A centenary approaches.
On June 28, 1914, a 19 year-old Serbian terrorist standing on a street corner fired two bullets from a Belgian pistol into an open touring car and killed Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie Chotek.
The musket fire from Colonial rebels at Lexington in 1775 was hailed as “the shot heard ’round the world.” The gunfire from Gavrilo Princep at Sarajevo ended the world that might have been and ultimately led to all the anxieties we face today in international affairs.
The carefully planned assassination was a botch from the start, its targets were inappropriate, and its occurrence was so strikingly accidental that it almost seemed inevitable hubris for a species gone bad.
By the end of the 19th century, the great nations of Europe, armed to the teeth, were nevertheless trying to recover sobriety with disarmament conferences and address national antagonisms, as well as internal social inequities. Progress was being made on all fronts, slowly but optimistically. Progress itself was an idol. Scientific and technological miracles promised that anything was possible – even lasting peace. The problem was, although peace was the universal ideal, everyone prepared for war.
The June 28th date was portentous. It was St. Vitus Day, an occasion of celebration for Serbia that marked its hard won independence from the oppressive Ottoman Turks. It was also the 13th wedding anniversary of Ferdinand and Sophie. The Archduke, openly sympathetic to the ambitions of the Serbs,was attending military maneuvers in Bosnia, one among the many nations that constituted Austria-Hungary. He had brought his beloved wife with him because, being Slavic, she had been routinely snubbed by the protocols of the Austrian court at Vienna. Ferdinand wanted her to enjoy the royal honors that would be accorded in a visit to Slavic Sarajevo.
On the evening before the Sunday morning parade, seven Serbian conspirators slipped across the Miljacka River into Bosnia armed with pistols and hand-made bombs.
The first assassin, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, tossed a bomb that the Archduke deflected with his arm. It exploded in the street, injuring passengers in the following car and bystanders. A furious Ferdinand maintained his composure until his car reached the town hall where the Mayor of Sarajevo, having no inking of what had just happened, began his welcome speech. The Archduke grabbed his arm and shouted, “One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs?” The confused mayor continued his oratory, as Ferdinand stood beside him fuming, but calm. When the speech concluded, Ferdinand cut the celebration short and insisted that his chauffeur drive him to the hospital so he and Sophie could visit the injured members of his party.
After the futile bomb, the conspirators quietly melted away. Princep went into a corner cafe and ordered a sandwich. On their way to the hospital, the Archduke’s chauffeur lost his way, made a wrong turn, and halted in order to turn the car around. Princep left the cafe into bright sunshine and found the Archduke and Sophie sitting five feet in front of him. He drew his pistol and fired.
In the words of General S.L.A. Marshall (World War I, 1986), “The crime was the small stone that, loosened, brings the avalanche.”
When the last boulders trembled to a stop in November 1918, ten million lay dead on the battlefield. Within the next few years, eighteen million more perished from war wounds: gas poisoning, missing limbs, sepsis, shell shock, starvation, malnutrition, susceptibility to disease.
Four empires had collapsed. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 tried to reconstruct the shattered world in six months according to the designs of the victors. The rushed Conference was characterized by vindictive spirit, self-aggrandizing aims, casual disregard for the future, and, in Woodrow Wilson, quixotic idealism.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was carelessly rearranged as though it were nothing but a platter of Viennese pastries, without respect for the fervent aspirations and ancient enmities of the polyglot peoples involved.
The Ottoman Empire had disintegrated from within from centuries of despotic management, genocide, internal corruption, and ethnic aggregates released from their chains. It was parceled into “protectorates” to serve the oil appetites of the winners.
The Russian Empire was a special case because their postponed revolution, extinguished in 1905, had finally happened in 1917. The Bolsheviks had sensibly withdrawn from the conflict, excluding themselves, in spite of the investment of three million military and civilian casualties, from a seat at the table when the spoils were distributed.
The German Empire, prostrate from industrial exhaustion and the loss of a generation of promising men, was the most harshly punished. Triumphant France demanded cash and territorial reparations intended not merely to repay what she had lost, but to ensure that her neighbor would never have the strength to fight again. The democratic Weimar Republic erected to replace the exiled monarchy was helpless to reinvigorate its work force, its industry, its agriculture, or its financial structure under the crushing weight of the reparations. Labor strikes, food riots, political unrest, and runaway inflation left Germans with nothing to pray for but a savior. Unfortunately, their prayers were answered.
What purpose had been served by so much slaughter? The propagandists had sold it as “The war to end all wars.” Have we seen the end of war? In America, it was cast as a war “To make the world safe for democracy.” Do we feel safe?
Have we made Progress? The incident at Sarajevo unleashed an avalanche. In our time, we still sort through the rubble. Terrorism is yet the weapon of choice for impotent rage and the Princeps of the world have only multiplied. As we recall what happened in 1914, we should consider this: a deranged act by a determined assassin might well loosen a stone. Thanks to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we all live under the slope.
(Those interested in further thoughts on the causes and consequences of the Great War are invited to visit my review of The Long Fuse, by Laurence Lafore on Amazon.com.)