Whispers from Sarajevo A Lesson from World War One

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