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Monday 3 August 2015

Review: Tim Butcher, The Trigger

This is a beautifully crafted and very readable book. The author retraced - literally, as a hiker - the steps which took Gavrilo Princip from his home village in Austro-Hungarian Bosnia to Sarajevo and the intellectual and emotional steps which turned him into the assassin  of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Narrating his journey, he at the same time writes the biography of Princip and compares and contrasts the Balkans in the 1910s with the Balkans in the 1990s, where he worked as a news reporter. There is some original archival research done on the way. In total, it's a very good book.

Tim Butcher presents Princip as a South Slav nationalist - a Yugo-slav nationalist - rather than a Serbian nationalist. He wanted to free all those who were colonial subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire regardless of their language or religion. Princip was actually (it seems) little interested in how they would then organise themselves.

These claims are important because the rhetorical positioning of the great powers in the run-up to their  First World War cast Princip as a Serb Nationalist in pursuit of what later came to be called Greater Serbia. That positioning allowed Austria-Hungary to point the finger of blame for the assassination at independent (but weak) Serbia and pushed Russia into the role of defender of Serbia, a country populated by fellow Orthodox Christian Slavs.

This is once again one of those fine books which though not written by an academic will force the academics to re-think. 

Criticisms occurred to me at just a couple of points. Butcher makes rather heavy weather of the language issue - is it Serbo-Croat, or Serbian and Croat? - and strangely makes no mention at all of the fact that the south Slavs use two alphabets. Serbians / Orthodox Christians use Cyrillic; the others use Roman. Yugoslavia, when it existed, was obliged to use both. 

Butcher's narrative is about Serbs, Croats and Bosnians (and Herzgovinans - Princip was one). The Slovenes, the Macedonians, the quasi-independent Montenegrins, the Kosovar Albanians, the Jews, the Hungarians, the Roma don't figure. What united them all was merely the fact that for centuries they had been ruled as colonial subjects either of the Ottomans or the Habsburgs. Princip did in fact succeed in freeing all of them from the yoke of those Imperialisms. The brutal conflicts of the 1990s were (at least partly) about freeing themselves from the yoke of a demented Greater Serb nationalism.

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