Once there was a bridge named after him
- The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher
Chatto, 326 pp, £18.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 7011 8793 4
When war came to Sarajevo in 1992 almost the only thing about the city known to the aid workers and journalists who made their way there was that it was the place where a Bosnian Serb assassin called Gavrilo Princip had started the First World War. Most had only the haziest notion of who had ruled Bosnia before the 20th century, or what had happened there after the war ended. But Princip was a familiar name. Few Sarajevans had much to say about their most famous son, generally dismissing him as a Serb nationalist. The city had once celebrated his act (a bridge was named after him in 1918, and a museum commemorated his deed) but the bridge was renamed in 1992 and the museum shut down. During the war in the former Yugoslavia the monument that commemorated Princip and his fellow conspirators was turned into an unofficial public latrine.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 36 No. 21 · 6 November 2014
Mark Mazower approvingly ascribes to Tim Butcher and Vladimir Dedijer the notion that Serbian assistance to the Sarajevo assassins was ‘relatively modest’, and ‘against the wishes of the government’ (LRB, 23 October). This formulation is misleading. What was ‘modest’ was the ability of Pasic, the Serbian prime minister, to control the extreme nationalists in Narodna Odbrana (‘national defence’) and its shadowy operational arm, the Black Hand: both founded by the men who had organised the assassination of the Serbian king and queen in 1903 (in anticipation of which Pasic had sensibly taken his family off to the Adriatic the day before).
The queen, formerly Draga Masin, was unpopular not because she had once been a lady-in-waiting to the king’s mother, but because, as Christopher Clark puts it in The Sleepwalkers, she ‘was well known for her allegedly numerous sexual liaisons’ (he describes her as ‘the disreputable widow of an obscure engineer’). The interior minister protested at the king’s idea of marrying her, arguing: ‘Sire, you cannot marry her – she has been everybody’s mistress – including mine.’ The king slapped the minister’s face; when he announced his actual engagement to Draga, the entire cabinet resigned.
As for the ‘modest’ help to the assassins, the three main conspirators – all Bosnian Serbs – were recruited in Belgrade by Narodna Odbrana. Princip’s first planned mission had been in 1912, targeting Turkey, not Bosnia. A Serb army major, Tankositch, and the Black Hand’s founder, Apis, to whom he reported, chose the Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the next target, and Tankositch supervised the training, arming and illegal transporting across the border of the assassins by Serb officers and officials. The trio were supplied with four revolvers and six bombs from the Serbian State Arsenal. They were then supported by Narodna Odbrana agents in Sarajevo for the month before the archduke’s visit.
Pasic learned of the conspiracy, and wrote to his war minister, Stepanovic, four days before the 28 June attack, warning that the actions of ‘officers’ allowing weapons and agents to be smuggled across the border into Bosnia was treasonable, ‘because it aims at the creation of conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary’. Indeed, if friends of Serbia knew the truth, he warned, they would support Austria-Hungary should it decide ‘to punish her restless and disloyal neighbour, who prepares revolts and assassinations on her territory’. When Stepanovic in turn wrote to the chief of the general staff asking for an explanation, the matter was referred to the head of military intelligence – who happened to be Apis.
Somewhat half-heartedly, Pasic tried to warn the Austrians, but was too much at risk of being deposed by the Black Hand to be explicit. It was not the Serbian government that tolerated the plot – as Mazower says, it certainly did not – but the Serbian political system, which had allowed so much sway to the extreme Serb nationalists who nurtured, equipped and managed the assassins. To suggest that Princip had a personal, Bosnian, agenda which transcended this state of affairs is naive. To say of the trio that they were ‘nobody’s pawns’, when the entire enterprise had been dreamed up and delivered to the Appel Quai that day by highly organised and effective Serb nationalists, is foolish. It was precisely because the three boys were Bosnians that they were the ideal pawns.