Amid the vast tonnage of recent books about the first world war this must be the most unusual — and one of the most interesting. The ‘Trigger’ of the title is Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old student dropout who shot the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street corner on 28 June 1914 and began the chain of events that led to catastrophic war a few weeks later.
At first it reads oddly, a curious ragbag of material that seems disconnected. It is part a biography of ‘history’s ultimate teenage tearaway’, as Tim Butcher puts it, part an investigation into some of Princip’s surviving family members in Bosnia, an intensely personal memoir by Butcher of his time as a journalist covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and partly a discourse into the nature of nationalism. Yet he weaves the various strands together so deftly that it ends as a triumph of storytelling.
Princip’s story is well known. A Bosnian Serb, born in peasant penury, he is spotted as a bright boy by the Austro-Hungarian authorities and given a scholarship to the best school in the country, in Sarajevo. For a year he works hard and gets ‘A’ grades, but then he becomes obsessed by radical politics, is sucked into extremist groups, abjures drink, sex and parties for revolutionary nationalism and with three young co-conspirators concocts probably the most infamous and portentous assassination plot in history.
Butcher describes the day of the murder itself brilliantly, with vivid detail, and he handles the ghastly treatment of Princip afterwards with sympathy. Just two weeks short of his 20th birthday, he was too young under the Habsburg laws to be hanged; he languished in a damp dungeon, his tuberculosis left untreated, while his infected limbs were amputated. He died four years later.
Butcher follows the trail Princip took by foot as a small boy from his tiny village in the Bosnian hills to Sarajevo, tracking down members of the presentday Princip clan. Never interviewed before, they are the few people in Bosnia with a kind word for their notorious ancestor. The landscape has barely changed, since 1914, except for villages still scarred from the war of two decades ago.
As a reporter for the Daily Telegraph Butcher saw much of the fighting in Bosnia/Herzegovina and he is still trying to make sense of it. He spent months under siege in Sarajevo when the Bosnian Serbs were trying to starve the city into submission. He spoke to women who were raped by Bosnian Croat soldiers. He met previously secular Muslims who were turned into jihadists by the Bosnian conflict. Like many war reporters he felt ‘a sense of shame about witnessing a war voyeuristically and…being unable to do anything but passively report the atrocities’. Few, though, have written about the dilemma with such honesty and clarity.
Like the best of reporters he can mix the ghastly and the serious with the comic. He has an excellent sense of the absurd. Hilariously, he describes an evening in Banja Luka a couple of years ago, while he was researching the book, when he attended a concert by the British rock band Franz Ferdinand and tried to get an interview with the group’s lead singer.
His conscience wrestles with issues of nationhood and identity, so complex in the Balkans, where once nationalism unified people struggling for freedom and decades later, as Butcher witnessed, divided people so brutally that the result was ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and Srebrenica.
Gavrilo Princip had no idea the bullet he fired would lead to conflagration in
Europe. His cause was simple and was popular at the time, if his methods were not. He wanted to liberate Bosnia from the the Austro-Hungarian empire and create a state for the South Slavs of all ethnic groups, Yugoslavia. It happened five years later, after the Great War, amid wild rejoicing in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb and it is why he is all but universally vilified now, in the former Yugoslavia, by Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Slovenians.
Butcher went to Princip’s tomb near the centre of Sarajevo just before writing this highly original gem of a book. It was being treated as a makeshift lavatory — the floor covered with faeces and used sanitary towels. The ceiling had a gaping hole in it. The image of Princip’s grave haunted him when he thought of the millions dead in the first world war. ‘Had all those people died for a cause so fundamentally opaque that the person who initiated the whole catastrophe could be despised by his own people?’
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Victor Sebestyen’s books include Twelve Days, a history of the Hungarian uprising and Revolution 1989, an account of the fall of the Soviet empire.