How Did World War I Begin?





Mr. Edgerton is an assistant professor of history at Montana State University in Billings and a writer for the History News Service.

Can responses to past terrorist acts provide any sort of guidance to the United States as it moves toward the brink of war?

Despite the belief of nations that they can limit the scope of armed conflict, events historically have often spun out of control and led to catastrophic consequences. In light of the rising national outrage, Americans might well take a deep collective breath and reflect on the sobering chain of events leading to World War I, a particularly horrifying mess of a modern war that Americans naively believed was fought to end all wars.

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old high school student, shot and killed the archduke and heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, at point-blank range in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Much of Europe was outraged by this audacious, cowardly act of terrorism. Princip, a Bosnian nationalist, had connections to the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization, the Black Hand. For the Austro-Hungarians, long embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute with Serbia, this was sufficient pretext to settle old scores and to avenge the cold-blooded assassination.

Egged on by its German allies, the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia in late July. Within a few days Russia, allied with the Serbs in hopes of building a pan-Slavic empire, mobilized its armed forces. In turn, Germany threw into motion an intractable military plan requiring it to move immediately to war.

The Germans understood that a mobilization of Russia's army would also lead to the mobilization of both France's and eventually Britain's military forces. Russia, France and Britain had previously allied themselves in a series of diplomatic shields designed, ironically, to prevent war from occurring.

The Germans mobilized and declared war on Russia and France during the first week of August 1914. Within a few weeks the German army constructed a defensive flank against Russia and dramatically invaded France, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Britain fully into the mounting conflict.

In September 1914, Allied forces stopped the German advance in France at the Battle of the Marne. Both sides then dug in along what would become the great Western Front, a series of trenches extending nearly the entire breadth of northern and eastern France. What ensued thereafter was four years of slaughter unprecedented in human history.

No one in the emotional days surrounding the initial terrorist act that provoked World War I anticipated the toll it ultimately would take. Most assumed that whatever conflict occurred would be over quickly and would be relatively painless, antiseptic almost, with minimal collateral destruction.

But the great armies (eventually including that of the United States) that fought in France, and in many other areas of the world, possessed killing technologies that the industrialized countries had been perfecting and stockpiling for years: machine guns, submarines, destroyers, long-range artillery, warplanes and poison gas -- implements that had never been used in waging war on such a scale. Conservatively, at least ten million people perished, including tens of thousands of civilians, with probably another twenty million or so injured.

Can the parallels between June 1914 and September 2001 guide America's leaders now? While the awful current events continue to unfold, Americans need to remember the consequences of rushing to war. Eighty-seven years ago, the Austrians, stung bitterly by an act of terrorism and backed by strong allies, raced to national catharsis by a declaration of war on a militarily weaker Serbia. No one could foresee what would follow.

In the immediacy of the moment of America's national crisis, the chorus of calls for immediate retribution will swell ever louder to punish those responsible for these heinous acts. But Americans should be aware that war -- if this is what the recent events ultimately produce -- can take on an uncontrollable and especially terrible life of its own.

 


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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me and me - 8/5/2003

don't rite soo much, i don't have time to read it all!
WELL U ASKED 4 MI COMMENTS!!!
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ME!


me and me - 8/5/2003

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WELL U ASKED 4 MI COMMENTS!!!
GOOODBYE
ME!


me and me - 8/5/2003

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WELL U ASKED 4 MI COMMENTS!!!
GOOODBYE
ME!


