The Endless Summer of 1914

One of the pitfalls anyone aspiring to become a historian is usually cautioned to avoid is "presentism" — the tendency to interpret events of the past through the lens of the present. It is bad enough when such misinterpretation causes the deliberate distortions of recent history, trampling over inconvenient facts in order to support a politically desirable narrative. Far worse is when such fabricated history is then projected back onto the entire century.

In his address to the American public March 24, 1999 — as NATO began its assault on Serbia — Bill Clinton invoked the specters of both world wars and the Holocaust to justify his aggression. "Just imagine if leaders back then had acted wisely and early enough, how many lives could have been saved, how many Americans would not have had to die," Clinton said.

Well, then, there you have it. Since those evil Serbs started the First World War, they ought to be bombed almost a hundred years later so as to not cause another. It is an understanding of history on par with that of Pvt. Baldrick of Blackadder, who thought the whole mess started "when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry."

Blaming the Slavs

A young Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, did assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while supervising a military exercise in the vicinity. Bosnia’s majority Serb population resented the Austro-Hungarian occupation; Princip belonged to a small anarchist group that considered regicide an acceptable tactic for national liberation.

Austria-Hungary obviously considered him a terrorist — and some modern commentators have agreed with that view, going so far as to compare him to the perpetrators of 9/11. From there, it is just a small step to pinning the blame for the war squarely on the Serbian people — as Austria did at the time. In a recent essay, syndicated columnist Eric Margolis does just that:

In 1914, Serbia sought to provoke a war between Russia and its enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire over Bosnia-Herzegovina, by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, at Sarajevo. As expected, Austria mobilized its armies to seek revenge on Serbia.

But Margolis also lays the blame for the war at the feet of Russian emperor Nicholas II:

Serbia was a close Russian ally, as it remains today, and the primary tool of Russian expansion into post-Ottoman Eastern Europe. In a fatal act that would end Europe’s golden age, Nicholas ordered his huge armies to mobilize against Austria in support of Serbia. Russia’s mobilization forced Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, to mobilize its force. France mobilized in response to German mobilization. Facing Russia and France in a two-front, Germany was forced to attack France before Russia’s vast armies could take the field.

The Czar’s decision to mobilize lit the fuse of World War I, which then led to WWII.

A War of Choice

This interpretation gets all the facts precisely backwards. Serbia was never a "tool of Russian expansion," primary or otherwise. It did not want a war; Austria did. Vienna had been shocked by the quick victory of the Balkans alliance (Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria) against the Ottomans in late 1912, and incited the Bulgarians to turn on their allies in 1913. Serbia emerged victorious from that conflict, but was not ready for another. And it was not Russia that provoked Germany, but the other way around.

In an excellent book about the Great War’s origins, historian David Fromkin easily demonstrates that Margolis’s version of history is bogus. Europe’s Last Summer cites documents and testimonials of the people involved, clearly indicating that it was Berlin and Vienna that desired war in the summer of 1914, and that the murder of Franz Ferdinand offered them the perfect pretext. However, while Austria wanted a local war against Serbia while Germany guarded its back from the Russians, the Germans could not care less about Serbia, and wanted Austria to deal with the Russians while Germany put its own war plans into effect (focusing on France).

Per Fromkin, "Sometime during or after the Balkans wars," Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, "decided that his country could survive only if Serbia were crushed and altogether eliminated as a factor in politics." Berchtold refused any opportunity to avoid war, even on favorable terms. This confused everyone in Europe, as they were acting on the assumption that Vienna wanted peace. But Berchtold "did not desire his terms or any terms; he preferred to fight a war." He did not want "a subservient Serbia; he wanted there to be no Serbia at all." (p.288, emphasis added)

The prevailing view of historians — Barbara Tuchman, for instance, whose classic The Guns of August has shaped the thinking of generations — has been that the great European powers stumbled into the war. Yet Fromkin argues, persuasively, that:

"It was no accident that Europe went to war at that time. It was the result of premeditated decisions by two governments. Once those two countries had invaded their neighbors, there was no way for the neighbors to keep the peace." (p.293)

For both Austria and Germany, this was a war of choice.

Germany supported Austria-Hungary with an understanding that it would launch a short, victorious war by mid-July, while the rest of Europe snoozed the summer away. When Vienna failed to do so, the German military establishment (specifically, von Moltke and Falkenhayn) took initiative and hijacked the crisis created by the Austrians to put their own war plans in motion.

Now, theoretically, Russia could have stayed out of it. It already had, once before. When Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, contrary to the 1878 agreement at the Congress of Berlin, Russia was too weak from the war with Japan to do anything about it. But the humiliation lingered, and the likelihood of Russia backing down again was low. Nicholas II could no more have left Serbia to die as the British could allow a hostile power to dominate the European continent, Niall Ferguson’s alternative hypothesis notwithstanding.

War Without End?

There is no doubt that the tragic conflagration that began in August 1914 changed the world profoundly. Britain and France lost millions of lives on the battlefield and lapsed into nihilism and decay. Austria-Hungary imploded at the end of the war. Serbia had lost half its male population, and afterwards invested itself into a historical mistake called Yugoslavia. Even the Americans lost, in a manner of speaking, as Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in 1917 created a precedent for FDR a generation later.

In Germany, residual resentment from the defeat coupled with a brutal economic depression opened the door to revolutionary takeover. Hitler rose to power by exploiting the fears of Communism. This is somewhat ironic, given that it was the Germans who unleashed Communism on Russia by sending Lenin and a score of other revolutionaries in a sealed train to St. Petersburg in 1917, hoping that their agitation would knock Russia out of the war. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that it was Soviet tanks and bayonets that wrought the end of Hitler’s "thousand-year Reich" in 1945.

As Fromkin noted,

"The decision for war in 1914 was purposeful; and the war itself was not, as the generations of historians thought, meaningless. On the contrary, it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith." (p.296)

It is this desire to "achieve mastery" in the world that animates the American Empire today. But however one tries to spin it, there is no way that this can be blamed on either Russia or Serbia. Or even Austria and Germany, for that matter. That war actually ended, 92 years ago.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.