Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Plaything of History

I’m working my way through Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an account of her journeys through Yugoslavia before the Second World War, a book that was published in 1942. It’s wonderful combination of things; of history, of travel, of culture, a literary tour de force, which I intend to review more fully in due course. At the moment, after some four hundred pages, I’m only a third of the way through!

I’ve just finished the sections dealing with her visit to Sarajevo. Here she discusses at some length the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and the Arch Duchess Sophie, an event that was to spark the First World War. She has a fantastic way of exploring detail, of touching on things I knew nothing about; and I knew next to nothing about the subsequent fate of Gavrilo Princip, the man responsible for the act. He is one of those people that history takes a fleeting interest in, only then to pass him back into obscurity and oblivion. But his fate was grim.

Only nineteen at the time of the assassination, he was the principal defendant at the subsequent trial. Although he was found guilty he was too young to hang, unlike some of his co-conspirators. Instead he was sentenced to twenty years in jail, the maximum term possible, which might be considered remarkably lenient, given the political consequences of his actions. But he was effectively sentenced to a slow and lingering death, being kept in the most horrific conditions, conditions that got progressively worse in the course of the war.

He was taken to the old fortress of Theresienstadt, subsequently to acquire a far more sinister reputation of which West would as yet know nothing. There he was put in an underground cell filled with the stench of the nearby marshes, into which the fortress sewage was deposited. There was no heating and he was kept in irons. He developed tuberculosis in his arm, which became so sceptic that it had to be amputated. After this he could no longer be handcuffed, though he was still kept hobbled in heavy chains. He died in the spring of 1918 having previously failed to take his own life on three occasions.

It might be thought that his personal suffering weighs nothing when set against the mass suffering his actions brought to Europe. But there is still something wretched and tragic here, something altogether moving in the fate of a boy who was never more than the plaything of history.

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