Books

Gavrilo Princip – history's ultimate teenage tearaway

A review of The Trigger, by Tim Butcher. A triumphant and original account of the man who shot the Archduke

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

The Trigger Tim Butcher

Chatto, pp.308, £18.99, ISBN: 9780701187934

Amid the vast tonnage of recent books about the first world war this must be the most unusual — and one of the most interesting. The ‘Trigger’ of the title is Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old student dropout who shot the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street corner on 28 June 1914 and began the chain of events that led to catastrophic war a few weeks later.

At first it reads oddly, a curious ragbag of material that seems disconnected. It is part a biography of ‘history’s ultimate teenage tearaway’, as Tim Butcher puts it, part an investigation into some of Princip’s surviving family members in Bosnia, an intensely personal memoir by Butcher of his time as a journalist covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and partly a discourse into the nature of nationalism.  Yet he weaves the various strands together so deftly that it ends as a triumph of storytelling.

Princip’s story is well known. A Bosnian Serb, born in peasant penury, he is spotted as a bright boy by the Austro-Hungarian authorities and given a scholarship to the best school in the country, in Sarajevo. For a year he works hard and gets ‘A’ grades, but then he becomes obsessed by radical politics, is sucked into extremist groups, abjures drink, sex and parties for revolutionary nationalism and with three young co-conspirators concocts probably the most infamous and portentous assassination plot in history.

Butcher describes the day of the murder itself brilliantly, with vivid detail, and he handles the ghastly treatment of Princip afterwards with sympathy. Just two weeks short of his 20th birthday, he was too young under the Habsburg laws to be hanged; he languished in a damp dungeon, his tuberculosis left untreated, while his infected limbs were amputated. He died four years later.


Butcher follows the trail Princip took by foot as a small boy from his tiny village in the Bosnian hills to Sarajevo, tracking down members of the presentday Princip clan. Never interviewed before, they are the few people in Bosnia with a kind word for their notorious ancestor. The landscape has barely changed, since 1914, except for villages still scarred from the war of two decades ago.

As a reporter for the Daily Telegraph Butcher saw much of the fighting in Bosnia/Herzegovina and he is still trying to make sense of it. He spent months under siege in Sarajevo when the Bosnian Serbs were trying to starve the city into submission. He  spoke to women who were raped by Bosnian Croat soldiers. He met previously secular Muslims who were turned into jihadists by the Bosnian conflict. Like many war reporters he felt ‘a sense of shame about witnessing a war voyeuristically and…being unable to do anything but passively report the atrocities’. Few, though, have written about the dilemma with such honesty and clarity.

Like the best of reporters he can mix the ghastly and the serious with the comic. He has an excellent sense of the absurd. Hilariously, he describes an evening in Banja Luka a couple of years ago, while he was researching the book, when he attended a concert by the British rock band Franz Ferdinand and tried to get an interview with the group’s lead singer.

His conscience wrestles with issues of  nationhood and identity, so complex in the Balkans, where once nationalism unified people struggling for freedom  and decades later, as Butcher witnessed, divided people so brutally that the result was ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and Srebrenica.

Gavrilo Princip had no idea the bullet he fired would lead to conflagration in
Europe. His cause was simple and was popular at the time, if his methods were not. He wanted to liberate Bosnia from the the Austro-Hungarian empire and create a state for the South Slavs of all ethnic groups, Yugoslavia. It happened five years later, after the Great War, amid wild rejoicing in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb and it is why he is all but universally vilified now, in the former Yugoslavia, by Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Slovenians.

Butcher went to Princip’s tomb near the centre of Sarajevo just before writing this highly original gem of a book. It was being treated as a makeshift lavatory — the floor covered with faeces and used sanitary towels. The ceiling had a gaping hole in it. The image of Princip’s grave haunted him when he thought of the millions dead in the first world war. ‘Had all those people died for a cause so fundamentally opaque that the person who initiated the whole catastrophe could be despised by his own people?’

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033. Victor Sebestyen’s books include Twelve Days, a history of the Hungarian uprising and Revolution 1989, an account of the fall of the Soviet empire.

