The Shots That Started the First World War?

The First World War was the result of deliberate and conscious action, not accidental and impersonal forces.

A hundred years ago today, an ersatz revolutionary accidentally succeeded in assassinating Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne • To this day, the circumstances are still murky • But contrary to conventional wisdom, the Central Powers were not sucked into war against their will, but actively chose it to the exclusion of other options • The tale of an assassination which only in retrospect became the start of the First World War

רחוק מהדימוי המקובל של מתנקש ידוע לשמצה. גברילו פרינציפ. תמונה: ויקמידיה.
Not exactly a the image of a notorious revolutionary; Gavrilo Princip. Photo: Wikimedia.

If you have an image in your head of a notorious assassin or terrorist, Gavrilo Princip is probably the last person on your mind. A young, lanky teenager of nineteen, an amateur who was a lousy shot, you’d be hard pressed to believe this poseur had any chance of setting the world’s economic and political center on fire. Yet that is precisely what he did.

It Depends What You Mean by Terrorism

Today in the beginning of the 21st century, we associate terrorism with religious fundamentalism and the targeting of innocent, uninvolved civilians. But in the beginning of the 20th century, terrorism meant targeting “oppressive” state officials large and small in the name of national liberation and social revolution. Many such assassination attempts were made all throughout Europe and even in the United States with the murder of President William McKinley.

A small number of these self-styled freedom fighters were professionals, but many more were hotheaded amateurish youths. Gavrilo Princip was the latter. An ethnic Serb living in Bosnia, part of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian empire, Princip rankled under what he saw as the oppression of his people under Austrian yoke.

When he and a number of his revolutionary friends learned that the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, was visiting Sarajevo, they decided to go there and kill him as a blow against Austrian tyranny. Their ultimate hope was that the neighboring Slav Kingdom of Serbia would unite all the Slavs, including those living in Austria-Hungary, under a single south Slav state – Yugoslavia (“Yugo” = south, hence South Slavia).

How exactly would the murder of one person so dramatically change the political boundaries? Like I said – most revolutionaries were hotheaded youths and rarely thought things through. They wanted to act, not to think.

The assassination was about as well-though-out. Six assassins, including Princip, positioned themselves along Ferdinand’s planned route. Two chickened out. One threw a bomb and missed. The motorcade then sped to safety to the town hall in Sarajevo. Now that one attempt had failed and Ferdinand was safe inside, the assassination looked like it had failed. It would be just another of such failed attempts in the troubled region over the years, barely worthy of a back-page notice in the newspaper.

Princip, dejected, went to a store to buy a sandwich, perhaps nurturing the hope of somehow getting at Ferdinand later, but probably just to eat lunch before he went home. But then his luck changed dramatically. Ferdinand’s driver accidentally took a wrong turn off the main road – and ended up right in front of Gavrilo Princip. The lousy shot got off two rounds. One hit Franz Ferdinand, the other hit his wife. Both were fatal. Princip himself was imprisoned and died in 1918.

ההתנקשות הצליחה בהמקרה. שחזור של ההתנקשות בעיתון איטלקי; תמונה: ויקימידיה.
The assassination that succeeded by accident; a reconstruction in an French newspaper. Photo: Wikimedia

Who Gave the Order?

Strange as it sounds, some of the circumstances of the assassination are still unclear. We know that Princip and his friends were the ones who came up with the idea of the assassination. We also know that Serbian military officers provided them with the weapons to do the job. We also know that those officers acted with the approval of Dragutin “Apis” Dmitirijevic, head of Serbian Military Intelligence, a conspirator, schemer and revolutionary who had no trouble acting against his own government if he thought it was for the good of Serbia.

What is not clear is whether the Serbian government had advanced knowledge of the plot or approved it. Serbia in 1914 was suffering from a serious governance crisis; just before the assassination, Apis had tried to start a failed mini-putsch against Prime Minister Nikola Pasic over the question of control of territories Serbia had gained in recent wars. Pasic even ordered an investigation into Apis and his activities. These efforts would culminate in 1917 when Apis and his comrades were brought up on trumped-up charges of treason and executed.

