David Whiteman: the forgotten Czech story of the man who triggered World War I

David Whiteman, photo: David Vaughan

When the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo in 1914, he was just short of his twentieth birthday. Under Austrian law, this meant that he was too young to be executed. He was to spend the next four years in the garrison prison in Terezín, north of Prague, and this was where he died just before the end of the war, the result of tuberculosis and mistreatment. The little-known story of his forced stay in what is now the Czech Republic was the inspiration for the latest novel by the British writer, David Whiteman, who has just ended a two-month residency in Prague to complete the book. He spoke to David Vaughan.

David Whiteman,  photo: David Vaughan
The novel, “Black Hand”, is David Whiteman’s second book to be set in and around Prague. David spent a year in the city in the mid-1990s when he was still in his teens, and his first novel “A Cure for Solitude” drew widely from his experiences. David says that without Prague he would never have begun as a writer, so it is no surprise that his latest book returns to the city. But this time he goes back a hundred years to the First World War. I began our conversation by asking him about his current stay in Prague through the UNESCO City of Literature programme, which gave him the chance to put the finishing touches on “Black Hand”.

“For about the past five years now I’ve been in the process of writing a novel, which takes place mainly in Prague. I’m coming toward the end of writing it. It seemed irresistible – two months to come and just focus on the writing and really refresh myself with the Czech vernacular, and just have an oasis of time.”

What is the book about?

“Its origin for me was when I came across the story of Gavrilo Princip, who is the young Bosnian Serb nationalist who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which is the reason why we are where we are now. But it struck me that maybe he wasn’t a particularly well-known figure. So I started looking into Princip’s story, at the time with a mind to having it as a prologue to something else I was writing. I very quickly decided it was a story that I wanted to tell in its own right. Soon thereafter I found out that Princip had gone to prison and been imprisoned here in Terezín very close to Prague. That seemed to bring me back full circle, back to Prague where I first had thoughts about being a writer.”

To put this into context, at the time Princip was arrested today’s Czech Republic was still part of Austro-Hungary and Terezín was a garrison town, part of which was being used as a prison. He was imprisoned there more or less by chance.

“He went on trial in Sarajevo. It surprised me first off that he was still alive, that he hadn’t faced the death penalty. But at the time when he assassinated the Archduke he was nineteen, and under Austro-Hungarian law at the time you couldn’t be executed if you’d committed a crime under the age of twenty. So he got away with that by the skin of his teeth. Having said that, I don’t know if he wouldn’t have been better off facing execution. He didn’t exactly have the best of times in Terezín. He was there for four years and in quite squalid conditions.”

And your story, in parallel with the story of Gavrilo Princip, also tells the story of a group of young Czechs living in Prague at the time, whose fates are intertwined with that of Princip.

Gavrilo Princip,  photo: CC BY-SA 3.0
“True. I didn’t want to write in Princip’s voice as he was a true-life character. Also, I wasn’t necessarily so interested in what Princip had done. Everyone knows that he shot the Archduke and that led to the July Crisis and it caused the First World War. What I was more interested in was the consequences of his action. Instead of trying to write something epic, that indulges in the consequences for all the world, I think you only need to do it through the eyes of one person. I just needed one character, so I thought I’ll have a character similar in stature, similar in age, to Princip, but who may come from a different status of family. The war didn’t impact ferociously on Prague at the very start of it. It was something more distant. These characters are able to carry on playing their music, continue their education, but I hope you get the sense that the war is a whirlpool out there somewhere.”

The book is still work in progress, but you have nearly completed it, so we are going to hear a couple of extracts. This is an extract that introduces us to some of the main characters in Prague.

“Yes. This takes place in the famous Prague Estates Theatre. It’s where Mozart himself premiered Don Giovanni. This is a scene from the Mayor’s Soirée. The book opens up on the day before Christmas Eve 1914.

Waiters bearing trays of Christmas themed canapés took to their rehearsed positions, while ushers stood ready at the doors to the main hall, where Don Giovanni’s finale could be heard bouncing off the walls. When the last note fell silent, the audience erupted into a frenzy of whistles, involuntary yelps, and a rising swell of applause. On Herr Carl’s signal, the doors were opened, and the ovation spilled out into the foyer like water from a broken dam. ‘I can’t play with that racket going on,’ said Jan. ‘Pretend it’s for you,’ said Lukáš. Karel tapped his bow on the body of his cello. When each of them was ready he gently counted them into the Allegro. To Lukáš, the first and second movements of Mozart’s The Hunt were as familiar as his own bed. He could play them both with little more than a cautionary glance at the music towards the end of each page. As the guests emerged from the hall then, he was free to cast his eye over them. The ladies dressed in the customary formality of the Mayor’s previous soirées, some more expensively than others, but this year’s colours were universally toned down. For some time now he’d noted that the clothes people wore were growing darker, the longer the war went on. Just as the number of dead brought back from the fronts had risen month on month, so had the need that each new garment could, if called upon, grace a funeral or memorial service. Some of the ladies wore festive reds, but there seemed nothing wrong in that, given the occasion. The men wore black tie or military uniform and were all were best judged by the look on their faces.

The first part of the book is telling the story of a group of young musicians in Prague. We get a taste of their life in the city.

