Assassination in Sarajevo

28 June 2014


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

sarajevo postcard

Assassination in Sarajevo

There is something horrifically appropriate in the fact that the trigger for the First World War exactly one hundred years ago today was an act of terrorism. By the end of the twentieth century terrorism would again be a trigger for global events, but in the meantime the largest wars in planetary history were fought as symmetrical contests between peer or near-peer nation-states, and then the non-war, non-peace of the Cold War involved an ongoing contest between two power blocs that dominated the international system. Terrorism kicked off global industrialized war, and now since peer-to-peer global conflict has all but disappeared, terrorism is once again a power in the world, after being submerged by much larger and more systematic forms of violence. Terrorism has come into its own again, so that the assassination in Sarajevo appears not only as the momentous trigger of the first global industrialized war, but also has a foreshadowing of the world that would follow the long sequence of global wars of the twentieth century. We could, with some justification, call the twentieth century the Second Hundred Years’ War.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, with an elephant he shot in Ceylon. The Archduke was an avid hunter, so there is something of poetic justice in himself becoming the hunted.

Before the First World War there had been smaller, regional industrialized wars. The American Civil War, with its use of rifled guns and artillery, the Gatling gun, and ironclads was an early glimpse of what was to come. The War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was another prescient conflict, as it may be thought of as the first “resource” war — it was also called the “Saltpetre War,” and demonstrated that nation-states would go to war to secure essential resources for their industries. Most demonstrative of all was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Its use of machine guns (the Maxim gun was invented in 1884) and the Battle of Tsushima between steel battleships, in which wireless telegraphy played an important role, foreshadowed the kind of warfare that would typify the twentieth century. (American President Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth, which brought the war to an end.)

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Gavrilo Princip postcard or dopisna karta published by Jakob Kappon in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, post-World War I, circa late 1920s, early 1930s. Printed by SHS Jugoslavija Zagreb. P. B. 4.

Despite these earlier intimations of industrialized warfare, the First World War was unprecedented in scope, scale, and catastrophic consequences. Millions died; empires fell; and a new way of war became inescapable. Any belligerent who persisted with outdated weaponry or tactics was not merely defeated in battle, but his social and political institutions were likely to be annihilated. Imperial Germany, Tsarist Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all annihilated in a war they made possible. Global colonial empires were activated both to open new and distant fronts, as well as to bring colonial troops to Europe to witness the civilized Europeans at their most savage. After a long period of relative stability, the world was rapidly turned upside down, and in four years’ time the decisive break with the past had been made. Everyone knew that there was no going back. How could the assassination of one marginal man by another marginal man in a marginal provincial city be the trigger for the first global industrialized war?

Minutes before the assassination...

Minutes before the assassination…

In a relatively stable international system, wars almost by definition erupt only on the margins of the most advanced political institutions, and the more stable these institutions, and the longer lived, the further outward the margins are pushed, until the margins of the most advanced political powers are pushed into a region that has never benefited from the stability. The Balkans, always on the periphery of Europe but never one of the great centers of European civilization (at least, not since Periclean Athens), met this condition almost perfectly. Still largely rural, poor, and undeveloped, the peoples of the Balkans were nevertheless exposed to the most advanced ideas of Europe, and nationalism was one of the most powerful of these ideas. The idea of nationalism, and of a nation-state as the political expression of nationalism, was inflammatory in the ethnic mixture of the Balkans. The quotes that can be cited in relation to the Balkans are all so perfect that it is difficult to choose among them. Otto von Bismarck predicted, “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” And, in explanation of why this should be so, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” Sarajevo was, in a sense, at the center of this periphery, and we should, like Bismarck, expect an incident in such a place to be the source of instability in an otherwise stable international system.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in state

