Recently, I assured a group of Vermonters who had come to the Shelburne Town Hall to discuss the crisis in Ukraine that as bad as things seemed to be, I did not believe that a new Cold War was about to begin. I still feel that way, although I have to confess that conviction has been challenged somewhat by the new book, “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War,” by British military historian Max Hastings.
On this 100th anniversary of the Great War, as World War I was originally called, what is striking to relearn is that most people in Europe did not want such a war. But through gross miscalculation — and, most importantly, a widespread fear of being seen as weak — the greatest military powers of the day effectively blundered into what in its time became the bloodiest war in Europe’s history. Consider this: roughly 10 million military dead, 20 million wounded and 9 million missing in action. That staggering total of nearly 40 million military casualties represented virtually an entire generation of young European men (including my Scottish grandfather, a British Army private, who was killed in Belgium in 1917).
The political consequences of that war were also profound. A late starter, the United States emerged as a world power. But the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire ceased to be. The Russian monarchy was overthrown by revolutionaries dedicated to the new ideology of communism. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate. The Treaty of Versailles drew up new boundaries for Europe and the Middle East, which created several of the international disputes which remain to this day. Britain and France were sent into a state of deep shock, and even more than a decade later were afraid to challenge Adolf Hitler when he seized power in Germany in 1933 and began to expand a new, malignant fascism.
Considering how extraordinarily consequential World War I was, most of us today don’t really know much about it. What I learned as a school boy, was that the war was triggered in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, when a young Serbian anarchist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand — the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Actually, the assassination became the pretext for the war.
To begin with, Ferdinand’s assassination initially caused barely a ripple anywhere. Here is some of the reaction according to historian Hastings:
The archduke’s funeral service lasted just 15 minutes.
The London Times reported from Vienna that there was a remarkable absence in the Austrian press of calls for revenge upon the Serbs.
Foreign observers expressed surprise that Viennese mourning for the heir to the throne was perfunctory and patently insincere.
It was thus ironic that the Austrians scarcely hesitated before taking a decision to exploit the assassination as a justification for invading Serbia.
In author Hastings’ opinion, this made Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph the principal villain. At the time, this head of the Hapsburg dynasty, which had ruled central Europe for several centuries, was a weary old man of 83, who could see his empire crumbling. His generals considered threats of war, and war itself, a tool for the advancement of national interests — a sentiment shared by German Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals. Historians often point out that a crippled arm made the Kaiser both insecure and aggressive. In backing Franz Joseph, Wilhelm saw potential for extending Germany’s domination of Europe.
Russian Tsar Nicholas II understood that a general European conflict would be disastrous. But Russia’s then-recent humiliations — in 1905, when it lost a war with Japan, and in 1908, when the Hapsburgs annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina — were considered shameful by the Russian aristocracy. So Nicholas was determined that if Serbia was attacked, Russia would go to its defense. He was also depending on his military convention with France, which the two had signed in 1894, in the belief that Germany was a common threat to both countries and neither nation could stand up to Germany alone.
Finally, there was Britain. Although Britain and France had mutual treaty obligations, they were not automatic. And throughout July 1914 Britain was almost oblivious to the march to war in Europe because it was obsessed with the highly controversial question of home rule for Ireland. The Catholics of Ireland were demanding it, while the Protestants of Northern Ireland were threatening civil war to prevent it. The British were deeply divided over intervention, but in the end they entered the war — oddly, because Germany violated Belgium’s neutrality on its way to attacking France.
So is any of this relevant to the Ukrainian crisis?
Yes, according to Australian historian Christopher Clark, author of “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War in 1914.” In a recent lecture to Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Clark noted the similarities between 100 years ago and today. He spoke of the “weary titan” then in Britain, just as some see in today’s United States. As reported by the Washington Post’s foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, Clark said, “the big difference is that despite Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine, Western Nations responded with what Clarke called ‘caution and circumspection’ rather than lockstep escalation.”
Ignatius took that a step further. “There is something of the summer of 1914 about (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. It’s not clear whether he sees himself as the tsar … but he’s evidently a man with something to prove, confident and insecure at the same time.” As for President Barack Obama’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis, this is Ignatius’ impression: “Obama, once more, has shown himself to be the opposite of the macho politician. He is reserved and analytical ... If he had been guiding one of the major nations in 1914, one senses that he might have avoided the reflexive mobilization that proved so disastrous. That sense of caution would have been derided as ‘weak’ in 1914, as Obama is now.” In my view, if Obama’s legacy is that he avoided unnecessary wars, we should all be grateful.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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