Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's still June 27th, 1914

Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, 1914
On June 28th, 1914 in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand the Archduke of Austria-Este and his wife Sophie the Duchess of Hohenburg were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of Young Bosnia (a youth movement affiliated with the Serbian Black Hand). Despite the relative unpopularity of Archduke Ferdinand in Austria proper--he was still the heir presumptive to the throne on Austria-Hungary and would have taken the throne in 1916 had he not been killed--the assassination became a huge international incident, involving a number of countries aside from Austria and Serbia. It is widely viewed as the touchstone for World War I, as Austria-Hungary used it as a pretext for declaring war with Serbia. Russia immediately responded by mobilizing its forces in preparation of supporting its ally Serbia, a move which led Germany to do the same, then simply declare war on Russia outright.

It can be argued that larger political events were at play, that the assassination itself was not so critical, that war was in fact imminent. But history is as it was; the death of Ferdinand at the hand of a Serbian assassin clearly set the table, leading to World War I occurring as it occurred, not at some other moment for some other reason.

The larger picture here is that of European powers trying to establish, maintain, or expand their empires, their spheres of influence. That and the impact of liberalism--classical liberalism--against the ideologies of the aristocratic and authoritarian old guard who still controlled many European states, an impact that was not only political but also social and economic. Within this general paradigm--which included a matter-of-fact distinction between the "civilized" and the "uncivilized"--atrocities were committed around the world before the death of Franz Ferdinand. People died in war and other conflicts--many, many, many people--in the time before 1914. And horrible things were done after the assassin struck in Sarajevo; millions more died in the course of the Great War and the basic foundations were laid to both define the borders of nation-states and to usher in both World War II (and of course the Holocaust) and the Cold War in the decades ahead.

On June 28th, 1914 the world was a dangerous place, not just in obscure backwater regions that had not succumbed to the "civilizing" influence of Western Europe, but in European--and American--cities and countrysides, towns and villages. In short, everywhere there was danger or potential danger. This was because the status quo, the current "world order" was not so stable and steadfast as people believed in the moment. Violent change, or just widespread violence, was far more likely in some regions than others, it is true, but risk existed for all, everywhere.

This is no small point to grasp. For if we could go back to 1914 or a few years earlier, we would find a mindset seemingly incapable of seeing beyond the immediate horizon, especially in those nations with the most power and wealth. I noted some of this previously in a piece last August in a discussion on the various periods of extended (apparent) peace in history, the Pax Romana (and Pax Sinica), the Pax Britannica, and the (current) Pax Americana. But as I made clear then, these periods of peace were still filled with violence, violent conflicts and violent people. Yet again, a typical man-on-the-street in London, New York, Paris, or other "civilized" region did not live in fear of war in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, of the worldwide sort or otherwise. For him (or her), daily life was the whole ball of wax and there just were no siginificant threats to this day-to-day existence.

Why? To be blunt, it was because of perceived cultural superiority. The "West" had--for those with this mindset--reached some sort of pinnacle of civilization. Peace had become the natural order, not war. There were solutions for everything, from societal ills to international disagreements. If those solutions were not readily apparent, all that was need was effort and study and a solution would be forthcoming. The world itself, once large and far flung, had become small as technology united mankind in ways that seemed impossible only a few decades previously.

Today, almost one hundred years later in 2014? That same mindset once again reigns supreme, still in Western Europe but most especially in the United States of America. We think we live in a different world than the past, that the massive violence characterizing the great majority of mankind's history is now somehow avoidable, that we have progressed to a new level of enlightenment. The violence in places like the Middle East is reasoned to just not be representative of mankind but is rather an aberration caused by a lack of understanding on the part of some. In the civilized world, we drink lattes, watch movies, and pursue high culture (and wealth). We don't live in fear because we believe we are somehow above the past, that we have--for lack of a better word--outgrown our own natures, even fundamentally changed them. Just like in the opening of the twentieth century, our reasons for such beliefs are founded on pride, pride in our accomplishments, in our supposedly more open society, and in our greater understanding of a world that once again seems much smaller than it actually is (the last again thanks to technology).

Like most of the civilized world of early 1914, we delude ourselves into thinking world war just can't happen. And yet, events in Ukraine prove--beyond a shadow of a doubt--that the world is largely unchanged, that mankind is largely unchanged, across the past century. If anything, both have become more dangerous, not less.

In reading the various pieces out there on the goings on in Ukraine, the revolution, the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, and the move by Russia to annex Crimea outright, one gets the idea that this was somehow unexpected and unpredictable, that it reflects a change in the world order. Silliness, outright silliness. There is no new world order, no change in the nature of mankind, there is just the moment. And only a few short years ago, that moment led to the break-off of South Ossetia from Georgia, with plenty of help from Moscow. What did the world do then? What did the West do in service to a nation--Georgia--that aspires to NATO membership (something strongly opposed by Moscow)? Nothing.

The apparent balkanization of former regions under the control of the Soviet Union is music to Russian ears, as the leadership there uses such events to expand Russia's territory and sphere of influence. Simultaneously, such balkanization within Russia proper is put down harshly (see "Chechnya").

An empire--the Soviet Union--collapses into old and new regimes, only to have the strongest of these attempt to re-establish the empire some years later, under new leadership, through any means necessary. This is not an atypical thing at all. In fact, it's just the opposite; it is very much a common historical model. With respect to Russia, the attempt to regain what was lost has been ongoing for some time now. Yet, the intelligentsia of the West appears to have largely ignored reality in favor of a naive worldview that presupposes "civilized" people don't do these kinds of things. This, despite the constant warnings from Eastern European and Baltic nations about Russia's designs.

Where does this all leave us now? Again, exactly where we were one hundred years ago, with a possibility on the horizon that few are willing to face, a possibility that has always been there because of the fundamental nature of mankind. The question is, as always, what will it take to make that possibility a certainty? And how long can we avoid it?

Cheers, all.

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