The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher, Chatto & Windus, RRP£18.99, 326 pages

In Geoffrey Household’s classic thriller Rogue Male (1939), a lone English assassin takes a potshot at Hitler and flees for his life. For most assassins, the intended victim is always a “Hitler” of sorts and deserving of death. Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-born ethnic Serb, saw a potential tyrant in Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, in 1914, he shot him dead in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The assassination set in motion an unintended chain of events that culminated in carnage such as the world had never seen. The 1914-1918 conflict killed and wounded more than 35m people, both military and civilian, through poison gas, starvation, shell fire and machine gun. Few had reckoned on such a long, drawn-out saga of futility and wasted human lives. The teenage Princip himself did not foresee world war. His aim was to liberate swaths of the future Yugoslavia from the Austro-Habsburg yoke and create a State of united South Slavic countries.

Princip’s was the most successful assassination in modern history. It resulted in the collapse of the double-headed eagle empire run from Vienna and a vastly expanded Serb-ruled state that was only finally dismantled in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Tim Butcher, who reported on those wars for The Daily Telegraph in Britain, has written a superb account of Princip and the nature of his political grievance. A hybrid of travel and history, The Trigger gets inside the mind of the assassin and seeks to understand Balkan geopolitics on the eve of the first world war and after.

The political left and right alike have sought to manipulate the truth of what happened in Sarajevo. For Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, Princip was a nationalist hero who anticipated the Slav unification project under communism; for Hitler, Princip was an upstart Serb who undermined the imperial might of Austria. For all his avowed allegiance to an ideal of Yugoslav nationalism (“yug” is the anglicisation of the local word for south, jug), Princip was a complex and often confused individual.

He was born in 1894 in the remote western edge of Bosnia. His parents scraped a pittance as peasants but young Gavrilo (“Gabriel” in Serbo-Croatian) was able to attend school in cosmopolitan Sarajevo and, later, infiltrate the anti-Habsburg underground in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Admirably dogged, Butcher interviews surviving members of the Princip family in the Bosnian highlands and scrutinises Gavrilo’s school records in the Sarajevo City Archives. A restless, questioning spirit, Princip seems to have embraced the anti-Austrian cause in 1908 when Austro-Hungary occupied and annexed Bosnia. As a sovereign Habsburg territory, Bosnia was outwardly worse off than it had been under the Ottomans. The peasantry remained illiterate; no attempt was made by imperial Vienna to eradicate serfdom.

With five other Bosnian Serb co-conspirators (among them a Muslim), Princip resolved to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. He waited for the limousine to pass, jumped on the running board, and took aim. Franz Ferdinand died instantly, as did his pregnant wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, whom Princip had not intended to kill.

Had Franz Ferdinand survived, he would have been crowned emperor in 1916 following the death of his uncle, Franz Josef. The Habsburg empire might have continued to unite Serbs, Croatians, Greeks, Bulgars and Transylvanians, Jews and non-Jews alike, in the cosmopolitan lands of Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe). Instead, the equilibrium of all Europe was shattered.

The long-term consequences were dire. Stalin’s murderous ideology would undermine Balkan and east central Europe’s ethnic diversity with grey, monocultural nation-states that did little to recognise their minority populations. For all its oppressive tendency, the Austro-Hungarian empire at least respected the kaleidoscopic variety of its subjects.

At 19, Princip was not yet of an age to be executed; instead he died in captivity in Theresienstadt in 1918, having contracted tuberculosis. Butcher, the author of the bestselling Congo reportage, Blood River, has written a marvellously absorbing book that incorporates first-hand reportage of the 1991-1999 Yugoslav wars. The reportage serves to lift The Trigger above other accounts of Gavrilo Princip and Yugoslav nationalism (of which there are many). A triumph of research, it will appeal to the layman and historian alike.

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