“They are three young musicians and one cantankerous cellist, whose talent far exceeds theirs, but it’s really more of a side-job to him. Two of them are students at Charles University and another one is a vagabond, a vagrant, a busker… it’s hard to know what to say about Alois, to be honest.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand
You feel the presence of the First World War more and more. As I read this part of the book, I have the feeling that the war is going to intrude on their lives very soon…

“Yes. There’s not really any getting away from it. It’s really a way of looking into the consequences of Princip’s actions and how they take away the opportunity and the future that Lukáš would have had or could have had. This really is the story of the First World War to me. If you look at the average age of troops that were killed in the war, this is something that really impacted on people in their late teens and early twenties. They were sacrificed. We talk a lot about the sacrifice that they made, but they really were lambs to the slaughter.”

You have another extract from the book, which is from further on and brings us back to the story of Gavrilo Princip.

“This really is Princip’s story through Lukáš’s eyes. The device I’ve used is that Lukáš’s father is the governor of Terezín prison, and in an attempt to keep their son out of harm’s way, as conscription looms, the appropriate officials are bribed. Not to give too much away, Lukáš ends up being a guard in Terezín prison and encountering Princip face-to-face, and really getting his story. So in my story, when we get to Princip’s story, we hear it through Lukáš’s voice. Hopefully this develops his character a bit more, but we’ll see. We’ll see what kind of a writer Lukáš is.

What manner of age defines us? Is it the accumulate orbits for which we have ridden this blue and emerald rock around the sun, despite the reaper’s indiscriminate swings of his scythe, or is it the age of civilization into which we are each so unwittingly born? In Princip’s case, I would argue that the answer is an equally proportioned prescription of both. For according to the records of the court, it was July 25th, 1894, when his mother delivered him, with her own two hands, unto the homestead’s earthen floor, which puts him at twenty years and seven months on this, the day of my writing. But so far as his future holds, it’s of greater relevance to note, this left him thirty-five days short of his twentieth birthday the day he shot the heir to the throne. But that he was before then still welcome in his mother’s belly, he would’ve hung by the neck until dead, and so says Habsburg law. As for the stage of civilisation on which he made his bow, one must inquire into the history of his people. As a Serb, he is cut from the blood-stained cloth of militant martyrs who were not born but made that way. Indulge me then if I cast my eyes back further than the fastidious reader would beg of me. I would not trouble your time or mine if it did not bear fruit on the branches of this story.

“The thing with Lukáš, of course, is that he is a first-time writer and he’s a young man. So it was very interesting trying to tap into how I wrote when I first started, because it’s very tempting to make everything grand and luxurious, and really revel in the language as young men do. But trying to make that good is quite a challenge as well.”

What became of Gavrilo Princip in the end?

“He’d already contracted tuberculosis before the assassination. He’d coughed blood – tuberculosis wasn’t uncommon amongst his peers – and he died of tuberculosis and maltreatment, and malnutrition I’d say, so he didn’t actually survive till the end of the war.”

Part of the story takes place in Terezín and there is an echo in what happened there during the Second World War. It was a ghetto to which Jews were sent from all over Europe during the German occupation, very few of whom survived. Was that in the back of your mind as well, as you were writing this?

Terezín,  photo: CzechTourism
“I’ve been to Terezín. I’ve been to all the places that I’ve written about. I’ve travelled through the Balkans and followed in Princip’s footsteps as much as I can. It’s impossible to go to Terezín and not to be caught up in that, just as it’s impossible to travel in the Balkans and not get caught up in the history of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The fine balance I’ve had to walk in writing this book is that no character I’m writing about is aware of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the horrible civil war that ensued…”

… or even, in fact, aware of the fact that Yugoslavia is going to come into existence, because the story takes place before the country existed.

“Exactly. I think the only character in the book who might have any idea of it would be Princip, because that was his stated goal. He wanted a state for the southern Slavs and that’s exactly what Yugoslavia means…”

… just as the Czech characters in the book have no idea that Czechoslovakia is just around the corner.

“No. This really is the Birth of Nations. Nationalism is the spirit of the time. The Russian Revolution hasn’t happened. This is the Age of Empire and this is the war that brought all that to an end.”

Prague is where you came as a very young man, still a teenager. Your first novel “A Cure for Solitude”, which put you on the map as a writer, is also set in Prague.

“It is very loosely based on my time living here in the 1990s. I first came here in ’92 or ’93. I would have been fourteen or fifteen, but then I came back here for an extended stay. I lived here for most of 1996 and when I began writing I moved back here again in 2000. But I haven’t fully explained it to myself. I don’t sit up thinking about it, but I came here when I was nineteen and I guess that’s a time in anyone’s life when they’re going through some changes. Coincidentally, when I was here, it’s a time when the Czech Republic was going through many changes as well. It felt an optimistic time and I think as a nineteen-year-old I was probably quite optimistic myself about the future. I seemed to have something in common with Prague. It seemed to get under my skin. I couldn’t shake the Czechs out of my system, so I think I was trying to write them out of my system. That’s got me back here.”

Now you’ve spent two months here in Prague. You’re just finishing your second Prague novel “Black Hand”. Have you got Czechs out of your system now?

“No. They’re back in. What always strikes me whenever I’m back here is how much you learn from the Czechs about their culture, about their history. They are so well-informed. I feel very privileged that ninety-five percent of everything I’ve ever learnt about this country and about this city has come straight from the horse’s mouth…”

… sitting in pubs, talking to people…

“If you’re going to engage with the Czechs, you know where to find them.”