In the Hulton Archive, there exists an old, black and white photograph from July 1955 of a deceptively innocent looking street corner in Sarajevo. In fact, it’s of a crossroads, and it could be said it was on this crossroads that, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs, the four great empires of Europe: Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had the misfortune to come crashing together.
In the foreground, by the curb-side of this benign looking picture, are two footprints. Turn your head as you place your feet on those footprints and you can still see a sombre plaque saying that it was from this point on the 28th June 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia Choteck von Chotkova were assassinated by the teenager Gavrilo Princip.
Gavrilo, a pallid, tubercular youth, perhaps felt the hand of destiny touch him, as he sat despondently eating a sandwich at a café on that corner. An open-topped Phaeton car passed by but the driver, having taken a wrong turn, put the brakes on and slowly reversed to within feet of the café. Through a crowd, Gavrilo saw that in the back seat of the Phaeton was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Earlier that day, a bomb thrown by Nedjelko Cabrinovic, a fellow Serb nationalist and friend of Gavrilo, had bounced off the bonnet of the Phaeton and exploded under the wheels of another car in the Archduke’s motorcade. This botched assassination attempt by the so-called ‘Black Hand’ had left two of Ferdinand’s entourage seriously wounded and injured a dozen spectators. It was, in fact, these injured that the Archduke insisted on visiting in hospital and the reason his driver, Leopold Lojka, was unfamiliar with the route he was taking.
As if it were a scene from Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Gavrilo was unable, due to the crowds, to pull out the small bomb he’d been issued with. He quickly reverted to his Browning pistol and managed to fire two fatal shots. He confessed later, ‘Where I aimed I do not know... I even turned my head as I shot’. For the fatalistically minded, Lojka’s unintended detour was literally the turning point in the history of the 20th century.
There are, traditionally, a number of uncontested factors that made this assassination the tipping point that led to the Great War. Amongst these was the rise of the Pan-Slavic and Nationalist independence movements in the Balkans, which had begun as early as 1829 with Greek independence and culminated in the shooting. The eventual consequences of which, whilst welcomed by some, were unintended. Gavrilo’s generation wanted a Greater Serbia, no longer under the yoke of the Hapsburgs. His statement after his arrest was simple and limited, ‘I am a Yugo-slav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugo-slavs and I do not care what form of state [we achieve] but it must be free from Austria’. Archduke Ferdinand was a reformer of an Empire with fifteen different nationalities, who, it was feared by the revolutionaries, planned to devolve power regionally, federalise and thus dilute aspirations for Slavic independence.
Another factor was a complex of treaties, conventions, and ententes that existed between the European empires and led to a ‘domino effect’. One event, almost mechanically setting off another in the post-assassination period now called ‘the July Crisis’. The dominoes fell like this: To begin with, the Dual Alliance Treaty (1879) between Germany and the Austro-Hungarians (made because Otto von Bismarck almost obsessively feared attack on two fronts) said that they would, as allies, declare war if Russia or France mobilised to attack either Empire. In a similar vein, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892 promised each signatory assistance in the event of attack.
Ferdinand’s assassination provided the Austro-Hungarians with an excuse to effectively initiate a war between themselves and the Kingdom of Serbia. They assumed or gambled that the Russians would not involve themselves in this small ‘domestic’ war. The Russians however, with ethnic and power interests of their own in the region, mobilised their army.
In 1905, the Germans had created the Schlieffen Plan. This plan was based on the premise that, if Russia mobilised and went to war, France would soon follow. Germany would then be faced with Bismarck’s nightmare, war on two fronts. However, the giant Russian army would take several weeks to mobilise. In this breathing space, Germany could attack France, not on their mutual border, heavily defended by French forts but via neutral Belgium. The Germans with this surprise attack felt they could, as it were, ‘Be in Paris by the weekend’.
Unfortunately for the world there existed yet another dusty, old treaty of seventy-five years standing. This was the Treaty of London (1839) in which Britain undertook to defend the neutrality of Belgium. Additionally, the ‘Entente Cordiale’ of 1904 between Britain and France, had effectively ended a thousand years of bellicose attitudes between the two neighbours. This cordial agreement was a colonial ‘carve-up’ on a host of matters, such as France staying out of Egypt if the British kept their nose out of Morocco. Given these conditions, if Germany invaded Belgium, Britain, the largest empire in the world, would be forced to make a decision as to whether to initiate a global conflict. Thus becoming the final ‘domino’ to fall.
This is often where opinion between historians begins to divide. One distinction of this war is the mountain of documentation associated with it. No historian can hope to read all the relevant literature which includes multi-volume editions of official diplomatic papers and literally tens of thousands of books. Almost any polemic on the origins of the conflict can produce some material basis for its defence. Therefore, the general reader would be wise to note any historian’s ideological predisposition (as well as their own).
The independence movements, the alliances, the built-in militarism and propaganda of the Imperial powers, provide necessary but perhaps not sufficient causes for the war. Two contemporary but very opposed historians, who attempt to find such sufficient causes are Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson.
Hastings, whom one might caricature as ‘old school’, vehemently argues that one essentially distorts the history if one ignores the ‘moral culpability’ of the combatants. No one nation was fully responsible but the German Empire, he asserts, was the principal aggressor, particularly barbarous and as such provides the looked for sufficient cause. Germany had a record of committing genocides in South West Africa (of the Hereo and Namaqua, 1904-7) and then, when it invaded Belgium, human rights atrocities (the execution of over 6,000 Belgians). It is also through this prism he believes that one should view the genocides of the Second World War.
Obversely, Ferguson feels nothing was inevitable on the Sunday afternoon that the British officials met to decide for or against war. The German policy and war objectives indicate that they wanted a continental war between nations but not a world war between empires. Going into the meeting, the majority of participants would probably have said they were against war with Germany. We are taught Britain came into the war because of the threat to Belgian neutrality. However, Ferguson says, if you examine the sources, these Liberal politicians were rather cynical about the matter, it merely provided a good pretext for war. The motivating reason behind the decision was, suggests Ferguson, more ‘frivolous’ but no less sufficient. Many were unemployed in Britain, and the Liberals feared defeat in an election. A popular war was a way of avoiding such humiliation. A significant minority forced the issue. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, threatened to resign if Britain didn’t declare war and a young, belligerent Winston Churchill, then in the Admiralty, suggested what soon became common parlance, that, ‘it would all be over by Christmas’.
In 1965, Powell and Pressburger released a film (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the eponymous hero of which knew his Clausewitz, dressed in feather-plumed, gaudy uniforms and happily obeyed the rituals of war. This fictional character, Colonel Blimp, appears out-dated, but replace his cinematic image with that of a marine portrayed in contemporary recruitment adverts, and it’s clear that war is still often projected as a kind of elevated costume drama. In a post-modern world, the appeal and power of such imagery, especially to the young, is often derided. Yet, with the continued popularity of war, it seems true to say that, the old Horacian appeal, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is not yet seen as a lie by most.
Nineteenth-century Imperialism was at the heart of the causes of the First World War, the background to which were such avaricious enterprises as the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ‘The Great Game’ (between the British and Russians in northern India). Powerful elites wanted economic supremacy and on the surface at least, not unlike modern Liberal-Democracies, justified war on the grounds of: the need to defend nation states, progress, enlightenment and universal humanity. Twenty million people were killed in the war. Such ‘justifications’ are like the apparently innocent, 1955 black and white photograph of a crossroads from the Hulton Archive. Deceptive.
This is from my book ‘Orwell, Two Guinea Pigs, A Cat and A Goat’.