Review of The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War – Tim Butcher

Posted: May 12, 2014 in history, nonfiction, Review
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World War One started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The story of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, is often summed up in a few lines, or less. Tim Butcher redresses this imbalance by exploring the journey of Gavrilo in a book that is part biography, part history and part travelogue. And he shows how Gavrilo’s vision for Bosnia was arrived at and destroyed.

The story starts with Butcher examining the tomb of Gavrilo in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. During the siege of Sarajevo it was being used as a public toilet. This surprised Butcher, who was in Bosnia as a war correspondent. Butcher grew up in a quiet Northamptonshire village that honoured its war dead and, after leaving his journalism career, he wanted to seek answers to what drove Gavrilo to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, thus precipitating a war that claimed Butcher’s great uncle and several million besides. To do this he sought to recreate the journey of Gavrilo from his home village in Bosnia to Sarajevo, Belgrade and back to Belgrade.

Gavrilo family were poor peasants living on the western margin of Bosnia, an Ottoman province administered by the Austrian empire. The Austrians proclaimed they were bringing civilisation to the poor oppressed peoples of the central Balkans, but apart from a few public works, nothing much changed, just the religion of the foreign occupier. Serfdom and crippling taxes continued. Gavrilo was a quiet, bookish child who stood up to bullies, whether he was the victim or not. He did well at primary school, and his older brother convinced his parents to send him to Sarajevo for secondary schooling. This meant leaving his Bosnian Serb village and living as a boarder in predominantly Muslim Sarajevo. He and his father also had to walk for several days to the nearest train to take them to Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. Gavrilo was a model student, but then things began to change. His grades got worse, he needed to repeat some exams, he moved to Belgrade for two years, all the while his passion to rid Bosnia of the foreign occupier growing. Finally, Gavrilo and friends return to Sarajevo to commit the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The final chapter is the sad story of Gavrilo post-conviction, a criminal too young for Austrian capital punishment.

Butcher begins the journey with an émigré Bosnian Muslim in Obljaj, Gavrilo’s home village and still home to some of his relatives. He explores what Gavrilo and his legacy – WWI, Yugoslavia, WWII, Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Bosnian War – meant to them and to the various people he meets on the way. For some it is a personal matter, such as his family living with the ghost of the man who fired the shots that started the Great War. For others, it is a collective matter, and Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats reacted differently at different times. To the Yugoslav states, he was a hero and martyr.

Butcher explores Gavrilo’s motives for the assassination, reaching the conclusion that once more it was the boy standing up for the victims of a bully. Butcher also notes the changing nature of the portrayal of the assassins, morphing to suit the political needs of the portrayers. Along the way he mixes in incidents from his time in Bosnia during the Bosnian War and snippets from history. The result is book that is readable, informative, and provoked a desire in me to recreate Gavrilo’s peregrination, or some major portion of it. I thoroughly recommend this book to all with an interest in history and biography.

Chatto & Windus

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

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