Friday, June 27, 2014

How the Great War Began

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, shortly before they were
assassinated in Sarajevo 100 years ago tomorrow, triggering World War I.

Once when I was a boy, my family spent the summer in Austria, mostly in the city of Graz.

We were there for roughly six or seven weeks.

While we were there, we rented a vehicle and took a trip to Greece; to get there, we had to drive through Yugoslavia. As I recall, we stopped for the night along the way in Sarajevo, which is where Austria's archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a group called the Black Hand a century ago tomorrow. The Black Hand was a Serbian nationalist group.

That was the act that began the First World War.

I don't remember if we looked for the site of the assassinations when we were in Sarajevo. I also don't remember if we looked for Franz Ferdinand's birthplace. He was born in Graz.

My father was a religion professor when I was growing up. While we were in Austria, he made some day trips to sites of World War II concentration camps to take pictures and gather material for his lectures, but I don't think we ever spoke about World War I that summer, even though we drove through the city where it all began.

I guess it makes sense that we didn't focus on World War I. Religion was not an issue in World War I. Imperialism was.

That's about as direct as the story of the outbreak of World War I gets. Even after a century, it becomes increasingly complicated the deeper one digs into it. The Great War, as it was known until World War II, happened largely because of alliances that required certain countries to step in if other countries were attacked.

Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Austria–Hungary's emperor, who declared war on Serbia. Russia got involved because of its treaty obligations — and that meant that Germany had to declare war on Russia because of Germany's treaty obligations. Then France declared war on Germany.

From the tangle of treaties, two factions emerged — the Allies and the Central Powers. Britain, France and Russia were Allies; Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austria–Hungary were the Central Powers.

World War I was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. All told, nearly 10 million people were killed. More than 21 million were wounded. Nearly 8 million were missing.

All because the emperor's nephew was killed 100 years ago tomorrow.

To a student of history, the odds that Franz Ferdinand would be the catalyst for a conflict the size of the Great War (a war that, Margaret MacMillan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "changed everything") were slim and none, to put it mildly. Frankly, I have never been able to figure out to my own satisfaction why he was targeted.

"The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ... ensured his name has been enshrined in the annals of European history," writes Suzanne Lynch in the Irish Times. "But the archduke himself was not a particularly popular figure in the years preceding his death."

A German historian described him as "a man of uninspired energy, dark in appearance and emotion, who radiated an aura of strangeness and cast a shadow of violence and recklessness ... a true personality amidst the amiable inanity that characterized Austrian society at this time."

The anniversary has renewed a debate over the role of 19–year–old Gavrilo Princip. Princip was the man who shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie 100 years ago today. Of that, there is no doubt. What is far less clear, writes The Guardian, is whether he was a hero or a villain for doing so. The Associated Press wonders the same thing.

The assassination itself reminds me of the scene in "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" in which the world's greatest assassins converge on Oktoberfest with the intention of killing Inspector Clouseau but end up killing each other instead.

There were six assassins posted along the motorcade route, most in case the assassin(s) ahead of them failed to kill the archduke.

The first two assassins, armed with guns and bombs, did fail to act. The third assassin had a bomb, which he threw at the motorcade, but it bounced off the convertible cover of the archduke's car into the street and went off under another car. Nearly two dozen people were injured, and the assassin attempted to commit suicide by taking cyanide and jumping into the river — but the suicide attempt also failed. The assassin vomited and did not drown because, thanks to recent hot and dry conditions, the water wasn't very deep. He was taken into custody.

The motorcade proceeded to its next stop, a town hall reception, where the archduke gave his prepared speech and added a few remarks about the attempt on his life.

Considering what had happened, I think I would have insisted on alternate arrangements for my departure from town hall. In fact, city officials and the archduke's aides did discuss that very thing. The most sensible solution, from what I have seen, called for the couple to remain at town hall until enough soldiers could be brought in to secure the route.

But the governor–general rejected that suggestion — because any soldiers who came straight from maneuvers would not be able to dress in proper formal uniforms.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie agreed to a change in plans. They wanted to go to the hospital to visit the people who had been injured earlier in the bombing. A different route was agreed upon — but no one told the driver. The person who normally would advise him of such changes had been injured in the bombing. In his absence, Sarajevo's chief of police was charged with spreading the word of such a change to the drivers, but he failed to do so.

Anyway, the driver took the original route. The governor–general, who was riding with the archduke and his wife, called out to the driver to take a different route. The driver stopped the car — as fate would have it, near Princip, who fired two shots from a distance of about five feet. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were killed.

When he was sentenced, Princip made an apology of sorts. He said he did not intend to shoot Sophie. His intended targets were the archduke — and the governor–general.

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