Tim Butcher is the author of several books including the excellent 'Blood River'. He is a former journalist, historian and explorer. He is based in Cape Town. His latest book is about a man, an assassin, who provided the excuse for Austria and Germany to embroil mankind in a terrible world war. The author says in order to write this book he had to wade through 'a century of muddle and misinformation'.
Butcher shows how Princip, who was born on 13 July 1894, was an intelligent and focused South Slav who willingly gave his llife for the cause. He was born to a family that experienced extreme poverty. Revelations about Princip's education and motivation are remarkable and novel. A bright scholar, he began to absent himself from school on numerous occasions. As a result his grades plumeted.
The book is also an absorbing travelogue about the Balkans which the author knows very well. It has also a number of pertinent things to say about the recent Bosnian conflct and the appalling behaviour of Serbia. It is an easy book to read that clarifies very complex ethnic and political issues in a region racked by nationalism and related religious issiues.
We are currently being swamped by books on the Great War; this is one of the very few that should not be missed because it is based on new research instead of being yet another rehash of half-truths and myth. It is pleasing that Butcher does not, unlike three recent books, raise the old outdated question about whether the assassination caused the Great War. In the 24 years prior to 1914 there had been 11 assassinations of Kings, Presidents and the like in Europe and America, none of them led to war. The 1914 assassination would have caused no more than a ripple of sympathy if Austria-Hungary and Germany had not turned it to their advantage. Anyone who doubts this should read the obituaries printed in every major European and USA paper.
The author's tells us how he discovered Princip's tomb during the siege of Sarajevo, a tomb that was being desecrated by Sarajevans. It is an extraordinary story, as is his account of how he came to be fascinated as a child by the 1914-18 war.
In some 12 chapters the author analyses, for example, Princip's troublesome upbringing, his education which was of crucial importance, the reasons why he joined the cause, the annexation crisis, his bravery, the trial and the way his actions have been distorted in many other accounts by historians.
Of major interest is how the author shows that much written about the assassination is a lie. Errors abound in numerous accounts. He documents these in detail.
By using primary sources e.g. the police reports, psychiatric notes and court transcripts, Butcher explains, for example, that Princip's schooling resulted in him losing his way at an early age, and what motivated him as a very young man to engage in the assassination of the Archduke on 28 June 1914.
Unfortunately, revolts in the Balkans in the 1990s led to the destruction of many original documents concerning Princip. Nevertheless, Butcher has been able to marshal impressive evidence to demonstrate that many of the written accounts of the actual assassination are pure fiction. It is clear, for example, that Sophie's death was a pure accident. Butcher, as have others, also scotches the view that Princip was acting solely for Serbia, his story has been twisted by Austria Hungary and Germany in order to justify the former's attack on Serbia. In brief, the author believes the war came about as the result of deliberate lies, by Austria-Hungary in particular. He adds that by the 1990's Princip had become in the Balkans:'a scapegoat for all seasons'.
Butcher has a great deal of sympathy for Princip seeing him as a freedom fighter fighting to free his land from tyranny. His reasons are balanced and convincing. He rightly criticises accounts that state Princip's nationality, in truth he swas a Bosnian. His argument that the assassination had no support from the Serbian government, and that Austro-Hungary used it as an excuse, a fig leaf, to attack Serbia, is irrefutable in the light of currently available evidence. The assassination was used in the same way that Tony Blair and Bush used WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq. Both were based on lies and resulted in tragedy and scores of dead and maimed. Austria's action, backed by Germany, changed the map of Europe.The gross lies of Blair, continuing to this day, are changing the map of the Middle East.
At his trial, Princip insisted that his motives were fuelled by a hatred of the Austrian colonial occupiers of his country, and that he wanted to liberate all south Slavs. He was too young to be given the death sentence (he avoided it by a few days only) so instead he was sentenced to 20 years in a military jail, permanently shackled with 22lb leg irons. 3 of the other conspirators were hanged, two were pardoned.
