Triumph of Tragedy

by , December 05, 2008

It is a commonly held belief that the current international order dates back to World War Two, with a slight adjustment for the fact that the Berlin Wall and Communism are no more. While it is true that 1945 and 1990 mark the starting points for many things that are now taken for granted, the true origin of the way the world is today goes back a bit farther, to the summer of 1914.

Until June of 1914, a handful of European empires dominated the known world, controlling it directly or indirectly. Their ruling dynasties were interlinked by kinship, their economies interwoven by commerce, and their politics informed by philosophy and ethics that drew from essentially the same well of Christianity and antiquity. Over the previous 100 years, since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, European powers had reached unprecedented levels of prosperity, power and prestige. The world of 1914 was a world of optimism.

Four years later, all of that was gone, and the 20th century had truly begun. What followed were more wars, Communism, genocide, nuclear weapons and the threat of complete extinction of humanity. True, there were moments of triumph and hope amidst all that; but overall this most recent period of human history is as bleak as history gets. British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey is remembered for a comment he allegedly made as war approached in the summer of 1914: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." And so it was.

Attempting to Understand

For decades, historians operated in the narrow confines of the post-1945 Cold War reality; certainly, compared to the horrors unleashed by Hitler, even a world threatened by mutually assured destruction seemed positively utopian. The war that preceded the "Good War" remained profoundly misunderstood.

In her 1962 Pulitzer-winning history The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman argued that the war was a consequence of a series of accidents, a failure of institutions and decision-making mechanisms. Based on this, the conventional wisdom came to be that no one really wanted war, it just happened because of rigid war plans and mobilization schedules that could not be stopped once set in motion. While this certainly made for an apt – and perhaps necessary – alarming analogy to the contemporary procedures that could possibly start a nuclear holocaust, it didn’t really explain the Great War, or its consequences.

Similarly, Niall Ferguson’s Pity of War (00) reflected a touch of modern bias; Ferguson wondered if much bloodshed could have been avoided if Britain had chosen not get involved after Germany invaded Belgium. Would German hegemony on the continent – which seems to have finally been established through the EU – really have been so terrible in 1914? We’ll never know. However, the course of action Ferguson wished had taken place, while possible, was nonetheless highly improbable. The guiding principle of British foreign policy for over a century at that point had been to prevent the rise of a continental hegemon at all costs.

David Fromkin’s 2005 book, Europe’s Last Summer, received much less publicity than Ferguson’s work, or Tuchman’s. Though not entirely bereft of historicist flaws – for example, trying to explain Austro-Hungarian behavior in light of modern American imperialism – it nonetheless demonstrated that Tuchman was wrong. Some people did want war, and did their utmost to start it. The evidence Fromkin uncovered points squarely at German and Austrian leadership. In particular, he points the accusing finger at the military chiefs of staff, von Moltke and von Hoetzendorf. However, perhaps the most important understanding that comes from Fromkin’s work is that Berlin and Vienna had two completely different wars in mind, and never really coordinated them.

The Austrians wanted to crush Serbia, which they saw as a threat to both their ambitions in the Balkans and their survival as a multinational empire. Germany wanted a short, victorious war against France while it still enjoyed an advantage in arms and industry. Both counted on the other to hold the Russians at bay.

Gunshots in Sarajevo

Until it became famous for the 1984 winter Olympics and infamous for the 1990s brutal civil war, Sarajevo was primarily known as the place where the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand touched off the Great War.

The city, established by Ottoman invaders in the 15th century, was the administrative seat of Bosnia, which, along with Herzegovina to the south, was occupied by Austria-Hungary in 1878 on a mandate from the Congress of Berlin. Contrary to that mandate, Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, and administered them directly as crown lands. Obviously, this was not well received by a large Serb population, which wanted to unite with the independent kingdom of Serbia to the east.

It is not uncommon today to hear Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb student who fired the shots that killed the Archduke and his wife, described as a "terrorist" and even compared to the 9/11 hijackers. Yet Princip, and the "Young Bosnia" revolutionary society he belonged to, did not wantonly target civilians or conduct a campaign of fear. Their targets were the military and political leadership of the occupying power; in addition to Ferdinand, Princip targeted the hated military governor of Bosnia, Gen. Oskar Potiorek. He was a terrible shot, however, and ended up killing Ferdinand’s wife, Countess Chotek, instead.

The more belligerent elements at the Austrian court, which – ironically – Ferdinand had kept in check, used the opportunity to launch a war against Serbia, triggering Russian mobilization, and with it the German war plans. Europe plunged into darkness, and the world followed along.

Winners and Losers

When the guns fell silent again, in November 1918, the winners and the losers seemed clear. Germany became a republic and lost much territory. Austria-Hungary ceased to exist; its territories were divided between the independent republics of Austria and Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). Their wartime ally the Ottoman Empire also perished. From its core emerged a strong Turkish republic, while the Middle East was divided between Britain and France. Russia had succumbed to a Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and was amidst a nasty civil war between the Reds and the disorganized royalists.

Britain and France, though technically the victors, had suffered horrible casualties and horrendous economic losses. Twenty years later, when Adolf Hitler launched another war to "rectify the injustices of Versailles," France imploded, while Britain expended its last reserves of strength just to survive. It took until the 1950s for the French and British empires to officially dissolve, but the seeds of their demise were sown in 1914. The Great War shifted the centers of money and power westwards, to the United States.

Pyrrhic Victory

Serbia, the country over which the war started, also ceased to exist. Oh, it "won" the war in theory, having successfully fought off two Austrian invasions in 1914 and refusing to capitulate when it was overrun in 1915. The surviving Serbian soldiers fought on in Greece, and in October 1918 rolled up the Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians near Salonika, liberating their cruelly occupied and tormented homeland.

As a reward for their sacrifices, their leaders surrendered their country and identity to the cause of a new, "Yugoslav" nation with people who had a different faith, history and philosophy of life. Diversity, they were told, was strength. Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were "one people with three names." Serbia had lost over half of its male population in the war. Its losses per capita were probably among the greatest of all the parties involved. Devastated and exhausted, it was now supposed to take care of several million people who had fought against it, as well as integrate the territories that had been liberated from the Ottomans in 1912. Even if that had somehow been possible, within just a couple years the Croats began to resent being removed from the Hapsburg orbit. This resentment resulted in a crippling political conflict within Yugoslavia, and led to the horrific genocide perpetrated by the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime between 1941 and 1945.

In the Yugoslavian pot, the Serbian identity had melted away, while people who used to consider themselves Serbs (or Turks, Croats, or Bulgarians) became "Montenegrins" or "Macedonians" or "Bosnians." When all the consequences of Yugoslavia’s creation are added up, it is easily a worse historical disaster for the Serbs than the Ottoman conquest.

Still Recovering

The Great War ended in November 1918, 90 years ago. It has passed from living memory. Yet its legacy lingers. Russia is still reeling from nearly a century of Communism and the devastation it has wrought both on its economy and its society and culture. Most Serbians still do not understand that Yugoslavia was a deadly failure, rather than a triumph. Americans of today don’t have as much sense as their great-grandparents, who rejected Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a global government.

But the world is changing again. The century ushered by the guns of August, one of total war, omnipotent government and humanity teetering on the edge of extinction, may well be coming to a close. Whether the future leads to something better, or something more horrifying, depends in great part on fully understanding what was won, and lost, with Europe’s last summer.

Read more by Nebojsa Malic