Today marks the centennial of one of Western society’s most improbably momentous events. It was on June 28th, 1914 that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Countess Sophie of Hohenberg, were assassinated in the street of the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. The events of that day, the failed bombing at the bridge, the missed attempt on the road, the wrong turn by the Archduke’s driver, the opportunity for another attempt on the Archduke’s life, are well-known. The motives of the assassin, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, and his Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a group supported by the infamous Black Hand, are well-documented and, to the serious student of Balkan history, quite familiar.
What is nearly impossible to understand, despite the volumes upon volumes of historical analysis and the (now) generally agreed-upon portrayal of events, is HOW the assassination of an Archduke, the heir to a throne whose sitting monarch despised him, and whom he in turn despised, could be the triggering event that led to the greatest blood-letting cataclysm in Western history. There are superb pieces of research and analysis, among them Christopher Clark’s 2012 masterpiece The Sleepwalkers, and DJ Goodspeed’s The German Wars (1965), that provide detailed explanations of the diplomatic and military decisions that took Europe from a century of relative peace into a devastating conflict more profoundly destructive than the Thirty Years’ War. Even with that, a historian can often do little more than shake one’s head incredulously at the sequence of decisions and miscalculations that would pit the great nations against one another for four bloody years.
I offer, in no particular order, some of the factors which led to what can be described as the least necessary of wars.
A notable mediocrity amongst the foreign ministers of the belligerents, to include England’s Edward Grey, who failed to understand that England’s real interests were in a balance of European power, and not in France’s desire to avenge the humiliation of 1871. There was Count Berthold of Austria-Hungary, whose distinct lack of subtlety in his demands to Serbia inflamed Russia (who held dreams of being the protector of “pan-Serbism” in the Balkans). Russia’s Sazonov, a duplicitous and dishonest schemer who collaborated with France’s Poincaré to virtually guarantee war with Germany. France’s revolving door of Foreign Ministers, none effective, that included René Viviani during what became known as the July Crisis. Wilhelmine Germany’s Gottlieb von Jagow, whose terrible miscalculation of the Austria-Serbia crisis proved so tragic.
Detached and often delusional monarchs, whose laissez-faire approaches to their respective nation’s diplomatic postures during the critical weeks following the assassination allowed the respective foreign ministers mentioned above, along with military chiefs of those countries, to dictate rather than execute their nation’s foreign policies. Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary only briefly interrupted his vacation after the assassination, and was largely absent from the seat of power in Vienna during most of the July Crisis. When he did return, he was somewhat shocked at the harsh terms of the ultimatum to Serbia, crafted by his own Foreign Minister and Chief of Staff. Tsar Nicholas in Russia was absent for crucial meetings between French President Poincaré and his own “war party” of Sazonov and War Minister Sukhomlinov, during which it is presumed Russia agreed to war with Germany should she intervene in the Austria-Serbia crisis. Even the mercurial and impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm, whose envy of the Royal Navy (and subsequent Naval Race with Britain) and imperial desires were perceived by the British as threats to the Empire, was strangely passive during the playing out of the events of July 1914, limiting himself to making marginal notes in the diplomatic messages until the specter of a wider continental war elicited desperation. The one exception as head of state is the aforementioned Raymond Poincaré, the French President, whose actively malignant role included agitating for the long-desired war of revanche with Germany, and enlisting the Russians to assist France in that effort.
The international order built so carefully by Bismarck in the later decades of the 19th Century was rendered topsy-turvy, with illogical alliances and unlikely enmities that cooler analysis and more competent diplomacy might have gone great lengths to remedy. Britain had far more in common with Germany than with her traditional antagonist, France. Germany had been to war with Austria in 1866, when it wrested away the German states from Vienna (and from the very same Franz Josef) to, eventually, in 1871, Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tzar Nicholas, cousins (along with George V) and grandsons of Victoria, had warm personal relations, and many more reasons to cooperate over the breakup of European Turkey than to be in conflict. England, for her part, had been the traditional guardian of the European balance of power before inexplicably abandoning that role in an informal (but in the end, very binding) alliance with France.
To the events of July 1914, technological development and industrialization would be a determinant of not just tactics and doctrine, but also would be a major factor in the shaping and executing of Grand Strategy for the countries embroiled in the crisis. The mobilization of an army in the industrial age entailed a great deal of preparation, and once executed, left little to no room for equivocation. To do so would be to throw the proverbial spanner in the works, causing upheaval, delays, and the real spectre of being unprepared and in the midst of deploying when war came. Thus, when the decisions in the respective governments for mobilization came, war was all but inevitable. Interestingly, the last continental power to order mobilization was Imperial Germany. Wilhelm, with the prospect of war looming, had tried desperately to apply the brakes to the rapidly accelerating events. That German war plans calling for the rapid defeat of France to avoid a two-front war were what impelled the German Army to violate Belgian neutrality is one of the tragic ironies of all history. It was the invasion of Belgium which, in the end, made inevitable British intervention against Germany, preventing the very victory over France sought by the Germans, and all but ensuring their slow strangulation at the hands of the Royal Navy which they had so antagonized with the Naval Race in the previous two decades.
Of the battlefields themselves, much has been said. The warning signs of what modern war would be had been plentiful for anyone who cared to see. Dating to the American Civil War, the increasingly deadly weapons of the Industrial Age had made their presence felt. Britain, certainly, had experience against an enemy armed with modern metallic cartridge rifles in South Africa, and had employed modern machine guns against its empire’s foes at places like Omdurman and Cape Colony. Envisioning what being on the other side of the Maxim Gun would entail should not have been beyond imagination for the British Army’s Officer corps. Modern breech-loading rapid-fire artillery, with recoil systems which eliminated the need to re-position guns after firing, had been in military inventories for more than two decades. The battlefield tactics of 1914, a full generation behind those technological developments, were an invitation to the subsequent slaughter that ensued, resulting in the profligate wastage of much of the youth of Europe. The names of the Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli, Jutland, Ypres, Loos, Caporetto, Tannenberg, Passchendaele, and the Isonzo all evoke images of privation and death without purpose, and rightly or wrongly, of incompetent and criminally obtuse military leadership.
The effect of the unprecedented butchery on the psyche of Western civilization is still being felt. The old order in much of Europe, political as well as social, collapsed utterly. The confidence in the enlightened nature of Man, of his scientific mastery, and his cultural education, was shattered forever. Monarchies in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany fell, replaced mostly by the anarchy of revolution. In the wake of that revolution, spurred in great measure by the War to End All Wars, came the Bolsheviks and National Socialists who would ensure that the horrors of 1914-18 would be just a precursor to the bloodiest of centuries.
However implausible it may seem (and all the more implausible with closer analysis), the impetus for the Great War and all that followed occurred one hundred years ago today, when bullets from a sickly and tubercular young assassin’s pistol ended the lives of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on a Sarajevo street. The warnings of Bismarck in the 1878 Congress of Berlin to not allow Europe to devolve into general war over “some damned fool thing in the Balkans” went, in the end, unheeded.