The Trigger; Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War is a nonfiction book by Tim Butcher (Grove Press, 2014) about Gavrilo Princip the young Bosnian man who assassinated the Austria-Hungarian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. The act would be the spark that ignited the first world war. At least that’s what the tag line implies.
I found the book to be not as much about Princip as it was about that part of Balkans from which Princip came. Part travel log/memoir and part history lesson, the book primarily moves the reader back and forth between three time periods; the present day, the early twentieth century right before the Archduke’s assassination, and the Bosnian War in the 1990s when Butcher was a war correspondent there.
With that said, this was my kind of nonfiction book that included historical information within a memoir framework. I read it in the evenings over the span of just a few days. It was that good. Granted I’m interested in WWI, and lately I’ve wanted to know more about the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, who he was and why he did it. But what I found even more interesting was learning about the place itself, its history and people of which I knew very little.
Butcher starts the book with his own trek on foot from Princip’s remote village to Sarajevo. This mirrored Princip’s journey one hundred years earlier when he was just thirteen. With his father, he walked for a considerable part of the journey through mountains and valleys. They went to Sarejovo so that Gavrilo could continue his education. This in itself was very unusual for that time and place. Most serfs never strayed from their birthplace.
Butcher and his friend (a Bosnian-Muslim who is now a British citizen) meet a variety of people on their journey. The stories of these present day Bosnians start to explain and frame the Bosnian war of the 1990s that included Bosnian-Serbs, Bosnian-Muslims, and Bosnian-Croats and the long history of occupation and subjugation starting before Austria-Hungary annexed it in the late 1800s. Butcher relates this history as a way to help explain Princip’s rage at the Austrian-Hungarian occupation and why the ideal of a unified Slavic nation could have motivated him to commit murder.
Back in May, my son traveled around this part of the world stopping in Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and other countries. It’s hard to believe that Bosnia is now a tourist destination when 20 years ago it was the site of ethnic genocide, horrific civilian casualties, and crimes against humanity. The author’s journey from Sarejevo to Belgrade included passing through many of these places and remembering some of the horrors that he had seen as a war correspondent. This weaving of his present day personal trek with the horrors of the Bosnian War in the 1990s and the assassin’s own journey was an intricate and thoughtful weaving of the people and places. I found it fascinating reading.
The Balkans are once again in the news as thousands of Syrian refugees (as well as others) are trying to get to Europe to escape the violence and poverty of their homelands. Interestingly, the modern state of Syria as a French Mandate was formed after WWI with the break up of the Ottoman Empire in which the French took control of Syria and Lebanon. It wasn’t until after WWII that the French left, and Syria became an independent country.