The author reminds us also of the significance of the number plate on the Archduke's Graf and Stift car, it read: A11118! I know of only one other account that has mentioned this astonishing fact. It is also pleasing to note that Tim is aware that the Archduke's car did have a reverse gear-it can be seen today! So many accounts make the basic error of stating there was no reverse gear. Clearly, the authors have never been to Sarajevo.
Princip died in prison his bones eaten away by tuberculosis. He also lost an arm during his time in jail.
The notes, photographs, maps and bibliography are excellent.
I am pleased to see the sources include Vladimir Dedijer's book 'The Road To Sarajevo'. It is an outstanding book, as is Rudolf Zisler's: 'How I Came To Defend Princip and Others', published in 1937.
Not to be missed.
on 3 June 2014
Gavrillo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 and in doing so triggered the First World War. That much I and most of the rest of us know. What drove Princip to pull the trigger; there I'm a little hazier, what happened to him next and did he achieve his ultimate goal; there I knew nothing. Tim Butcher draws on his experience as a journalist covering the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990's to join the dots between the motivations of Princip at the start of the 20th century and those of is compatriots at end of it.
Butcher sets of to follow the route that Princip took from leaving his remote mountain home to the streets of Sarajevo and the assassination. Bizarrely and a little conveniently he runs into the remains of the Princip family right at the start of his quest. Much of the narrative is taken up with his reminisces of the wars of the 1990's and the horrific acts of barbarism that took place then. Before reading The Trigger I knew enough about the origins of the First World War and about the Yugoslav wars to bluff my way through but now I feel that my understanding of both conflicts is deeper and that I could hold my own with confidence.
An entertaining, interesting and informative read
on 2 June 2014
After all the puffs on the cover ("A fabulous book," "Lucid, passionate, urgent," "First class history" - this last from Andrew Roberts, as if he'd know), I was rather disappointed with The Trigger. The ostensible subject is an excellent one to explore and I was very keen to read about Princip after seeing the cell he was incarcerated in in the Theriesenstadt (Terezin) fortress.
But although there is some interesting material in Tim Butcher's book, this is greatly outweighed by all the stuff about him and his journey across Bosnia, which took up far too much space in the book and was rather boring into the bargain. I suppose the problem was that there just isn't enough about Princip to fill a book so it had to be padded out with descriptions of long walks as well as the more recent history of Bosnia: interesting in itself but covered far better elsewhere.
Butcher did uncover some genuinely interesting material: the meeting with Princip's family and the school reports, but inevitably in the circumstances there's great reliance on secondary sources.
There's also a problem over his treatment of ethnic divisions in Bosnia, now and then: at some points he revives the (false) "ancient ethnic hatreds" meme, at other points he questions it, and better editing might have reduced the confusion here. And another irritation: there are far too many Americanisms: Mom for Mum, downtown for town centre, casket for coffin etc. He may live in South Africa now, but he's British and worked in the UK for many years and these Americanisms really begin to grate after a while.
So, a study of Gavrilo Princip is a really interesting subject but there's not enough about him and far too much about Tim Butcher, so I think 3 stars is a fair marking.
Subtitled, “The Hunt for Gavrilo Princip; The Assassin who Brought the World to War,” this is part biography, part history and part travel book. Indeed, it is written by Tim Butcher, who is probably best known for his travel writing and whose interest in Gavrilo Princip was first aroused when he was a young reporter in Serajevo during the Bosnian War in the 1990’s. He recalls how he witnessed locals using a stone building as a makeshift lavatory, only to discover they were desecrating a memorial to Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Why, he wondered, were the people of Serajevo so dismissive of a man who fought for their freedom?
Many years later, the author decided to follow the trail from Princip’s home in a countryside now still dangerous from mines left over from the war, to the end of his life. During this book the author asks why WWI is still so important and looks at the impact on Princip’s actions on the history of the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats in the region. He questions whether the assassination was the spark that ignited the conflict and, on his journey, looks at the complicated history of the region as well as that of Princip’s himself.
