Who was the man who started World War I?

Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, could well be the most significant forgotten figure of the 20th century. Author Tim Butcher discusses what he learned about Princip for his book 'The Trigger.'

'The Trigger' is by Tim Butcher.

Gavrilo Princip could be the most important forgotten man of the 20th century. He fired the shots that set World War I into motion a century ago, but his name is on few lips as nations remember.

Back in the 1990s, British journalist Tim Butcher went to Bosnia to cover the war there. Amid the carnage, he came across something peculiar that made him wonder about the assassin and his legacy. Butcher returned and went on Princip's trail in 2012, traveling the same route that the young man took to get to his destiny in Sarajevo.

Butcher recaps his experiences in his deeply fascinating new book The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. From his home in South Africa, Butcher talks about the startling sight that inspired this project, Princip's surprising reputation today in his homeland, and the lessons of a journalist's journey.

Q: The genesis for this book was something that happened to you when you covered the Bosnian War in the 1990s. What happened?

The Bosnian War was a complicated struggle between people who were essentially the same, all Slavs, but cleaved so deeply by religion that they fought as rival nations – orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians.

Amidst all this complexity, I felt I understood one factual certainty: that in Bosnia in 1914, a local freedom fighter had started the liberation of his land from colonial rule when he shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

I knew the gunman was called Gavrilo Princip, but when I found his tomb in Sarajevo during the war, it was being used by locals as a bathroom. A man regarded by history as a freedom fighter was hated locally. Why?

Q: Why do you think this part of the world has so many long-standing feuds?

In the Old World, ownership claims go back a long way. The arrival of migrant peoples, the cleaving of those communities through faith or belief or politics, all create a web of rivalries so bitter they can sometimes result in conflict.

I don't think Bosnia or the wider Balkans has more fault lines than other parts of Europe. I just think they're later in the time schedule and yet to be settled.

Britain was a bloody, divided nation for centuries, yet we see it today as a unified stable nation. Before German unification, the statelets of Germany fought endless wars, and Italy was similar. The Balkans is exactly the same as those other countries, just not as advanced in terms of ironing out rivalries.

Q: Did you detect a difference between the older people you met in the Balkans, like some of the members of Princip's extended family, and the younger generations who may not be old enough to even remember the war of the mid-1990s?

People in their teens or twenties have been brought up largely at a time of peace, and they are relatively free of the tension of older generations.
The older people lived through Tito's Communist dictatorship, and some even were familiar with the horrors of Nazi occupation. They know exactly how the utopian, inclusive ideal of "living together as one Slav, aka Yugoslav, nation" failed completely.

Q: You write about attending a concert in Sarajevo by the rock band called Franz Ferdinand. Young people weren't excited by a mention of Gavrilo Princip. How did he avoid becoming a hero?

Recent events in Bosnia dominate, and Princip played no part in them. Those events, the horrors of the 1990s, were about a war driven by inter-Slav rivalries, nations cooked up along religious lines.

Princip had nothing to do with that sort of thinking and was working toward a much more inclusive ideal of all local Slavs living together, the Yugoslav ideal. He was a hero to Yugoslavs, and today there are not many around who dream the Yugoslav dream.

Q: What did the land itself teach you about Princip and his time and his place? 

It taught me about poverty, about the rigor of feudal life that Princip was brought up under. The Austro-Hungarian colonizers of Bosnia from 1878 to 1918 presented themselves as modernizers, but this was piffle. They did not change the feudal bonds of the earlier Ottoman occupiers.

Princip was, like his forefathers, expected to have a tiny orbit, to go no further than the Livno valley, a tiny Bosnian Serb community of downtrodden peasantry.

By going on the journey he did for schooling, everything changed. The landscape changed for him geographically – less arid, more lush – and the memoryscape changed, too, as he met Catholic and Muslim fellow Slavs for the first time.

That sense of horizons blowing out was strong as I walked his life journey.

Q: Princip seems to be a young man consumed by rage like so many other assassins, and not mentally ill. Does that sound right?

He was not mentally ill. He was angry, and the object of his anger was the outsider, the occupier.

As I showed by finding his school reports, Princip was not a headstrong outlier or a freak. He was part of a large group of young people thinking what was then unthinkable, not just in Bosnia, but across a lot of Europe: How do we get our own voice heard? How do we rid ourselves of the foreign occupier?

Without the vote, rights, transparency, or accountability, many people who might be minded to be moderate were forced into violence. So I see Princip on this journey, a slow, steady transformation.

Q: What were some of the most surprising things that you learned?

The extent to which conventional history can get it wrong. The published record on Princip, including books on the shelves of bookshops today, get it wrong in detail and wrong in analysis.

Sadly, I was reminded of the dictum from Napoleon: History is nothing but the lies that are no longer disputed.

The most disturbing thing I learned is that Princip's drive in 1914 is still around today. He was acting out of nationalism. He had a sense of nation (Slav, not Serb) that is no longer fashionable, but being a nationalist remains terrifyingly fashionable, whether on the eastern border of Ukraine where locals today fight over what it is to be Russian, or in Mesopotamia where people die for a cause of creating a nation for a certain type of faith, demonizing those who do not belong to their faith.

Q: What can we learn from your story about how this region can move forward in peace?

We can learn to look for what we have in common with our neighbors, not to obsess on what makes us different. Inclusivity, not exclusivity. Union, not disunity.

What gives me hope is that the events of the 1990s in Bosnia were so ghastly, nobody wants to go back there. As they say in post-Habsburg Vienna: War belongs in the museum.

Q: What other lessons are part of your story?

Don't blindly trust leaders taking us to war for "essential strategic reasons." In 1914, the world accepted a lie, the one given by the hawks in Vienna who used the Sarajevo assassination to start the First World War, and tens of millions died.

We owe it to those who paid the price then to never to let that happen again.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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