One hundred years ago today, five young Serbs attempted to kill Archbishop Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. They each failed in their agreed upon duties that day, two of them failing to pull the trigger when the Archbishop was in their sights. But Gavrilo Princip received a second chance when he exited a cafe to find the Archbishop’s car serendipitously right in front of him. He fired two shots, killing both Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Later, from jail, Princip would express regret at killing Sophie.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a foreign imperialistic presence that had been ruling over parts of Southeastern Europe for more than 500 years. By 1914 it had succeeded in engulfing Bosnia and its capital city, Sarajevo and it made clear its desire to extend the empire into neighboring Serbia. Austria had even begun committing acts of ethnic cleansing against Serbs on their border. When the search for a connection between the assassins and the Serbian government yielded no results, leaders high up in the Austrian government still embraced the assassination as an opportunity to invade Serbia and they started mobilizing for war.
After a month of threats, miscommunication and the deception of several emperors, the war hawks of Austria had their way, invaded Serbia and ignited what would become the bloodiest 32 years Europe, and the world, would ever experience. Russia had vowed to protect Serbia and so it declared war on Austria. Germany declared war on Russia to protect Austria, its closest ally. France declared war on both Germany and Austria since it had recently become Russia’s closest ally. Germany’s battle plan for winning a war on two fronts included the invasion of Belgium which caused Great Britain to declare war on Germany, as the vowed protector of Belgium. But then Great Britain expanded the war into Africa and the Middle East in an effort to extend their own empire.
At the start of the war the Germans had no idea just how weak and mismanaged the Austrian military and government had become. After losing battle after battle early in the war, Austria was rendered useless while Germany was forced to take the lead in the struggle to defeat Russia, France, Great Britain and eventually the United States. And so while Austria’s imperialism and militarism ignited the war, Germany would absorb the blame and punishment for the rest of it. The story from there has been told many times: Germany’s harsh punishment led to a depression which would lead to fanaticism, Nazi control of the country and then the Second World War.
Princip and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand were not the cause of the First World War. The empires of Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Russia were too militaristic and opportunistic to avoid conflict, too willing to send millions of young men to the slaughter to prevent war. Most even embraced it. And the world still struggles from the actions of the “winning” side. Identity and ethnic issues in the Balkans continued when Great Britain forced the creation of Yugoslavia, whose inevitable dissolution would lead to the deaths of 100,000 people in the 1990s. In 1919 Britain and France carved up the Middle East and in doing so spawned perpetual violence in places like Israel, Egypt, Persia and Iraq, where this very morning people are fighting over arbitrary borders created by foreign powers. And the First World War ignited a revolution in Russia that would start a 100 year search for Russian identity alongside the ruthless expansion of Soviet ideology which is still generating conflicts in places like Crimea and Afghanistan.
For Molly and I, what started as a trip to southern France, has transformed into one giant history lesson about Europe’s darkest 32 years. Everywhere on this continent there is death, loss, violence and destruction. In every rural town we visited in Southern France we stood below memorial after memorial commemorating the deaths of their L’enfents morts. In Montenegro we visited city after city that Tito liberated from the Nazis. We’ve seen bombed out Bosnian towns and NATO troops guarding ancient Serbian Orthodox monasteries. We stood below memorials in Belgrade dedicated to 1.3 million Frenchmen who died in their attempts to protect Serbia and to the 800,000 Serbs who died in the struggle – 18% of the Serbian population. We drove through the Paris suburb where thousands of French Jews were collected by the French police and deported to Auschwitz to be executed. We haven’t visited a single battlefield, yet the stench and horror of Europe’s century of violence lingers everywhere we go.