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A century ago

PIVOTAL: Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie (left), minutes before the assassination; Gavrilo Princip (above, center) after his arrest. (Princip: Hulton Archive/Getty Images • Ferdinand: Associated Press)


A century ago

Onto the world war treadmill

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper, 2012) engrossingly shows how myths that glorified terrorism a century ago led to millions of deaths and struck a blow to Christianity in Europe from which that continent has not recovered. 

Clark begins his tale in 1903, when 28 assassins invaded the royal palace in Belgrade and after a two-hour search killed Serbia’s king and queen—but that episode in some ways started in 1389, when a Serbian assassin cut the throat of Turkey’s sultan, and then was captured and beheaded. From then on in Serbia, “assassination, martyrdom, victimhood and the thirst for revenge on behalf of the dead were central themes.” 

By 1911 a Serbian Union or Death organization (aka the “Black Hand”) was in operation, with new recruits swearing an oath to “execute all missions and commands without question.” Leaders recruited several 19-year-olds, including the sickly Gavrilo Princip, to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire that Serbians saw as a threat. Princip had memorized a long epic glorifying the assassin of 1389, and sometimes spent whole nights sitting at the grave of another famous assassin.

I won’t go through the convolutions that from 1887 to 1914 turned Europe into a powder keg with a Serbian fuse, but Clark explains well why World War I eventually became three-on-three, with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on one side) and the Triple Entente (England, France, and Russia, big brother to the Serbs) on the other. It’s striking how incestuous Europe’s oligarchs were: German Kaiser Wilhelm II and British King George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria, and Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s wife was Victoria’s granddaughter: “The outbreak of war in 1914,” Clark notes, “looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.” 

British and French politicians, German militarists, and idiots all over played a role as well in the tragedy, but let’s cut to June 28, 1914. The lead Serbian plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand failed, but because of a missed turn the archduke’s car stopped right in front of Princip, a poor shot. That allowed the teen to fire two shots at point-blank range into Ferdinand and his wife (see “Completely personal,” in this issue).

Four tragic years

Both sides of the three-on-three had their strengths and weaknesses, but overall the armies were even enough that the world war, like America’s Civil War, dragged on for four years: 600,000 died in the 1861-1865 conflict, 17 million died in the 1914-1918 slaughterhouse. Peter Hart’s The Great War (Oxford, 2013) is a 522-page blow-by-blow combat history of the major battles, and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, new edition, 2013, first published in 1975) displays and explains the psychological trauma. 

Some with faith in God’s sovereignty wondered and wandered, but Philip Jenkins, in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (Harper, 2014), details the folly of those who thought they knew. The Christian religious establishment in country after country had slid into liberalism, and Jenkins points out that “the lack of any eternal absolutes allows the church to be swept along with contemporary political obsessions.” He notes that in Germany “liberal Protestantism … came close to state worship, if not war worship”—and hierarchs in other countries were not far behind. 

After the war, Britain and France pinned all the blame on Germany instead of also taking responsibility, and thus sowed the seeds of World War II and its 60 million to 85 million deaths. Germany, beginning in 1919, had 15 years of political and cultural flailing summarized well in Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton University Press, new edition, 2013). Some anti-Communists even allied with a wild man they thought they could control, Adolf Hitler. —M.O.


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  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 03:02 pm

    An interesting, thought provoking film about WWI is entitled Oh, What A Lovely War, a dark musical anti-war comedy filmed in 1969.  The tragedy of a war that was not a Just War.  What really stuck in my mind was the use of the red poppy for each soldier that died in the film.  Years later I came across the WWI war poem In Flanders Fields that explained the red poppy.  The fate of millions of lives and disrupted families resting on the poor decisions of a few.  poem