Book Review: The Trigger

The Trigger:  Hunting The Assassin Who Brought The World To War, by Tim Butcher

As someone who is at least moderately well-read about the beginnings of World War I [1], I did not figure there was much mystery with regards to the assassin of Franz Ferdinand, but this book reveals that there is a great deal of mystery about him and that much of what is received wisdom about him is wrong.  In following the travels of Gavrilo Princip from his small Bosnian Serb village to Sarajevo and Belgrade and back again, the author also examines the horrors of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession in which he was a reporter, examining the way that remote Balkan valleys have had a pivotal role in the affairs of Europe and how the problem of nationalism remains painfully alive in Bosnia to this day.  As is common in the author’s work, there is a great deal of layering in the account, from the author coming to terms with his own remorse as a mostly passive eyewitness of the Bosnian War, to his examination of the complex politics of identity and religion in Bosnian history to his arduous travels in search of truth about one of history’s most important assassins.

The book takes about three hundred pages to cover twelve chapters in which the various layers of the author’s journeys are covered.  We begin with a prologue that shows the gravesite of Princip being treated as an outhouse and then move on to the author discussing his own personal connection with Balkan history and World War I (1).  Then we look at the received wisdom of the assassination and the author’s own teenage experiences in Yugoslavia (2).  A trip to Princip’s home village and an exploration of his support of underdogs (3) is followed by an account of a hike over Tent Mountain (4) to where the author and a Bosnian travel companion (who is soon to return to his job in the UK) end up going fishing in a minefield and arguing about politics (5).  After this the author visits a Franz Ferdinand concert to see one of the more unusual ways that the assassination has carried on in Western popular culture (6) before examining some never-before recognized grades that show Princip’s decline from a model student to a deeply politicized young man (7).  The author looks at the nature of revolutionary life in early 20th century Bosnia and the small world it took place in (8) before taking a journey to Belgrade through Srebrenica that allows the author to talk about one of the more shameful horrors of the Bosnian War (9).  What follows then is a discussion of how it was that Princip and his associates got their weapons (10) and then discusses the luck of the amateur assassin in finding and taking the shots that killed the Archduke and (unintentionally) his Czech noble wife as well (11) before closing with the shadows that fell over Europe and Bosnia and the assassin himself in the years after 1914 (12).

What results from these investigations is a very different picture from the way in which Gavrilo Princip is traditionally viewed.  Rather than being a Serb Nationalist, he is seen as a genuinely passionate but ultimately misguided Yugoslav Nationalist whose anger and fury was directed against an Austrian occupier who had proven no more interested in benefiting the lives of common South Slavs like himself and his family.  His shy bookishness and his timidity and appearance of weakness led him to be consistently underestimated by others, a chip on his shoulder as massive as the mountains in his home territory.  From the author’s sleuthing it is obvious that he was not a tool of the Serbian government and that Austria-Hungary (and Germany) overreached by making excessive demands of Serbia that led to the dominoes falling that led to World War I, but for this reader at least what I found most troubling about the book was the way that a look at Princip revealed a person not unlike myself in many profound ways, a troubling reminder that within my own intense bookishness and pugnacious defense of the underdog there lies the warp and woof of character that in different circumstances than my own upbringing in a poor farming family lies the tinder that continues to set the world ablaze.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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