A century ago at this time, the old order of Europe was wracked in crisis drifting toward war. Just two weeks before, the crown prince of the Hapsburg Empire, Franz Ferdinand and his wife were gunned down by a young non-descript nationalist named Gavrilo Princip in the Balkan city of Sarajevo. For five weeks during mid-summer, the European capitals teetered over war, finally falling into the abyss as the calendar turned to August.
At first, the argument was between Austria and Serbia, but a series of treaties enfolded other nations in the crisis. The Triple Alliance was a pact that included Austria, Germany, and Italy. The counterweight was the Triple Entente which united Russia with England and France. As one domino fell, others tumbled.
Austria-Hungary was determined to teach the Serbs a lesson and quash the budding nationalist movement. They made a series of demands that were impossible for the Serbian government to accept. Germany blindly pledged their support to the Austrians. The Romanovs of Russia backed their ally the Serbs. As one nation mobilized, others would follow suit so they wouldn’t be caught unprepared. England and France attempted to act as a mediator but were unsuccessful.
Germany’s primary war plan, written by the now dead Erich von Schlieffen, saw France as the principle enemy and most of its troops moving to the west. In late July as the general mobilization force moved westward by train, France declared its neutrality. When Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to stop the war plan now in motion, his defense minister Von Moltke informed him that it was not possible to halt the plan. In other words, they could implement the plan but not stop it once underway.
A series of miscalculations, entangling alliances and poor communication swept all of Europe into what we now call World War I. Many historians feel that it was the most significant event of the second millennia because of its effect on borders, nations and the predicate for a second world war only a generation later.
Four years of brutal warfare led directly to the breakup of four old order empires and their ruling families: the Hapsburgs (Austria-Hungary); the Hohenzollerns (Germany); the Romanovs (Russia); and the Ottoman-Turks. Two marvelous books by the late historian Barbara Tuchman capture this sequence. “The Proud Tower” describes the rotting old feudal order of the late 19th Century. The sequel is the Pulitzer Prize winning “Guns of August” which describes the first month of the war in 1914.
A half century ago, President Kennedy insisted that all of his national security team read Tuchman’s second book to absorb the lessons. Unfortunately, this initiative did not prevent or limit our involvement in Vietnam.
An irony of the war was that the leaders were largely cousins. In the 19th Century, the “grandmother of Europe,” England’s Victoria, had nine children, all of which ruled or were married to the ruler of nine European nations. Some argue that in one sense, the war was a family squabble.
After three years of warfare, the belligerents had been bled white. The French army actually mutinied. The military leaders were unable to craft victory in any sense. The entrance of America in 1917 and the arrival of two million “doughboys” a year later were sufficient to break the stalemate. Finally, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, an Armistice was declared.
Six months later at Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, a peace conference ensued that was badly botched. Borders were drawn; nations were created; different ethnic groups were joined; surviving empires were expanded; spoils were handed out; and Germany was severely punished. The “war to end all wars” as many thought did no such thing.
The aftermath of the war is greatly telling, especially in the Middle East. A classic example is Iraq, now descending into chaos once again. Three ethnic tribes (Sunnis, Shia and Kurds) were joined under French protectorate. A ruthless Bathist (Sunni) leader Sadaam Hussein was able to tamp down ethnic differences with an iron hand. Once he was deposed by America in the second Gulf War, the tribal differences resurfaced. What we are seeing today is the natural order that disconnected European leaders were unable to perceive or resolve at Versailles.
What goes around comes around, even a century later.