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.