TORONTO, ON, Jun 25, 2014/ Troy Media/ – When the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fatally shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne on June 28, 1914, few people imagined where it would lead. But within a matter of weeks, Europe was at war. And by the time it finished, almost 10 million soldiers were dead.
In addition, the international landscape had changed profoundly.
Two multi-national empires – the Habsburgs and the Ottomans – had disappeared, while the political maps of Central/Eastern Europe and the Middle East were dramatically redrawn. In the process, problematic entities like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were born, only to collapse under their own artificial weight less than a century later. And who knows, another similarly contrived entity – Iraq – may be about to join them.
Meanwhile, the gradually modernizing autocracy of Tsarist Russia was swept away, to be replaced by Lenin’s Bolshveviks. Although the new regime always had its academic and intellectual fans, it also morphed into one of the 20th century’s most prolific killers.
On the economic front, the war marked the rise of America to superpower status, and the coincident migration of financial ascendancy from London to New York. Territorially, the British Empire’s zenith may have been reached in the war’s immediate aftermath, but it was increasingly an exhausted house of cards.
Faced with such consequences, it’s natural to wonder about “what ifs.” In The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, historian Margaret MacMillan ponders several.
What if Rasputin, a committed pacifist, hadn’t been too ill to travel? Had he been able to get to the Tsarist court, perhaps he might have had a restraining influence.
What if a sex scandal hadn’t deprived the French cabinet of Joseph Caillaux’s moderating voice?
What if the shrewd Alfred von Kiderlen-Wachter, German Foreign Secretary during the Moroccan crisis of 1911, had still been alive and in office? In his estimation, war only happened if statesmen were “unfathomably foolish” when it came to the serious business of bluff and counter-bluff.
And there’s another question worth considering. What if the British government had made up its mind early, and then communicated its intent to all players? For what it’s worth, French president Raymond Poincare was of the view that public clarity on Britain’s part would deter Germany.
However, the British weren’t keen on getting pulled into a European conflict, and tried to keep their options open right down to the wire. Notwithstanding the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France and the 1839 treaty with Belgium, as late as July 31 – a mere four days before Britain went to war – only two members of the cabinet were explicitly in favour of intervention.
All the while, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey manoeuvered to avoid a final choice. As he invariably pointed out, a strict interpretation of Britain’s written agreements didn’t require it to get involved. Indeed, as the days dwindled down, the French ambassador in London became convinced of impending British abandonment, wondering “whether the word honour should be stripped from the English vocabulary.”
Mind you, that whole thing about honour sounds suspect to the 21st century ear. It has an antiquated ring, conjuring up images of puffed-up, overgrown schoolboys playing at being soldiers. And there’s undoubtedly a degree of truth in that uncomplimentary picture.
But before we get to feeling too superior, we should think about the parallels to our own world. Consider, for instance, our theoretical attachment to concepts like Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the idea that the international community is morally obligated to intervene in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
In effect, R2P is a modern variation of honour. Whereas the 1914 proponents of intervention argued that Britain was morally obliged to help protect France against aggression, R2P’s adherents claim an open-ended obligation to humanity writ large.
One can disagree with both perspectives. Certainly, I have problems with them.
But there’s a distinction. Back then, they were prepared to walk the talk to the bitter end. We, in contrast, tend to enjoy the moral strut while shying away from sustained follow-through.
As for the guy whose trigger finger precipitated the 1914-18 catastrophe, Gavrilo Princip was just shy of the execution-eligible age in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Imprisoned, he died of tuberculosis in April 1918, a little more than six months before the war ended. Astonishingly, there are still those who consider him a hero.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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