This is a very interesting read; for many different reasons. I was fascinated by the story of Gavrilo Princip, which was at the heart of this book. A young boy – still a teenager – who left a countryside where life still followed an almost medieval pattern. A boy who had academic ambitions; who travelled to the city to study and who dropped out in 1911. In fact, three of the dropouts that year would become revolutionaries; the education system a breeding ground for radicalism. The story of this young man is still relevant today. This teenager who fought for the cause of ridding his country of Austo-Hungarian rule and who fired the trigger which assassinated both the Archduke and his wife. The formative years of his young man’s education has significance, as the author highlights that Princip had, “the rage of the oppressed,” which is sadly still all too relevant in our world.
Princip considered his attack on the Archduke a grand gesture – a “noble act.” I was struck by the fact I had read this story from a completely different viewpoint in, “The Assassination of the Archduke,” by Greg King. As such, it was really interesting to see the story from the side of the assassin himself and I recommend this book for anybody interested in both WWI and in the history of a country which has seen so much conflict and yet retains such diverse sense of identities. A very moving book in parts, which follows the story of the author and the people he met in the 1990’s as well as events so long ago, At times I found the meandering pace of the book a little slow, but generally, this was a very interesting read.
A fascinating investigation into the life and times of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian student who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, and thereby triggered World War One.
This concise, accessible, compelling book is part history, part travelogue, and part memoir, which clearly explains the history of the Balkans and why, despite his momentous action, Princip is now all but airbrushed out of the history of the region.
Tim Butcher also weaves in his own memories as a young reporter sent by the Daily Telegraph to cover the Bosnian War, during which he chanced upon Princip’s tomb being used as a toilet.
Not only did I come away from this book with a clear understanding of the complex history of the region, but also how the role of certain players can be celebrated or ignored according to the prevailing narrative in which the history is written.
Princip’s primary motivation was to rid his land of the occupying Habsburgs who, like the Turks before them, presided over an almost feudal system that perpetuated the grinding poverty of his own family and which they shared with the three major communities in Bosnia: the Orthodox Serbs, the mainly Catholic Croats and the Muslim Bosniaks.
To better understand how Princip came to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, Tim Butcher makes the same journey Princip made, a walk from Vukojebina (“the place where wolves f***”), Princip's desolate rural home, to Sarajevo, negotiating minefields left over the Bosnian War of the 1990s.
If you're interested in World War One, twentieth century European history, travel writing, or finding out about the area previously known as Yugoslavia, then I feel sure you’ll find lots to enjoy and appreciate in "The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War”. It’s taut, well written, very atmospheric, engaging, provocative and, as I said at the outset, fascinating.
One of the most extraordinary facts I discovered was the numberplate of Archduke Ferdinand’s car was A111118. A numberplate that had no resonance at the time of the assassination but which also happens to be the date of Armistice Day - the moment when, after four bloody years, World War One ended - or the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.
In the last year or so I’ve read 12 books about World War One and can confidently state this is unmissable.
Gavrilo Princip's actions changed the world, and yet he himself left almost no historical footprint. He is a cipher, a mere cog in the wheel of history. He is the man who set the First World War in motion, nothing more. In himself he is almost unimportant; he simply needed to do what he did in order for history to follow its preordained path.
You'd think all that was true, from the way history and historians have treated Princip. Pick up almost any book on the First World War and you will read that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo - and it might say very little more than that. Even the language used is telling - the Archduke 'was assassinated', almost a passive act. Not 'Princip assassinated the Archduke'. Princip's actions, his own history, his motivations, his worldview, his beliefs - these aren't relevant. A mere cog in the machine.
Tim Butcher sets out to overturn that, to retrace Princip's steps in his native Bosnia. And yet somehow, again, Princip slips through the cracks. This book isn't about the nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip. He is the framework on which the tale hangs, but it isn't really about him. It's about Bosnia; it's about the twentieht-century's murderous legacies; it's about the Bosnia War; and it's about Tim Butcher. Princip emerges from the shadows on occasion, but the sections of this book really devoted to him could be condensed into just a few chapters. More than anything else, this book is about Tim Butcher retracing his own steps as a young war reporter in Bosnia.
