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Sleepwalking into war — and lessons for today

By James Aitchison

It was called “the shot that went around the world”.  On 28 June 1914, in Sarajevo, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a fervent Bosnian nationalist, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  The archduke and his wife died in their touring car, and four weeks later World War I began.  

Those four weeks became known as the “July crisis”, when sabres rattled, and empires played dangerous games of bluff and counterbluff.

But what was all the fuss about?  Certainly, there was nothing to mark the archduke as an important figure strutting the world stage.  If anything, he was an impatient, reckless, trophy-hunting princeling who shot kangaroos and emus in Australia.  His castle was stuffed with more than 100,000 grisly trophies from his travels to India, New Guinea, and Sarawak.  Even his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was reportedly “relieved” at his nephew’s demise.

And yet his death would see 9 million soldiers dead, 23 million wounded, and 8 million civilians perish in a global war where slaughter was on an industrial scale.  By war’s end, history would forever be turned on its head; monarchies would topple, dynasties be wiped out, and empires left in tatters.

Today, historians still heatedly debate the precise cause of the war, and uncomfortable parallels exist between 1914 and our own present geo-political circumstances.  

Nobody wanted a war, they argue, but the ruling elites were hell bent on increasing their influence.  In 1914, Europe was divided between the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Triple Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia.).  And, leading their empires, were three first cousins: King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  

In each of the great powers, unrest prevailed.  Britain faced massive industrial unrest, political strife buffeted France and Germany, a huge strike wave engulfed Russia, and ethnic tensions were boiling over in Austria-Hungary.  

Some historians believe that Germany deliberately sought war.  Others point to action — and inaction — on the part of the Great Powers.  

Long before Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the German War Council chaired by Kaiser Wilhelm II declared in 1912 that Germany should start a war in the summer of 1914.  The archduke’s murder merely underscored Germany’s determination to leap to the defence of a “brother empire”.  But many historians say this is a simplistic argument.

In fact, during the “July Crisis”, historian Christopher Clark believes that the Great Powers literally sleepwalked their way in a catastrophic war.  

Clark argues that Imperial Germany encouraged its “brother empire” Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia to avenge their archduke’s death.  In doing so, they knowingly risked war with Serbia’s ally Russia.  

Russia, for its part, decided to support Serbia come what may.  Russia had been humiliated by its defeat at the hands of the Japanese, and a nice little war would restore her honour.  However, the Russians had ulterior motives to intervene in the Balkans: their intent was to capture Constantinople from the ailing Ottoman Empire.  Consequently, Turkey and Bulgaria would enter the war on Germany’s side.  

Russia was first to order a general mobilisation and began moving troops and equipment to the German border.  

Russia’s ally France did nothing to restrain Russia, positively encouraging her to face down the Germans and support Serbia.

The British made a half-hearted attempt to call a four-power conference.  Russia accepted but Germany and Austria-Hungary refused.  Many historians argue that Britain had no business joining in the war.  France was an ally, but Britain had no special love for Russia; they had been playing the Great Game in Central Asia for years.

On 28 July 1914, the “Crisis” ended when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and World War I commenced.  Meanwhile, Berlin had panicked.  The prospect of a war with Russia in the east led to a German mobilisation.  When Russia attacked East Prussia, Germany attacked France, hoping for a quick conquest on her western flank.

Misjudgements, duplicity, arrogance, fear, and instability: a deadly cocktail that led to the Great War, and which in our times is no less threatening.   

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