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Show comments
  • Brian Apple

    It’s absurd for Victor Sebestyen to state that Gavrilo Princip is “universally vilified…in the former Yugoslavia”. Patently absurd. Either Mr Sebestyen is ill-informed or he chose to make a completely inaccurate statement. For Mr Sebestyen’s information, Princip is adored in Serbia. He is their greatest hero who stood up to the enemy.

    • La Fold

      Was thinking that myself. Almost held in as high regard as Karadorde with the Belgrade lads I know. Probably due to the fact that where and when tensions are still high, the fact that Princip was a serb (a bosnian serb to be fair though) has been used to blame the Serbs for sparking off the first world war.

      • manonthebus

        Serbia has always taken its victimhood very seriously. I imagine that Kosovo Field was the main cause for that.

  • Aleksandar

    Even I’m Gavrilo’s national, I watching on this historical event from different view.
    About victimhood cult in Serbians, there was many, on Battle of Kosovo’s field 1389, Serbs had to choose to be free and converted on Islam or to die as true Christians, they choosed to stand up again Otoman’s invasion, also before WWII people of Yugoslavia, other words Serbia, had to choose between pact with Hitler, where Kingdom of Yugoslavia would be Nazi ally, and resist to him, they resisted with demonstration on March 27, 1941 which ended with military coup and rejecting shameless pact.
    In both cases, victims were great, but they were worth in eyes of my nationals. Most repeated sentence on March 27’s demonstrations was “BOLJE GROB NEGO ROB” or “Better be dead than to be slave”. Words saying by itself.
    Let we return on Gavrilo, he was young man, he was smart, only Goo know what he would be if he didn’t changed his mind, maybe some professor with great career not only Sarajevo, but maybe in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. World would be different place today.
    But also he was very brave. I was involved in many protest as student, same as million students whose protested and protesting maybe today cause different reasons, from high scholarship, social inequality, climate changes or against tyranny. But I’d never be ready to shoot at some high level politician, no matter how much I hated him.
    He was ready to go against system, to stand against one of greatest leader of that time and send him a simple message “I want to be free”. Not only in name of Serbs in Bosnia, but also for all nations enslaved by Austrian-Hungarian monarchy such as Czechs and Slovaks.
    Don’t forget that Ferdinand came in Sarajevo as soldier, he had great military force near him and most of all, he wants to demonstrate it between people whose human rights was harmed by Hapsburg’s invasion in 1878. That year on Berliner Congress no one asked Bosnian people what future they want.
    But freedom is supernatural force, it cannot be stopped or devastated. Before 100 years it was freedom for nation, now is freedom for individuals. Freedom is nice and wonderful girl, but anyone should fight for her.
    Gavrilo did it and paid his price.

  • Princip is a figure that understandably divides Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks today. Many Serbs see him as a hero who fought against the Austro-Hungarian empire, where as many Croats and Bosniaks see him as a terrorist whose actions led to a historic wrong-turn for the south Slavic peoples of the Hapsburg Empire. His political goals stood on the border between Great-Serb nationalism and Yugoslavism; he was very much Serb in his background, but he came to embrace a form of South Slav unification that stressed unity between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. He expressed violent hatred for the Sarajevo čaršija, that from a contemporary perspective reminds us of Radovan Karadžić. However, his patriotic hatred was directed primarily against the foreign, Habsburg occupier, rather than against Croats or Muslims. His assassination set off a chain of events that had disastrous consequences for the South Slavs. Serbia was militarily crushed by the Central Powers in World War I, and only ended up on the winning side by luck. The establishment of Yugoslavia was disastrous for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s peoples, and to a lesser extent for Croatia’s: it led to the Chetnik and Ustasha genocides of 1941 and to Milošević’s and Karadžić’s genocide in the 1990s. Some Young Bosnia supporters became notorious Chetniks in World War II.

