One hundred years ago today a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie. The grand duke — the heir to the Austrian throne — was shot while traveling in what would today be called a motorcade. He was paying an official visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Princip’s action was the trigger for a four-year catastrophe that eventually became known as the Great War or the World War. Later events forced a renaming, and it became the First World War or World War One.
Four and a half years after that summer day, Bosnia, Austria-Hungary, and the entire traditional political order of Central and Eastern Europe had ceased to exist. The German, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires were no more. Austria and Hungary were no longer politically conjoined. The Russian Empire had been ejected from Central Europe, and its tsar had been replaced by a cabal of Communist revolutionaries whose murderous brutality would have made even the most bloodthirsty of the tsars blanch. Independent states sprang up where for centuries none had existed. Yet the variegated statelets of the Balkans were cobbled together into a single artificial entity called Yugoslavia whose weakness and instability suited the interests of the victorious Western Allies who created it. In contrast, the remains of the Ottoman Empire were carved up into political entities with arbitrary boundaries drawn by the same Allies, once again according to their own state interests.
And so the world that we know today was created out of the ashes of the one that preceded it. The arrangements made by the victors after the Great War maintained and exacerbated earlier tensions while removing the inhibitions imposed by the now-discarded imperial structures. The result guaranteed an eventual reprise of the Great War. Armies and paramilitaries and revolutionaries and partisans rampaged across Europe in one direction or another, over and over again, until the entire continent had been soaked in blood, all except Sweden and Switzerland — which served as arms factory and banker, respectively, for the belligerents.
Gavrilo Princip’s gunshots opened the door to the charnel house known as the 20th century. The Great War was billed as the “war to end all wars”, but instead it ushered in a never-ending war. Cold, lukewarm, or hot: that war is still with us today, a hundred years later.
We’ve written before about the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and the fateful events of the summer of 1914, so I won’t be covering them in detail here. They began with Gavrilo Princip’s pistol shots and ended with the guns of August. The inexorable chain of events leading from the one to the other included (in chronological order):
- Austrian ultimatum to Serbia
- Evasive reply by the Serbs
- Bilateral conferences and consultations between different pairs of countries, with no meaningful result
- Mobilization of Austria against Serbia
- Mobilization of Serbia against Austria
- Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, followed by the bombardment of Belgrade
- General mobilization by Russia
- German ultimatum to Russia
- General mobilization by Austria
- General mobilization by France
- General mobilization by Germany
- German declaration of war on Russia
- German declaration of war on France, followed by the invasion of France through Belgium
- British declaration of war on Germany
- Austrian declaration of war on Russia
- French declaration of war on Austria
- British declaration of war on Austria
By August 12, all the major dominoes had fallen, and the Great War was underway. In the memorable words of British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
The unprecedented mechanized slaughter on the Western Front became the deepest single trauma experienced by the collective psyche of the Western world since the days of the Black Death. It began with the stalemate on the Marne in the fall of 1914 and continued for four interminable bloody years until the entry of the United States into the war and the attrition of German resources made an Allied victory possible.
The catastrophe of 1914-18 was not anticipated by any of the Great Powers, but it should have been. The Crimean war of 1853-56, and especially the American Civil War of 1861-65, provided a foretaste of what lay ahead at Verdun and Passchendaele. Yet the general staffs of Germany, Russia, France, and Britain had planned for a conflict that bore a closer resemblance to the Napoleonic Wars — the proverbial “last war”. Technological innovations — including long-range artillery, rifled muskets, the machine gun, and the tank — transformed the Great War into hellish indiscriminate slaughter. Yet no tactics had been devised to break the resulting horrific stalemate.
Mass conscription of cannon fodder for the front made certain that every city, town, and village gained a direct, immediate understanding of what modern warfare had become. A large proportion of fit young European men were killed, maimed, or “shell-shocked”. Virtually every family felt the effects.
It was through this universally experienced trauma that the Great War created the modern world. Later catastrophic effects extended and enhanced the trauma of 1914-18, infecting an entire culture with post-traumatic stress disorder.
So many small decisions, so many enormous consequences. What would have happened if the German general staff had not decided to ship Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, in a sealed train from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St. Petersburg in April 1917? What if Alexander Kerensky had remained as the head of the Provisional Government, keeping Russia in the war and forcing an earlier armistice?
What if Russia had become a republic? What if the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had never formed?
What if… what if… what if…
But Revolutionary Communism did indeed slouch towards St. Petersburg, waiting to be born. It may be that Socialism had to come, no matter what. Lenin was certainly correct in his sense that revolution was in the air all across Europe, and especially in Germany, during those latter days of the World War. Within a decade, all right-thinking intellectuals were certain that Socialism represented an inevitable future. Who could resist it?
All the other “what ifs” echo down the decades from the days after the war. All those pivotal events, and the personalities that shaped them. Woodrow Wilson. The Fourteen Points. The Treaty of Versailles. Churchill’s hiccup. The Freikorps. The Weimar Republic. The inflation of 1923. The rise of the Labour Party in Britain. The Great Crash. Gustav Stresemann, Paul von Hindenburg, and Adolf Hitler. Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, and Neville Chamberlain. Guernica. The Rhineland. The Maginot Line. Blitzkrieg.
The dismemberment and distribution of the remains of the Ottoman Empire by the French and the British fashioned the Middle East as we know it today, with its artificial borders, ethnic fractures, rival ruling houses, and continuous fratricide. Oh, and the oil — whatever you do, don’t forget the oil.
The destruction of a substantial portion of an entire generation was followed by a similar round of butchery inflicted on the next generation. A cohort of the strongest, most resourceful, and most courageous young men was wiped out — twice. The damage to Western culture inflicted by these events can scarcely be reckoned. The world before 1914 is all but unimaginable to those of us who never knew it.
In his landmark book The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell documented the long-term effect that the World War had on Western culture, especially Britain. Since it was published we have had more than forty additional years to remember what happened and try to make sense of what we have become.
The Great War destroyed the cultural self-confidence of Europeans. It catapulted cynicism and nihilism into the ascendancy, laying the groundwork for the cool, hip, ironic popular culture that plagues us today. It gave us modernity — and eventually, post-modernity.
The noble sentiments and patriotic fervor of 1914 were wiped out in the trenches, never to be fully regenerated. The second phase of the Great War in 1939-45 only accelerated the process, and the dedicated subversion of our culture by the Soviet Union during the Cold War made certain that what had once been the central underpinnings of our civilization could never be restored.
In the larger scheme of things, the Great War never really ended. Its destruction is still unfolding before us as the last remaining bastions of European culture are systematically deconstructed by the great-grandchildren of those who began the process.
The rise of modernity was already underway before 1914. It could be seen in the Fabians, “free love”, the Bloomsbury Group, theosophy, fashionable atheism, and all the other trends that have since become mainstream. But the Great War made it all happen so quickly, and leavened it with so much cynicism and nihilism, that the pillars of the old culture never stood a chance after the armistice.
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip’s gunshots ultimately brought down an entire civilization. We lost an innocence that can never be regained, and the vitality of our culture has been leaking away ever since.
It’s hard to see what will fill the vacuum left by the departure of Western culture when the Great War finally ends. No one knows the shape of things to come.
But whatever it is that’s coming will be here soon.