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Comment - 11/30/2001

Dear Sir or Madam,
I would like to say something to the article of Keith Edgerton "The Terrorist Who Started WW I".
It is new to me that Princip, the assassin, had been a Bosnian national. This is interesting. What I think is not quite correct, is that Germany "egged on Austria" to go to war against Serbia. I have in hand The German Wars by D.J. Goodspeed, where on page 120 it reads "Austria's first move was to sound out official German opinion, and in every way the result was satisfactory. The German government agreed that Serbia would have to be punished and, indeed, favored immediate offensive action. Germany and Austria found themselves at one in their understanding of the situation". That statement sounds reasonable to me, since the southern border with Serbia had been a troublesome area. Since Germany and Austria were allied (they had only a bipartite pact, and there were no other allies as far as I know) it was necessary that they would have an understanding about the future course of action. "Egged on" sounds like "induced to do" which I don't is the case.
Next, "intractable military plan"; the German defense options were limited. There were no natural obstacles (planes to the east and west) and Germany was encircled by its opponents. Any hope of victory lay only in offensive maneuvers, and, as Goodspeed writes, mobilization in those days meant impending attack. Thus the Russian mobilization was seen as impending attack, and since Russia was allied with France, this meant by an automatism a two-front war for Germany. The military plan for France was the Schlieffen plan, which was in these days the only possible way to defeat France, since it took into account the geographical features (the northern plane), most efficient transport routes, access (which for a land war is only possible through Belgium), strategic importance of that region, French counter moves etc. Had the plan been followed through, it would have had a very high likelihood of success.If the plan was intricate, then because the situation required it to be so. I don't think that it was "intractable". Belgium wasn't that neutral anyway and, going back to the Napoleonic wars, would have been required to allow passage of "German" troops. The quotation marks are a reminder that "German" is a very complicated notion. Napoleon did not lead war against Germany but against mutually independent territories, monarchies, dukedoms, principalities, church states, and so on (Mozart, for example was not born in Austria but in the Archbishopry Salzburg and is therefore not truly "Austrian", much as Bach is not "German" but Saxonian).
A last remark concerns the "perfection and stockpiling" of various arms. This is not true for poison gas, which was conceived of during the war; likewise, airplanes were used only well into the war.
In any case, the point of the article was not technicalities but the fact that a well-localized conflict would so easily and quickly become a continent-wide war. I don't see this as an immediate possibility in the presence; nonetheless the beginning of WW I gives one occasion to think. This war, by the way, is not over yet; Germany is still paying reparations.
I would be thankful to you if you could forward my thoughts to Dr. Edgerton.
Thank you very much in advance.
Dr.R.W.Winter


Geonik - 11/29/2001

I am intrigued by "this audacious, cowardly act of terrorism" in 1914 Sarajevo. It appears the American authors spray their adjectives in the same way their military use their ammunition.


Comment - 11/29/2001

Mr. Edgerton's presentation follows the usual vacuous assertions that have been part of war propaganda since time immemorial. His kind of analysis is akin to practicing augury on a supermarket chicken, whose insides have been all but stripped out. Apart from the initial Austrian victims, the first casualties of the war were a father and daughter in North Africa by naval bombardment. That act tells us much of the true conditions of the period.


R. S. Crews - 11/29/2001

This is certainly an interesting article from the point of view that responses and outcomes, once a war is started, can never be truly estimated and controlled.

However, an important question to ask would be did this so called young terrorist act on his own initiative? He had been living and training in France prior to his act.

In addition, according to certain documents presented by one French historian, there were communications between French and Russian officials prior to the murders of the Archduke and his wife, plotting and preparing for war with Germany and therefore with Austria. Since Germany had a treaty with Austria, it could do nothing else but go off to war to uphold its commitments.

Did this terriorist act on his own or was he State sponsored?

Did the men who struck on 9/11 act on their own initiative or were they State sponsored, if not directly perhaps indirectly, but not by the States one is led to believe were behind them? Remember the FDR's Day of Infamy?

It is interesting that since March 2001, if not prior, that plans and coalitions were being developed against Afghanistan and the Taliban, meetings with the Russians, and seemingly with Bin Laden.

While no one can safely predict the responses and outcomes, once a war is started, the cause and effects must not be studied only in superficial manner. There are often State agitators behind isolated terrorist's acts and not always the States one might think.





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