Of Butterflies and Tipping Points: The Calamitous Summer of 1914


Mr. J. Astore, a retired Lt Col (USAF), taught for six years at the AF Academy. He currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He has a D.Phil. in Modern History from Oxford (1996) and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at wastore@pct.edu; he wishes to thank Mike Neiberg for helping to inspire this article.

In chaos theory, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings off the coast of South America creates a minor disturbance which, propagating non-linearly and increasing in intensity, leads to a killer hurricane that devastates the east coast of the United States.  Large results can stem from small, even seemingly inconsequential, causes, especially in complex and unstable systems.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist 95 years ago this June was the butterfly flap that generated the storm of steel that led to nine million deaths in Europe in World War I and the collapse of four empires – the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian, the German, and the Ottoman.

Put differently, Franz Ferdinand was the seemingly inconsequential butterfly crushed accidently under the careless boot of a time-travelling hunter in Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, A Sound of Thunder (1952).  In the story, the butterfly’s death ripples through time, creating a new world led by a dictator. The world has been drained of kindness.  Europe’s violent storm from 1914 to 1918 – precipitated by the Archduke’s seemingly inconsequential death – sowed the seeds of post-war fascism, leading to the rise of Adolf Hitler, a fanatic whose reputation as a hero was forged in that very same war.

In retrospect, what was remarkable at first about the Archduke’s murder in June of 1914 was how little Europeans let it bother them.  Social plans went ahead unaltered; naval fleet exchanges went ahead as scheduled; the crowned heads of Europe kept their vacation plans and enjoyed themselves during the unusually glorious summer weather.  Those who worried did not worry overmuch; the assassination might contribute to Balkan instability, possibly a brief settling of accounts between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but certainly nothing more than this – nothing that could possibly threaten the orderly, rational, civilized concert of Europe.

They were wrong, of course.   The diplomatic mechanisms of Europe were inadequate both to predicting the chaos unleashed by the Archduke’s death and to damping its rapidly accelerating strength.  By the time ominous storm clouds appeared, it was too late to stop the coming war – events had reached a tipping point.

Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in TheTipping Point (2000), the concept defines a point at which the momentum of a certain result or course of action can neither be stopped nor reversed.  In the weeks leading up to World War I, the tipping point came on July 23rd with Austria-Hungary’s sternly-worded ultimatum to Serbia.  By challenging Serbia’s sovereignty, Austria-Hungary knew the Serbs would refuse to fulfill all terms of the ultimatum – and the Serbs did not disappoint. 

But what Austria-Hungary did not perceive was that Europe’s best diplomats, Europe’s wisest leaders, even Europe’s anti-war parties, could not reverse what it had inadvertently set in motion – a general march to war by all of Europe’s great nations.  In the first few days of August 1914, Europeans sat stunned.  How could millions of men march, tens of thousands of guns sound, just because of the murder of an unlamented Archduke and the machinations of a few score-settling generals and politicians?

The large-caliber guns of August seemed so out of proportion to the small-caliber pistol fired by Ferdinand’s killer, Gavrilo Princip, that Europeans struggled for metaphors and analogies to understand what was happening to them and around them.  They spoke in terms of natural disaster – especially of storms.  But in doing so, they abnegated responsibility and restricted their options.  After all, that August’s storm of steel was man-made, not an act of nature or of God.  But by visualizing it as a meteorological event, as a natural disaster, Europeans saw it not as something to be stopped, but only as something to be endured.  Caught in the swirling winds of their own metaphors, they were swept away by a cataclysm whose warning signs they initially perceived as being too small in magnitude to matter.

What had happened?  As various political crises waxed then waned from 1871 to 1914, Europeans grew increasingly complacent as well as confident in their ability to control conflict.  But the apparent soundness of Europe’s diplomatic structure masked the presence of discordant, and ultimately destructive, resonant frequencies.  Put simply, Europe’s diplomats became inured to risk and underestimated the complexities as well as the vulnerable nodes of their ever-expanding machinery for conflict resolution.

In the resulting chaos and confusion, people fell back on what they knew – or thought they knew – for certain: local identities and national symbols.  Turning their backs on international socialism and ideas of transnational brotherhood, they joined with neighbors to defend the homeland from threats of violence – whether real or perceived – of aggressors.  Merrily or mournfully, millions marched off to war – a calamity started by the crushing of a single, seemingly harmless, butterfly named Ferdinand.

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Lewis Bernstein - 8/4/2009

Thank you Professor Moise for this glimmer of perspective and context.

Edwin Moise - 8/3/2009

The metaphor describing Franz Ferdinand as a "seemingly inconsequential butterfly" is seriously defective. Franz Ferdinand was a major figure in the government of one of the major European powers. People may not fully have recognized how great the consequences of his death were going to become, but this was not because they thought he had been an unimportant man.

And actually, people were not nearly so oblivious to the dangerous consequences of the assassination as Astore suggests. The assassination on June 28, 1914 was of course splashed across the front page of the New York Times on June 29. The implications and context were discussed on pages 2 and 3. At the top of page 2, I notice a conspicuous article "Tragedy May Alter Politics of Europe." Slightly lower down, an article described how Kaiser Wilhelm II had broken off his holiday, and announced he was returning to Berlin (directly contradicting Astore's claim that "the crowned heads of Europe kept their vacation plans and enjoyed themselves during the unusually glorious summer weather." At the bottom of the page, a small article "Paris Press Fears War" (datelined Paris, June 29) contained the interesting statement "Apprehension lest the Sarajevo crime prove a dire blow to the stability of Europe almost overshadows the feeling of horror and reprobation over the assassination and the deep sympathy for the aged Emperor in the comments of the morning papers."

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/3/2009

The "miracle" Braves went from last place on the 4th of July to World Series winner in the calamitous summer of 1914...

Randll Reese Besch - 8/3/2009

That was the key. How would it have been if said gov'ts had said that their alliances weren't part of war over a dispute not connected to their own diplomatic relations directly with either Austrio-Hungary or Serbia?

The USA is in that same position with Israel and Tiawan too. A stupid thing to do that could escalate all out of proportion and kill many millions in seconds.