Thursday, 20 November 2014

My review of Tim Butcher's "The Trigger"

Attending the Chalke Valley History Festival this year, one presentation stood out for me.  Tim Butcher, talking about Gavrilo Princip, on the 100th anniversary of the day of his infamous deed, was easily the best lecture / book presentation that I saw that weekend.  In fact, it was probably the best lecture / book presentation that I have seen in many a long year.

Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist turned historian/travelogger, is an absolute natural in front of an audience.  Speaking without notes, he was utterly coherent and convincing, funny, moving - and with his mane of blond hair - not unlike a lion, prowling the stage.  Naturally enough, I bought a copy of his book - as did countless others.  If the lecture was a sales pitch (which, in a large sense, it was), it must have been rudely successful.

The book, however, is rather less successful.  It is certainly well-written: Butcher is as seductive in print as he is in the flesh, but to the cold, objective eye, it has a few shortcomings that are less easily glossed over. Most seriously, it swiftly becomes very evident that Butcher has precious little material on his subject to go on.

What he is trying to do is to construct a journey, following in Princip's footsteps from the village of his birth, Obljaj, to Sarajevo, to Belgrade, and back to Sarajevo for his fateful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand - the spark that would ignite simmering tensions and launch the First World War. In this journey, Butcher does indeed unearth a few gems.  His meeting with Princip's extended family members is a case in point, ditto his discovery of a engraving of Princip's initials on a stone slab in the garden of his former home.  Also, he does well to unearth Princip's school reports in Sarajevo, and is able thereby to track the transition of the gifted student to the embittered assassin.

But, beyond those aspects, Butcher is really feeding off scraps.  So complete, it seems, is Princip's deletion from history that Butcher struggles to bring his subject alive, and is reduced at salient points in his narrative to wondering - rather unconvincingly - whether Princip "passed this way" or "took in this view".  To be blunt, there is too much "Tim Butcher" in the book, and not enough "Gavrilo Princip".

There are a couple of important revelations.  Butcher asserts, for instance, that Princip was motivated more by South-Slav nationalism than the narrower Serbian nationalism with which he is usually accused.  Its a good point, but given that the main motor of South Slav nationalism was Serbia, perhaps a rather irrelevant one.  Princip was still acting - directly or indirectly - in Serbian interests when he pulled the trigger in Sarajevo.  In any case, the nuances of the assassin's precise motivations have very little bearing on the wider question of the war's justification or supposed 'futility'.  By the time that Britain declared war on Germany, much bigger fish were frying.  Princip was already a footnote.

Butcher's is a valiant effort to bring one of history's most famous - and infamous - assassins to life, but it cannot in my opinion be considered an unqualified success.  "The Trigger" is a good read - and many will enjoy it and undoubtedly be enriched by it - but it doesn't bring us much nearer understanding who Gavrilo Princip really was.  He is still enveloped by the mists of history and one has to wonder whether he will ever truly emerge.

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