottomans atop the bluffs that pinch off the eastern end of the Miljacka valley.


The citizens and their city

‘Reinhardt stared slowly around himself and thought again about how, despite the fear and loathing generated by the war, and which the city’s narrow confines seemed to sometimes stir to crazed heights, despite the veiled glances that always came his way, the place sometimes still made him think of a costume party that never stopped.’

Like any imperial city, Sarajevo was a place where the styles of many countries could be seen. Like a multi-confessional city, the dress and costumes of four religions were common to its streets. And like any developing urban centre, Sarajevo in the early 20th century was a magnet that pulled in people and goods from its surroundings.

Beyond Sarajevo


Ilidza - Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

Ilidza – Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

At the far western end of the Miljačka valley, Ilidza is one of the oldest inhabited places in Bosnia, famous to the Romans for its waters. The town as it exists today was founded during the Ottoman period, with its name deriving from the Turkish word ‘ilıca’, meaning ‘warm thermal springs.’

Under the Austro-Hungarians, Ilidza experienced something of a boom in tourism and infrastructure. A newly constructed railway line brought Ilidza’s springs and countryside closer to Sarajevans. Two hotels, the mirror image Austria and the Hungary, were built on either side of a wide, circular lawn, with Archduke Ferdinand staying in the Austria on his ill-fated visit in June 1914, and it was behind the Austria that Marija Vukić lived, and where she met her end.

Ilidza - Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

Ilidza – Hotel Austria (turn of the 20th century)

These two postcards from the turn of the 20th century show the Hotel Austria, a nice juxtaposition with the ladies in their finest, looking like they strolled out of central Vienna, and the gardener in his white fez (there was actually a gardener with a white fez in one of the original drafts of ‘The Man From Berlin’: the poor chap got written out, so here he is anyway!)

Goražde and Rogatica

Coming soon…

One Comment on “Sarajevo”

  1. Peter Tong

    This is a wonderful site that I have just discovered. I am an author writing a spy novel set in the build up to the infamous assassination. Although I have downloaded a great deal on the period, I am still short of nuggets of info.

    Currently I need to know about the British Consulate in Sarajevo in 1914. Where it was situated. What it looked like. Do you have anything at all? I would be exceedingly grateful. I promise to read a Reinhardt book immediately!

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