Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Gavrilo Princip, Weaponized History, and the Role of the Historian (Interview with award-winning author Tim Butcher on his new book “The Trigger”)

81HsiL6LBUL._SL1500_Tim Butcher is a former foreign correspondent with The Daily Telegraph who has reported from war zones around the globe—Kurdistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sarajevo. Five years ago he transitioned to writing books. His style blends history and travel into a compelling narrative.

His new book The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War traces the life journey of Gavrilo Princip from his childhood in northwestern Bosnia to the fateful day he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.


How did you choose to write a book about a figure like Gavrilo Princip who has a mixed reputation around the world?

As a British person I have a connection to the First World War. There is such a monumental impact on my people, on my bloodline, on my place and I don’t think all the ends have been morally tied off. There are questions: Was it worth it?  What was it all about? And those questions don’t trouble the Second World War or the Cold War or the Fauklands War or the Gulf War. But the First World War is on another level because there is this haunting sense because of these questions. They written in the great words of the poets of the First World War that we as Britains can still recite. You are exposed to them at memorials every November. There aren’t poets for the Korean War or the Gulf War, but there are for the First World War. So that’s part of the story. As a british person wanting to understand why and was it worth it.

But also there is something personal for me. As a young man I went to Bosnia, that small piece of Balkan mountains cape in southeast Europe, and I was really confused. This is a complicated story with neighbors killing neighbors. Where does this hatred come from? Are they doomed to do this forever? Or was it created by some external force? So these two issues collide together. Because the First World War—my understanding and everyone’s narrative of the story— is triggered by an assassin.

We know there are other events after the assassination—higher levels with emperors and chancellors—but it does start with an individual act. History has retrofitted onto that act colossal importance. A young man pulls a trigger. And that’s all we really know. I wanted to strip away the big stuff of the First World War, which has already been looked at, and go back to the original sin, if you were. Why does it allide with my experience in the Balkans in the 90s? Because when I am in Sarajevo, in the city you are in now, I come across a building which is being used as a bathroom and it turns out to be the tomb of Gavrilo Princip.

That really confused me because, hold on, here was a man who from my basic understanding of history brought freedom to Sarajevo and to the Bosnia and the wider Balkans. He’d done something desperate and violent, but he had brought freedom and yet he was hated all these years later.

So it’s the coming together of those two strands.

Two words you mentioned: understanding the morality of the first world war and the confusion of Bosnia. Both of those words really apply to Gavrilo Princip’s story. It took courage to jump into a story that has issues of morality and historical confusion in them. Could you speak to that. What is there about this story that draws up so much confusion and so many questions of morality?

I would answer that on two levels. It is intriguing, so much has been written about Gavrilo Princip but even from my basic understanding in the preliminary research, a lot of what has been written is plain rubbish. That’s one part of the story.

The other is that Gavrilo Princip can only be seen as a Balkan man through the filter of events in the 1990s. The 1990s was a time of national ethnic extremism when in order to define yourself you had to define an enemy—someone who is against you. The recognition of Bosnia as an independent state angered some people who said, “Wait, we are attached to Serbia across the Drina river. This is a hostile act.” It grips. That gripping of ethnic importance gives a filter. For many people they could not look at Gavrilo Princip with looking through that filter.

Now as a foreigner and an outsider and as someone whose great uncle dies in the First World War, I want to take that filter away. I want to look at him as he was in 1910, 11, 12, 14. What was he doing? What were his motivations? In what way was he connected (or not connected) to the Balkan attitudes I saw in the 1990s. You say it was brave to take these things on. But I think it is not brave, it is important. Because so much misrepresentation of Gavrilo Princip has fed into the historical narrative.

Now when you take on a subject like Princip, you are not going to struggle for material. Everyone has written, made films, documentaries, journalism, even fiction around the narrative. But my challenge—it becomes clear very early on this is the crucial thing to do—is to sieve out all the rubbish. When I say rubbish I mean small things like: was he using a revolver? No he wasn’t. He was using a different gun. That might sound trivial but let’s get it right. Was his target pregnant? The Archduke’s wife was sitting next to the Archduke and it has entered lore that she was pregnant. Not true. That the car they were riding in had no reverse gear which explains how it paused there. Not true.

Those are small things. So I get the sieve and I am shaking it like a gold panner in the Klondike looking for the nuggets.  But the really important thing is: Why was Gavrilo Princip doing this? Why did he take those shots? And this is crucially important. It is not a small thing like what food was he eating. There is some spurious piece of rubbish written by a film maker  who wanted to fill the space. He has Gavrilo Princip going into a coffee place, Moritz Schiller’s Delicatessen on the corner where the assignation happened. And this film maker has him eating a sandwich and buying a drink. That’s great, but it’s not true. And it enters into the historical narrative. Relatively trivial. But much more important—what was he doing this for?

