Fuelled by the First World War's centenary, there are growing rumbles that Crimea could be the newest version of the events that unleashed World War I. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a long look backwards to see if the metaphor misleads more than it clarifies.
In recent weeks, looking for a suitable (and frightening enough) analogy to explain the possible future impact of the Russian movement into the Crimean Peninsula, a growing number of commentators and columnists have fastened onto what happened as a result of 28 June 1914 as the one to use. This is not too surprising since the events of that day led to the appalling carnage of World War I (and thus led into World War II as well). As a result, this foreboding has triggered the sense that the world is poised, once again, on the brink of an unstoppable conflict between major military powers – only this time there will be the added bonus of nuclear weapons.
So, travel back in time a hundred years, almost exactly, to events in the provincial capital of Sarajevo. That city was the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a territory that had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the mid-15th century, but which came under the administration an increasingly rickety Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, and then, finally, in 1908, became as an actual – if roiling and restive, province of that empire.
Bosnia was – and remains, as many years of newspaper headlines attest – a stew of nationalities, ethnicities, religions and political persuasions. A good chunk of the population were Eastern Orthodox ethnic Serbs, another portion were Catholic Croatians and of the remainder, most were Muslim (and Slavic) Bosniaks, although there were also populations of Jews and a sprinkling of Germans and Turks as well. By and large, Bosnian society was relatively peaceful among itself, and although most were grateful the province was no longer ruled by a feeble government from Constantinople, its Serbian population agitated for a union with the kingdom of Serbia, immediately to the east.
In June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of the octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, man who had been on the throne since 1848, was on an official and ceremonial visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, including events in Sarajevo. At the 28th of June, while Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade moved slowly through the city, Bosnian Serb nationalist, the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, a member of a plot to assassinate the heir, stepped forward near the northern end of the Latin Bridge in downtown Sarajevo, and fired shots into the automobile carrying both Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, killing them both. Franz Ferdinand’s final words reportedly were, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children,” although she was already dead, and he would join her a short while later.
As historian Simon Kuper wrote recently in the Financial Mail, “For a start, Franz Ferdinand should never have come to Sarajevo that day. Serbs were clamouring to expel the Austrian Habsburgs, hoping to create a greater Serbia or at least a united kingdom of “south Slavs” (“Yugoslavs”). Plotting to assassinate Habsburg dignitaries had become something of a local pastime. Rebecca West, in her 1941 classic about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, eventually gives up enumerating every assassination attempt: “And so on, and so on,” she concludes. Most famously, in 1910, the Serbian student Bogdan Zerajic had fired five shots at Bosnia’s Austrian governor, missed every time, and shot himself with the sixth round. (Princip had laid flowers on Zerajic’s grave.)”
Kuper adds that the date of the assassination, “June 28 also happened to be a big day for Serbs: St Vitus Day, (Vidovdan – Ed) anniversary of their defeat by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A Serb hero of that battle was Milos Obilic, reputed to have sneaked into the Turkish headquarters and cut the Sultan’s throat before Ottoman guards beheaded him. Obilic was Serbia’s first great assassin-martyr. Princip knew by heart an epic poem about him, writes [British historian Christopher] Clark. For Franz Ferdinand to have entered Sarajevo almost unguarded that St Vitus Day was madness.” It tempted the fates and Princip and his group seemed only too happy to be the agent of such fates.
As soon as they had captured him, the Austro-Hungarian government claimed Princip and his co-conspirators had been aided and abetted by forces in the Serbian military and secret intelligence services for the express purpose of generating a province-wide revolt against the imperial occupiers. The Austrians, sensing that a firm response to this killing could be the moment to humble those obstreperous and troublesome Serbians, sent them an extremely harsh diplomatic demarche. Despite the fact that the now-thoroughly concerned Serbs assented to many of the demands that had been made, the Austrians pressed their advantage further, now backed fully by the German Empire – Austro-Hungary’s major ally.
