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Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Shots that Triggered Catastrophe

Say Sarajevo today and most first think of the famous concert there or the Bosnian and Serbian conflict as the former Yugoslavia broke up. Many would not associate it immediately with the start of the First World War. Today marks one hundred years since an assassins bullets on the streets of Sarajevo started the tumbling of the dominoes as the world slid toward what would become the slaughter of Europe’s young men in France, Belgium, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Gallipoli, East and West Africa and the Far East.

When the nationalist fanatic Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger, killing the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia in Sarajevo, he started the process that brought down the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties, redrew the borders of Europe and sentenced millions to death, starvation and hardship. He set the scene for the fall of fragile democracies that followed the 1919 peace, and led to the disappearance of both several more Royal Houses and of democracy itself in many more lands. News papers whipped up patriotic sentiment to a frenzy in almost every country as the tensions grew and spread, and one has to wonder what drove some to want to bring about a war.

Once the dominoes began to fall, the rush toward a global conflict gathered momentum. At play were issues of nationalism, national pride, revenge, territorial ambitions and in at least one case, a desire to prevent Germany becoming the dominant European power. Some countries involved really had no direct interest in the confrontation between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire other than the chance to gain territory. Italy had it’s eyes on the Tirol and the territory around Trieste and the Dalmatian coast. Serbia cherished ambitions for Bosnia, Croatia and Albania, Romania had it’s eyes on Transylvania, France on Alsace and the Russians on East Prussia.

Great Britain had several reasons for wanting a war, none of them ‘territorial’ but driven by the fear that a powerful Germany dominating Europe would threaten British manufacturing (already in trouble and already losing its edge to the more innovative Germans) and its High Seas Fleet could eventually threaten British superiority at sea. The British cabinet was split, between those who did not want to get involved in a ‘European squabble’, and those like Winston Churchill and the Earl of Salisbury who demanded it. Their reasoning was that it would check German expansionism (part of the long running anti-German propaganda campaign in the British Press) and, privately, that it would resolve and divert growing problems of unemployment and labour unrest in the declining industrial heartlands.

France, still smarting from her defeat in 1870, wanted revenge and the opportunity to seize territory ‘lost’ to Germany (some argue they had their eyes on pushing all the way back to the Napoleonic borders along the Rhine) and the Russians wanted to secure the ice free harbour at K√∂nigsberg (now Kalinnengrad). It must be said here that the Kaiser, perhaps realising at the last moment, that Germany had everything to lose and almost nothing to gain, made strenuous attempts to call a halt - frustrated in the end by Tsar Nicholas II's casual order to 'mobilise' his army against Austria. The rest, as they say, is history.

So Princip’s bullets launched a domino tumble that would sweep away millions of lives in a war which, in reality, had no ‘winners’ unless one considers the late entering United States as a ‘winner’. It would launch the eventual Bolshevik Revolution in Russia which swept aside, not the Tsar, but the fledgling democracy the Tsar had finally been forced to allow, and condemn millions to the horrors of the Russian civil war and the Leninist and Stalinist terrors that followed. Those gunshots at Sarajevo also set history on the course that would lead to the rise of National Socialism and the horrors of the holocaust and the Second World War and ultimately the Cold War and the world we see crumbling around us at present.


It has been a remarkable century, one shaped by war, by failed ideologies, by fanatics of every description. Let us hope that the future can be secured against such horrors and against such lunatics.

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