The Burning of the World

As often occurs when I’m looking for books at the University library, my eye catches a title that piques my interest. This is how I happened upon “The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914” by Bela Zombory-Moldovan. The memoirist in this case is a Hungarian artist, conscripted by the Astro-Hungarian Army at the start of the war. Bela was on holiday in the Adriatic when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia,  a consequence of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by the Bosnian nationalist, Gavro Princip. This was the spark that started the war.

Bela paints a picture of life at the start of the war and his own brief stint as a second lieutenant fighting the Russians in Galicia. Most of my WWI reading and research has focused on the Western Front, so this trek to the Eastern Front was fascinating and horrible.

When dealing with this part of the world, I definitely needed a map to get my bearings as well as a bit of a history lesson of the area. Pre-WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered an extensive geography (the outline in blue of the orange, blue and pink areas shown on the map) and was made up of a variety of ethnic groups that were increasingly interested in autonomy and independence from the Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire coalesced in 1867, so by 1914 there were definite rifts occurring among different groups. The post WWI countries are outlined and named in red.

I’d previously read  that the Austro-Hungarian Army was ill prepared for war. Reading this memoir really drove home that view. The book takes place early in the war when the generals and officers were proud and stupid. They sent men with jammed rifles to face Russian artillery. They prevented the men from digging fox holes because “this leads to cowardice and undermines discipline” although the men dug into the sand anyway (with tin lids because they had no shovels). The men in Bela’s platoon started shooting at each other thinking they were firing on the Russians. The Russian Artillery caused massive casualties. The Austro-Hungarian Army, both officers and infantrymen, were ill-trained and untried. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had about 7 million casualties in WWI out of a population of 51 million. This equates to an average of more than 4500 Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured every day of the war.

Bela is wounded in this early battle with the Russians and returns to Budapest where he is sent to a ward in a military hospital for “crazies.” He leaves the hospital and becomes increasingly disillusioned, not just about the war, but about life. These first months of the war  most people were still riding the patriotic wave and optimistic about the outcome of the war. Bela with his first-hand experiences knew better.



The Trigger

Balkans, political map

Balkans, political map

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.