The two Central European allies began their mobilisation of troops, even as Russia – a nation that saw itself as Serbia’s sponsor and protector – also began its own military mobilisation, drawing France, Russia’s ally, into a full-scale mobilisation as well. At that point, the British, as guarantors of the neutrality of Belgium for nearly a hundred years, warned the Germans if they attacked France by way of moving through Belgium, they too would also join the hostilities on the side of France, Russia – and Belgium.
A whole flurry of diplomatic notes, threats and demands took place during the European summer season, even as many senior officials were already on vacation – or planning to go shortly – and the diplomatic notes sometimes seemed to have a flippant, nearly insouciant quality to them. As a result of the advance in transportation, the rail networks of the major European powers that now reached throughout those nations had been designed with one eye on military deployments as well.
Once the mobilisations began, millions of soldiers (along with their equipment, horses, heavy weapons and supplies) moved inexorably to their concentration points to board troop trains hustling active duty and reserve units to the respective borders. As the things began to look increasingly belligerent, in the various European capitals, for a few days at least, the various emperors, prime ministers, chancellors and foreign ministers began to have second thoughts about where all this was heading.
The continent had managed to avoid a general war since Napoleon’s time – ninety-nine years before. Yes, there had been various “little” wars such as the one between France and Prussia, the one pitting Austria against France and Savoy-Piedmont, or the various Balkan wars where the combatants squabbled over the increasingly corpse-like Ottoman Empire, as well as various near-wars like the fight over Tangier or even the French – British standoff in Fashoda, in the Sudan. But, given the general sense of peace and civilisation across most of the continent, practically no one really expected this tussle between Serbia and the Habsburgs to ignite a major continental war. But, as the continent began to slide into general war, however, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey is reported to have said in a moment of prescience and foreboding, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” For others former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s fear that a conflagration would ensue “because of some damn-fool thing in the Balkans” was a warning sign for danger ahead. And so it turned out.
The argument go further on the inevitability of just one incident sparking the giant fire as a result of all those criss-crossing alliances, however. As mobilisation and mutual threats grew, a now-nervous German emperor reportedly asked his military chief, Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke, if the whole German plan for the invasion of France via Belgium could be changed a bit, once it was becoming clear Britain would also enter hostilities if the Belgian border was crossed. But a horrified von Moltke reportedly replied the Germans’ meticulous railway-timetable-precision planning, upon which a successful invasion of France had been based, was inflexible. It could not be altered, lest the entire army be thrown into total chaos. And so it wasn’t, and so, too, the war began in earnest.
In the end, the entire edifice of late Edwardian Europe came to a collapse as millions died, because of a few bullets fired by one nineteen-year-old nationalist zealot. And so an argument being made now is that conditions between June 1914 and today’s Crimean crisis are remarkably – and dangerously – similar.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently discussed this very fear, looking at the possibilities and parallels to that event a hundred years ago. He wrote, setting out a possible scenario, “Events now move quickly. Russia annexes Crimea. It declares war on Ukraine, takes Donetsk in short order, and annexes the eastern half of the country. The United States warns Russia not to advance on Kiev. It reminds the Kremlin of America’s binding alliance with Baltic states that are NATO members. European nations mobilise. Desperate diplomacy unravels. A Ukrainian counter-attack flounders but inflicts heavy casualties, prompting a Russian advance on the capital. Two NATO F-16s are shot down during a reconnaissance flight close to the Lithuanian-Russian border. Russia declares war on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — an attack against one member shall be considered an attack against all — the United States and its European allies come to their defense. China, in what it calls a pre-emptive strike, invades Taiwan, ‘a potential Crimea.’ Japan and India declare war on China. World War III has begun.”
He goes on to say, yes, 2014 and 1914 are very different. “It could not happen.” He writes, “Of course, it could not happen. The institutions and alliances of a connected world ensure the worst cannot happen again. The price would be too high, no less than nuclear annihilation. Civilisation is strong, humanity wise, safeguards secure.”
Except the fact that precisely such a question is even being asked also betrays concerns that accidental misunderstandings, deliberate misinterpretations, and miscalculations of mutual intentions have been as old as the warfare. We had been there during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, after all.
