One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 [Paperback] Review

One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 [Paperback]Seldom can such a vital character in world history as Gavrilo Princip have taken center stage for such a brief moment in time. His assassination of the heir to the Habsburg monarchy on June 28, 1914, was literally the shot heard round the world. Even Princip himself never imagined the consequences of his actions. The Serbian nationalist hoped, at best, to persuade the Austrian empire to leave the Balkans; instead, the assassination was the trigger for World War One, a global conflict that reshaped the world Princip lived in to the one in which we now exist. Princip himself didn't live to see that world -- narrowly escaping hanging along with three fellow conspirators because of his age, he died in prison of tuberculosis long before the guns finally fell silent in late 1918 and the world counted up the estimated 37 million civilian and military casualties.

Anyone trying to understand the course of 20th century history must, inevitably, come back to June 28, 1914; the first World War led directly to Communist dictatorships in Russia and later in Eastern Europe, to the rise of fascism and the Holocaust as well as the Cold War. Somehow, however, in the midst of all the books about "The Great War", the story of Princip and his fellow conspirators gets lost in that broader picture. Who was this 20-year-old student and who were his fellow conspirators -- a journeyman printer, teenage students, peasants and a "gentleman teacher"? David James Smith sets out to tell their collective story, leading up to and following that fateful day.

Alas... The book barely succeeds in giving the reader a coherent narrative. And it fails miserably in any effort to be compelling; indeed the writing is so stilted and awkward throughout the book that finishing it became a painful exercise for me. (I persisted simply because in more than three decades encountering the First World War -- I once worked as a tour guide at a battlefield in Northern France -- I had always wanted to know more about its roots, and this part of the story has been little told.)

I won't go into exhaustive detail of all the books stylistic flaws, instead just discuss a few of the most egregious. Smith seems unable to distinguish between relevant digressions (ones that serve to illustrate character and move the narrative forward) and those that just stop the reader dead in his tracks, scratching his head in bewilderment. For instance, Smith takes time out to wonder how many suits and shirts the conspirators possessed and concludes that "those Young Bosnians, some of them at least, were probably a little reeky." Later, he describes how one conspirator -- a peripheral character -- had met two young women at a dance and was corresponding with both of them at once. And so on... No fact, it seems is too trivial to be included.

This wouldn't have mattered quite as much, however, if the writing hadn't been among the worst I have ever encountered in such a book. I could only conclude, ultimately, that Smith ended up simply restating the transcripts of the trial. Over and over, Smith's sentences feel like no more than a simple recitation of facts -- exacerbated by the fact that they are often run-on and lead nowhere. A smuggler, for instance "knew that Milan would be keeping the brandy in the kitchen, so as not to flaunt it in front of the sergeant, so he went into the kitchen and asked Milan to pour him a glass and then hid it behind his hand as he took a swig." (phew, time to take a deep breath.) There are so many stylistic flaws in the writing -- such as the use of the passive voice without any reason as in "they would be commonly called "kmets" or peasants" -- that at one point I stopped to look up the author to ensure that (a) this wasn't a bad translation of a book and (b) that his native language is English.

Overall, in fact, the writing and structure was so problematic that I can't even continue to address it. My disappointment was acute because, buried somewhere in all that clumsy verbiage, is a great story and Smith clearly has all his facts and theories assembled. He just can't put them together in one coherent whole. From a structural standpoint, the greatest disservice to the reader is probably the way the narrative darts back and forth in time and location, making it harder to follow what to many will be unfamiliar events and characters. For instance, Smith never presents us with an overall chronology of recent Balkan history, including summaries of the two Balkan wars. Rather, he refers to this in passing, and it's only after several references that the reader will finally understand who was fighting, why and what the outcome was. (A historical book shouldn't send an interested reader to Wikipedia in search of clarity!) There was also an egregious historical error; Smith claims that Franz Ferdinand became heir to the Austrian throne because the emperor's two children had died -- one a daughter who died young and his son by suicide decades later. In fact, Franz Josef had two daughters and numerous grandchildren alive and well in 1914 -- but women were debarred from the succession.

This book did convince me that there is a great story to be told about this group of naive and often-clumsy conspirators and their quixotic plan that succeeded almost in spite of the conspirators themselves. (One threw a bomb that missed the Archduke's car; Princip only succeeded later because of an error made by the chauffeur.) Alas, while all the ingredients for that story may be assembled in this book, the overwhelming flaws in structure and style mean this isn't it.

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Product Description:

It was the shot that led to World War I and the death of countless millions: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. This historical account of what happened on that day in June 1914 is every bit as gripping as The Day of the Jackal. Focusing on the man behind the killing, and using newly available sources (including the few surviving witnesses), David James Smith brilliantly reinvestigates and reconstructs the events that determined the shape of the twentieth century.

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