On the trail of Gavrilo Princip, the most influential teenager in history: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War

Review: This excellent book by journalist Tim Butcher uncovers the story of the Bosnian student who helped spark the first World War

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War
Author: Tim Butcher
ISBN-13: 978-0701187934
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: Sterling18.99

As a 19-year-old student, Gavrilo Princip led the conspiracy to murder Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, when they visited Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, on June 28th, 1914. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia six years earlier, and the couple were inspecting Austrian forces in the territory. Even more infamously, Princip was the one who pulled the fatal trigger, leading to the first World War. As perhaps the most influential teenager in history, one might expect him to be the subject of an extensive literature.

In this excellent book the writer and journalist Tim Butcher finds, to his surprise, that the opposite is the case. The details of the Bosnian’s short life – he was too young to face the death sentence and died of consumption in an Austrian prison in 1918 – are as blurred as the face that stares out from the photographs, because they have been buried beneath the subsequent divisions of Balkan politics and obscured by the debate about the causes of the Great War.

Butcher sets out to discover Princip as a person. By untangling some of the threads of cause and consequence knotted around the assassinations, he tries to understand Princip in his Bosnian setting rather than as the unwitting agent of Europe’s descent into catastrophe.

He does so by taking us on a journey through Bosnia and Serbia as a region and through their troubled 20th-century history. He structures the book with an account of how, knapsack on back, he spent the summer of 2012 retracing Princip’s life story across Bosnia and Serbia and back to the Bosnian capital in the climactic encounter when, the original bomb plot having failed, a chance wrong-turning by the archduke’s chauffeur placed the imperial couple in front of Princip’s revolver.


In his quest to understand what motivated Princip, Butcher recalls not just the crisis before 1914 but also subsequent South Slav (or Yugo Slav) history: the second World War, the years of peace and modest prosperity under Tito and the catastrophic conflict of the early 1990s as communism unravelled and Bosnia, the most integrated state in Yugoslavia, was brutally forced apart into distinct ethnic areas.

Tracking down the Princip family
The book is most informative and powerful when Butcher anchors this layered evocation of time and place in his own experiences as a war reporter in the Bosnia of 20 years earlier. He tracks down the Princip family, who still live in Gavril's home village, in what is now a mainly Croat district of rugged western Bosnia. The family were Serbs from Montenegro whom the Turkish rulers of the Balkans moved north in the 18th century, when they set up an Orthodox buffer zone between Habsburg Catholicism and Ottoman Islam.

Bosnia’s role as a frontier region explains much about its ethnic and religious mix. For long periods its communities – Croat, Serb and Muslim – easily coexisted, but those same identities also provided the basis for explosive feuding when religion became linked to nationalism.

Avoiding landmines still uncleared from the 1990s, Butcher then follows Princip’s path eastwards over the mountains to school in Sarajevo. At every turn he finds memories of the dreadful war he covered as a younger man. He recalls the destruction of the beautiful old Ottoman bridge at Mostar by Bosnian Croats in 1993. He joins the annual commemoration of thousands of Bosnian Muslims who fled Srebrenica along a mountain path under fire from Bosnian Serbs, many dying along the way. At the same time 8,000 of their fellow citizens who remained in the town were summarily executed by the forces of Ratko Mladic, who is still on trial for the crime in The Hague.

Butcher muses on the earlier round of conflict during the second World War when the Nazis backed the nationalist Croatian Ustase while the Allies preferred Tito’s communist partisans (who formed in the same west Bosnian mountains where Princip grew up) to the nationalist Serb Chetniks. Beneath the peaceful surface he notes the telltale signs of a Bosnia still polarised by war, where rebuilt mosques and churches ostentatiously mark out the segregated communities.

Silence, ignorance and revulsion
The key to Princip's place in all this is his invisibility. Time and again Butcher is struck by the silence, ignorance or revulsion that greets his name. His own interest in the subject was aroused during the siege of Sarajevo when the memorial to Princip in the city was turned into a stagnant sewer, the martyr identified with the attacking Bosnian Serbs and an irredentist Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. Twenty years later, however, when Butcher joins a Bosnian Serb audience enjoying, bizarrely, a concert by the British rock group Franz Ferdinand, few recognise the photograph of Princip projected on to the stage set.

This may seem surprising. But, as Butcher reminds us, Princip’s goal was not a Greater Serbia but a Bosnia freed from the Habsburgs.

No Pádraig Pearse, he left only scattered clues about why he so detested the Austro-Hungarians as the new rulers who had replaced the Ottoman Turks. But he was typical of a period when Europe was awash with young men (and sometimes women) who burned with a sense of injustice and believed they could realise by a single, intoxicating act of violence the gospel of romantic nationalism, socialism or anarchism.

For historians the critical issue has been Serb responsibility, because Austria-Hungary accused Serbia of hatching the plot and decided (with German support) to eliminate Serbia as an independent state. This turned a regional issue into a quarrel over the continental balance of power, provoking the Great War.

It has long been known that hard-line Serb nationalists were supportive when Princip came to Belgrade looking for arms for the assassination, though the Serb government knew nothing about it and was appalled at the outcome. But the conspirators comprised Bosnians from all the country’s groups, Croats and Muslims as well as Serbs, and their ideal was some version of a multiethnic South Slav state.

It is small wonder that the heyday of Princip’s cult was in Tito’s Yugoslavia. The nationalist fragmentation that followed was the opposite of what he imagined. By the same token, although the Habsburgs blamed the Serbs, their real problem was the national tension in the Bosnia they had chosen to annex. Only the acts of others turned Princip into the “trigger” of the first World War.

John Horne is professor of modern European history at Trinity College Dublin.