On June 28th, 1914, an unknown Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger of his gun and assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. This action is the starting point of many books, because it was the catalyst that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War only months later.
But for Tim Butcher, this action is not the beginning, but the end, because instead of going forward from this trigger, he goes backwards, asking questions like: Who was Princip? Where did he come from? What made a 19-year-old commit such an act? What was he hoping to achieve?
He discovers that Princip was born in the remote and tiny village of Obljaj, and travelled to Sarejevo when he was 13 to go to school. Butcher decides to literally follow in Princip’s footsteps, starting by camping in front of the ruins of Princip’s family house, and ending by standing where Princip stood clutching his weapon as the Archduke passed by.
That in itself would have made an engrossing story – and Tim Butcher is a master story-teller, as anyone who has read Blood River and Chasing the Devil knows perfectly well. But Butcher adds another fascinating layer to the story, because he already knows this area, having been sent here as a journalist to cover the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. So he’s aware of the history of the place, the conflicts between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims, and the fact that much of the area still contains landmines.
So on his journey, and through the people he meets along the way, including the Princip family and plenty of fascinating characters (e.g. fishing mullahs!), the author slowly creeps into the skin of Princip and begins to discover answers to the questions he posed. He also uncovers buried treasure: the entire paper record of Princip’s secondary education in Bosnia, which provided clear evidence of the teenage transformation of Princip from country boy to assassin.
He is also retracing his own steps that he took in the 1990s, including Sarajevo, where “the avalanche of memory threatened to bury me: road bridges that I remembered having been primed with explosives; the turning to the village where I found three girls with their throats cut; signboards with place names still so charged that my stomach tightened when I read them.”
Butcher’s journey also included “the most emotional hike I have ever made”, through the same mountains Princip had crossed, intimately connected to the brutal endgame of the Bosnian war … the town of Srebrenica, scene of a horrendous massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.
The Trigger: The Hunt for Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin who Brought the World to War is an excellent and original read, a combination of fascinating history, personal and often harrowing memories, investigative journalism, helpful explanations of the toxic nature of Balkan nationalism, and the story behind what made that 19-year-old pull the trigger that led to one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race.