Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.
Otto von Bismarck, said during the Congress of Berlin in 1878
One hundred years ago the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I, the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, the reshaping of the map of Europe, ultimately to the rise of Nazism and World War II. The deadliest bullets fired in the course of history were those fired by Gavrilo Princip.
Looking back, one is struck by how slow contemporaries were to grasp where events were heading. The general feeling was that this crisis would be ultimately resolved and that war would be avoided, perhaps by a meeting of the great powers. Alas such was not to be. Austria used the assassination as a pretext to militarily settle accounts with Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm, against the advice of wiser heads among his advisors, gave Austria a blank check. Russia would inevitably enter the war on the side of Serbia, which would bring in her ally France. Germany would quickly be fighting a two front war. The German invasion plan of France required an invasion of Belgium which would bring Britain into the war. All of these domino actions were clear enough at the time, but the powers that be in each of the Great Powers assumed that their adversaries would back down rather than risk a general war. Such was not the case.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, was preoccupied, as was the rest of the British cabinet, with the issue of Irish Home Rule, which threatened to lead to violent clashes in Ireland and a possible revolt by segments of the British Army in Ireland against Home Rule. This was a major crisis and it was not until July 25, 1914 that Churchill grasped what was coming on the Continent. After a long discussion on the issue of Home Rule in Ireland. the Foreign Secretary read to the cabinet the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia:
“We were all very tired, but gradually as the sentences and phrases followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor. The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.”
In this Vale of Tears we may think we have an assured course and future, but the events of a hundred years ago today demonstrate just how illusory such beliefs tend to be, and how swiftly our world can be turned upside down.
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the sound of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder,
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad XXXV-1896