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home : columns : columns May 29, 2016

6/24/2014 11:15:00 AM
June 28, 1914 - The day the world changed
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

June 28 marks the 100th anniversary of the day the world changed.

The world didn't know it at the time. A small cadre of young Serbian anarchists had crossed the Drina River into Austrian-ruled Bosnia-Herzegovina to strike a blow for a "Greater Serbia." On June 28, 1914, a 19-year-old consumptive terrorist named Gavrilo Princip gunned down Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia as they motored through Sarajevo on a state visit.

At first, nothing much happened. The assassination of the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary was news, of course, but hardly earth-shaking. Heads of state got shot or stabbed fairly regularly at the turn of the 20th century, by anarchists or radical nationalists with obscure, maniacal grudges. Europe rolled on through a hot summer, consumed by other obsessions - a salacious sex scandal in France; Britain facing the threat of civil war over Northern Ireland; industrial unrest in Germany and seemingly everywhere else.

Yet, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered a cascade of events that, in just over a month, would plunge Europe and then the world into a cataclysm, the echoes of which continue to reverberate in our own lives a hundred years on. (To cite just one example, the nation we know as Iraq, which may now be breaking apart, was created by the allied powers out of the end of World War I.)

The archduke's assassins hailed from Serbia, long a thorn in Austria-Hungary's side. So the Austrians decided to exploit the killing to force a localized war that would crush the upstart Balkan Slav kingdom once and for all. Austria's ally Germany had their back if the Russians decided to take their role as protectors of the Slavs seriously. France was committed to aid its ally Russia in the event of war. Germany's war plans called for them to deliver a knockout blow to France by crossing through neutral Belgium. Violation of Belgian neutrality would bring Great Britain into the war.

All the Great Powers understood that their alliances could pull them into a massive war, the likes of which the world had never seen - but onward they marched, step by step toward the precipice, until in the last days of July and the first days of August 1914, they reached the point of no return: The powers mobilized their armed forces and found themselves on a runaway deathride into the abyss.

The Great War would sweep away imperial dynasties: The German Second Reich, the Hapsburgs, the ancient Ottoman Empire (they joined Germany and Austria in October 1914), the Romanovs of Russia.Russia would succumb to revolution and a brutal civil war that would enthrone a bloodthirsty and tyrannical Bolshevik regime immeasurably more oppressive than the tsarist autocracy it replaced.

The ghastly nature of a conflict that took some 15 million military and civilian lives blew apart the notion of the continual upward Progress of Man. The most advanced societies in human history bent their social and economic organization, their industrial might and their technological sophistication to finding ever more deadly and effective ways to slaughter one another. We who live in the war's long shadow know in our bones that the technologies that help us thrive can also destroy us.

Armies, particularly those of the Central Powers - Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire - committed atrocities that prefigured still more horrific crimes against humanity that would come later in the century.

The heritage of chaos in the Balkans survived the war, to rear its gory head again in the slaughters and ethnic cleansings of the 1990s. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East, where cynical imperial gamesmanship ushered in what historian David Fromkin calls "a peace to end all peace" - and conflicts and animosities that plague the world to this day.

The legacy of the war was not entirely dire. As conflicts do, it led to major advances in medicine, aviation, engineering, creating or enhancing technologies that could be turned to beneficial use.

And, as conflict also tends to do, the Great War led to a massive increase in the power of the state, increasing its role for good and for ill in the economies and lives of peoples across Europe and the United States.

The war's greatest legacy, though, was a second and still more horrific conflict. The failure to physically conquer Germany in 1918 (the Armistice came without a single allied combatant's boots on German soil) combined with a harsh victor's peace in the Versailles Treaty to create fertile soil for the exploitation of German rage at the outcome of the Great War. And Adolf Hitler would exploit that rage to profound effect in climbing to power and proclaiming a German Third Reich, which, just 20 years after Versailles, would plunge humanity into the Second World War.

The greater conflict of 1939-45 often obscures the impact of the First World War of 1914-18. But it is appropriate to think of the two wars, as Winston Churchill did, as a Thirty Years War, a massive convulsion of modern civilization, inextricably linked in savagery and profound effect in shaping our


We still live in the echo of the shots fired that June 28th, on a hot, sunny day in a small Balkan city: A watershed moment - the day the world changed.

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