Aged Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph had already lost his son and heir to a spectacular and scandalous suicide, and had to turn to the unpromising Franz Ferdinand as his heir. Though not the first choice in the succession to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand took to the role as well as anyone might be expected to step into such a role. Although often described as something of a dullard (similar things were said of the last Russian Tsar, also soon to be shot), Franz Ferdinand was in fact a reformer, and it is impossible to imagine how different the twentieth century would have been if there had been no First World War, if Franz Ferdinand has ascended to the Dual Monarchy, and had been in a position to put his reforms into practice, dragging the reluctant Hapsburg Empire into the modern world without requiring the sacrifice of millions (starting with the heir to the throne himself) for this to happen. Precisely because Franz Ferdinand was in a position to influence the fate of the Hapsburg Empire, a strike at the Archduke was an existential threat to everything that empire represented — as it turned out, a successful existential threat, which, by striking the monarchy itself, decapitated the empire. Thus while authors have competed with each other to describe Franz Ferdinand in unflattering terms, he was the crucial man in the Hapsburg Empire, and not the marginal figure he is sometimes made out to be.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were riding at the time of their assassination on 28 June 1914.

Gavrilo Princip was a committed terrorist, i.e., a man who was prepared to kill and to die for ideological reasons. In other words, Gavrilo Princip was the prototype, the progenitor, and the model of a type of figure that would become increasingly common in the twentieth century, and who is still common in our time. Ideologically motivated terrorism requires an inscrutable synthesis of individualism and self-sacrifice that could not have been produced before the industrial revolution, and the conditions for producing the type in any number only came to full fruition in the twentieth century, with its mass societies of millions and its rising living standards that encouraged even the lowliest to think that they could leave their mark upon history. History was no longer beyond the reach of the ordinary man: history had become personal. A similar sentiment was expressed by a very different spirit, Rupert Brooke, in his poem Peace: “Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour.” Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, and Gavrilo Princip were all together matched to their hour, and the confluence of these three meant that the global industrial-technological civilization taking shape at that time should be crucially shaped by global industrialized warfare.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

. . . . .

twentury century war collage small

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. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “Assassination in Sarajevo”

  1. griefchief said

    I don’t know what to think about Franz…

    If I got the history right, he was the person in charge of keeping the war hawks in the AH military at bay… He even sacked one guy that kept finishing his letters to the crown/supperiors with the sentence equivalent to “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed).

    Whoops, it seems this was in fact the old caiser, not Franz, I mixed things up… oh well, no matter…

    That said, never in my 24 years of life did I notice on what exact date the archduke was strolling around in Sarajevo until a newspaper article brought that to my attention… 28th of June… That date obviously wasn’t chosen randomly. It was an insult to the whole Serbian being, both in Bosnia and Serbia itself, a show of power (over lesser beings, I might add) of epic proportions.

    Indeed doesn’t seem consitent with the first paragraph…

    They obviously weren’t satisfied with the mere iron rule over the annexed Bosnia, and I guess Serbia was barking too hard at the treatment of it’s nationals, or at least the people were (and not just serb nationals in Bosnia, the whole population).

    Without this small detail, I never precisely understood why Franz swallowed the bullet… What exact quarrel Gavrilo had with a “random” royal, never quite figured that out during school years…

    Looking at another article, the iron fist went to epic proportions… Among thinks like jailing and shutdowns of organizations like the (previously peaceful) Young Bosnia (not the Black Hand, that was a military conspiracy inside Serbia) whom the assassins were members of, educated young folks like they were, the first generation of peasant schoolboys, would not stand for that kind of state terror (not terrorism, terror).

    It seems their doom was finding books in the library that contained texts like “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (1789) and such…

    Whether you insist on calling it terrorism or an assassination, terrorism, while not having a legal meaning, today usually implies terror over civilian populations for political means… This was a murder of a tyrant, by no means innocent… And it seems not even loved by the AustroHungarians people and court… ouch…

    In any case, thank you for a rarely unbiased probe into these things… I have yet to read the next 3 articles (read the last 2) but I am rather certain it will stay “professional”, I’ve been seeing to much shaise lately when it comes to this subject.

  2. […] An assassination in Sarajevo Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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