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From the Newsday archives: The War That Failed to End All Wars

The original Newsday illustration that ran with a

The original Newsday illustration that ran with a 1984 Viewpoints piece on World War I. Credit: Newsday / Gary Viskupic

Editor's note: Thirty years ago, Newsday published this article by a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It ran with this subheadline: "World tensions of 70 years ago resemble today's. Technological developments had pushed two antagonistic alliances to the brink. Then a terrorist assassination on June 28, 1914, sparked World War I."

We republish it today, 100 years after the war began.


Seventy years ago today, a nationalist schoolboy shot dead the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The murder in Sarajevo — the town where the Winter Olympics were held this year — set in motion events that led first to World War I and then to World War II. No other event has had such fateful consequences in shaping the 20th Century and in leaving problems, not least !n Eastern Europe, that still trouble the world.

Historians and the public remain fascinated with the tragedy. Statesmen and publicists refer to the 1914 analogy, to the balkanization of this region or that, and to the dangers of military plans dominating civilian decision-making. And indeed the crisis of July, 1914, that followed the assassination contains some lessons of history that deserve notice on this anniversary.

In Europe in the summer of 1914 — as in 1984's — two armed camps faced one another. The Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) had developed out of the attempts of Germany's Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to protect his recently unified nation. In the early 20th Century, the Anglo-German naval race convinced Britain to align itself with France and Russia in the Triple Entente.

The naval race had other consequences as well: It led Britain to consider military intervention on the Continent and it forced London to tolerate Russian behavior in Iran and Afghanistan that has a familiar ring even today. The flurry of press comment over dreadnought construction, like current press attention to the MX missiles, exacerbated relations. Arms control negotiations were attempted but never succeeded. Neither side would yield for fear of appearing to concede something that might be useful if war came. Nor did meetings between heads of state, which, unlike today's, were frequent and without undue fanfare, overcome the hostility that the alliance structures had engendered in Europe — any more than today's summit conferences do.

Earlier clashes between Britain, France and Germany over their overseas empires had soured relations. But though no one would go to war over Fashoda {in the Sudan). Serbia, Poland, Rumania, even Albania, were different matters. The problems of Eastern Europe ensured competition between the three empires; the prospect of the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire — the “Sick Man of Europe" — simply added to the tensions between the three conservative regimes. The perennial Irish question was at a new height in Britain, while France found itself adjusting to still another new government and a spectacular murder trial.

The Sarajevo assassination convinced the Austro-Hungarian leadership that only a military defeat of Serbia, a small nation now part of Yugoslavia and the correctly presumed instigator of the murders, would end Serbia's threat to the multinational monarchy. Earlier attempts to curb Serbian agitation by negotiations, concessions and economic sanctions had apparently failed. War was the last resort, but a resort. Vienna drafted a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum and dispatched it to Belgrade. The Serbian answer was summarily rejected and Austro-Hungarian forces opened fire on Serbian territory on July 28, 1914.

The alliance structures converted the local fray into a European war, and the military plans that the general staffs had made accelerated the pace of the crisis. Russia, Austria-Hungary's giant neighbor and rival for power in the Balkans, resolved immediately to defend its Slav protegee, Serbia. It began to commission cadets and recall some reservists.

Everywhere the pressures were for action, for not allowing the other side to gain any presumed advantage. Standing armies, reinforced by the prompt appearance of reservists, stood ready to launch their carefully prepared offensives. Russia's moves alarmed the Germans. The mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisers decided that they had to declare war on Russia and on its ally, France, and to put into motion the plan for an immediate defeat of France by an attack through Belgium while resisting an expected Russian offensive. But the violation of Belgian neutrality brought Britain into the conflict. By Aug. 4, the local war had expanded into a European war. (Italy remained aloof — for a while.)

In these decisions the railways and their chiefs dominated, since all of the war plans involved complicated railroad movements. In 1914, decisions came in days and hours; in 1984, strategic missiles might bring such decisions in minutes.

But in the final analysis it was men, not alliances or railway lines, who decided for war. Kaiser, emperor, czar, king, premiers, foreign ministers, generals: they were sincere, well-meaning men, educated by experience and politics. But they were also men of an earlier, aristocratic, agarian age thrust into a newer world of technology, of great power alliances, and confronted with the problem of nationalisms fueled by terrorist acts.

In 1914, this political leadership was not seeking war so much as it was willing to consider war an acceptable policy option. In 1984, there are again similarities, from the less-than-confident and aging leaders of the East bloc to the uninspiring leadership of the West. Good intentions and platitudes do not necessarily preserve the peace.

Yet the public at large in 1914 found the prospect of war appealing. The clashes of imperialism, the growth of standing armies and conscription, the formation of paramilitary units (including the Boy Scouts), Darwinian ideas of the survival of the fittest, and the glorification of nationalism had created in Europe a mood that made battles an acceptable risk.

The Spanish-American War had, after all, been a "splendid little war" and the Russo-Japanese and Balkan Wars rather quick episodes that appeared to solve something. Economists argued that the economic structures could only support a short war and the generals promised the next conflict would indeed be short.

In the summer of 1914 there were two dangerous illusions: the belief that war might offer a more acceptable solution than peace to the problems of diplomacy and the belief that the war would be short. Those illusions have not yet disappeared. Members of the Reagan administration refer to winnable nuclear wars; interventions such as that of Grenada are seen as surgical.

Another illusion has changed from white to black. When H. G. Wells entitled his 1914 book "The War That Will End War," he perhaps expressed a universal hope. Seventy years later, men acknowledge that the next war may indeed end war — but by ending everything.

From 1914 to 1984: What has changed and what remains disturbingly the same? Eastern Europe remains pivotal to world peace. The Russians then as now seek to control Eastern Europe and are willing to push the diplomatic process to the limit. Austria-Hungary has disappeared, leaving only the idea of a multinational state that might have had more advantages than the nationalist leaders of 1914 acknowledged.

Militarism, huge standing armies confronting each other, arms races, the inexorable demands of military technology, and the national security state writ large, with each government fearful of the game of "international chicken" — in those senses 1984 and 1914 have a strong kinship, and certainly not for the better. Outside Europe there are no longer large empires, but the legacies of the empires shape the political debate, not least in the field of international economics. Terrorism remains a threat, indeed has become, in some intelligence services, a profession.

The situation is the most different for the United States. The Atlantic moat no longer exists. The communications revolution that brought Sarajevo into our living rooms during the Winter Olympics can also bring Americans to war. Seventy years after the murder in Sarajevo that city is not distant, nor would a war in Europe be distant for the United States.

Franz Ferdinand's assassination challenged the wisdom of the European statesmen. But their prudence gave way to an attempt to cut through or past vexing problems of statecraft; desperation replaced adequate calculation. For peace to endure, relentless and imaginative statecraft, coupled with a clear realization of the risks of war, must prevail. For a moment in the summer of l914 this imagination failed, and so did peace.

The world, the power structure that had existed since Napoleon's defeat 100 years before, collapsed. After Germany had been twice defeated in its efforts to dominate Europe and the Russian colossus arose in new garb, power coalesced in new alignments. These are as precarious and delicately balanced as those of 1914 — and therein may lie some lessons for 1984.


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