I've been reading Martin Gilbert's The First World War; A Complete History. What a sobering history! I have had only a superficial knowledge of WW I, so reading this book will move my understanding up a notch or two anyway. This reading was prompted by several things. In the past few months, I have read Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit; Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism and A Scott Berg's Wilson, both of which deal, in part, with the WW I era, and then most recently, Walter Johnson's William Allen White's America, which also spans WW I. Reading those books, I realized how little I knew about the war itself.
But most of all, I am aware that this coming Saturday, June 28th, will be the 100th anniversary of the event that sparked WW I: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by a Serbian teenager, Gavrilo Princip, in the city of Sarajevo. Undoubtedly, in the coming weeks, months, and perhaps, years, we will be confronted with various commemorations, documentaries, books, memorial events, etc., growing out of the 100th anniversary of WW I. It seems to be a widely-held view that WW I profoundly shaped the modern world, and perhaps we will gain some insight into just what that means, and, to be way optimistic, we might even find the clue to lead us into a better world.
If nothing else, WW I should enhance our appreciation for irony. Gavrilo Princip was part of an organization called Young Bosnia, which in turn was connected to a larger group called The Black Hand which advocated the formation of a Greater Serbia, a separate and independent Serbian state, free from the oppression of the Austrian Empire. . To Princip, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne occupied by his uncle, 83-year-old Franz Joseph, appeared to be the enemy. What Princip didn't know was that Franz Ferdinand did not share his uncle's devotion to the bi-partite empire of Austria- Hungary. He envisioned a Tri-Partite Kingdom of Austrians, Hungarians and Slavs, each with their autonomy. If he had lived to become emperor, he might have helped bring about young Princip's hopes and dreams. That he was willing to defy his uncle had already been made clear when he married Sophie, who was not of the proper royal line. Ferdinand had to accept a morganatic marriage - i.e., the stipulation that neither his wife, nor his children by her, could ever inherit the throne. So he had some ideas of his own.
|Archduke Franz Ferdinand|
|Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg|
A second irony growing out of June 28, 1914, is that after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian government presented the Serbian government in Belgrade with an ultimatum intended to humiliate it (even though there was no evidence that the Serbian government, per se had had anything to do with the assassination), and which it was felt the Serbs would never accept. But in essence, they did - certainly enough to provide room for negotiation and a diplomatic settlement of the affair. But by the time they got their reply back to Vienna, it was too late to stop the momentum which had built up in favor of war. Maybe those who today reach quickly for a military solution to problems in the Middle East (most of which have grown out of the aftermath of WW I) need to be reminded of that.