That fatal day at Sarajevo

Peter Hegarty

Writer and adventurer Tim Butcher set himself the task of getting inside the mind of an assassin, and has applied himself to it with verve, imagination, and a burning curiosity. He proudly recounts his discovery of the letters GP and a date, 1909, carved into a rock outside Princip's home village high in the mountains of Western Bosnia. Here too he met Princip's surviving relatives.

Princip's travels broadened his cultural horizons. By way of getting to know him better Butcher took some of those same journeys – one of these involved a hike through mine-strewn forests and countryside, and over a forbidding mountain – and visited some of the places the austere, bookish young man frequented.

During his research Butcher came upon Princip's school reports. He showed great promise in his early years but his marks fell as politics – South Slav nationalism – increasingly distracted him from his studies. He became obsessed with the cause of ending Austrian occupation of the South Slav lands, and to this end resolved to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He and others prepared the killing meticulously.

Failed ideal

Butcher is strong on Princip's politics. Although independent Serbia was his political lodestar he was not a Serb nationalist. His project was supranational, and his co-conspirators included Croats and Muslims, as well as his fellow Bosnian Serbs. Butcher argues convincingly that Princip was emphatically not a forerunner of the ethnic cleansers of the 1990s.

The rulers of Yugoslavia, and for a long time many of its people, considered Princip a hero, but most South Slavs had long since lost interest in him, and his cause, by the time of the violent break-up of the federation. During the siege of Sarajevo Butcher visited Princip's tomb to discover that local people were using it as a dump and lavatory. If they thought about him at all, Bosnians may have wondered why they should respect a man who had espoused a failed ideal.

As well as being an excellent biography of Princip, this lively, descriptive book has much to say about Bosnia's landscape and recent history. Across the countryside Butcher sees the burned-out ruins that recall the civil war of the 1990s. In the rebuilt towns and cities new 'oversized' churches and mosques are visible evidence of the strong ethnic and religious feelings that have replaced the common South Slav identity. From the author's many conversations with Bosnians we learn that the three communities are far from reconciled, but they are no longer violently hostile to each other either, simply indifferent .

Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian who had the greatest impact on history, died of tuberculosis in a prison in the town of Theresienstadt in Bohemia in 1918, having already lost an arm to that disease. His act of violence had led directly to one war, and would lead indirectly to the next. Those who launched that second war destroyed the South Slav state he dreamed of. They built a concentration camp at Theresienstadt. There they interned the Jewish doctor who had treated the ailing Princip, before sending him to the death camp at Auschwitz.