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Book Talk: Retracing the steps of the Great War's 'Trigger'

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - In June 1914, a Bosnian Serb teenager named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, setting in motion a train of events that led to the start of World War One.

Cape Town-based author and adventurer Tim Butcher retraces Princip's steps in his just-published book "The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War."

Starting from Princip's remote home village in present-day Bosnia, Butcher hiked through rugged wolf and bear country and even managed to pursue some trout in his quest to unlock the assassin's secrets.

Along the way, he enjoyed central European peasant hospitality and found previously unknown school reports for Princip in obscure archives where historians had failed to peer.

Butcher argues that Princip was not the Serbian nationalist he has been portrayed as, but a patriot striving for a greater Yugoslavia.

His journey ended in Sarajevo, where Princip fired the shots that changed the course of 20th century history.

Butcher, who covered the Balkan conflicts as a reporter in the 1990s for the Daily Telegraph and has previously written two adventure travel books set in Africa, spoke to Reuters by phone about his new work and his historical quarry.

Q: What motivated you to write the book?

A: The primary motivation is still not understanding where the First World War comes from, how we came to lose so many millions of people around the world. That's really the genesis of this book. I wanted to go back to the founding sequence of the First World War narrative.

Q: As a South Africa-based writer, what lessons do you think this country's transition offers to places such as the Balkans?

A: I think it's a lesson of hope. In the Balkans, we haven't had many Mandelas. Having worked as a journalist in both environments, the Balkans and in South Africa, I know which place has divisions that are more charged. And that's the Balkans. Which place thinks more about tomorrow than yesterday, that's South Africa.

Q: How do you think Princip would have reacted to the events he unleashed if, say, he had lived to see Tito's Yugoslavia after World War Two?

A: A complicated question because, of course, he unleashed events that led to world war ... I think he would have been shocked, and let's be absolutely honest: Princip is not the cause of the First World War, he is but the trigger. The cause is about the strategic rivalries between the great powers, the willingness to go to war. I mean, they wilfully accepted an assassination on a street corner in the Balkans as a reason to go to war in Belgium, for crying out loud. How insane is that?

I argue very strongly in this, and I think he has been misunderstood by history, (that) he was a Yugoslav nationalist. And people have missed that, partly because they're ignorant, partly because they haven't done the research, and partly because Yugoslavia is out of fashion. It became pretty unfashionable in the 1990s. But if you take those goggles off from the 1990s and put on goggles from 100 years ago, Yugoslavia was a very romantic, positive, utopian idea. So he had a lot of romance about him, to be brutally honest. I don't think he would have been totally into Tito. But he would have appreciated what Tito did, which was to bring everyone together.

Q: What is your next book project?

A: I can't really say at the moment. I'm trying to work out the right balance of history and travel.

(Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley and Mark Trevelyan)

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