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100 Years Since the Event That Started World War I

Posted in Our Blog on June 27, 2014


Tomorrow, June 28th, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of what many historians have called the single most impactful event of the 20th century. On that date in 1914, 19-year-old activist Gavrilo Princip shot and murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, ultimately triggering the start of the First World War.

The geopolitical world of 1914 was extremely different from what it is today; it was the culmination of an entire century of empire building by the great powers of Europe, led on by their kings and emperors. The powerful nations raced to gain control of territory in Africa and Asia and formed complex alliances with each other to protect their own interests and exert influence at home. One of those great powers-the Austro-Hungarian Empire-controlled Bosnia, a Slavic state that Slavic nationalists such as Princip, the assassin, thought should be independent or part of a larger Slavic state.

The Slavic nationalist movement received some support from the Serbian government and had been extremely problematic to Austria. Officials in the Austro-Hungarian government debated how to solve the Serbia problem, and many thought Austria wanted to invade and make war on Serbia. The problem was that Serbia had the support and protection of Russia, a major power. Any war with Serbia would bring in Russia, which would in turn bring in Austria’s ally Germany, which would bring in Russia’s allies Britain and France. This is exactly what happened when Archduke Ferdinand-heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary-paid a visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia in June 1914 and was assassinated by Princip. The tension and emotion of the past several years spilled over, and nobody was unable to stop the momentum of war.

Eventually, 16 million people would die and much of Europe would be destroyed. Imperial regimes in Germany, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire would crumble and disappear. New major players like the United States would emerge. And the seeds were ultimately laid for World War II, especially in Germany, which was in economic ruin following its defeat in the First World War.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is not well known to most Americans, and indeed World War I itself doesn’t receive the attention that World War II does. But without this assassination, it’s possible the First World War never would have taken place, the consequences of which are unfathomable but almost certainly mean that the Second World War (at least in Europe) would never have taken place either. The world would look like a very different place today.

There are no veterans of World War I still alive, and the quality of movie footage from the time is poor, so it seems distant and foreign today. And unlike World War II, its causes and narrative can’t be summarized easily, so it isn’t as culturally relevant as its sequel. Still, it’s imperative that we study and remember the First World War, because its lessons are crucial. Historians debate what exactly happened in Europe in 1914 and how the war could have been prevented, because it seems as if any of the major powers could have insisted on solving their disputes diplomatically. What’s more, the people of 1914 had not realized what a major war with modern weapons would look like and what kind of devastation it could cause. The world had changed, and the kings and emperors of the older world hadn’t noticed. They would have to be dragged into the world by cars, planes, machine guns, and barbed wire, technologies that hadn’t existed just a few years earlier.

Whether the war would have happened at all had Princip not killed the Archduke is debatable; the emotion and tension were running high, and had the assassination not triggered war, perhaps something else would have. But we can only see history as it actually happened and deal with its consequences. The lessons of the assassination reverberate today, and that’s why it’s important that we continue to learn about it.