What really triggered World War I, and could it happen again?
A hundred years ago today, in 1914, a bomb blew up and gunshots rang out in Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, killing the heir to the Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
Those shots, fired by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six assassins, have since gone down in history as the catalyst for the dominos that fell and triggered World War I, a war that lasted from July 28, 1914, to Nov 11, 1918, and that killed over 37 million civilians and military personnel.
This has been stated as a historical fact in almost every textbook since – that the killing of the archduke in turn led to a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and within weeks, Britain, Russia, France and Germany had picked a side and declared war against each other. But was the Sarajevo incident all Europe needed to erupt into war?
Historian Jaroslaw Suchoples, a senior fellow with Universiti Kebangsaan Negara’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) doesn’t think so.
“The assassination was the pretext that ignited the whole military conflict. But it was not the reason,” says Suchoples.
The reasons behind the different nations entering into conflict were more complex.
“The German Empire wanted to be at the same level of imperialistic development as the other great powers of the era such as Britain and France, so there was competition behind great powers. Other great powers such as Austro-Hungary and Russia competed economically in the Balkans,” explains Suchoples.
He adds that Russia was keeping a wary eye on the attempts by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to expand its influence in the Balkans and stood ready to clip its wings to keep the region under its economic influence.
“Germany had a world politic programme that was adopted by Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, it was completely unfeasible. The other great powers found it very hard to understand why Germany, which had no vital interests in the Balkans or the Middle East, wanted to expand their influence.”
According to Suchoples, many factors suggested that some conflict was indeed inevitable; he cites the analysis of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who described the outbreak of World War I as a breakdown of diplomacy between the European powers.
“For Kissinger, the outbreak of World War I was the result of deficits in the diplomatic apparatus, and the overwhelming position of the military at that time. I would agree with him that military leaders were looking for an adventure, they had modern tools of war and wanted to use them,” says Suchoples.
He adds, however, that not many would have realised the kind of cataclysm that could result from any conflict in Europe in that era, saying that World War I was the first true modern conflict with the mass movement of millions of soldiers for the first time in history.
Furthermore, while the majority of the battlefields were in Europe, there was also fighting in the Middle East, and it all involved soldiers from around the globe – including the Asian and African colonies of Britain and France, as well as New Zealand and Australia.
The war also marked the emergence of the United States and Japan as world power players. “The United States, for the first time in global history, emerged as a real great power, one that could influence the global situation,” says Suchoples.
Brothers in arms
The war also sparked the beginnings of nationalism in the Asian colonies of European nations.
Many leaders in the anti-colonial struggle, like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, began their careers during World War I, as they realised that it was possible to fight the West – as the war continued, it became obvious that the great powers had troubles and were not invincible.
Indeed, in the immediate post-war period, there was talk about the self-determination of nations from the likes of US President Woodrow Wilson, and Asian leaders in the anti-colonial movement questioned whether self-determination applied to all, or just to Western nations.
“Many people saw the self-determination of nations as a universal question. Why couldn’t it apply to colony nations, why couldn’t they determine their own future according to this noble principle? In this, World War I, or rather its direct aftermath, was very important to Asia,” says Suchoples.
He points out that the war was the first time many Asians from the colonies actually saw Europe.
“Indian, Ghurka, Maori units, soldiers from Vietnam, too. Under most circumstances they could never have left their homeland and seen how people lived in Europe, the different living standards.”
Suchoples adds that for the first time, Asians were fighting side-by-side with Europeans as brothers-in-arms, like the Indians and the British, or soldiers from French colonies with their French counterparts.
Aside from sparking Asian nationalism, World War I also led to the elevation of women’s rights – in many cases, for the first time. With men fighting on the frontlines, the labour shortage at home meant that women had to work, and this changed the world radically – when the men returned home, women refused to return to being homebodies. Women won political rights (quite often the right to vote for the first time) because they had realised that without them, countries could not function.
In this sense, World War I was a landmark with effects that are felt even today.
Asked if a new world war could happen again, Suchoples says that such destructive wars still remain a remote possibility, as history tends to repeat itself. “In terms of human loss and destructive scale, of course it could happen again. In this sense World War I and World War II are warnings. People usually, after the end of such a war, say such a war cannot be repeated, but it has happened again and again over the last 200 years,” says Suchoples.
However, Ikmas senior lecturer Richard Mason says he does not think events similar to those of 1914 could trigger a modern World War III.
“I don’t think there’ll be a World War III because people are becoming more wary of the effects of war; in the era of World War I and II, the main thrust was competition. Now, it is cooperation,” says Mason.
Could competitive parallels be drawn in the modern era, such as between the United States and China over resources in the Pacific?
Mason replies that diplomatic efforts have improved in the last 100 years. “Diplomats now are sharp enough and smart enough to not go to the extent of precipitating war,” he says.
Parallels and differences
This is a view shared by Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge, who said in a recent talk in Malaysia that the global devastation caused by World War II made any future world wars “very unlikely”.
“The destruction caused by World War II, with it’s millions of dead and ruined cities, genocides, and widespread negation of civilised values and behaviour, had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by World War I,” says Evans.
“People were not as afraid of war in 1914 as they are now, or have been since 1945.
“The idea that war was coming had an effect in generating a momentum before 1914 among leading people in Europe. Admiral Jackie Fisher, leader of the Royal Navy after 1902 said, ‘We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war and hoped for war’ – it was seen as inevitable and positive,” says Evans.
He adds that even poets saw war as a release of the pent-up energies that had plagued European politics and society since the 19th century, “a chance to do something glorious”.
“War was seen by upperclass men as an assertion of masculine honour, a duel on a bigger scale.
“However, politicians today are almost always aware of the fragility of the international order in the nuclear age.
“Masculine posturing only earns ridicule the world across,” he points out.
He also says the global geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War, from a two-superpower bipolar world to a multi-polar one, the reverse of what took place in the 20 years leading up to World War I.
“This, along with an atmosphere where attitudes to war were largely positive, unlike the post-1945 intellectual climate, was an ominous development without parallel in the 21st century. The dangers of smaller conflicts leading to larger ones among larger powers have receded,” says Evans.
He acknowledges that some parallels to the world of 1914 still exist in the world of 2014, such as the ongoing Syrian civil war, “with factions standing proxy to Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and the danger of Israel with its nuclear arsenal and Iran with its persistent attempts to build one.
“China and Russia seem to be lining up behind one side of this conflict with the United States on the other,” Evans points out.
He says that in 1914, similar disputes and conflicts had erupted in the Balkans, and states such as Bulgaria and Serbia stood as proxies for larger powers such as Czarist Russia, Germany or Austro-Hungary; he cautions, however, that it would be wrong to see the states of the Middle East in 2014 as puppets of America, China or Russia.
“China supplies Iran with weapons and nuclear technology but can do little to control its actions in the Middle East.
“China’s policies are also mediated by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. And not least because of economic ties to the West, Russia has bowed to international pressure on sanctions on Iran and it has curbed its arms supplies to that country,” says Evans.
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