    Those who defend the Versailles settlement claim that it permitted the liberation of the subject peoples from the former European empires – particularly the Habsburg Empire – and enabled them to form their own national states. However, from the point of view of the South Slav inhabitants of the Habsburg Empire – roughly speaking, the peoples of the lands that today comprise Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Vojvodina – 1918 arguably resulted in the exchange of one imperial master for a new one. In the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina lost the parliaments and autonomy they had enjoyed in the Habsburg Empire, and relations between Serbs and non-Serbs greatly deteriorated. The establishment of Yugoslavia on a centralised, Serbian-dominated basis in 1918-1921 made it very likely, if not inevitable, that the country would eventually break up

    • JustMe___1

      This is, sadly typical nationalist nonsense rhetoric.
      With this kind of rhetoric, it’d be a miracle if you are not also a Pro-Izetbegović… one can only hope… in vain.

      • Really? How so? I tried to be as fair minded as possible. What have I said that is factually untrue?

        • JustMe___1

          A lot of things actually. It is not your knowledge of facts that is the problem here, but your interpretation and presentation of them (even more so considering the site is designed for foreign readers).

          First of all, you start from a premises that the ‘peoples’ you speak of are fundamentally different and that on such a basis one ‘nation’ was dominant over the other, which is… false, to put it mildly, but on that later if I really need to elaborate (and no, it is not about some “everyone’s a Serb” stuff, nor the whole “we are all Slavs” stuff that ironically enough it nowadays mostly heard from segregationists. Just for the record, we are Slavs in language only and none of us is a “nation”.

          That all is instead of saying it had been the central government in Belgrade that was “hegemonic”. In principle, the state was The difference is actually monumental, because it means that other Serbs did not favour it either, such as those of rightfully-mentioned Vojvodina (which, just so that nobody is confused, has Serbian majority) or Montenegro, in which case the paranoid king banned the return of Montenegro’s previous king, who, for the record, was his own grandfather and the fiercest supporter. As someone said elsewhere, after the war, Josip Broz learned from him and banned the Karađorđević dynasty’s return (up until 2002, they don’t even speak the language anymore). One could say… poetic justice. I am not a hater of the Karađorđević dynasty, they certainly do have their moments of light and Yugoslavism was the only idea that made sense at the time, but their dark strain is true. To be fair to them, another dynastic competition which they have eliminated and which is often known as the more sophisticated one – the Obrenović dynasty and the Belgrade authority had their own share of hegemonic centralism, for further references see Timok rebellion (Pašić was involved in it, one could say they all learned from each other).

          Next you speak about a period of a couple of years as if it was the most important and decisive point leading to the breakup in the 90s. I’ll leave you to consider that for a moment. It is one of these moments of manipulating historical events in order to justify something, not even close to being as blatant and obvious as blaming Princip for the WWI and all the events of the 20th century and on, as modern sensationalists like to do, but is still a manipulative approach.

          Then you claim that creation of Yugoslavia was disastrous for Bosnia and Herzegovina… the statement is, to say the least, ridiculous. While a relatively rich Croatia does have a valid (albeit possible to counter) argument to state that, fragile Bosnia does not. Even less so considering that BiH can be described as the mini-Yugoslavia, its heartland, symbolically enough a land so known for its bridges is also one that should have been (and normally always was) the bridge of one nation-that-never-was. You can never distance Bosnia from the other two and when you do, bad things happen. By that I don’t mean simple territorial separation, administrative borders are not, contrary to the popular belief, the real problem here. That is why in the 90s there were only three options, either Bosnia plays a smart game and does not declare independence (at least not right away) or itself breaks apart, third option was the worst one and it happened – war. “Fun” fact is that Izetbegović was well aware of that and said so himself… that should tell you a thing or two about what kind of a man he is and whether or not you should really want a man like that as your national hero.

          Then you equate the Ustasha and Chetniks of the 1940s. First of all, the reason why actions of the Ustasha are a genocide is because it was a massive extermination campaign perpetuated by a Quisling foreign-installed, foreign puppet government established in Zagreb as a subpart of the Holocaust. It is indeed a historical fact that most of the Chetniks (with actual, real exceptions, some of whom were even recognised by the ‘Communist’ government later on) had betrayed the anti-fascist war efforts and even cooperated with the occupation, depending heavily on their supply after being abandoned by the allies and are responsible for a series of massacres, their actions as a whole, in principle, were mostly based around what we will later come to call “the red scare” – they honestly believed that the Nazis are “the lesser evil” than the Communists. As such, they come off as predecessor of modern European (and American) mindset and politics. For further reference, see modern Western politics, but look closely…or just look at the state of Croatian politicians, a glance is enough in this case. Europe should be concerned about itself because of itself.