Yes, there are now any number of international trust-building organisational mechanisms, communications technologies and negotiations, and all are designed to prevent the very cautionary tale Cohen set out for our contemplation. There are numerous, well-established, European-wide consultative mechanisms; there is all of the impressive machinery of the United Nations; and there are hot lines and routine consultations between nations at a wide variety of negotiating forums. And this doesn’t even include treaties on peaceful resolution of disputes such as that treaty between Russia and Ukraine in which Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons and Russia promised to respect the territorial integrity of the other nation.
And yet, events have moved so quickly in Crimea that none of these consultative mechanisms ever had a chance to come into play. It was, it seems, a thoroughly disjunctive event in which Vladimir Putin felt free to impose a new political reality on the geography of the region, without regard for other arrangements. As we have looked at earlier, partly this came about from ethnic tensions, from the deeper impulses of Putin’s view of Russia’s natural place in the order of things (see here), as well as – at least in the minds of some observers – the relative weakness and disarray of American and EU policy towards Ukraine.
At least until now, of course, the Crimean dispute, as it has broadened to include the EU and the US, in addition to Russia and Ukraine, has also felt the brakes come into action, despite charges this territorial grab violated some recent, hard-won understandings about the boundaries in Europe. Or, as the New York Times noted on Wednesday, regarding Barack Obama’s time at a G-7 meeting in the Netherlands, “On Tuesday, Mr. Obama offered his answer, saying that Mr. Putin leads a ‘regional power’ whose real threat extends largely to its bordering nations. In language that seemed to be aimed at the highest ranks inside the Kremlin, Mr. Obama dismissed Russia as a country that is lashing out at its neighbors ‘not out of strength, but out of weakness,’ ” thereby chastising the Russians, even as the president also seemed to be downplaying the global impact of the Crimea crisis. Russian leaders, of course, have replied by placing some sanctions on a number of US politicians and dissing the importance of the G-8 for Russia (even though it had lobbied hard to be allowed to play in the first place.)
Just for historical perspective and a sense of how some things transcend the years, read the Economist magazine’s comment on the restraints on the Russian ruler, just before the Crimean War in 1853 in which it argued, “His [the Czar’s] nobles will suffer both by the abstraction of their peasants, and the diminution of their traffic; they will have to pay a higher price for the foreign luxuries they import, and will receive a lower price for the agricultural produce with which they purchase them. They will thus be both impoverished and discontented. The commercial classes will suffer in like manner; and the combined in?uence of the two will probably be strongly exercised in favour of an early peace.” Given the economic differences of agricultural commodities for oil and natural gas for example, an argument can be made that the Russian government has this time, too, pushed itself into a dangerous financial and economic landscape – and that further incursions into Ukraine will begin to play havoc on the Russian economy (along with some significant dislocations of energy consumption in Western Europe as well, of course).
While western economic and financial sanctions have now come into play against a handful of key Russian figures, the effort has not been aimed at the country’s economy as a whole. The limited response extended to an un-invitation to Russia to be part of the G-8 group and the growing unlikelihood – as things stand now – that western nations will attend the planned G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia in June with Russia. Moreover, the crisis itself and even the so-far-limited sanctions have already had a real impact on the Russian stock market, the value of the ruble vis-à-vis the dollar or euro, and the fact that portfolio investment funds may well forego Russia for the near-term future. Rumours are now being reported that as much as $70 billion may be fleeing Russia as a result of the looming uncertainty. There is even the thought Russia might be cold-shouldered out as a member of the WTO. Still, all of this is a far cry from the implacable movement of long lines of railroad cars bringing Russian, Austrian, German, French, and British troops to their assigned spots to carry out military plans across Europe.
So far at least, despite some growing bluster by (mostly) Republican politicians over Obama’s “failure” to prevent the takeover of the peninsula by Russia, there is virtually no indication the American government is – and Americans more generally are – willing to commit a single soldier to defend Ukraine. This time around, the modern equivalent of Von Moltke’s timetable is not running things. So far, at least. DM
Photo: Gavrilo Princip.
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall