At 10:10 am on June 28, 1914, two people were murdered and the world changed forever. The murders of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife Sophie are considered the spark that started World War I. Their deaths didn’t have to start a war. Their deaths were an excuse used by nations fighting for military superiority.
In 1914, the world looked much like today with a globalized elite controlling most of their nations’ wealth, labor unrest, and unsettling social changes. Nationalism and a belief in racial superiority guided government policies.
Nationalism underpinned a decade-long competition between the U.S., England and Germany to build the largest navy with the biggest battleships. France, Japan, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire struggled to keep up. Racism underpinned the land grab for colonies in the Far East and Africa.
Austria-Hungary colonized closer to home. The Empire sprawled across the middle of Europe and had recently annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. A militaristic group of government advisors wanted to continue expanding into the Balkans and sneered at the Russian military guarantee to states like Serbia. Emperor Franz Joseph was believed to support this group.
Another group of advisors wanted to limit the expansion of the empire to avoid unnecessary wars and to focus on improving the lives of their multicultural, multi-religion empire. This “peace” group of advisors was believed to have the support of Franz Ferdinand.
Every country had its own version of the debate. The U.S. was divided between isolationists who wanted to avoid all foreign entanglements and globalists who wanted the U.S. to have a voice in international affairs to protect its economic interests. The globalists had the upper hand after Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901.
Roosevelt’s primary military advisor was Captain, later Admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who predicted that the U.S. and Japan would inevitably clash economically and militarily for control of the Pacific Ocean and Asia. He argued that the U.S. should attack first to protect its interests. (Japan took him seriously and preemptively attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Mahan’s theories are now popular with Americans worried about China’s rise.)
The arms race and frequent clashes for colonies became so fierce that governments began to worry that the world would accidentally tumble into a war. To prevent unintended wars and slow the arms race, countries entered into mutual defense pacts believing that an enemy would think twice about attacking a country with powerful friends. Others believed that every country had too much at stake in the global economy to risk their national interests on something as foolish and disruptive as war.
Then Franz Ferdinand and Sophie traveled to Sarajevo for a routine royal visit to the newly annexed territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. To save Serbia from the threat of annexation, Gavrilo Princip and his friends assassinated the Archduke and Duchess.
In the aftermath of their deaths, the militarists in Austria-Hungary made outrageous demands on Serbia which were rejected. Russia announced that it stood by its pledge to support Serbia if it was attacked. Kaiser Wilhelm II offered Germany’s support to Austria-Hungary if Russia attacked. Russia had a mutual defense treaty with France. France had a military understanding with England. England had spent centuries ensuring the political and military status quo in Europe.
Everyone wanted to test their new weapons and military tactics. Everyone expected to win quickly and be home by Christmas. Nationalism subsumed all other considerations. In August 1914 the world changed forever.
To learn more about Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and the fate of their children, see Hitler and the Hapsburgs, by James Longo (2018). Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966) provides a snapshot of the world on the eve of World War I and her book The Guns of August (1962) covers the initial month of WWI.
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