Dead Reckoning – June 28, 1914: The Great War’s Legacy 100 Years Later

On Saturday, June 28, 2014, the 100th Anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event which sparked World War One, will be commemorated in Sarajevo. The commemoration will be solemn and relatively low key. Among other things, the Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to perform a concert. There are a few other events on tap, but the overall tone for the anniversary is low key and respectful. This is only proper. After all, this was the moment when the 20th century changed forever and many believe was sent on its violent trajectory.

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

An Italian newspaper drawing depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo

Improbabilities, Accidents & Happenstance
The assassination involved a series of ambiguous and troubled historical characters. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not well liked or regarded by the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially the elite. The fact that he was murdered gives some idea of the feelings of the empire’s enemies towards the Archduke. As for the assassin, Gavrilo Princip was an outcast, a man who lived on the very fringes of society. His act was neither glorious nor heroic. It was the result of a series of improbabilities, accidents and happenstance. Despite this, the assassination turned out to be a world historical event.

Yet it is what followed in the wake of the assassination rather than the event itself, which makes it of long lasting historical significance.  Four years of total war which ended with millions dead and wounded, along with a radical realignment of the political map of Europe flowed from the assassination. It is difficult to imagine how different Europe was before that event. Monarchies and empires ruled most of the continent including Bosnia. Freedom and representative government promoted the interests of the elite rather than a majority of the population. All of that either came to an end or underwent radical change. The world before the assassination vanished forever.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie at funeral ceremony

Coming to Terms – What Did They Fight For? What Did They Die For?
Following the commemoration in Sarajevo, expect much soul searching in France, Britain, Russia and Germany as they try to come to grips with the legacy of the Great War. For France, the Great War is a source of national pride, an honorable sacrifice to save their country from German militarism. Meanwhile in Britain, the war brings to mind images of needless slaughter, tragic heroism and victory at a cost that was indistinguishable from defeat. The Germans are still reckoning with causation and blame. Was the war really their fault? Should they bear the greatest burden of the blame? How do they honor their soldiers, without honoring militarism as well? Like so much of Germany’s ill-fated 20th century history, the questions are difficult and the answers are at best elusive, at worst nebulous. As for Russia, thoughts of the war are inseparable from those of the Revolution it led to. Russia has never come clean with its people about the truth of what occurred, the Soviet Union rewrote history to promote Bolshevism rather than honor the great courage and sacrifice of the peasant soldier. Lost in the Soviet version of the war was not only the truth, but also respect for the millions who died for what both then and now seems no good reason at all.

Lost amid these reckonings are the two principle polities whose enmity brought the world to arms. One, Austria-Hungary no longer exists, while the other, Serbia was synonymous throughout the 20th century with ethnic war and nationalism. They will both be referred to in Sarajevo, but following the commemoration they will almost certainly fade into the background. This will be a repeat of what happened during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Army fired the inaugural shots of World War I near Belgrade almost exactly a month to the day from when the assassination took place. After the starting point though, it seems these adversaries disappeared. This probably has to do with the fact that they were both losers in the war, even if the Serbs paradoxically managed to end up on the winning side. The Austro-Hungarian Army’s long awaited invasion of Serbia ended in defeat. Less than six months after the war had begun, the empire and its army were reeling. In the coming year, it would be reinforced and subsumed by the German Army. This would lead to victory for the Austro-Hungarians in Serbia, but it hardly mattered. This was a pyrrhic victory.

Serbian army in World War I - retreating into oblivion

Serbian army in World War I – retreating into oblivion

Defeat, Disillusionment & Disaster – The Great War 100 Years Later
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered in Sarajevo, it was the beginning of the end for Austria-Hungary. In that way Princip’s action had been a success, but it brought Serbia so much misery, that it is hard to see how it was a victory.  The Serbs lost almost a fifth of their entire population during the war. That means about one in every five Serbs was dead by the end of the conflict. No country suffered a greater proportion of losses to its population.  What did the Serbs have to show for their suffering and sacrifice at war’s end? They ended up on the victorious side and led the states that would form Yugoslavia, but any gains they made were lost again during World War II, regained in its aftermath and finally lost in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The 20th century was not kind to Serbia. They could never quite achieve a Greater Serbia and the next best thing, Yugoslavia collapsed as well. For the Serbs, the Great War much like their entire 20th century history was filled with disappointment.

That word, disappointment may best explain the legacy of the Great War for all the major combatants. None of the nations and empires that were involved got what they wanted or expected. The war brought varying degrees of defeat, disillusionment and disaster to all involved. Perhaps that is why the commemoration in Sarajevo will be such a solemn affair.  It was the beginning of the end for one world and the start of something new and more horrible for the next one.

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