Karl-Markus Gauß is an Austrian contemporary writer and essayist.
Balkans Diary

Brčko: The Small Town with an Outsized Role in the Western Balkans

The ethnically mixed city dividing Republika Srpska is a thorn in the side of the Bosnian Serb entity’s leader, who advocates separation from Bosnia.

A few months ago, the Austrian Cultural Forum in Sarajevo, and the German Goethe-Institut invited me to go on a reading tour through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Puzzled faces greeted me once, back home after two stimulating weeks, I told my acquaintances that my journey took me not only to Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka but also to Brčko. Brčko? Never heard of it! Even those with a thorough knowledge of European politics asked where this city with the strange name was located and what its significance was. All the more strange because a remarkable political experiment is being tested in Brčko, a city with both an interesting past that includes some Austrian episodes and a conflict-scarred present. It might be an exaggeration to say that the future of Europe will be determined in Brčko. Yet, how things unfold in the Western Balkans is connected to the fate of this city. Much of what will become of the ideas, ideals, and illusions associated with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into the European Union also has a lot to do with Brčko. The headline of a Neue Zürcher Zeitung article six months ago read, “The key to peace in the Western Balkans lies in the Brčko District.”

„Within a few weeks, almost all Muslims were expelled, and 3,000 were killed.“

Karl-Markus Gauß

The city, with around 45,000 inhabitants, is situated on the Sava River, which originates in the Slovenian Alps, passes by Ljubljana, flows through Zagreb, and will eventually flow into the Danube around 175 kilometres further at Belgrade. In Brčko, the Sava River forms the border with Croatia and hence is an external border of the European Union. Over the centuries, the region was part of the Ottoman Empire until Bosnia was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian army in 1878 and annexed by the Habsburg Monarchy 30 years later. The struggle between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs lasted for centuries, during which the small town was repeatedly destroyed. In Brčko, I met people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds advocating politically opposing positions. Yet hardly anyone criticised the Austrian era. On the contrary, they mentioned that with the coming of the Austrian administration in 1878, modernisation finally arrived. The town was electrified, a bridge was built over the Sava, and Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox children attended denominationally run schools.

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