[Paris] – We are not always able to precisely identify the exact moment when some overarching event changed the world. History is rarely so tidy. December 7, 1941 was, at least for Americans of a certain age, a defining date when a world war came to U.S. soil. September 11th has defined a new world in which western modernity seems destined to confront perpetual conflict with radical Islam.
Still, there can be little debate that the most certain defining date in the history of the modern world occurred precisely 100 years ago – June 28, 1914 – on a street in Savajevo.
Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian – that’s him in the photo – fired five shots at the archduke of Austria-Hungary and his pregnant consort, while they traveled in an automobile on the streets of Sarajevo. Princip, armed with a Browning semiautomatic pistol, may or may not have intended to, but by murdering Franz Ferdinand and Sophie he lit the sparks that ignited The Great War. The world has never been the same.
By the time the fighting ended more than four years later as many as 37 million were dead – historians still debate the numbers – the map of Europe was re-drawn and three great empires – the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – had ceased to exist. The borders that to this day vex the Middle East – Syria and Iraq, for example – were drawn, often with little regard to ethnic and tribal history, in the immediate wake of the war. Bolsheviks took power in Russia and the treaty at the end of the fighting that Woodrow Wilson hoped would make the world “safe for democracy” sowed the seeds of another global war barely 20 years later. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt and a cast of millions came of age between 1914 and 1918.
Most every significant conflict since The Great War had its origins, both large and small, in the assassination in Savajevo. Yet one of the great fascinations about The Great War is that there remains fundamental disagreement about what really caused Germany and Austria to wage war against the British Empire, France, Russia, Italy and eventually the United States. Who precisely was responsible for the war is still broadly debated, as is the imponderable of whether all the death and destruction might have been avoided had Europe been governed by better, more realistic leaders. Hundreds of new books are being published on the war as its anniversary arrives – one bookstore here in Paris featured more than a dozen new books just from France – and much of the new historical work is assessing the failure of statesmanship during Europe’s last summer of peace.
British historian Christopher Clark’s superb book – The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914 – makes the case, as the New York Times noted, that immediately after the events in Savajevo “there was a failure to realize that the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a young terrorist trained in expansionist Serbia might be the ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” that [German Chancellor] Otto von Bismarck in 1888 had predicted would one day trigger a great European war.”
I generally subscribe to the most accepted theory that inept statesmanship – “the sleepwalkers” – in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris and Moscow contributed to the political atmosphere that enabled the war, but that even more importantly the militant political and military leadership of Germany ultimately made war impossible to avoid. It’s complicated, but there is plenty of blame to go around, including for Serbia, although there is far from universal agreement on that point either.
For example, a recent scholarly conference in Savajevo broke down around disagreement over Serbian responsibility for the war’s origins. “Some Serb political leaders have accused the conference of bias against Serbia,” Paul Hockenos reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “and say that a revisionist history of World War I is laying the blame for the war, which claimed 37 million lives, at their feet.”
Hockenos quoted one participant as saying, “Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor will it forget who are the main culprits in World War I.” Presumably he meant the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, called the conference “a new propaganda attack against the Serbs.”
Moreover, one hundred years after killing the archduke, in many places in Serbia Gavrilo Princip is seen not as a murdering terrorist who helped precipitate The Great War, but as a national hero who helped liberate his country from foreign domination. The debate goes on.
Fields of Battle Display in Paris
In France and across Europe the anniversary of the war is being marked in many impressive and important ways.
Along the Rue de Medicis and attached to the long iron fence that encloses the Jardin Du Luxembourg are 50 or so enormous contemporary color photographs of various sites that still show the marks of The Great War. Developed by a British non-profit, the exhibit – Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace – will tour from now until 2018. The photos, by photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil, are stunning in their simplicity and shocking in the manner that they capture, better than words often can, the scope of death, destruction and deprivation that spread across Europe, the Middle East and Africa 100 years ago.
There are no people in these scenes, only the memory on the land of what the war created, or more often destroyed. As I walked from panel to panel yesterday reading the excellent notes that accompany the photographs, I tried to gauge the reaction of people young and old who stopped to look and, perhaps like me, ponder how such senseless human behavior was and still is possible.
Memorial tablets at Saint-Suplice for those lost in The Great War
One need not look long or hard in Paris to find quiet and moving remembrances of The Great War.
In the old church of Saint-Sulpice, second only to Notre-Dame in size in Paris and not far from where the haunting images of the old battlefields are displayed, an entire chapel of the church is given over to a series of large marble panels that list the dead of The Great War, and just the dead from this one Paris church.
The collective French reaction to the second Great War remains a jumble of conflicting stories, including to what degree the nation and its people collaborated with their Nazi occupiers, but The Great War is generally seen, as The Economist recently noted, as not so much a matter “of wasted lives and tragic loss as national heroism and glorious victory: the last time the country was unambiguously united on the right side of history.”
One million four-hundred thousand French soldiers perished in The Great War, more deaths than any of the Western powers, and considering the overall population of France in 1918 it was a truly staggering lost. That loss of the talent of a generation, 100 years on, remains a fact of life here. Another great anniversary, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in 1944, will be celebrated here with enthusiasm in August, but that date is marked more as a happy milestone than as a cultural and political turning point. The Great War simply turned the world upside down and that cannot be forgotten.
Some debate has raged in Britain this year over whether too much attention is being paid to the centenary of the war. “Schoolchildren are being turned off the First World War because of the ‘barrage’ of TV programmes devoted to the conflict, according to academics.” It was alleged by some that the “sheer scale of attention given to the Great War…risks leaving pupils feeling bored.”
I have many reactions to the anniversary, but boredom is certainly not one of them. Here’s hoping the attention devoted in Europe and in the United States to the “defining event of the 20th Century” will help all of us – and perhaps particularly young people – understand a little better its muddled and contentious history and remember a little more fervently its awful and enduring impact.
One hundred years ago this weekend the world changed – forever.