The Trigger by Tim Butcher

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War is a remarkable historical travelogue that blends the life of Gavrilo Princep, the man who shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen in 1914, thereby setting in motion events that started the First World War, with that of the author's own experiences and memories from time spent reporting on the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995. Delivering a lively history lesson that reaches far beyond a simple retelling of the assassination, The Trigger is essential reading for anyone interested in Balkan and World War I history.

There are a wide range of historical narratives describing the political tectonic plates that led up to the beginning of World War I and its seismic aftermath. Whilst the actual act that was responsible for kick-starting the war to end all wars and that was ultimately responsible for sweeping away the decaying Romanov (Russian), German, Habsburg (Austria-Hungary) and Ottoman (Turkish) Empires has been thoroughly investigated, the man responsible for this act still remains misunderstood. The Trigger rectifies this by answering the central question of why Princep planned and took part in the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, at the age of 19.

Butcher expertly smashes together three narratives, wrapped around the same central Bosnian thread, in order to render one fascinating read. The first narrative details Princep's Bosnian Serb upbringing, his education and Butcher's search for the reasons as to why this young assassin went on to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The second covers Butcher's modern day (2012) journey as he follows as closely as possible in Princep's footsteps through rural Herzegovina to Sarajevo and onwards to Belgrade before his return to Sarajevo and infamy. The last, and most moving, is the memories that Butcher's journey dredges up, from his earlier war correspondent days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and where he was responsible for reporting on the ongoing murders, ethnic cleansing, rape camps and sheer insanity that this war produced.

The Trigger fulfills is travelogue component by describing wonderful landscapes that Butcher journeys through and his interactions with a wide range of Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims on his route through this much fractured country. He also delivers a great one liner on Rebecca West's book Black Lamb and and Grey Falcon which is generally treated with an almost mystical type of reverence: "It is not just loaded with observational riches, but is on occasions irreverent, scatalogical, bitchy and plain batty".  

In addition to the many books of the region which he has referenced, Butcher's meticulous research also includes actual source material such as transcripts of Princip's old school reports, court stenographer's records from his trial and psychiatrist notes taken when he was incarcerated. Incorporating all of this information into The Trigger transports us back 100 years in time and places us right alongside Princep, and it is this that makes the book so readable.

The Trigger provides a different slant on a much analysed subject and one where the stuffiness that sometimes accompanies serious history books is thankfully absent. The strength of research enables Butcher to straighten out many still-held misconceptions about whose cause Princep was fighting for and what end game he was seeking, which given the subsequent events that took place in Bosnia, makes it even more poignant. 

4 stars out of 5

Credit: Bryan Pocius