Whispers from Sarajevo A Lesson from World War One

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The
last few weeks before the onslaught of World War One bear a stark
resemblance to the events of today. The murder of two members of
the Austrian royal family is in no way comparable to the destruction
of over 5000 American civilians six weeks ago. However, we face
the same dangers that our forefathers did in 1914.

One
hundred years ago, the Balkans was one of the world’s hot spots,
and several countries had been involved there in lesser scale wars.
Out of the ashes of ancient empires, and fueled by years of war,
oppression and nationalist sentiments, groups of terrorists formed
to overthrow the established order through violence. Some of them
were prepared to die and carried suicide pills as well as bombs.

On
June 28, 1914, a group of Bosnian Serbs known as the “Black Hand”
assassinated the Austrian Archduke and Archduchess in Sarajevo.
How the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rest of Europe responded
largely determined the shape of the 20th Century.

Attempts
were made to link this terrorist attack to the Serbian government,
without success, but evidence was found linking the Black Hand to
Serbian nationals. Public opinion throughout much of Europe sympathized
with the Austrian demand that Serbia should be punished for failing
to control its nationalist extremists. About a week after the attacks,
Austria received what it considered a “blank check” from Germany
for whatever action Austria might decide to take.

While
Austria-Hungary debated their course of action, the countries of
Central Europe declared their loyalties with one side or the other.
Although war had not yet been declared, sides were chosen. Serbia
had the implicit backing of Russia, and historians suspect that
Russia may have received assurances of support from France during
that period.

On
July 23, over three weeks after the original attack, Austria handed
Serbia a 48-hour ultimatum. Although Serbia replied with a conciliatory
response, they rejected key demands of the Austrians, and five days
later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. German
and British politicians attempted to gain assurances that the military
action would “halt in Belgrade”. But, four days later, in response
to Russian mobilization in support of Serbia, Germany declared war
on Russia. In the following few days, Germany first requested and
then simply took control of Luxembourg and Belgium as “essential
assets” in its military movements. Within a week, France and Britain
were also at war with Germany. And, so in less than 40 days, a terrorist
incident had escalated into a World War that would consume a generation.

What
follows, though, is even more instructive, for who among the original
actors could have foreseen the results that were to come from their
decisions? Such is the unpredictability of war.

By
the time the “Great War to End All Wars” was over, all of the following
unimaginable events had come to pass.

The
Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated and dismembered.

The
Ottoman Empire collapsed leaving a power vacuum in the Middle East.

Russia
fell to its own fanatical ideologues, unleashing a reign of terror
that lasted for 75 years, and at times threatened half the world.

Germany
was defeated, and placed under such an onerous and one-sided “treaty
settlement” that the rise of a Hitler and Nazism in less than 15
years was virtually assured.

Britain,
France and the Netherlands lost considerable influence in their
own foreign empires.

The
entry into the war of the United States was accompanied by the biggest
single episode of loss of domestic liberty in that country’s history.

Tragically,
the war consumed millions upon millions of lives. Horrible new weapons,
such as “mustard gas” left behind a generation either under the
ground, or incapacitated. Anthrax may have been used for the first
time. After four years, the world was definitely sick of war. Yet
less than 20 years after the ink had dried on the Armistice, a new,
even greater World War was under way. The “war to end all wars”
had been a tragic and costly failure. In its wake came a century
of bloody follow-up.

It
is tempting to imagine that such a wild and unpredictable course
of events is a thing of the past. We want to believe that if only
our intentions are good and our cause is just, we can unleash the
power and violence of war, and steer it to a successful and limited
conclusion. If there is one lesson of World War One that we should
be open to, it is the horrific unpredictability of warfare.

If
we are prepared to consider that lesson, we have to ask ourselves
what sorts of unexpected events might we encounter if we choose
war. Which empires will collapse? What new countries will fall to
their own fanatical ideologues? Where will the new waves of refugees
ebb, and flow, and starve? What horrible new weapons will be unleashed
upon both fighting men and civilian populations? Whose millions
will die? And, when we grow sick to the heart of the endless “war
to end all terrorism”, will the world be a safer place?

On
July 7, 1914, about ten days after the original terrorist attack
in Sarajevo, the administration of Austria-Hungary were engaged
in a debate on whether to take military action, or pursue a judicial
and diplomatic course. In short, was it to be war or justice? Key
Austrians in government favored military retaliation; the Hungarian
Prime Minister favored a quest for justice without war. Is it possible
they could have understood the importance of this debate to the
20th Century and the lives of millions?

Can
we better answer this momentous question with hindsight? What would
it have taken to defuse the Sarajevo incident and avert World War
One? Some historians say there was then a lack of European statesmen
who could have pushed for justice and security instead of vengeance
and war. Who might have come forward and changed the course of history?

One
month ago, we stood at the threshold of two doors, one marked “Justice
& Security”, the other marked “War & Vengeance”. We have
now opened the latter and are stumbling through it. If we push on,
there will be no turning back. May our children forgive us for it.

If
we step back and choose the door marked “Justice & Security”,
there will be no guarantees. Before we can achieve justice and counter
the threats of future terrorism, more innocent people will very
likely die. The leaders who come forward and stand up for this course
must have the “belly for it”, the courage to risk their own lives,
even at the hands of their own people. Those who steer the wise
and balanced course can expect to earn the hatred of the crazies
among us. Do we have what it will take?

Or
will we console ourselves with some future poem about the dead who
lie beneath the poppies in Flanders Fields?

October
23, 2001

Paul
Miniato [send him mail]
is a father, businessman, software developer, and libertarian activist
in Vancouver, Canada.

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