Tuesday 30 June 2015

Books: Absorbing account of the origins of world war

The Trigger by Tim Butcher, Random House, 
€21.50

Published 25/08/2014 | 02:30

SARAJEVO 1914: The arrest of Gavrilo Princip after his assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie
SARAJEVO 1914: The arrest of Gavrilo Princip after his assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie

In June 1914, a young Serbian radical called Gavrilo Princip emerged in the Balkan city of Sarajevo and shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dominated Eastern Europe.

The daring killing not only caused regional turmoil, but such were the precarious international alliances in Europe at that time, that it led to the disastrous outbreak of World War 1.

In this absorbing book, the British journalist, Tim Butcher, who covered the Bosnian wars in the 1990s, has revisited the region and retraced the steps of Princip, and his cultural background.

Little has been written about Princip, so Butcher visited his home village, deep in the mountains of Bosnia and even hikes and camps across the same beautiful mountains as Princip and his fellow assassins. It is a fascinating account. World War was not the aim of Princip, whose youth - he was just under 21 - saved him from the Austrian scaffold. He was a rebel who wanted to free the region from Austro-Hungarian control.

The Turks had already been pushed out of the region, creating new countries in Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania and Princip wanted to also get rid of the Austro- Hungarians, and create more free Slav states, and indeed a new unity state of such regions in what would became Yugoslavia. But the major European powers were also hovering. And alliances between them meant that one would come to the aid of the other, if threatened.

Notoriously, the Austro Hungarian Empire blamed Serbia itself and made a set of demands on Serbia that it could not fulfil. They then declared war, and Germany backed them up. The British, French and Russians offered to support Serbia. It was shaping up for a big tussle. When the Austro Hungarians invaded Serbia, the Germans launched an attack on France, via supposedly 'neutral' Belgium. But no-one foresaw the sort of savage and meaningless world war that we were facing, which killed millions, and by its end, Europe was transformed - all as a result of an ambush in Sarajevo.

In 1997, I visited the spot where Princip's shooting took place, but the original plaque was gone - the last thing the locals wanted to celebrate was the historic actions of a Serbian militant. This was understandable, given that it was only two years after another, more modern war had occurred in the region, a war in which rampaging Serb forces had besieged Sarajevo itself. But, as Butcher discovers, Princip was nothing like the Serb nationalists we saw rise up there recently. In fact, he was a supporter of the broader Yugoslavia republic of fellow Slavs comprising Croatian, Serbs, Slovenes and others. This was the republic which eventually emerged after World War I, and again after World War II when it became a quite successful multi-ethnic society under Communism and Marshall Tito. But once Communism faded, old rivalries re-emerged, as did the conflict, just as it did in the First World War.

Today, the area has mostly recovered from the different Yugoslav wars, as has the lovely multicultural city of Sarajevo - described as a 'mixture of Istanbul and Vienna'. Tim Butcher's wonderful account begins and ends there. He writes in a vivid and economic way and has created a different way of looking at history, by recreating the steps of a pivotal figure and tackling the complexities and paradoxes of one of the most momentous events of our time.

Well worth reading.

Sunday Independent

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