The Damned Things that start world wars

The Damned Things that start world wars

This week marks the centenary of an event – the assassination of the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne – that ultimately set off the First World War. J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates this anniversary for what it means for today, and how a new generation of historians is tackling this momentous event.

Many years ago, as a major blizzard struck Washington, DC, with transportation impossible and offices closed down because of the weather, trapped in the house, this writer found himself totally immersed in the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, of course, was the victorious American Civil War general who eventually wore down and drove the Confederate army into unconditional surrender.

Condemned by some defeated Southern apologists shortly after the war as some kind of unique military monster, the memoir actually showed Grant as a kind of military-industrial visionary. Rather than warfare for cruelty’s sake, Grant’s position, stated clearly in his writing, was that he had been given the most terrible possible task, but once he had the tools, he did what was necessary to win – as quickly as possible – and thereby end the killing.

Recognising that warfare had now become industrial at least as much as strategy and tactics, Grant made revolutionary use of the nation’s railways to move troops and supplies on multiple fronts simultaneously, and coordinating the movements of those forces, virtually in real time, via the telegraph. Moreover, grasping the changed nature of this kind of warfare, Grant linked his army’s success to the ability of the nation to generate prodigious quantities of arms, clothing, packed and preserved food, and shoes – and to move all of these by rail close to the troops in the field. While Napoleon was right that an army marched on its stomach, it definitely needed those shoes too.

In fact, by the time his opponent’s army of about 30,000 men had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Grant’s army remained well outfitted, well supplied, and fully capable of carrying the campaign further. By contrast, the soldiers in the Confederate army had been reduced to wearing rags, recycling shoes from their fallen comrades (and even, on occasion, from their opponents), and they were increasingly without weapons, ammunition – or even food rations.

Throughout the 19th century, however, this horrific experiment in the killing power and destructive possibilities of all-encompassing industrial warfare was only lightly acknowledged by the European powers. Instead, the hundred-year “Long Peace” had been punctuated only by short conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, and Crimean Wars, and the various Balkan struggles. Notably, none of these had drawn the entire continent into general warfare. This was in stark contrast to the Napoleonic period or the many British-French conflicts of the 18th century, or even the Thirty Years War before that.

Even the Russo-Japanese and Anglo-Boer Wars did not really register continent-wide to trigger general warfare or generate lessons about the all-encompassing nature of modern warfare. Nor did the many European colonial wars. All of these struggles seemed, instead, to argue that modern wars would end quickly, save for that special case at the tip of the African continent that had evolved into a kind of guerrilla war. Instead, modern weaponry, used properly, would send opponents to their graves quickly enough. The real lesson, that modern weaponry and the force multipliers of industrial warfare would, once war began, suck in the entire trove of resources and manpower of states, went unlearned or acknowledged until it was far too late.

This is an appropriate time to recall these lessons, as 28 June 1914 marks the effective moment when the crisis that set off the First World War took place. Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb teenager, a member of a radical nationalist group, Mlada Bosnia (Young Bosnia), assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who had been on an official visit to Sarajevo. Sarajevo was the capital of the province of Bosnia, a territory formally annexed by the Habsburg Empire in 1908 from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, after occupying it since 1878. [Incidentally, Princip was the assassin no. 2. His co-conspirator no. 1, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, attempted to assassinate the Archduke by throwing a hand grenade at his chariot. – Ed]

Once Bosnia had been annexed formally, that created fertile ground for nationalist groups seeking Bosnia’s freedom from Austria and incorporation into a greater Serbia. Mlada Bosnia had shadowy ties to Serbian military and intelligence operatives that made the plot more complicated still.

As a result, as soon as Princip shot both the heir apparent and his wife Sophie at the moment when the official motorcade had slowed briefly to make a turn, the Austrians quickly concluded Serbia was behind the plot – and that it included far more than just Princip and his Sarajevo co-consipirators. The Austrians issued a harsh diplomatic demarche to the Serbians, calling for, among other demands, the surrender of anyone involved with the plot. The Serbians delayed, the Russians offered support for their pan-Slavic ally; the Germans gave the Austrians their blank check of support; the French backed their ally, the Russians; and then the Germans launched their vaunted giant wheel of the “von Schlieffen” offensive through neutral Belgium. That brought in the British who, invoking their responsibility to protect Belgium’s buffer status, joined against the Germans on behalf of the French and Russians. Within a year, virtually the entire continent was embroiled in the war.

Back in the early 1960s, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a history of the opening days of World War I, had provided the perfect cautionary tale for the Cold War. Tuchman’s masterful retelling of the military events of the early weeks in the war had proved to be just right for its time – a warning about what could happen to great powers when they don’t keep conflict under control; when they let the military plans run away with events, without regard for broader consequences.