          Even in WWII, there were parallels between the Chetnik and Ustashe, however, claiming that the ones of the 1940s were the same as something like the Ustasha is another case of historical manipulation – based on true historical events, indeed, but manipulation nonetheless. It is not about them being some “good guys”, but whether you like it or not, they were not the same. Also, as it typically happens, you ignore the Muslims’ own SS divisions. While everyone here loves to play the victim card, the way the Muslims do it is probably the most eye-poking.

          Important note – if you had said that the ones calling themselves Četnik and Ustaša in the 90s and now are the same, you’d be 100% right. They grew on each other apparently, so now we have a situation in which a Croatian man whose last name is Srb threatens with war because of things said by a Serbian man whose last name is Šešelj (Croatian). See what I’m mean when I say nobody here is a nation?

          And lastly, “Milošević’s and Karadžić’s genocide” – first of all, Milošević was not involved, not directly. His indirect involvement was inevitable because a portion of his nation was at war on the other side of the Drina. Therefore, if you do want to speak about his involvement, then you have to also speak about the same from Tuđman, then about Milošević-Tuđman-Abdić (Muslim) contract, the whole Holbrook ordeal etc. For further reference, see ICTY. That is, once again, not to say that he was a good guy, because he was not. He was a criminal, corrupt politician. There are many things you can say about him, but believe it or not, imperialist is actually not one of them. Instead he was one of those so-called “rogue leaders”, for reference (zeah, again), see Syria, Libya, Iraq, Cuba etc. I encourage you to do a research on the term “rogue state”, but to observe it in a non-ideological way.

          And now for the last word – genocide, again.This part always causes emotional reactions considering that the events of the 90s are still far from healed and cannot heal for as long as the things are as they are now. But let’s not overlook another horrible manipulation here. What was named genocide is the case of a massacre which took place in a so-called “UN safe-zone”, which, albeit supposedly disarmed, in practice was none of it, right under the nose of UN troops. Calling it a genocide is their way of justifying themselves and water down the importance of the fact that they were not only capable of preventing the events of war, but were also perfectly knowledgeable about what is happening and what may happen. For that I suggest reading reports, reviews and directives of America (and possibly other Western countries as well, though I did not get to read that yet) from right before the war. They may cause a reader to throw something heavy out the window, though, so thread carefully.
          Not to mention that whole thing goes all the way back to nationalist rhetoric which enforces certain terms in order to boost its victim card, nothing new nor unheard of from small nations and pseudonations with a big ego and a need for acclaim and self-esteem boost due to suffering from various complexes. It is people who speak like that whom I like to call “Balkan tribes”, although it is not exactly a Balkan-exclusive mental state. On the Balkans it has reached ridiculous levels so now they don’t even realise anymore that they can only function when turned one towards the other and not on one another while standing as frontliners to someone else, someone who does not belong there. Only when they realise that will they stop being at each other’s necks for reasons that in reality have nothing to do with any of them specifically. But that sadly does not appear to be coming up any time soon. It is, after all, Haemus, the Mountain of Blood from Greek mythology.

          • I can’t be bother going through all this screed, most of which has nothing to do with anything I said. Most of your inter-war history does not really refute or disagree with any of mine. I have explicitly said that I don’s blame Princip or Serbia for the outbreak of WW1.

            The claim that Bosnia-Herzegovina was a mini-Yugoslavia is only true in the sense that both were multi-ethnic. In terms of statehood and traditions they are very different. Bosnia’s borders were virtually the same as those it had under the Austro-Hungarian administration, it was not created with Yugoslavia. Bosnia declared independence because their continued stay in the federation was untenable, due to the bullying and obstruction of Serbia and the JNA. It was clear by late 1991 that a south-slav state was finished – attempting to stay in a rump Yugoslavia (de-facto Greater Serbia) with Milošević would have been suicidal.

