Monday, June 23, 2014

The shot that started World War I


   Like most people, I studied World War I in junior high school then let the subject go fallow—well, except for reading John Keegan's "The First World War" when it came out in 1999. But even that was a while back, so I appreciated the chance to reacquaint myself with this epochal and tragic event. Which is the purpose of anniversaries, to force us to contemplate hard histories we'd rather forget, and all too often do. 

     Six assassins lay in wait that morning, armed with pistols and bombs, along the archduke’s route in Sarajevo, hoping to strike a blow for Serbian nationalism.
     It was June 28, 1914.
     The first two men failed to act as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Franz Joseph, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rode past with his wife, Sophie.
     The third threw a bomb that bounced off the open retractable top, rolled under the car behind and blew up.
     Incredibly, the official schedule continued, with the kind of mechanical lockstep that would bring about the enormity of World War I, whose centennial begins with the actions of the fourth assassin, Gavrilo Princip.
     Forty-five minutes after the initial attack, with the royal couple on the way to visit the wounded, the motorcade turned by mistake down the street where Princip lingered. The chauffeur put the car into reverse so it came to a stop in front of the 19-year-old Serb, who fired twice from 5 feet away. The first shot cut Ferdinand’s jugular. The second killed the duchess.
     Thus was set into motion a clockwork of ultimatums followed by military action that drew in other nations, bound by various alliances, to enter what became the first global war, stretching from Japan to Brazil.
     On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared a war of retribution on Serbia, which had armed the assassins. Within a week, Serbia’s ally Russia declared war on Austro-Hungary. So Germany declared war on Russia, then France and Belgium. Then Britain declared war on Germany.

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  1. Great piece Neil. I just started rereading Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August to mark the occasion of the anniversary. No doubt the greatest opening paragraph ever written in a nonfiction book.

    1. Thanks. Her "March of Folly" is an essential book.

  2. It was also a war that inspired great literature, a subject addressed memorably in Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory." Poets like Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, et al. Evocation of battlefield life by Robert Graves in "Goodby to All That" and Sigfied Sassoon in "Confessions of an Infantryman. More that in earlier conflicts the unglamorous aspects of life and death in battle were highlighted -- "the old lie, 'dolce et decorum est pro patria more.'"

    Interesting that the Chicago City Council renamed streets with Germanic names. It must have been a humanist gesture that spared Goethe and Schiller.