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Even if you know nothing (or practically nothing) else about World War I, you probably know that it started with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo. At least, that’s about as much as I knew, when I started my World War I crash course several years ago. Exactly why this happened – why the murder of an unloved Austrian archduke in a Bosnian city by a Serbian nationalist caused Germany to invade Belgium to get at France in order to defend themselves a
Franz Ferdinand’s death precipitated the so-called July Crisis of 1914, a period of diplomatic maneuvering between Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain that ultimately ended with the “Guns of August” and one of the bloodiest, most inexplicable wars in human history.
There are a lot of books about the July Crisis, even more so during the centenary commemorations. But even the most detailed volumes I’ve read usually relegate the actual Sarajevo assassination on June 28, 1914, to a page or two. The assassin himself, a nineteen year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip, is usually treated as little better than a footnote.
When I came across Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, it caught my eye for precisely this reason. I wanted to read about the man who unwittingly struck the match that set the world aflame, the man who is usually given a couple sentences at the start of any World War I history, before receding into the dustbin.
Butcher’s account is not a standard biography. Rather, it is an entry into the genre I call Historical Road Trips, a hybrid literary form that combines elements of travelogue, memoir, and history. Well known authors who’ve contributed to this genre include Sarah Vowell (Assassination Vacation) and Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic).
I didn’t know this when I purchased The Trigger, for the reason that Amazon’s one-click shopping allows me to make impulse buys without undergoing any sort of decision-making process. When I found out, however, I wasn’t bothered. I have a great affinity for Historical Road Trips, mainly because I’ve made so many myself. (Let me tell you about the time I dragged my wife and six-month old daughter to the Battle of Cowpens. In July! In a Subaru! We can all laugh now, about how a Park Ranger had to find me and inform me of a cataclysmic diaper blowout… But at the time…)
Butcher’s style will be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Vowell or Horowitz. He sets out to follow Princip’s path to political murder by literally following his path. He begins in the tiny town of Obljaj in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Princip was born. He meets with Princip’s family, and engages in a lengthy conversation with them about their illustrious/infamous ancestor. Afterwards, he sets off on foot with his Bosnian friend Arnie to recreate Princip’s overland journey to Sarajevo. Along the way Butcher dodges landmines from the Balkan Wars, talks to a couple fishermen, and eats wild mushrooms.
Butcher writes in a journalistic style, which makes sense, since he was a journalist and war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. His prose is engaging and detailed and The Trigger is an effortless read.
The problem, for me, is that Butcher doesn’t do a great job “hunting the assassin.” For long stretches of the book, Princip seems to disappear completely. This might be a function of reality. Princip is an elusive figure. He was unheralded and unknown before his historical moment, and he died in prison, forgotten in the hurricane of blood and destruction he’d set in motion. In other words, he didn’t leave much of a paper trail.
Butcher does the best he can. He clearly searches out every scrap of information about Princip, and extrapolates as much as he can from the surviving documentation. He pores, for instance, over extant school records that show a young Princip first succeeding in school in Sarajevo, and later letting his grades slip as he begins his involvement in the Young Bosnia movement.
Despite this, there isn’t enough Princip to fill a book, so Butcher resorts to telling – essentially – two parallel stories. The first is his pursuit of Princip; the second is Butcher’s own experiences as a correspondent during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
Frankly, I did not get a lot of mileage from the latter. I respect Butcher’s work as a war correspondent, including the dangers he faced, but if I wanted to read all about his experiences I would have sought that out separately. It’s just filler here, and borderline navel gazing. There are, obviously, echoes of the Serbian role in the Great War in the Balkan Wars nearly 80 years later. Serbian nationalism and ambition were at work in both. But Butcher never tied the two threads together for me in a meaningful way. Strangely, he espouses sympathy for Princip and his pro-Serbian beliefs in 1914, while disdaining the ruthlessness of the Serbs in the 1990s. (Butcher visits a massacre site from the Balkan Wars while trailing Princip’s wispy spirit).
I liked this book a fair amount, but am far from loving it. It falls far short of the other Historical Road Trip books I’ve read. Butcher checks all the boxes by visiting the sites, sifting through the archives, and interviewing people along the way. Unfortunately, none of it was made memorable. The Trigger is far too solemn, even given its subject matter. Sarah Vowell and Tony Horowitz also tackle grim subjects, but they do it with an eye for the absurd, the humorous, the enlightening. I didn’t find that here.
There is, for example, a set piece in which Butcher goes to Banja Luka to watch the band Franz Ferdinand play a concert. Butcher clearly recognized the delicious preposterousness of an English band named for a dead Austrian heir rocking out in a Bosnian town. Butcher goes to the show, talks to the band and…that’s it. The set piece fizzles out into nothing.
Look, I’m not here to tell you that World War I historiography needs to be funnier. That’s not my line. In fact, I tried out a couple jokes, just to be sure. Sample: Knock-knock. Who’s there? The Battle of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme who? A million dead soldiers.
It doesn’t work on any level.
Still, a hundred years later, trying to illuminate the contours of a ghost, there is no need to be overly funereal. The Trigger really could have used an infusion of wit. (Especially given the fact that trying to recapture a person’s life by actually visiting the landmarks of his life is a quixotic notion. At best it is an earnest attempt to capture something ineffable from the past; at worst it’s just an excuse to write a book).
Amidst the extraneous details and long digressions, The Trigger has things to teach you about Gavrilo Princip. I appreciated that, even if I could have learned them in a more straightforward manner. In the end, we don’t have a lot of concrete information about the assassin. There are the memories of his family, the route of his travels, his grades from school, an interview with a psychiatrist while in prison. There is his photograph, with his eternally haunted eyes. All of this is of interest mainly to a serious World War I buff. For others, it is enough to know that on June 28, 1914 he fired two shots at a moving car, killed two people, and ended up dying of tuberculosis in prison while the rest of the world tore itself to pieces.
Franz Ferdinand (no not the rock band) was the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarians, next in line for the throne, when he was assassinated in July of 1914 in Sarajevo.
Gavrilo Princip was the 19yo Bosnian Serb who murdered him. In his view the best way to bring solidarity amongst all Southern Slavs, they being Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
The assassination of Ferdinand was the trigger that got the dominoes falling. The Austro-Hungarians used the assassination to declare war on S
I wasn’t especially interested in the subject of this book, Gavrilo Princip, 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 Princip indeed.
The outline of the