Years ago—before ISIS, before 9/11, before Oklahoma City—an undergraduate history professor said something I’ve never forgotten: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The man he was discussing that day was Gavrilo Princip, the young Serb whose bullets felled the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and launched Europe into the first world war. An often enigmatic figure, Princip is often mentioned but rarely studied, his actions acknowledged as a catalyst for the fighting, but his history and motivations unexplored.
In this dark and powerful graphic novel, Henrik Rehr attempts to shift our focus from those fateful shots and onto the ideas and life of the man who fired them. Rehr explores the life of Gravilo Princip, from his childhood in Obljaj, a tiny Serbian village, to the day he entered infamy with those shots into the car of the Archduke on a Sarajevo street, asking the reader to consider an important question: How did the poor son a Serbian sharecropper become a radical nationalist driven to assassination? The focus of the graphic novel is on Princip, his life, his relationships, and his turmoils. But Rehr intersperses the events of Princip’s life with scenes occurring in the same time period in the life of the doomed Archduke. Family, politics, hunting, and romance in the royal court contrast sharply with the life of the poor and tuberculosis-suffering Princip; one man thrives in privilege while the other grows angry at his circumstance. Together, their lives set the stage for a global conflict that would last for five years and take the lives of more than 16 million people.
Based on what is known about Princip, Terrorist is brilliant historical fiction that subtly argues that we as readers have something to gain from understanding how or why seemingly ordinary people are driven to terrorist organizations or actions. Historical details taken from trial transcripts and other primary sources help to capture the essence of these men and women as they act on the historical stage, but as Rehr explains in his afterward, “there is nothing in the book I know to be historically false, but there is a lot which came from my imagination.” The ideas here are more important than strict historical accuracy as Rehr places Princip in a cultural and historical context, one in which conquest and national identity clash as a native population rages against its oppressors. It is this context which both drives Princip to action and leads him to become a tool in the hands of others seeking their own ends from the struggle between the Serbs and the Austria-Hungary Empire.
Terrorist is a dark book, deeply political and philosophical, one that forces the reader to consider assumptions, not only about Princip but about how terror functions as a political tool for radical change. That darkness is true not only of the story, but it is equally evident in the art as well. The stark, woodcut-like drawings brilliantly compliment the text, capturing the hopelessness and rage of the Serbian partisans against their foreign masters. The black and white harshness of the pages helps to draw the reader into the dark times of Europe in the early twentieth century, a time when tangled alliances and nationalist fervor conspired to turn the continent into a powder keg waiting for the right spark to explode.
Graphic Universe rates Terrorist as appropriate for ages 13-18, and it seems well suited for use in history or social studies classrooms to offer new insights into the era of the Great War. It might also do well in adult collections; history buffs are likely to appreciate Rehr’s approach to exploring Princip’s life and times. It should be noted that the higher age rating is more reflective of the complexity of the narrative than to any objectionable content. While there are violent scenes, including the death of the Archduke and Archduchess, these moments are rarely graphic. There is some strong language and there are brief sexual scenes, including a moment when Princip gropes his girlfriend’s clothed breast against her wishes (though he immediately stops his actions when she protests). While it is unlikely to attract casual readers, for students of the history of modern Europe or those interested in the sociology of terroristic violence, Terrorist is a superb graphic work.
Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, The Assassin Who Ignited World War I
by Henrik Rehr
Graphic Universe, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 13-18