            “And lastly, “Milošević’s and Karadžić’s genocide” – first of all, Milošević was not involved, not directly”

            You actually deny that Milošević was directly involved in the war in BiH. I wonder how you explains the fact that the Užice Corps, a JNA corps based in Serbia, was centrally involved in the Serb conquest of East Bosnia in 1992. Or the fact that all regular Serb forces in Bosnia were under the exclusive and formal control of Serbia and Montenegro until 19 May 1992; or the fact that Serbia’s former representative on the Yugoslav Presidency, Borisav Jović, admits in his own published diary that the Bosnian Serb army was organised by the leaderships of Serbia and the JNA; or the fact that Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić was handpicked for the role by the leaderships of Serbia and the Yugoslav army; or the fact that Željko Ražnatović Arkan’s Tigers – organised in Serbia using fans from Belgrade’s Red Star football club – spearheaded the conquest of Bijeljina in April 1992; or the fact that Vojislav Šešelj admitted that his paramilitary forces were under JNA command during their early operations in East Bosnia in 1992; or the fact that an officer from Serbia, Momcilo Perisić, directed the JNA’s bombardment of Mostar in April 1992. Etc. etc.

            Abdić was an extremely minor player – he had a following around his stronghold near Bihać but he was despised everywhere else because he was a fraudster and a black-marketeer. As for Tudjman, you bringing him up provokes mixed feelings. t’s true what we mentioned about his expansionism in BiH and his chauvanism. Yet the combined death toll was less than 1/10 of those killed through Serbian aggression. There are numerous other differences, but this is an important one. At the risk of sounding overly cynical, one cannot help suspecting that those ‘liberal’ Serbian commentators who insist so strenuously on the equal guilt of Croatia are trying above all to shift the burden of blame, the more so since they do not mention any “mitigating factors” for Croat nationalists as they do for their Serb counterparts.

            “ut let’s not overlook another horrible manipulation here. What was named genocide is the case of a massacre which took place in a so-called “UN safe-zone”, which, albeit supposedly disarmed, in practice was none of it, right under the nose of UN troops.”

            You’re absolutely right that Srebrenica was not disarmed – and rightly so. The defenders of Srebrenica prevented the town and its inhabitants from meeting the same fate as other eastern Bosnian towns and villages – Foča, Višegrad, Zvornik, Rogatica, Vlasenica, Bratunac etc. I think, given the Serb and UN record – the defenders of Srebrenica were quite right not to put their trust in the UN to protect them.

          • JustMe___1

            1. You did not explicitly said that you do blame, but the way you spoke and the words you used did. I did not refute nor disagree with your history because I do not disagree with what you said, it was about what you did not say but was important.

            2. The Serbian corps under Milan Nedić came from the Wermacht-occupied-and-administrated Serbia, I do hope you don’t consider that to be a “Greater Serbia”, but I spoke for the most part about Bosnia.

            3. “Ethnically” there is not a multitude of peoples in Bosnia. There live the people of the same language, traditions (!), culture, customs, mentality, genetics (!), lifestyle and fate (as in, historical fate). It was a mini-Yugoslavia in sense that by observing it historically, one can learn why these people and the people from countries surrounding it on all sides actually are the same as that. Bosnia always stood for unification, never segregation, even in the Medieval times when it was the only place in Europe and possibly the world where something otherwise considered “heretic” could be sustained and even alongside the two otherwise conflicted religion-based civilisations. Unfortunately that costed modern Bosnia with your so-called “ethnicities”, so at times one would wonder if and what “ethnicity” would Atheists such as myself be assigned by you nationalists. I guess I know, it is usually something along the lines of “filthy Communist” in my experience with the nationalists.

            4. Austrian administration started in 1908 and you cannot exactly speak of statehood under either the Ottomans or the AH. While AH was certainly the lesser of two evils, your soft acclaim for it is inappropriate.

            And saying that Bosnia is different in tradition from the rest of former Yugoslavia is actually sad, but also leads me to believe that you don’t live in Bosnia or another ex-YU “state” (because I have a hard time call any of these abominations “a country”).

