The power of place acts as a portal into the past


At around 10.45 on the morning of Sunday June 28 1914, Gavrilo Princip fired twice at point-blank range into the car bearing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek.

The first bullet tore through the collar of Franz Ferdinand’s uniform, boring into his neck and opening the jugular vein. The second, aimed at Oskar Potiorek, the Austrian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, went wide, probably because members of the crowd were already trying to restrain the assassin.

The bullet flew through the door of the car and was deflected into the abdomen of the archduke’s wife. She was already falling into a coma as the driver reversed the car away from the scene and sped towards the governor’s residence.

The archduke remained conscious for long enough to address his wife with words that would soon be reported across the world: “Sophie, Sophie don’t die, stay alive for our children.” But within half an hour both of them were dead.

Amazingly, little is known of the young Bosnian Serb whose shots triggered the escalations that brought war to Europe in 1914.
Princip hailed from western Bosnia, a land of harsh terrain and almost nonexistent infrastructure, crossed by swift watercourses and closed in by mountains. These are the backwoods of the western Balkans, the vukojebina, the land, to use a colourful local expression, “where the wolves fuck”.

The story of how Princip left his home, of his journey from model schoolboy to disaffected teenager, militant nationalist and political assassin, has remained in shadow partly because the paper trail is so meagre, and partly because Princip’s biography, located at one of the inflection points of European and world history, has been warped from the beginning by the very forces his actions helped to unleash.

In this book, a masterpiece of historical empathy and evocation, Tim Butcher goes in search of the person behind the myths. Butcher acquaints himself with Princip by walking in the young man’s footsteps from his birthplace in the tiny hamlet of Obljaj in western Bosnia to Sarajevo and across the border to Belgrade, the capital city of neighbouring Serbia. What results is an extraordinary journey through landscapes and communities harrowed by history.

Only when Butcher begins his hike through the rough country of western Bosnia does the brilliance of the book’s underlying idea become clear. We begin to see the world through Princip’s eyes. These were the hills he climbed and the paths he walked. The flinty scree that cuts into Butcher’s hiking boots also moved under Princip’s feet as he walked to Sarajevo.

Neighbours as rivals
The stony ground, the bitter nocturnal frosts, the hardscrabble life of the people who still eke out a living there: all this says much about the world that made Princip. Could it be, Butcher wonders, that the isolation and self-reliance of these mountain communities encouraged them to see neighbours as rivals for scarce resources, or even enemies, rather than as fellow citizens?

The book is, among other things, a homage to the power of place as a portal into the past.

The fascination of this book lies in the way Butcher’s quest for Princip unearths so many other memories – Bosnian resistance to the Austrian occupation of 1878, the pervasive violence of World War I, the partisan war of 1941-1945 and the traumatic sieges, skirmishes and massacres of the 1990s.

In the final chapters, Butcher moves from memory to history as he retraces the last years, months and days of Princip’s life. Here, Butcher follows the argument laid out by partisan fighter and author Vladimir Dedijer, and some other Yugoslav accounts, according to which Princip’s radicalisation was a straightforward response to the poverty and oppression suffered by all the Bosnian South Slav communities.

This is the only point at which I found myself dissenting from his analysis. The book reproduces the traditional South Slav critique of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia. The Bosnian Diet established by the Austrians after the annexation of 1908 is dismissed as a “quisling Parliament”. The decision to take the life of the archduke is framed as an act of understandable desperation against a ruthless and oppressive enemy.

By contrast, the links with Belgrade are largely excluded from the field of vision. Butcher has surprisingly little to say about Princip and his comrades’ long sojourn in Belgrade, where they came into contact with the Serbian nationalist networks that would later supply them with their pistols and bombs.

Butcher is a humane but unsentimental observer who creates space for the voices of other travellers who walked these paths before him.

No account since Dedijer’s The Road to Sarajevo has so vividly evoked the world and inner life of the “undersized, emaciated, sallow, sharp-featured” young man who found himself sitting opposite an Austrian judge on the afternoon of 28 June 1914. And few have captured so thoughtfully the relationship between terrain and history in a country fraught by conflict.

Princip is the focal point of Butcher’s book, but its true protagonist is a Bosnian memoryscape that shimmers between past and present. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Christopher Clark is the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

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