And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Butcher is an engaging travel companion - he has a fine eye for the unusual and picaresque, a whimsical turn of phrase, and a touch of real poetry. On the occasions when Princip comes to life he leaves you longing for more, for a deeper understanding of how this one young man's actions changed the world. It is fascinating how this small neglected impoverished country could have so fundamentally altered the path of history, not just once with the First World War, but again later in the century with the Bosnia War, NATO's first military intervention after decades of preparing for war against Russia, an intervention which opened the gates to Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. Bosnia served as a training ground for jihadists fighting on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims, experiences which would later come home to roost for the West.
If you pick this book up hoping for a straightforward biography of Gavrilo Princip, you will be disappointed. Princip's actions may yet be impacting upon history, but he himself left so little mark any biography would be a disappointment. But if you approach this book with a open mind and follow Butcher on his journey, I doubt you'll come away discontented.
on 27 May 2014
The author describes the people and places both in recent times and all those years ago in 1914 along the path taken by Gavrilo Princip from his early days, as a student in Belgrade, the idea and preparation for the assassination, the assassination itself, and his eventual demise in prison. It is a convincing account with plenty of interesting detail. The author puts you in his shoes and you see the scenes he sees or pictures in his mind, such as Princip and two other assassins in a Belgrade park learning to shoot.
There is plenty of context and explanation and as the book progresses you feel you really understand the characters, how they lived and what they believed, especially Princip. It also usefully throws light on the problems in that part of the world today.
There is one question and it is the reason why I don't give the book five stars. Is it a complete story of the assassination plot itself? I suspect it isn't. The Black Hand and Apis are mentioned but simply as the suppliers of the hand grenades and pistols.
Ilic, Princip's old friend in Sarajevo, is mentioned and given the co-ordinating role on the assassination day itself.
It seems unlikely that Princip, in Belgrade, simply wrote using round about language to Ilic, in Sarajevo, where Princip had not been for some months and had left before it was publically announced that the Archduke was going to Sarajevo, saying he and two others planned to assassinate the Archduke, they had enough weapons, would he, Ilic, recruit more assassins, and Ilic, almost immediately finds three more in Sarajevo with probably not much more than a month to the Archduke's visit, and one of these additional assassins, like Ilic, has connections with the Black Hand.
Something else was going on. What was it?
on 7 April 2016
I just loved this book. Read it!
It is a mixture between a biography of Gavrilo Princip, a general history of Bosnia, a travelogue of the author tracing the path of the assassin and the Yugoslav break up in the 90s.
I thought the different threads of the storied weaved themselves well together and brought a more in depth understanding of all the stories. It really brought home how important this region is to the surrounding powers and the impact of nationalism in the area to the general history of Europe over the past century.
The hiking through the countryside worked as a device to describe Bosnia and let us imagine it through the eyes of Gavrilo and also allowed us to see the lasting ethnic differences and also the history of Bosnia. Told as a story rather than jut a dry history.
I thought the book benefited from the author’s obvious emotional attachment to the subject of the war in Bosnia as he had worked as a war correspondent in the area and this really added to the depth of the story at this time. The Srebrenica story in particular was heart-breaking and had me crying on the train on my morning commute. This is a moving and sad book that will stay with you after you have finished it.
This was fascinating and despite the troubled history of the region made me want to go to Sarajevo immediately and see where all these things happened.
An absolutely fascinating book if you are interested in the history of the region and its effects on wider Europe. Even if he did debunk the sandwich story which I always thought was a great one even if it is not true.
on 26 September 2015
I wasn’t especially interested in the subject matter of this book to begin with; I read it because I had been impressed by one of Tim Butcher’s earlier books, Blood River, an exciting and well-written account of a long and dangerous journey through Central Africa. Like Blood River, The Trigger is a mixture of history, travelogue and journalism – a format Butcher does very well. It is just as good as Blood River, and I ended up being very interested in its subject indeed.