Because we remember that Vienna uses their interpretation of that event to justify war. They believed he was an agent of Serbia and they attack Serbia as an act of direct retaliation. It’s a really important point. You have to test it. You have to put it in the sieve and shake it around. Once I did the shaking, what’s really astonishing, is that there is no evidence to support it. None at all. And this means we have to look at this man not as a Serbian, because he doesn’t come from Serbia. Let’s remember this. You are someone who appreciates the difference. It’s a very sensitive word. He is a Serb. He is a Bosnian-Serb, but he is not a Serbian. He is a citizen of Austria-Hungary in exactly the same way Adolf Hitler was a citizen of Austria-Hungary. He had a reisepass (journey pass) to be able to travel and he did on trains, to zagreb, to the coast, towards Vienna. He was not from that country over the river. Was he an agent of that country over the river? Shake the pan and see what stays in the grid. It’s absolutely clear he was not. There is not connection to the Black Hand group which was, as you well know as a historian, the extreme Serbian nationalist group active in Serbia. There was no connection between Princip and that group except for purely opportunistic reality that went to their advantage. And in that connection, interestingly, was a Bosnia-Muslim within Belgrade. Again, the Bosnian-Muslim element just dropped out of the historical narrative. They just want to make it simple. Oh, he’s Serbian. It must have been a Serbian thing. Although it is clear from the research and clear from the historical record that he has no direct connection with the Serbian government. Yet Vienna uses this as their reason to go to war—as their casus beli. This, for me, is the original sin of the narrative of the first world war which explains this sense of why we still have uncertainty—moral uncertainty of what it was worth. We went to war because of Vienna’s hawks, pumped up in confidence by Berlin. But they did it deliberately. This is intriguing. And that’s the key.

You mentioned in your book that the Serbian government tried to prevent Princip’s group from getting back into Bosnia but were too late in tightening up the borders.

It is a small country, Serbia, and let’s remember, it is not even 40 years old at this time. Israel is older today and Israel doesn’t even have borders—we don’t even know where Israel’s borders are; they are still being negotiated. So Serbia is a small undefined place. It is greedy and wants to get more land in the south. It wants to get the old Metohija land near Kosovo. The government has no interest in a war with Austria. None at all. They know what will happen. And yet there are some extremist who have a different motive. And yes they exist. And yes they are real and should be in the historical record. But let me tell you that some fine historians have written and have accepted the Vienna narrative that Gavrilo Princip was an agent of Serbia and that the assassination was organized by a group that was in the Serbian government called Ujedinjenje ili smrt (unity or death). There is no evidence for that whatsoever.  In 1917, the government of Serbia is going to execute the commander of this extremist group for treason. He gives testimony in the witness box as he is fighting for his life, “Now hold on, to prove my credentials, I was involved in the Atentat, the assassination of 1914. It was all my work. Gavrilo Princip was one of my boys.” Did he provide any other evidence? No. Is he a man saying whatever he can to save his life?  Yes. And amazingly, his story is accepted. And I think that is weak historical ground.

Talking about history and you as an historian and someone who has dealt with the complicated issues of history. Growing up I thought of history as that which has happened—simply a record of the past. Obviously, living in the Balkans now, perhaps being older with a more mature view of the world, you realize how malleable history is, how people bend it, and how it can be weaponized to accomplish whatever purposes people are pursuing.

I agree.

I just recently read an article about how Princip is taught in different school books throughout the region. The differences are fascinating. As a historian writing the story of someone who has been—as you’ve said— misinterpreted though out the years, how do you see the role of history in shaping the future? How do we use history to make a clearer path towards the future?

We have to keep history pure. Napoleon very glibly said, “History is nothing but the lies that are no longer disputed.” If you think about that sentence, it is amusing at one level but deeply depressing at another. It is saying that history is nothing but how the strong wish to shape it.

In Bosnia, you used a very good word there, history can be used as a weapon. You can weaponize it. You can use it to justify disgusting acts. You can dehumanize your enemies “because history tells us that last time we were the victims and now it’s our turn to impose victimhood on someone else.” As a historian, the really important thing is to use history to earth that hatred. As a lightning conductor takes power from the sky in a lightning strike and disperses it into the ground, the pure historian’s role is to earth that hatred. Now, let’s not be naive. We’re not going to get to the absolute truth. As much as I would love to say we can polish up a story with 100% accuracy, we are dealing with humans here. There are going to be wobbles. But our important thing to do, as a historian, is to set into context and set into balance those things which can be used for imbalance or prejudiced arguments.

