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

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It was the Balkan wars of the 1990s that first drew Tim Butcher to the man whose shots fired in Sarajevo would herald the First World War. He was in the city, besieged by Bosnian Serbs, working as a journalist when he saw people sloping away from a market to a shell-marked stone-building nearby. Intrigued, he discovered this was the tomb of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The smell told him what it had become. This monument to the city’s most famous patriot was now a makeshift lavatory.

Despite all that has been written on the First World War, Princip has remained largely unexamined. Historians have too often relied on his Austro-Hungarian prosecutors to explain his actions. Much that is stated as fact is not. Princip did not jump on the Archduke’s car. He was not a committed member of Black Hand, the ultra-nationalist Serbian secret society. Even the photo often shown of him being marched away by police is not him, but a bystander caught up in the sweep of arrests.

Butcher, the author of the best-selling Blood River, about the Congo, seeks to uncover the true story by resorting to the trusted skills of the reporter he was – retracing Princip’s life by walking the steps he trod.

It is an approach that works, not least due to strokes of good fortune. Visiting Princip’s childhood home, he finds descendants still living close by; in archives, he uncovers previously unexamined school reports. Incrementally, a real person – one angry, prone to romanticism and often scared – emerges from the propaganda.

Yet what makes The Trigger a page-turning exploration of how the forgotten past continues to inform the present is that it is not just a piece of historical detective work. This makes it more important, and relevant, than many of the commemorative works clogging the bookshops.

The most affecting passages deal with Bosnia’s more recent wars. Recreating Princip’s journey to Belgrade, where his radicalisation was completed, Butcher joins the annual Peace March marking the massacre at Srebrenica. He has been there before: a time when he drove, desperate to establish what had unfolded, into a field where “so thick lay the bones, I remember the back wheels lurching over a rib cage”. Even at the memorial ceremony he now attends, 520 freshly discovered bodies are being buried.

This book shows how Princip thought he was heralding a renaissance for Europe’s southern Slavs. His actions in fact helped uncork the chauvinistic nationalism that still scars the region. It is little wonder that, throughout his journey, Butcher finds that it is not only Princip’s grave but his memory that is no longer honoured.