Given the hostility between the two, it’s easy to see how Apis could have acted without notifying the government. What evidence there is that the Premier knew about the assassination plot also points to him trying to stop it, though obviously not rigorously enough. Dr. John Schindler argues that there is direct evidence implicating the Serbian government which will appear in his forthcoming book on the Eastern Front in WWI; we will have to wait and see what he found.

נתן סיוע חשוב להתקשות; עד היום לא ברור עד כמה הממשל הסרבי תמך בו. אפיס, ראש המודיעין הסרבי. תמונה: ויקימידיה
Provided the weapons and the go-ahead for the assassination. Apis, arch-conspirator. Photo: Wikimedia.

A Deliberate Decision to Go to War

Not that any of this would have mattered to the Austrians either way. As far as they were concerned, Serbia was guilty and had to be crushed. People familiar with Barbara Tuchman’s bestselling book The Guns of August tend to assume that the war was some kind of inevitable train wreck due to the conflicting alliances and escalating arms races. But much time has passed since Tuchman’s work, and with the opening of governmental archives we know that the decision to go to war was deliberate. As WWI historian David Stevenson said: “The European peace might have been a house of cards, but someone still had to topple it.” That someone was first and foremost the Austro-Hungarian Empire, backed by important and ultimately decisively influential sections of the German army and government.

Europe at the beginning of the 20th century had seen political crises before, some of which threatened to bring about a general war no less than in 1914. Suffice to mention two: the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911 and the Annexation Crisis of 1909 when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Except that every crisis, without exception, was resolved peacefully, in spite of and perhaps even because of the conflicting European alliances and their military might. Except in those crises, all sides were willing to compromise, either willingly or through diplomatic arm-twisting.

Austria in 1914 was not interested in any form of compromise short of a crushing war against Serbia. No Austrian official of high standing seriously considered the idea of not going to war. Serbia needed to be crushed – even if that meant risking a war with Russia, Serbia’s ally. All the attempts of the powers in what became known as the “July crisis” to convince Austria to accept a resolution or compensation short of total war against another country were summarily rejected.

But Austria would not have dared to go to war without the full support of its ally, Germany – and that support was given. German’s reasons for giving what was later called a “blank check” for war are varied. It wanted to allow its only reliable European ally to strengthen itself by crushing a dangerous, if smaller, adversary. Since Austria was the victim of Serbian aggression, they figured the Great Powers would be reluctant to come to Serbia’s aid.

Furthermore, although they didn’t want war, they were willing to risk it and even escalate it. The reason was that they figured that the Russians would have completed their military reforms in 1917, becoming perhaps so powerful that Germany could not even launch a preventative war against them – with all that entailed for German security and influence. So it was a rigged game: heads, the Russians don’t mobilize to defend Serbia and Austria becomes stronger, or tails, the Russians mobilize and Germany takes the chance to start the war in the same of self-defense against the Czar’s Asiatic hordes.

היו מוכנים לצאת למלחמה כדי לעמוד על הכבוד האוסטרי - גם במחיר מלחמה כוללת - וכאוסטריה, כן גרמניה מסיבותיה שלה. הקייזר פרנץ יוסף. תמונה: ויקימידיה
They were ready to go to war to defend Austrian honor – even at the risk of a general war; Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph. Photo: Wikimedia

Human Action, not (Just) Impersonal Forces

Informed and uninformed pundits will use the centennial to push their own favorite – and usually banal – “lessons of the war”: the “waste” and “futility” of war itself, clumsy and inappropriate comparisons between 1914 and the political situation today or other such platitudes. But if we truly want to understand the war, we need to understand it on the terms and according to the understanding of the people who actually lived in that time – be they Princip or the Austrian and German governments. Both acted not as automatons driven by impersonal forces, but as moral agents with free will, proud in their respective causes and believing that violence was indeed the solution to their problems.

Were they right? That is a question which will probably never be resolved.

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