Author Interviews
4:28 am
Sat June 28, 2014

Princip Pulled 'The Trigger,' But Never Meant To Start A War

Originally published on Sat June 28, 2014 11:43 am

It's a question that's persisted for over a century: how could a slight 19-year-old fire two shots and end up starting a war that killed millions around the world?

Tim Butcher, the well-traveled British war correspondent who covered later wars in the Balkans, went back to Sarajevo to try to learn more about Gavrilo Princip, the young Serbian revolutionary who changed the course of history in the worst way by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie.

Butcher, a longtime correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, is the author of the new book, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that in Serbia's bitter winters, people would cluster around the fireplace and tell stories of the country's ancient independence. "Myths about old days, about when we had our own country, and keeping that medieval law alive. But remember for hundreds of years, they had been just that, myths. So in a way, [Princip's] journey was ... how do we bring those things to life?"


Interview Highlights

On Princip's education

He leaves this very very bleak landscape and goes over the mountains. Why? For an education. Because under Austria-Hungary, there were some schools. Not many, very few — but Gavrilo Princip was, I saw this by finding his school reports — this is a clever boy, a clever boy, a talented child. And you see these report cards, they're amazing: A, A, A, really superlative performance in the first year — and then they begin to dip ... truancy's through the roof, an obedient boy to begin with, but he is a slow-burn revolutionary, you could see it in the school reports alone.

On what Princip thought he might achieve by shooting the Archduke

Remember, at this point, the vote is unthinkable. Young people don't change things by voting people out. Violence is an option. Violence is on the table. The Archduke's aunt will be killed by an assassin. The Archduke's cousin died in mysterious circumstances. Assassination was part of the vernacular, the logic being, a person, a ruler is so tyrannical, it justifies action. What did Gavrilo Princip want to do? Now this is really important here: He wanted to get rid of Austro-Hungarian rule for all the people who live in that area.

He happened to be a Bosnian Serb, but he wasn't only interested in Bosnian Serbs. He had friends who were Bosnian Muslims, friends who were Bosnian Croats, Jewish students he worked with. He trusted people from beyond the Serb community, because they were working to the same hymn-sheet, and that's intriguing — because guess what? How has he been presented by historians, by the politicians, and indeed by Vienna after the assassination? The present him as a Serbian nationalist.

On Princip's reaction to the events he triggered

He was bewildered. They put him in jail, and he heard only tangentially, when an occasional guard would come through and give him a bit of information, that a war had started, a war that enveloped continental Europe. And it must have blown the top off his mind! No one could predict that those two shots on a street corner in Sarajevo would echo through history, would echo through the world.

And yet, I don't think he would have had anything to do with the extreme nationalism that followed — because just remember, a hundred years ago, nationalism was in vogue. The imperial powers had held on for hundreds of years — you had Jewish nationalism, Zionism, coming on-stream, nationalism is in the air, it's all over the place. He's part of this ... but like a sorcerer's apprentice, he lights a fire he can't control — and where does it lead? It leads to Adolf Hitler.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A question persists over a century - how could this slight 19-year-old fire two shots that would light a fuse to start a war that would wind up killing so many? Tim Butcher, the well-traveled war correspondent who covered later wars in the Balkans, went back to Sarajevo to try to learn more about Gavrilo Princip.

Mr. Butcher, a long-term correspondent for The Daily Telegraph is the author of the best-selling "Blood River." His new book, "The Trigger: Hunting The Assassin Who Brought The World To War." We asked him what drove Gavrilo Princip.

TIM BUTCHER: I think it was driven by anger here, Scott, because here's a young man who was born in Europe 100 - just a little bit over a hundred years ago. And he's under colonial rule. And he was born to a family of hardscrabble, dirt poor, feudal poverty - I mean, bleak, bleak. They lived on a beaten earth floor - not even a house, a hovel is a better description.

And he leaves this very, very bleak landscape and goes over the mountain to - why? For an education because under Austria-Hungary, there were some schools - not many, very few - but Gavrilo Princip was - and I saw this by finding his school reports. I mean, this is a clever boy - a clever boy, a talented child.

And you see these report cards are amazing - A, A, A - a really very superlative performance in the first year.

And then they begin to dip. You go to the next grade and he's getting a few B's. The next year - oh, there are some C's in there, truancy's through the roof. An obedient boy to begin with, but he is a slow-burn revolutionary. You could see it in the school reports alone.

SIMON: When he was a kid, he left his initials on a rock and declared one day people will know my name.

BUTCHER: And indeed, he did. It was in a rock in his garden. And you can find them to this day. I went to the village. The house lies in ruins but the physical space he comes from is unchanged.

And I went there two summers ago - two hot summers - and found his initials on a gray piece of stone in a wall at the back. And he did - as he tapped it and a friend of his called Shapir Omarit (ph) said, what are you doing this for? One day people will want to know my name. And we're talking about him a hundred years later.

SIMON: What did he think he could achieve by killing the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg?

BUTCHER: Well, remember that at this period, the vote is unthinkable. Young people don't change things by voting people out. Violence is an option. Violence is on the table.

The Archduke's aunt will be killed by an assassin. The Archduke's cousin died in mysterious circumstances. Assassination was part of the vernacular. The logic being a person, a ruler, is so tyrannical it justifies action. What Gavrilo Princip wanted to do - now, this is really important here - he wanted to get rid of Austro-Hungarian rule for all the people who lived in that area.

He happened to be a Bosnian Serb, but he wasn't only interested in Bosnian Serbs. He had friends who were Bosnian Muslims, friends who were Bosnian Croats, Jewish students he worked with. He trusted people from beyond the Serb community because they were working to the same hymn sheet. And that's intriguing because guess what? How is he being presented by historians, by the politicians and indeed by Vienna after the assassination? They present him as a Serbian nationalist.

SIMON: You wound up suggesting, carefully, that, in fact, Princip would have been horrified by what he wrought.

BUTCHER: He was bewildered. They put him in jail and he heard only tangentially when the occasional guard would come through and give a bit of information that a war had started - a war that enveloped continental Europe. And he must have blown the top of his mind. No one could predict that those two shots on a street corner in Sarajevo would echo through history, would echo through the world. And yet, I don't think he would have had anything to do with the extreme nationalism that followed.

Now, just remember, a hundred years ago nationalism was in vogue. The imperial powers had held on for hundreds of years. We have Jewish nationalism - Zionism coming onto - on stream. Nationalism is in the air. It's all over the place. And he's part of this. He fits right in the middle of that spectrum. But like a sorcerer's apprentice, he lights a fire he can't control. And where does it lead? It leads to Adolf Hitler.

SIMON: As you note, Princip couldn't be to death for his crime. But he didn't see the end of the war, did he?

BUTCHER: No. He was sent to jail. And where did they send him? They send him to a city, it was then known as Theresienstadt. But sadly, it enters our knowledge because it's renamed as Terezin. And Terezin is a death camp from the 1940s.

And so Gavrilo Princip, a man who played with nationalism, played with fire, is treated by a man called Jan Levitt, a respected Czech physician from Prague. Jan Levitt treats him in the 1916, '17 period. He's suffering from tuberculosis - young Gavrilo Princip.

The next time Jan Levitt goes to that building, he is going in as a victim of the Nazi extreme national project. And he's going - I'm afraid - to Auschwitz where he was murdered. So you have these - power of Bosnia - the power of this narrative is, I find, the history tripping over itself.

SIMON: Tim Butcher. His new book, "The Trigger: Hunting The Assassin Who Brought The World To War." Thanks so much for being with us.

BUTCHER: Great pleasure. Thanks for (unintelligible).

SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.