Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Trigger by Tim Butcher: A review.

The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not top of everyone’s holiday destination list, yet it enjoys warm summer weather, beautiful scenery and its younger residents speak impeccable English.  The country also suffered a bloody and traumatic war during the 1990s and became associated, for many outsiders, with intractable ethnic divisions.

While Nato’s intervention in Bosnia, the siege of Sarajevo and the horrors of Srebrenica shape modern perceptions of the region, younger residents are apparently less aware of its role in the events which sparked World War 1.  That’s one of the conclusions reached by Tim Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist, in The Trigger, which centres on the story of Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and plunged Europe into conflict.

The book - part travelogue, part history - investigates how a figure who made such a profound impact on twentieth century history ended up being consigned to relative obscurity, among his compatriots in the southern Balkans.  The author describes attending a concert by Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand in Banja Luka, capital of the part of Bosnia governed by ethnic Serbs.  The stage features a photograph of Princip, blown up to form a backdrop for the show, which prompts few signs of recognition from the young audience of music fans.

I visited Sarajevo in 2012 and made the pilgrimage to a street corner beside Latin Bridge, where the assassin launched his attack on the Habsburg archduke.  A relatively small museum describes the incident and there is a plaque on its outer wall, recording the most basic account of the shooting.
‘From this place on 28 June 2014 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia’.

In The Trigger, Butcher remarks upon the neutral wording of this memorial, as well as the relatively meagre, and at times inaccurate, material in the museum.  He tries to solicit help to research his book from the museum’s board, but receives a dismissive response. 

Throughout The Trigger its author examines with insight the effects of recent historical events on how Princip is remembered in Bosnia and Serbia.  The teenage revolutionary was an ethnic Serb, which, after the wars of the nineties, is an obstacle to Croats or Bosnian Muslims viewing him positively.  However, he was motivated by Yugoslav nationalism, rather than the specifically Serbian variety, so his memory doesn’t resonate much with modern Serb sentiment either.

Butcher starts his odyssey where the assassin is recalled fondly – in the village of Obljaj, now close to the Croatian border, where he was born and brought up.  The author spends time with descendants of the Serb’s family and begins to follow the route Princip took when he left home to be educated in Sarajevo, a journey which would culminate in his political 'radicalisation' and a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand.

The travel material is enjoyable, particularly for a reader who has visited the region, and Butcher does a fine job of contrasting his hike through a rural idyll with the hellish war-zone the same landscape comprised when he worked there as a reporter in the 1990s.  The author’s journey is a canvass upon which he examines the complicated interplay of twentieth century history, nationalism and identity, in the Balkans.

He clearly admires the political idealism which inspired Princip and his fellow plotters, viewing it as part of a broader struggle against imperial oppression, taking place across Europe at the time.  Butcher is careful to distinguish the assassin’s brand of nationalism, which spanned the various Slav peoples of the region, with Serb nationalism, espoused for instance by Unification or Death, a shadowy group within Serbia’s military, also known as 'The Black Hand', some of whose members were in contact with the Bosnian conspirators.

The historical distinction the writer makes has obvious ramifications for Princip’s current reputation.  He took part in a terrorist plot, but, in Butcher’s view, he doesn’t form part of the lineage of modern ethnic extremism, which created mayhem in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s.  The teenage radical, the author asserts, would have been horrified by the recent war in Bosnia. 

By delving into his life as a student, a reader and a prisoner, saved from execution only by his youth, The Trigger is a more personal, thoughtful analysis of Princip’s politics and motivations, than traditional accounts of the war’s origins.       

A plot conceived by a group of students in a provincial outpost like Sarajevo could not, by itself, cause global conflict.  Butcher’s book isn’t really about deep and enduring rivalries among the great powers of Europe, which led eventually to war in 1914.  Instead, it ties together strands of history, older and more recent, which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina propelled bloodily, twice in a century, unto the world stage of geopolitics.

It is also an illuminating work of research, casting new light on an enigmatic figure, neglected lately by historians, who planned and carried out an act which triggered a worldwide conflagration.


yourcousin said...

Damn you, like I don't have enough to do already without adding another book to the reading list.

Owen Polley said...

I'll have to recommend that you add Crimea, by Orlando Figes to that list, I'm afraid.