Non-fiction Review: The Trigger by Tim Butcher

TheTriggerSarajevo, 28th June 1914: a bullet passed through the jugular vein of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the empire of Austria-Hungary. A second bullet struck his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hoehnberg. She fell into his lap. He begged her not to die and assured his companion, Count Harrach, that ‘it is nothing’ moments before he and Sophie died in each other’s arms.

And Europe burned.

The baroque structure of alliances, non-aggression pacts, ententes and armed truces that had kept the European peace for sixty years collapsed like a pack of cards, unleashing a conflagration that scorched the entire world.

Two world wars and a prolonged nuclear standoff later, journalist Tim Butcher was introduced to a Sarajevo that was still burning as it was besieged by a Bosnian Serb militia. During a lull in the shelling, Butcher discovered, in a building being used as a communal latrine, the tomb of a Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip. The man who fired those two bullets.

The name of Princip is familiar to schoolchildren across Europe, but Butcher discovered that little is known about the man himself. He appears for a momentous few moments of history, only to vanish back into obscurity. So Butcher returned to Bosnia to seek out a man who had lived and died a century earlier, and who had defined the lives of so many who weren’t even born at the time with his one action.

Butcher started at Princip’s birthplace of Obljaj, where his family still inhabit the house he was raised in, and where a wall still bears the initials that young Princip scratched into it. Butcher hiked in Princip’s footprints to his college in Sarajevo, where his initial academic excellence faded with poverty and then by his radicalisation as a militant Slav nationalist.

Princip’s story is highly relevant today. He was a member of a marginalised minority who saw little place for himself in the world, so he turned to violent nationalism. His motivations were much the same as those described in Maajid Nawaz’s Radical, which chronicles his own path into radical Islamism in modern Britain.

By 1914, the 19-year-old Princip was willing to kill and to die to resist Austrian hegemony. In the event, the killing was easier than the dying. His arrest probably saved him from being beaten to death by the crowd and as he was under 20 at the time of the shooting, he was spared hanging and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ironically, Princip’s treatment doesn’t support his view of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a heartless tyranny. Most modern courts would consider 20 years a very light sentence for a double pre-meditated murder, especially of two such prominent victims. Not that it did Princip much good; he died of tuberculosis four years later.

The Trigger is simultaneously a travel memoir and a work of history. As he hiked through Bosnia, Butcher discovered that Princip is not venerated by the people he believed he was sacrificing himself for. In a country where the divisions between Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs have dominated so bloodily, Princip’s brand of inclusive Slav nationalism and opposition to a largely forgotten empire has little resonance.

As he follows in the footsteps of Princip, Butcher treads ground that was torn apart by nationalistic antagonism during the Second World War until it was reined in by Marshal Tito, only to explode again when the communist government collapsed. Butcher revisits places he himself reported on with the benefit of knowledge he didn’t have at the time, such as the secret tunnel under the UN safe zone at Sarajevo airport that was used to supply the defending forces.

It’s a travel book chronicling a travel through history as much as through Bosnia, telling the story of Princip’s short, rather sad life and of the century of bloodshed he unleashed with his one bullet.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

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