Saturday, June 28, 2014

WWI And All That

Folks are marking the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip.  Any anniversary is useful for creating some awareness of how the past continues to shape the present.  But any anniversary of a big historical event will provide room for multiple interpretations.  So, here are a few of thoughts based on what I remember from my history classes and what I know about nationalism and war.

  • Princip was, indeed, a terrorist, as he used violence to provoke political change.  
  • Princip was an irredentist, as he sought not to free Serbia since it was already independent but to have Austria-Hungary give up hunks of Bosnia to facilitate a Greater Serbia.  This tends to make him and his cause ... bad ones.  While self-determination can be viewed as a right (thanks to Wilson, people starting thinking so for Europeans around this time, not so much for Asians or Africans), it can produce much violence.
  • And irredentism leads to war most of the time.  Princip may or may not have intended to start a war, but using violence to change boundaries to include more ethnic kin in one's homeland is highly correlated with war.
  • Having said that, Princip did not cause World War I.  The countries of Europe did that quite nicely.  They butchered the diplomacy that could have averted war, so that they could butcher each other for several years in a war that did not resolve too much despite changing everything.
  • If it had not been Princip, it is likely (again, as far as I remember from the history stuff I read awhile ago) that something else would have triggered this war, given the attitudes about war, the military doctrines/strategies in play, the politics in the various countries, and the alliances that tied them all together.  
  • So, we give Princip a bit too much credit.  He was a foolish irredentist who used violence, who gave others an excuse to fight, but Ferdinand's assassination was essentially like a train--there would be another one coming down the track sooner or later.
A couple of other thoughts:
  • Some folks have been wondering why Americans focus more on WWII than WWI, and it is not just that we like our wars to be black and white.  It is more that the US made a far larger and all-encompassing effort in the second war.  Plus we like clear victories.  We thought WWI was a victory until the various treaties afterwards made sure that the peace was just going to be a pause before the next one.
  • The ethnic conflicts in the Balkans in the 1980s and 1990s (and today) were not inevitable and not so clearly tied to Princip.  Politicians made choices about how to deal with their potential loss of power.  There were symbolic things that were the residue of past conflicts that made their strategies more likely to be successful.  Still, much of the violence was triggered not by hate due to ancient grievances but the use of criminals and gangs to foster fear and reaction.
  • And if it is all about ancient hatreds, explain to me how the French and the Germans seem to get along so well these days.  
I am sure we will have more thoughts about this war as other 100th anniversaries take place over the next five years or so. 

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