On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was murdered in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The assassin was Gavrilo Princeps, a Bosnian terrorist nationalist who was a member of the Serbian supported terrorist group the Black Hand. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been annexed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908 and there was a definite possibility of some kind of attack being made against such a visible target and symbol of Austro-Hungarian hegemony in the Balkans.
Over the subsequent month various attempts were made to keep this assassination from erupting into a continental and eventually a global war. Europe at that time was tied into a system of interlocking alliances. Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and, to varying degrees, with Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain, and its empire dominions including India, Canada, and Australia, were allied with European powers as varied as France and Russia. Numerous historians have debated and continue debating who was responsible for starting this bloody conflict whose legacy remains with us today. Most historians place the onus of responsibility on Germany and there is some validity to this.
However, Austria-Hungary had every right to retaliate against Serbia for committing an act of state-sponsored terrorism against it. I tend to place the key blame for letting this conflict degenerate into a continental and global struggle on Russia for refusing to restrain their ethnic compatriots Serbia out of misguided Slavic ethnic solidarity. Some historians such as Sean McMeekin concur with this assessment. All of the European powers contributed to this conflagration and its strategic significance was so high that it was inevitable the U.S. would be drawn into it.
We know the bloody stories of stalemate and slaughter on the western front, but this war was also fought in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea, vast segments of Eastern Europe, and the North Atlantic. This war saw individual and national heroism, the shameful slaughter in the trenches, cowardice and incompetence, and shameful xenophobia as evidenced by the attacks on German-Americans and the German language in the U.S. Besides European nationals, the war was also fought by members of European imperial dominions such as Senegalese, Indians, Arabs, Australians, and New Zealanders. The political leaders in these dominions could often be significant personalities in their own right as evidenced by Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who despite his Labor Party background, become a forceful advocate for the war effort against often vociferous opposition within his own party. Hughes eventually formed a coalition government with his conservative opposition, fought ferociously to advance Australian interests at the Versailles Conference, and presciently warned of the emerging geopolitical threat of increasing Japanese power.
The war produced lasting effects that remain today. The 1917 Communist revolution in Russia introduced the world to the ugly, bloodthirsty, and heinous legacy of Communist tyranny which has killed more people than any other political ideology and still retains varying layers of influence in China, North Korea, Cuba, and some academic echelons. The Versailles Treaty of 1919, imposed extortionate economic reparations on Germany which created lasting bitterness in that country which would lead to the rise of Nazism under Adolf Hitler, failed to promote German reintegration into Europe, and would ultimately plunge Europe and the world into a Second World War from 1939-1945. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s delusional utopian naiveté failed to account for the sinful reality of human nature and the eternal conflict prone nature of international politics. Wilson’s folly and trust in international government organizations was pollyannish and remains unable to effectively deal with the realities of historical dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini let alone current dictators in North Korea, Syria, Iran, Russia, China, and terrorist leaders such as those heading the Islamic State.
The 1917 Sykes-Picot agreement between the then British and French foreign ministers divided the Ottoman Empire’s Mideast corpse into separate spheres of influence to be administered by London and Paris. It created artificial national boundaries among Arab countries which remain in place today and continue serving as a source of conflict for the Islamist hordes which continue plaguing that region.
Even though we did not enter the war until 1917, Americans should pay careful attention to this conflict as we commemorate its centennial over the next four years. We need to do more than glorify our participation and sacrifice in liberating Europe from the prospect of German dominance. We need to understand the experiences or our allies and enemies and how they affect their domestic and foreign politics and national security interests today. Just over four years ago, my wife and I had the honor to visit the Anzac Memorial in Sydney, Australia. This is one of many site across that country commemorating the deaths and sacrifices made by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in a vain attempt to wrestle control of the Gallipoli Peninsula from the Ottoman Turks. The Gallipoli campaign is a key point in contributing to Australian national identity and is observed with great solemnity by Australians nearly a century after. Each year in April many Australians travel to Turkey to visit the battlefield and pay their respects to their forefathers who paid the full measure of freedom. Australia is particularly good in commemorating the importance of wartime commitment and sacrifice and we in the U.S. can learn much from their example.
There is no guarantee that the world will avoid another global conflagration. Human nature being inherently sinful, coupled with new destructive technologies such as precision guided weapons, increasing urbanization, contentiousness over energy supplies, disputes over how climate may affect livelihood, instantaneous global communication, and multiple other factors could coalesce to produce conditions ripe for global conflict again. Weak national leaders such as Barack Obama are more likely to miscalculate the intentions of hostile governments with their uncertain words and actions and invite aggression, even from nations or transnational terrorist groups, with the asymmetric capability and ideological zeal to inflict ruinous harm on us and our allies even though rational thought would suggest that their actions are suicidal. We always have and always will live in an irrational world where conflict is the norm and periods of peace are rare and evanescent. Recent and ongoing events such as Israel’s justifiable incursion into Gaza against Hamas terrorism and the Russian separatist/Russian shoot down of a Malaysian Airlines plane in Ukraine demonstrate this reality. Further amplification of this is provided by Russia’s reopening of an intelligence listening post in Cuba two decades following its closure. We should remember the words of British Foreign Secretary Lord Grey in 1914 who, on the eve of war declared: “The lights are going out all over Europe. They won’t be lit again in our lifetime.” The imperative to forcefully defend freedom and out national interests with strong and certain leadership should be a key lesson of our World War I study and observance. If this is not heeded international lights could go out again for a very long time.