Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The weight of history

There are days when you should feel the weight of history, and today is one of them.

June 28th (European time) marks 90 years since the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. The assassination was the beginning of the great tragedy of the twentieth century: the blind stumble into war, the mass-slaughter of the trenches, the humiliating "peace" which guaranteed the renewal of hostilities twenty years later (itself driven by a desire for revanche for a French defeat forty years earlier), the Russian Revolution, the Cold War... we're facing the consequences even now, in Iraq - a country born from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the post-war settlement - and in Palestine, a patch of land promised by Britain to both Jews and Arabs in exchange for their support against the Turks.

The fatal shots were fired by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb nationalist. He had hoped to spark a nationalist revolution which would free Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria-Hungary; he had no idea that he would start the greatest slaughter humanity had yet seen (ironically, he was too young to be executed, and spent the war in prison before succumbing to Tuberculosis).

It took just thirty-six days to go from two pistol shots to a Europe-wide war. The Austrians waited almost a month, then issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia. The Serbs unexpectedly complied with almost all of it, but the Austrians wanted a war, and used the Serbian refusal to allow Austro-Hungarian participation in the inquiry into the assassination as the excuse to start one (students of recent Balkan, or indeed Middle Eastern history may find this tactic familiar). Serbia appealed to the Tsar, who mobilised his troops against Austria-Hungary; mutual fear of troop mobilisations led to a series of ultimatums which brought in Germany, then France, and eventually Britain. Apart from Austria-Hungary, none of the participants wanted a war - all allowed themselves to be trapped by pride, fear, miscommunication, and (as von Moltke explained to the Kaiser) train timetables. Once the stone was set rolling, it was impossible to stop, and so ten million people went to their deaths.

The socialist intellectuals of the Second International resisted the war, believing that the international working class should refuse to fight for their rulers. But when push came to shove, the workers chose nationalism over socialism, and gladly marched off behind the aristocrats thinking that it would all be over by Christmas. It wasn't, but a consoling thought is that the war devastated the European aristocracy, directly causing the collapse of three dynasties (the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns). And the virtual extermination of the minor nobility "officer class" led to meritocracy by necessity, without a single guillotine being erected.

When he heard that it was to be war, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, commented that

the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

Or indeed his children's lifetime. It is only in the last ten years, now that we are free of the Cold War, that the lamps have begun to shine again. Europe is united, from Ireland to the Polish border. The only area left out is, ironically, the Balkans, where it all began. War between France and Germany is now as unthinkable as war between Australia and New Zealand, or Canada and the US - they are both now too interdependent for it to be a real possibility. In a way, the War to End All Wars has achieved its purpose - eighty years too late.

How different would it all be if Princip had missed? Ninety years on, its impossible to know. But we know that it would be vastly different, and looking at the death toll - ten million in the first war, forty-five million in the rematch, it's practically impossible not to think that it would have been better.