Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

20 April, 2007

Blogging The Great War: Part 1 - A Peace That Wouldn't Last


I was taught the usual stuff in school about how World War I began. You know - it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire, on 28 June 1914. While his death was ostensibly the cause of the war, after having done some reading and watching, it is perhaps better thought of as a catalyst. I mean, The Great War didn't just arise from a vacuum. Indeed, as we shall see, war didn't break out for a month afterwards.

The documentary I've been watching, The First World War, begins by looking at the state of affairs in Europe immediately prior to that fateful day in June that led Gavrilo Princips, a Bosnian Serb, to kill Ferdinand. It focuses on the tensions and downright hatred between the Hapsburgs and Serbia, which was an independent state at the time. But in his The First World War, historian John Keegan takes a broader view, both in time and space. So let's pull back from southeastern Europe for a moment.

In his first chapter, Keegan describes something I didn't expect – a virtual Pax Europa. Age-old tensions were present (Huns and Slavs had never gotten along too well), to be sure, but in the summer of 1914 the countries of Europe and Russia as well were in a state of economic interdependence that had never been seen previously. Populations were booming and the spread of empires in Africa and Asia meant that markets, both internal and external, were vastly increasing in size. The introduction of electricity and the automobile boosted industrialization. Steamship and rail were moving goods further and faster while the nascent telecommunications technology was, as we often hear about the Internet today, making the world smaller. The financial institutions and economies of European countries were dependent upon one another as never before.

This interdependence also led to cooperation. With the scale of international commerce ever increasing, bodies were established to standardize transactions. The gauge of rails for trains was standardized in Europe, for instance. (Though Russia, for some reason, just had to have a larger gauge.) Countries got together to allocate the newly-revealed airwaves so as not to interfere with each other's broadcasts. I mean, if you're a German, you don't want your broadcast of the Kaiser extolling bier und oompah music to suddenly cut out and be replaced with some French guy explaining how to make quiche. And the idea of stamped mail was born as well so all the new middle-class tourists could send postcards home.

Outside of commerce, countries got together to check the spread of disease and even regulate the sale of liquor and drugs. The countries of Europe also grew together culturally: "Europe's university graduates shared a corpus of thought and knowledge and, tiny minority though they were, their commonality of outlook preserved something recognizable as a single European culture." Perhaps most surprising to me was that in 1899, Tsar Nicholas II convened an international conference to limit armaments and to establish an international court at The Hague. My surprise is certainly born of ignorance but also of the knowledge of what was to come. A massive, bloody war is on the horizon yet countries are at peace and even talking about a neutral setting for settling disputes. What the hell happened?

(A larger map can be found here.)

Turning back to the political and that map above, let's start with Serbia. Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire starting in the mid-15th century until 1876 when the Serbs drove the Turks out. In 1978 the Treaty of Berlin gave international recognition to Serbian independence. While Bosnia was also freed from the Ottoman Empire at this time, the treaty ceded the country to Austro-Hungary. The Hapsburgs, Russia, and the Ottomans all wanted control of the Balkan peninsula. Add to this the fact that Germanic peoples looked down upon Slavs and second class human beings and you have a situation fraught with tension.

(Some Serbian gentlemen taking a stroll.)

Serbia wanted the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it encompassed many lands of Slavic peoples. Though a part of the empire, Slavs held almost no power within it. Many Serbs held as the ultimate goal a unification of Slavic countries into a single state – Yugoslavia. Ethnic kinship meant that Russia was sympathetic to the Serbian cause. Looking at the map, you'll see that Russia and Serbia are both purple. But so is France. This is because it and Russia began an alliance in 1882 and one upshot of this was that, should one country be attacked, the other would come to its aid. You can see where this is going.

(Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)

The German and A-H empires are green. The two had common interests, common racist assumptions, and common ethnicity. Along with Italy, they formed the Triple Alliance. Ignoring the map for a second, understand that Belgium and the UK were basically neutral prior to the war.

Moving back to Eastern Europe, racial tensions flared within the A-H Empire in the first part of the 20th century. There were nationalist demonstrations in Vienna in 1905 and riots in the streets of Budapest in 1912, for example.

(Quelling the riots.)

Sitting here in 2007, it's easy to look back and see this situation as one fated to lead to war. But this wasn't necessarily so at the time as nationalism and ethnic strife do not necessarily equate to war. Keegan notes Norman Angell and his book The Great Illusion in which the British author noted the futility of a war in Europe. (Jean Renoir's classic 1937 film, The Grand Illusion was named in tribute to the book.) Conflict would cause a massive disruption to international credit so the powers that be had plenty of motivation to avoid it. And, if war did break out, it would be short-lived to minimize economic damage for everyone. Keegan quotes a speech Angell gave on 17 January 1912 entitled "The Influence of Banking on International Relations":

…that there must be confidence in the due fulfillment of mutual obligation, or whole sections of the edifice crumble, is surely doing a great deal to demonstrate that morality after all is not founded upon self-sacrifice, but upon self-interest, a clearer and more complete understanding of all the ties that bind us the one to the other. And such clearer understanding is bound to improve, not merely the relationship of one group to another, but the relationship of all men to all other men, to create a consciousness which must make for more efficient human cooperation, a better human society.

Reading this I found myself rooting for peace. I guess my brain was somehow able to ignore the fact that the fate of the world in 1914 was sealed long ago.
|| Palmer, 8:59 PM


Have you read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August??? If not your knowledge of the start of WWI will always be incomplete.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:52 PM  
No, I have not read it. I highly suspect that, even if I were to read it, my knowledge would still be incomplete. I find the notion that Tuchman's book contains everything there is to know about the subject to be absurd. Nothing against the book, but there's 45 more years of scholarship to be had since the book was published.

Besides, this is not an attempt to know everything, but rather an endeavor to go from knowing very little about something to having a decent general understanding.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:41 AM  
THE PROUD TOWER by Barbara Tuchman examines the Western World of approximately 100 years ago. Technologically the world was a very different from today, but the strifes between economic groups and among nations bears many similarities to our own time. Tuchman examines the economic, social, political, and technological world of the period 1890-1914. By this period, the United States had become an important player in world affairs. The Haymarket Affair in Chicago fueled the development of international anarchism which led to the assasinations of political figures in Russia, Italy, France and lastly President McKinley in the United States. Tuchman's unraveling of the the Dreyfus Affair is, in itself, worth the price of the book. In THE PROUD TOWER Tuchman describes the western world that exploded into The Great War (which she describes in THE GUNS OF AUGUST).
Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:44 PM  
Do you work for Tuchman's publisher? ;)

There is so much to read on the subject. Have you read Strachan's The First World War: Volume I: To Arms?
Blogger Palmer, at 7:54 AM  

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