The outline of the book is thus: In the early 1990s Butcher is a young correspondent in the Balkans, covering the conflict for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. In Sarajevo he finds people using a small building as a toilet, and is bemused to find that it is the mausoleum of Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the city led to the First World War. Butcher moves on but does not forget this odd sight, and in 2012 he resolves to walk across Bosnia and Serbia in Princip’s footsteps. Butcher wants to see if the journey to see if doing so would illuminate the chain of events that had led not only to that war but to the one he covered 80 years later.
In 1907 the 13-year-old Princip walked most of the way from his home in Western Bosnia to Sarajevo to get an education. Later, as a radicalised, political young adult, he went to Serbia and there hatched the plot to kill the Archduke; then, armed, he walked back. It is these journeys Butcher wants to recreate. He starts by enlisting Arnie, his former fixer from Bosnia, as a companion. Arnie, a Bosnian Muslim, is now living in London but, after some thought, he agrees. Meanwhile Butcher tries to track down Princip’s birthplace, Obljaj. This is hard, as it is an obscure hamlet deep in what Bosnians call the vukojebina (literally, “where the wolves f**k”). He eventually finds it on an old map in the bowels of the Royal Geographical Society. He and Arnie make for Obljaj.
It’s when they get there that this narrative, a little slow to start, really takes off. The Princip home is a ruin but, quite unexpectedly, they find the Princip clan still living next door. No-one can remember Gavrilo, who died in 1918. But at least one man remembers his parents in their old age, and the folk-memories of Princip are strong. The next day Butcher and Arnie start a long walk to Sarajevo. The memories of the Princips, and Butcher’s own diligent research in Sarajevo, uncover a great deal new about the assassin. His killing of the Archduke is part of history but the man himself, locked up at 19, dead at 23, has always been a footnote. Butcher brings him very alive. He also conjures up a vivid picture of Sarajevo as Princip would have found it in 1907, and it reminds me very much of Aleppo, where I lived for several years in the 1990s.
Moreover Butcher finds that Princip’s story does provide keys to the region’s history, and to the conflict of the 1990s. One or two themes emerge strongly from the book. In Butcher’s view, Austria-Hungary, which had only occupied Bosnia in 1878, was a colonial power there, extracting resources – chiefly timber – and giving a little back, but not much. Princip’s fanaticism was rooted in a hatred of what he saw as an oppressive colonial regime that has kept his people miserably poor. (He was himself the seventh of nine children; the previous six had all died in infancy.) Moreover the people Princip saw as his were all the South Slavs, not just Serbs. He was not a Serbian nationalist as such (and in Butcher’s view, Serbia did not support the assassination). Princip was an anti-colonial freedom fighter.
But perhaps the most interesting perspective in this book is Arnie’s. At the time people outside Yugoslavia blamed the 1990s war on ancient primitive hatreds, rather as they spoke of Northern Ireland when I was growing up, and see Syria now. Arnie doesn’t buy it. “Those people who said, ‘These people have always hated each other’ were just being lazy,” he tells Butcher. “In my own life I saw people from different communities work together, live together, get married even. There was nothing inevitable about what happened in the 1990s. It was just that a few – the extremists, the elite, the greedy – saw nationalism as a way to grab what they wanted.”
Like Blood River, this is a thoughtful, well-written book, an absorbing read but also full of insights. Butcher’s knack of combining several roles – the historian, the travel writer and the journalist – serves him well. I look forward to seeing where he does it next. Meanwhile The Trigger is excellent, and could well be my non-fiction read of the year.
on 14 July 2014
This is an impressive book that explores the actions of one young man and how history twisted his aims. Tim Butcher has done an exemplary job of investigating the short life of Gavrilo Princip and presenting new details in a highly readable way. The ensuing tragedies are laid bare with the care of someone who wants to investigate the truth and share a passion for the subject with the reader. Sections detailing the hatred that emerged after the break up of Yugoslavia are written simply and clearly while carrying great force. Tribute must be paid to the author in combining fine writing, an eye for detail and gentle humour. A searing read.