Now there will be some historians who will discount my version. They say, “But hold on, he was a terrorist.” I would say, “Stop there.” Gavrilo Princip shot a man and a woman. He didn’t plant a bomb in a bus to kill civilians. He didn’t fly a plane into a tower. He didn’t detonate a bomb at a memorial service. He didn’t strap a bomb to himself and walk into a crowded space. He had a gun and he shot. That makes him something different from the word terrorist as applied to, say, Osama bin Laden. How can you make a moral equivalence? He had a gun, he had a target, he had an aim. It was clumsy. He shoots one time and then he’s going for another military target when his arm is jostled and he hits a woman. Throughout his court hearing and prison sentence he consistently expressed regret for the death of Sophie. He did not set out to kill her. it was clumsy but there was no intent.

For a historian, that is a grotesque misuse of the word “terrorist” to put him on the same plane as bin Laden or IRA terrorists. But yet some people with PhDs in history and academic titles and professorships and chairs will use that title. And I think as a historian, we have a duty to put things into context if only to earth that weaponizable hatred.

A quote from Miss Irby about history. She said, “History is not holy because it is full of lies as are the people who write it.” An interesting perspective from a woman who experienced the complexities of history here in the Balkans. Speaking of her time period, you mentioned Arthur Evans as someone you really enjoy reading about the Balkans and his travels on foot in the 19th century. You, in some ways, have followed his lead during your trek on foot through Bosnia. As you were going through Bosnia, how did your experience affect you?

It takes what was a fairly bland journey and transforms it into something magical because it is all about history. It is about Gavrilo Princip and his connection to this land. Where does his anger come from? He takes a gun out and shoots an aristocrat. He’s an angry man. Where does it come from? You see it from the memory-scape and the landscape merging into one. But when you go on this journey you are going through the same physical space—literally the same valleys, mountains, villages, forests—where a 19th century writer, Arthur Evans, in 1875 with a beautiful turn of phrase describes another amazing historical figure at the decline of the Ottoman Empire—the final rolling back of Turkish imperialism in the heart of Europe which had once reached Vienna. This was done by men with muskets fighting in the same forests you can walk through. We hear about an aid worker in 1875 who is exactly the same as an aid worker in Syria today. Except the one in Syria today has an armored Land Rover and a satellite phone and Adeline Irby had an oxcart and a piece of paper to write notes on that could take weeks to go back to Dubrovnik then on to Ragusa then on to wider Europe. She was lobbying Florence Nightingale. I love that connection. She was using the most public health figure in Britain, Florence Nightingale, to raise money because she was doing aid work exactly the same as the aid work I saw.

So, history for me doesn’t weigh me down on this journey it makes me float. Because you are going through an area that is relatively small. It is really only 120 miles / 180 km but is so deep and rich in history that you can’t help but feel the fret work. Your fingers go across the frets of history like a guitarist’s fingers and that simply excites me.

Yes. There is this circular nature to history in the Balkans. As you describe walking to Srebrenica and you described the experience of the refugees hiding in the woods, their clothes nothing but rags, it reminded me of Arthur Evans words describing refugees 150 years earlier.

Exactly. In fact, it is funny you should mention it, I had to cut two pages of text out of the book. One scene that was cut was Arthur Evans describing Bosnian-Serbs just across the border in what we now call Croatia, near Knin, living in caves and sleeping under trees on the grass. And that is exactly the scene I saw after Srebrenica at the Tuzla airfield where the women and children were eventually allowed to come after the bus journey under the control of Ratko Mladić’s forces. They walked out tearful, traumatized because their men had been taken off the buses. It is exactly the same scenario.

There is a circularity but the characters play different roles each time.

The word I use is “transitive.” Victimhood is transitive and cruelty is transitive. By which I mean, A can become B and B can become A. So the victims in the period Adeline Irby was working were Bosnian-Serbs crushed by Bosnian-Muslims armed and mobilized and radicalized by a political agenda pumped by the viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Roll forward 120 years and it’s backwards. It’s not the Bosnian-Muslims who are the culprits, they are the victims. It’s not the Bosnian-Serbs who are the victims, they are the culprits. And there is this external force of radicalization that influences. It is fully transitive.

You chose as your strategy for writing this book to weave together your personal journey, your experience in the 90s, the history of Bosnia, Princip’s story, and the present day. You wove all of that together. Why did you chose to take that tactic in telling a historical narrative?

Woven threads can make a beautiful kilim (decorative rug). The threads by themselves just look like a string. If you do it well, you can make a collective story better than just a list of component parts. If it was just a military memoir—I was there in Balkans and this is what I did during the 90s—or an academic history of the South Slav people from the mid-nineteenth century to today or a biography of Gavrilo Princip, they won’t have the same narrative arc. It’s not going to have flow, connection, anything to draw you in. If I read an academic paper on, say, the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia from 1878-1913, then it would be exactly that—academic. And I read them. I read a lot of them and they are all valuable and important. But I see myself as a writer who takes complicated, rich stories and makes them accessible. If you weave it right, you can unravel the most amazing stories.

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