Some Damned Foolish Thing

“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off”
                                                      — Otto von Bismarck, 1878

Two recent news items relate the present attitudes of Bosnians toward Gavrilo Princip, and the large posters of Princip and his victim Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the street corner in Sarajevo where the June 28, 1914 shooting occurred. Was Princip a patriot and hero, or a terrorist and villain? Was Franz Ferdinand a tyrant? Whatever one’s opinion is, and those in today’s multi-cultural Bosnia vary, this assassination was the flashpoint that started in motion events that resulted in the first World War.

After reading and thinking about that war, and trying to connect the dots that led from the assassination to a general conflagration between, eventually, all of the world’s powers, that was horribly destructive and murderous, I found to be immensely difficult. A too brief recitation of the events between June 28 and August 4, 1914 when the war involved all of the powers is:

June 28 – Princip kills the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, and is immediately arrested;

July 1 – 4 – Serbian nationalist leaders in Belgrade are implicated; Austrian officials determine to punish Serbia, but Emperor Franz Josef, fearing Russian support of Serbia hesitates and his government seeks support from ally Germany;

July 5 -7 – Austria obtains support – some call it a blank check – from Germany for whatever it does;

July 19 – An Austrian government council approves making a demand on Serbia that if rejected, would result in Austria’s military action;

July 23 — Austria sends an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a response within 48 hours;

July 25 — Serbia accepts all but two demands;

July 28 – August 1 — Austria declares war on Serbia; Russia mobilizes its armed forces to show support for Serbia; Austria calls upon Germany to signal its support; Germany warns Russia; Russia seeks support from France based upon an ongoing alliance; Germany seeks assurances from France that France will not come to the aid of Russia; France equivocates; Russia mobilizes; Germany declares war on Russia

August 2 — Germany occupies Luxembourg;

August 3 — Germany declares war on France and demands that Belgium allow its forces to pass through to the French border;

August 4 — Germany invades Belgium anyway; Great Britain demands that German forces withdraw from Belgium; Germany refuses; Britain declares war on Germany.

Every one of these events makes one wonder “why?”

There are too many books and articles that attempt answers to these questions to list here, or probably anywhere else outside of the Library of Congress catalog. For causation, the theme of this essay and subsequent ones, two especially readable are Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and The Guns of August, both published in the 1960s. The first is a portrait of the involved Great Powers during the two decades leading up to the war; the other recounts the first month of that conflict and attempts to explain why it became a four-year stalemate. Another, a useful study of the background and the underlying rivalries of Great Britain and Germany, is Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought (1991). Yet another is David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer (2004). Fromkin makes explicit Tuchman’s implied thesis that war clouds had been on the horizon in Europe for some time. Certainly from the time of Bismarck’s observation quoted above, but for much longer.

Samuel P. Huntington, eight decades after the War began, has provided answers, or at least some good clues to why a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, and why it provoked a difficulty between Austria-Hungary and Russia. Huntington published his 1993 “The Clash of Civilizations” article in Foreign Affairs and then followed up with an expansive book in 1996. Huntington’s thesis, mentioned in other posts, is there are in the modern world eight civilizations or cultural groups, all of which have basic world-outlook differences and built in conflicts to one degree or another. Conflicts, often violent, arise at what he calls “fault-lines” where a culture comes into contact with another and vies for the same scarce resources – historically those involving land.

One such location was, and still is, the Balkan Peninsula.

Huntington theorized that each civilization is primarily defined by two salient characteristics: common religion and language, which are responsible for the value system of each culture. Three great civilizations existed, and still do, along fault lines in the Balkans: the Western, the Orthodox Christian, and the Islamic. The Austrians, Hungarians, Slovenes, and Croats are the West, the Ottomans, Albanians, and many Bosnians are Muslims, the Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians, and notably the Serbs, have been Orthodox. Ever since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the center of Christian Orthodoxy has been in Russia. To the extent that ethnicity, which often parallels language, enters into Huntington’s equation, the Serbs and Russians, both Slavic, and who linguistically share the Cyrillic alphabet, have had a great deal of affinity.

The Ottoman Turks’ empire had been in decline for most of the 19th Century, and was often referred to as the “sick man of Europe” because of it. The most obvious locale of the Turkish retreat was in the Balkans. Greece won its independence in 1832 after centuries of Ottoman domination. After a protracted struggle, Serbia, with the assistance of Russia, achieved full independence in the 1870s. Because of the large number of Serbs in Bosnia, Serbia sought unity with that province. A treaty negotiated at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, that ended a war between Russia and the Ottomans, made Bosnia a protectorate of Austria-Hungary, with Russia’s somewhat grudging consent and to Serbia’s chagrin. In 1908, Austria formally annexed Bosnia.

From the time Austria-Hungary obtained its protectorate over Bosnia, many of the ethnic Serbs there, and at times the Serbian government, agitated for independence from Austria and consolidation with Serbia. After the annexation, that agitation escalated. A Serbian military secret society called the Black Hand was a terrorist group formed in 1901 to further the detachment of Bosnia from Austria-Hungary and unity with Serbia. Thus, Serbia had become a giant thorn in the side of Austria. A faction in the Austro-Hungarian government wanted to put an end to Serbian provocation by military force. Serbia, however, was a client state of Russia. War with Serbia risked war with Russia. Another consideration was that two short wars occurring in 1912 and 1913 among the Turks and other nations in the Balkan peninsula left Serbia as the most militarily powerful state south of the Danube outside of Austria-Hungary, which it bordered.

The degree of knowledge or participation of the Serbian government in the plot is still unknown. Many believe that the head of the Black Hand’s executive committee, known as Apis, plotted it on his own, and enlisted and armed Gavrilo Princip, who was actually an Austrian citizen, and others to kill the Archduke during a state visit on June 28, 1914. The initial assassination attempt by one of Princip’s cohorts hurling a bomb at the official motorcade failed, but later, Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn and fortuitously drove right down the street where Princip fortuitously was. Princip shot and killed the Archduke and his wife with his handgun.

Princip and his co-conspirators were immediately arrested. Though his cohorts were executed, he was spared because of his youth and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He died there of tuberculosis in April 1918.

What occurred over the next 35 days were miscalculations – some would remove the “mis”– that caused Europe and ultimately the rest of the world, to be consumed in a general war. That war lasted in one form or another for the next eighty years, and, arguably, still goes on. All the result of one “damn foolish thing in the Balkans.”

More to come.


By bobreagan13

My day job is assisting individuals and small businesses as a lawyer. I taught real estate law and American history in the Dallas County Community College system. I have owned and operated private security firms and was a police officer and criminal investigator for the Dallas Police Department.

I am interested in history and historical research, music, cycling, and British mysteries and police dramas.

I welcome comments, positive, negative, or neutral, if they are respectful.

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