Russia’s Choice, in 1914 and Now

On June 28, two events marked the centenary of the fateful shots which ended the lives of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie von Hohenberg. In Sarajevo, the Bosnian Muslim authorities hosted the Vienna Philharmonic, which performed at the same old City Hall where the angry Archduke had impatiently scowled through the sycophantic speech of Sarajevo’s mayor, before departing for a meeting with destiny. The orchestra played a Haydn piece based on the Austrian Imperial – and German national – anthem. Perhaps that is appropriate; after all, they owe their world-famous New Year’s Concert tradition to Goebbels.

Meanwhile, in the Bosnian Serb Republic, renowned director Emir Kusturica opened Andricgrad – an arts and humanities complex dedicated to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ivo Andric – with a two-act play about the assassination and the subsequent trial of Gavrilo Princip and his fellow Young Bosnia revolutionaries. It was followed by a fireworks show and a concert of the Red Army Choir, singing "The Sacred War."

Forget the 1990s – Bosnia is still fighting World Wars I and II.

Blaming the Other

The rest of the world may be doing the same, actually. A century after Princip’s fateful shots in Sarajevo, the West – with all the Central Powers and members of the post-1917 Entente now in NATO – is pushing a narrative that the Serb "terrorists" triggered the hostilities, but that it was Russia (!) that caused the war to go European.

In a February 2014 BBC poll of historians, one flat-out blamed Serbia alone, while three placed blamed Russia as much as Germany and Austria-Hungary. One of those, Heather Jones of the LSE, claimed the Russian mobilization "frightened Germany into preemptively declaring war on Russia." Sean McMeekin, who teaches at Koç University in Turkey, went a step further:

…absent a terrorist plot launched in Belgrade the Germans and Austrians would not have faced this terrible choice. Civilian leaders in both Berlin and Vienna tried to "localize" conflict in the Balkans. It was Russia’s decision – after Petersburg received its own "blank cheque" from Paris – to Europeanise the Austro-Serbian showdown which produced first a European and then – following Britain’s entry – world conflagration. Russia, not Germany, mobilised first.

Yet there are literal mountains of evidence showing that both Berlin and Vienna anticipated Russia coming to Serbia’s aid. As David Fromkin showed in "Europe’s Last Summer", both governments expected the other to handle the Russians while they went after their primary targets – the Serbs and the French, respectively.

Moreover, Nicholas II himself told his cousin the Kaiser on July 29, 1914:

An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far. (source)

Why Russia Intervened

Nicholas II was facing a difficult choice. Less than 10 years earlier, Russia had suffered a humiliating defeat in a war against Japan, losing its Far East possessions and two naval fleets. The revolution that followed shook the foundations of the Russian state and society; reforms shepherded by Prime Minister Stolypin stalled after his 1911 assassination by a revolutionary. Russia was recovering, but nowhere near ready for a major war. So why did the last Tsar choose one?

Because he would have lost all legitimacy had he chosen otherwise.

Russia had been the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Balkans for the two centuries prior. It had backed the Balkans Alliance in the successful war on the Ottoman Empire in 1912-13. Its prior success against the Ottomans in 1878 prompted the Congress of Berlin, which allowed Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia. Yet in 1908, when Vienna illegally annexed Bosnia, Russia was too weak to do anything about it. The public opinion was firmly on the side of backing Serbia against yet another Austrian act of aggression – while nobody really approved of the assassination in Sarajevo, it was clear that Austria was using it as a pretext for a war of extermination, something it had wanted for over a decade.

It was possible for Nicholas II to, accept the Austro-German propaganda about "terrorists" acting on orders from Belgrade and abandon the Serbs to their fate – but only theoretically. He was an autocrat in name, but knew perfectly well he ruled only with the consent of the governed, as evidenced by his later abdication.

Russia paid a terrible price for backing Serbia. Following a February 1917 rebellion, Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional government under Alexandr Kerensky took power; by November that year, the Bolsheviks had overthrown Kerensky. They promised "peace, bread and land"; instead, they delivered five years of vicious civil war, widespread starvation and a humiliating surrender of Brest-Litovsk. Nicholas himself was murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918, along with his entire family.

Matters of Right and Wrong

Yet Nicholas II Romanov never said he regretted his choice in 1914. Helping Serbia against Austro-German aggression was simply the right thing to do. This is something that critics from the West just don’t understand, thinking as they do from the viewpoints of profit and interest. They point the finger at Russia for coming to Serbia’s rescue, yet take it as a given that Britain "had to" intervene following the German invasion of Belgium. That, or they follow the lead of Niall Ferguson, who famously asked in 2000’s "Pity of War" whether German hegemony in Europe would have been so terrible. Maybe not for the British, but certainly for those Slav untermenschen the "civilized" Vienna and Berlin wanted exterminated…

The simple truth is that the first shots of the Great War were not fired by Gavrilo Princip, but by the Austro-Hungarian artillery, which attacked Belgrade in the evening of July 28, 1914.

Last year, a Bosnian-born journalist found a photograph from April 1941, showing Adolf Hitler appreciatively looking over his birthday present and trophy from the conquest of Yugoslavia: a memorial plaque to Gavrilo Princip. The plaque was displayed in the German war museum, along with the same railway carriage where the 1918 armistice was signed, and in which Hitler forced the French to surrender in 1940. Princip’s prison in Terezin Fortress was used by the SS to torture the Jews of the "Paradise Ghetto", before sending them to the ovens of Auschwitz.

And today, almost hundred years since Austria-Hungary launched a war of extermination against "Serbian terrorists," the Western-backed junta in Kiev – championing a rabidly Russophobic identity invented by Austria-Hungary and Germany over a century ago – is waging a war of extermination against Russian-speaking "terrorists" refusing to submit to its rule. The Kremlin is now facing the same choice forced on Nicholas II, and much closer to home.

Anyone who thinks that Moscow will just sit back and watch, clearly hasn’t been paying attention.

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.