            5. “attempting to stay in a rump Yugoslavia (de-facto Greater Serbia) with Milošević would have been suicidal.”
            First of all, that sentence almost quotes Alija Izetbegović word for word.
            Second…yes, well… instead Bosnia ceded smartly and peacefully, in one piece through negotiations with coffee, rakija and baklava. Meanwhile in Montenegro and Vojvodina brutal wars have been raging and turned them into divided, devastated and literally foreign-occupied territories. Or not. Actually it was the opposite, wasn’t it?
            I apologise for my dark sarcasm, but it is unavoidable in illustrating the absurdity of the statement.
            I won’t even go into the whole “Great Serbia” thing now, a concept used to justify literally any act against the Serbs or Serbia, a concept that never really grew thick roots in Serbia, but was and still is (again increasingly) an apparently infallible foil to the opposition. Honestly it is getting old and tiresome.
            Third, as I have said already, there were 3 options, the other two would not result in a war but the Izetbegović establishment would either have to wait for the (inevitable) change of the government or give up parts of territories inhabited by the Serbs and Croats, there was no other way. He knew it. And whatever I may think of the history revisionists in Montenegro and their forcible (but partially successful) attempts to push forward some montenegrism, at least I have to give them credit for playing somewhat smart in the 90s. Similar thing could be said about the Vojvodina Hungarians etc. Try as you might, while the Muslims certainly got it the worst in proportions, the victim card only has a rightful pass there, otherwise you are not exempt from harbouring the guilty ones in your orders. The understanding of that exists among the non-right wing Serbs and some Croats so long as they are in the political opposition, the Muslims, on the other hand, don’t seem ready to deal with that yet.
            Forth, history begins before 1990s and everyone could long before know exactly what consequences which actions will have, so the whole “we didn’t know, we could not prevent” doesn’t hold any ground.

            6. Hence why I said that it was not directly Milošević, as the largest involvement post 1992 in both Croatia and Bosnia was through the paramilitaries. That coupled with the fact that the majority of citizens of Serbia dodged any drafting ironically ended up in the fact that most militants on the Serbian side came from the ‘bottom of society’, because who else is going to fight a war they don’t believe in if not criminals and mafiozi. The official government and the country had nothing to gain, but neither was it possible that “Serbia” would not be aiding “Serbs”, designated warmongers know that. It is certainly very useful for those who try to present the conflict not what it was, a very bloody and tragic civil war, but as one rogue country attacking, invading and occupying another sovereign country which has nothing to do with the rogue invader but just stands there, innocently, and stares into the heavens. It is popular, but out of reality. On a sidenote, it is ironic that so often a war gets branded like that while not many seem to claim that the civil war in Syria is an American aggression and invasion considering the level of its involvement that goes so far against its established legal government that it didn’t matter if the citizens are given away to literal slaughter of ISIS…. all that matters is that Assad is down. I mean, he is not “democratic”, is he? Oh well, at least I can gloat that I was right about how the Arab Spring will end about the time it begun. (another irony).

            Calling Abdić a criminal is ironic, considering that almost every “major player” in the conflict either was a convict before or had been after. On that note, remember that little SS division we mentioned?

            My bringing anything up is not supposed to bring up any feelings whatsoever because emotions mixed with politics are a disastrous combination.

            You talking about “the burden of blame” proves that you have a (typical nationalist) need to put “burden of blame” on the entirety of an origin-based group of people. Also, responsibility is not about proportions – once it broke up, everything went to hell, so much so that at a point, everyone was anyone’s enemy. I remember the words of a young recruit from that time ‘we were shooting… and we did not know why we are shooting…. we just knew that “they” are shooting at us, whoever “they” constitute as, so we shot back’. It wasn’t even a normal war, considering all the sides foreign volunteers came in and their ideological reasons for coming, it was like a small, localised world war. It is about who let it all happen and allowed it to go on, which is a very specific group, they are called the nationalists, or so they were presenting themselves as, along with their foreign supporters to “the democratic advanced, modern, progressive leaders”, because – red scare, you can even be a fascist if you want to for all they care, but so long as you are democratic anti-Communist, you are good, the ridiculous symbolically national-socialist “governments” of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia today are a good example. It should have been obvious by now to everyone that they were essentially all on the same boat, so if you want a non-biased telling of who is guilty of the war, just consider who had the most to gain and who benefited the most. In our case, just that is so telling that it should sum the wars up in short.
            Yet you appear to be a sympathiser of the nationalists.

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