Book Corner – July 2014 (3)
July 30, 2014
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The Trigger – Tim Butcher
It may have escaped your notice but this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The story behind the tragic unravelling of the complex treaties and security pacts which were designed to promote and guarantee peace but precipitated the major powers into a bloody and catastrophic conflict has given many a historian fruitful ground to examine the causes, to lay blame and point out lessons for the future. So extensive is the literature around the First World War (and the centenary has prompted another flurry of works on the subject) that you would think it would be impossible to come up with a new angle on what for all its tragic qualities is now fairly hackneyed ground.
Tim Butcher’s quirky and engaging book, The Trigger, does just that, focussing on the man whose trigger finger was the catalyst which plunged the major European powers into war, Gavrilo Princeps. The book starts out with Butcher wondering why Princeps is almost a forgotten man in his homeland, Bosnia, something brought home to him when visiting Princeps’ tomb which was being used as a carsey and was covered in graffiti.
The book is part history, part travelogue – Butcher follows Princeps’ journey from rural Obljaj, where he meets some of the assassin’s surviving relatives, to Sarajevo and Belgrade. As well as putting some colour to Princeps’ rather sketchy and short-lived life – he was too young to be hung following his arrest and languished in jail for four years before succumbing to a fatal bout of tuberculosis – Butcher, a former newspaper correspondent who covered the Bosnian war in the 1990s, explores what led to the radicalisation of a boy who was an earnest and studious pupil and what happened subsequently to his homeland. The Bosnian killing fields of the 1990s became the training ground for the first wave of Moslem radicals and was where the Western powers (eventually) got the taste for dropping bombs on people.
Princeps was clearly a dreamer who was bookish and became increasingly more angry when he moved from the area of his birth – vukojebina which means where the wolves fu*k – to the major towns and realised that the poverty that was his family’s lot was not unique to his area. It fed a growing hatred of the occupying powers. Although Princeps has been painted as a Bosnian Serbian nationalist (and this is why now he is now reviled amongst the Croats and Moslem communities in the country) Butcher argues that he was a South Slavic nationalist, explaining why he was embraced by the Tito regime.
It is a bright and breezy book and mixes the quest to discover the real Princeps with an attempt to explain the Bosnian conflict and, more importantly, its consequences. Butcher sees the indie group, Franz Ferdinand, play a concert at Banja Luka where they project an image of Princeps on to the back drop of the stage. Hardly anyone in the Serb audience knows who he is.
If nothing else, understanding what led to the radicalisation of a quiet studious boy is du jour and worth adding another tome to the First World War literature.