Saturday marks the one hundredth anniversary of the most important murder since Cain killed Abel.
It was on June 28, 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, who was affiliated with the Serbian terrorist group the Black Hand.
Though the issuance of the official war declarations would not commence for another month, the killing of the Austrian royals was the spark that ignited the Great War.
The irony of Franz Ferdinand ‘s death at the hands of a Serbian nationalist is that the next in line for the throne held relatively enlightened political views, including sympathy for self-rule by ethnic enclaves within the empire.
Even had Franz Ferdinand survived the attempts on his life while in Sarajevo (the first was a grenade attack that missed the archduke and duchess but had injured others in the traveling party), World War I might not have been averted but merely forestalled.
Beyond the original belligerents Austro-Hungary and Serbia, too many countries in Europe were simply itching to go to war and the great powers of the continent were already divided into rival blocs (the Triple Entente that flanked the Triple Alliance).
Looking to ostensibly punish Serbia for their indirect complicity in the Austrian royals’ assassinations, Vienna sent over unreasonable ultimatums.
That Serbia agreed to everything short of Austrian occupation showed good faith.
That the Serbian compromise was deemed insufficient by the Austrian government implied that the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie was more convenient pretext for a desired military offensive against a weaker yet unfriendly neighbor.
Though not a direct party to what transpired in Sarajevo, Germany was the country that truly looked forward to war and its leadership was almost crestfallen when the prospect of a negotiated settlement manifested itself.
Still high form the Franco-Prussian War, Imperial Germany sought to dominate the continent through the occupation of weaker countries and the further subjugation of France. Berlin was also seeking to overcome Great Britain as world’s leading naval and colonial power.
The Kaiser’s Germany fully embraced Clausewitz’s adage that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”
Russia resented Austrian harassment of its Slavic “kid brother” Serbia and when Germany threw down its own unreasonable demand that Russia immediately cease its mobilization, a logistical impossibility in a large country with shaky communications, war became inevitable.
France, still smarting from their humiliation at the hands of the emerging German Empire, was looking to regain their pride from the indignity of Prussians marching through Paris multiple times in the 19th century and the Alsace-Lorraine region they were forced to relinquish for losing the Franco-Prussian War.
Finally, Britain was largely disinterested yet was entangled via an alliance with Belgium, an necessary rest stop for the Germans path to Paris.
The United States’ entry into the war came two and a half years later after German unrestricted u-boat warfare against commercial ships, public horror over the “Belgian rape” and the Zimmerman telegram became too much to look past, even for what was at the time a decidedly pacifist country.
In between the assassinations in Sarajevo and Versaiiles, over 17,000,000 people died.
And despite the unprecedented carnage, practically nothing was learned by any of the combatants save Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire.
Rather than how to avoid war, the primary lessons the belligerents came away with were more effective ways to wage it.
France imposed a harsh peace upon Germany (learning nothing from their own bitterness in the previous war they lost to Germany).
For Germany the great sin wasn’t so much territorial expansionism through military might but the tactics used to achieve that end, specifically engaging in a two front war (hence the Hitler-Stalin Pact).
Germany promptly forgot that lesson shortly after the Fall of France.
Russia was just as unprepared for the Second World War as it was the First.
Britain remained in denial about the prospect of war with Germany.
And the United States thought they could ignore the world’s problems again and that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would provide ample protection from foreign aggression.
It would take the horror of World War Two for most of the combatants to apply the collective lessons that should have been learned from World War One
Preparation and engagement are essential to maintaining stability.
That a vengeful peace guarantees a future war.
And peace and prosperity are preferable to expansionism.
Though it seems Russia still hasn’t gotten that last memo.