The hinge moment seemed to be the moment of the German Kaiser’s sudden bout of worry about not carrying out the vast invasion westward that would bring Britain into the then-erupting conflict, only to hear from his generals that such a manoeuvre would throw the train timetables moving his troops into chaos and collapse. As a result, the invasion went on as originally planned – until the entire war did not go on as planned.

It has been reported that Tuchman’s book – and its cautionary tale of letting the military run away with their timetables and plans – had had an enormous impression on America’s president, John F Kennedy, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Given the likelihood a missed or misunderstood command might easily set off a nuclear exchange that could obliterate humanity, Kennedy is said to have been deeply worried that his orders about the naval quarantine around Cuba (until the Russians began to withdraw the newly installed nuclear-tipped missiles) must be especially precise and followed to the letter, lest “someone not get the word”, step over some hidden fault line and set off World War III.

Now, on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, several new, authoritative examinations of the origins of the war have been released. In particular, these include Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillian’s The War that Ended the Peace. Both volumes are extraordinarily detailed, weighty doorstoppers, but eminently readable. And to make their cases, both authors start years before the war began to trace the breadcrumbs that lead back to the earliest possible sources of the conflict.

Rather than focusing on the implacability and irreversibility of those troublesome military plans, both Clark and MacMillian reach back into the latter part of the 19th century for the tendrils of trouble. They pick out the fault lines spreading across Europe between two competing alliances; the gradual hardening of those two alliances with commitments that would push members of one alliance onto the attack against the other alliance; the growing sense of increasingly harsh, competing nationalisms; the unresolved tensions and consequent fears that potential antagonists were getting stronger to the relative detriment of another nation; and a more general sense of a growing pile-up of wrongs to might be righted by some quick, decisive military action. The collision that finally exploded came after Princip took his aim and found his targets.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had famously predicted years earlier that “some damned thing in the Balkans” would set the whole tinderbox alight – and so it did ultimately. But the overarching lesson from both MacMillian and Clark is that if it hadn’t been that royal assassination a hundred years ago, it could just as easily have been something else.

It could have been from one or the other of the two Moroccan crises that had erupted few years earlier as the French attempted to extend their protectorate over that unhappy kingdom; or perhaps from the results of one of the two Balkan Wars; or from some other crisis born out of the increasingly unstable continental power balance that was slowly but surely weakening the stability that had evolved since the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. Contingency rather than inevitability or timetables is the order of the day for Clark and MacMillian.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, it was popular to place the blame for the war on German militarism. The Treaty of Versailles made that explicit with its imposition of massive reparations payments on Germany, effectively as a national fine for planning, starting and carrying out the war. By the time of Tuchman’s book, with the Cold War and the balance of nuclear terror occupying the minds of so many, it was easy to blame the inevitability of the military planning and the high tech of the day for causing the conflagration. But, for our own time, with MacMillian and Clark’s approach, rather than picking on the technology of the time as the trigger or placing the blame on one bad apple in the international relations basket, the real problem is the inability of the prevailing international system to rein in conflict and antagonisms, and to keep them from contaminating outwardly in concentric circles, lest everyone drown.

And that, of course, has an echo for the world’s current circumstances. Is the situation in Iraq and Syria, as ISIS’ transnational army, a force that seeks to right both political and religious wrongs with a kind of eschatological fervour that has unseated governments in the past, sufficiently destabilising that such a conflict may well spread beyond the immediate neighbourhood to engulf much more? If this most recent conflict in Iraq now draws in Iran as well as the US, does it have the possibility to spread even further across what has sometimes been termed the “zone of instability” that stretches from North Africa on through to South Asia?

And further North, do Ukraine’s current agonies contain the seeds of a wider conflict that could finally draw in Russia more openly than has already happened, thereby putting it in more direct opposition with the West in general, with Nato and with the EU?  Or have the world’s nations learned to listen past the siren calls of those who ache for conflict to assuage their pains, and thus find ways to tamp down those fires before they are fully out of control? These are clearly questions that will occupy the nations of the world in the coming months – and beyond.

And as for Gavrilo Princip – what happened to him? He was arrested, interrogated, sentenced and sent to a prison in Terezen, in the then-Austrian province of Bohemia. He died there, his body broken by TB, just four months before the war he had started finally lurched on to its apocalyptic end. Some twenty years later, Terezen became the site for the infamous Nazi concentration camp, Theresienstadt, used to hold special prisoners throughout the second, even more cataclysmic war that had grown out of a hunger for world domination, racial hatred, righting a sense of injustice, and a deep desire for revenge that flowed directly from the first war, the one that Gavrilo Princip had started. DM

Photo: The man who lit up the Balkan tinderbox, Gavrilo Princip and his immediate target on that fateful day of 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.(Wikimedia Commons)

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