A watershed moment in history turns 100
Exactly one century ago from Saturday, the world changed in a way it never had before.
Perhaps it is hyperbolic to deem June 28, 1914, the most momentous day in human history.
But if this indeed qualifies as exaggeration then it is of the mildest variety — the antithesis of, say, referring to “You Light Up My Life” as the best song of the 1970s simply because it sold the most records.
What happened on that day, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a city little known outside Europe, is a frail teenager named Gavrilo Princip fired a pistol into a car.
Princip’s bullets killed two people: Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph, emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.This empire no longer exists and, I suspect, is as obscure today as Sarajevo was then.
But the empire was a world power in 1914; moreover, it was the neighbor and staunchest ally of Germany, an even more powerful nation, and one that was, in effect, the fulcrum of the precariously balanced system of European alliances.
Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife precipitated, one month later, what became known as the Great War, or the World War.
It was the worst bout of bloodletting the human race had ever inflicted on itself.
Something like 10 million soldiers died before the war ended more than four years later, on Nov. 11, 1918. It was not possible to compile precise figures because many soldiers were, quite literally, shredded beyond recognition by the ceaseless artillery fire, most notably (and awfully) on the Western Front that ran from Belgium through Northern France.
A hundred years on, the Great War’s death toll has been eclipsed only by that of World War II, the conflict for which the Great War, and specifically its peace treaty, is directly responsible.
For almost the whole of that span historians have debated the question of whether the Great War would have happened had Princip, like two of his co-conspirators, botched the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo.
There is ample reason to believe that war among at least some of Europe’s great powers — Russia, Italy, France and England along with Germany and Austria-Hungary — was inevitable in the second decade of the 20th century.
The preceding several decades of imperialism and nationalism and competing military aspirations — particularly between Great Britain and Germany — fostered a volatile and bellicose relationship among nations, most of which measured their standing armies in the millions of men.
Writers frequently employ the tired but apt metaphor of “powder keg” to describe Europe in 1914, and they contend that had Princip not supplied the spark then someone or something else certainly would have.
This is a compelling argument but the question, ultimately, cannot be answered.
There is no dispute, though, that Princip’s act led directly to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. The next day, Austrian artillery fired on Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
The guns would not stop for more than four years.
I knew almost nothing of the Great War until my senior year at the University of Oregon, when I took a course in European history.
I don’t recall the class’s actual title but its focus was the war. I learned during those few months that my veneer of knowledge about the war was accurate — I vaguely understood that there were trenches, and mud, and a place called no man’s land. But the lack of detail had hidden the horror of what the soldiers endured.
When I read that an estimated 20,000 British soldiers died on a single day — July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme — I struggled to put that number in context. Even today I can scarcely credit it, though its accuracy is well-established.
I have in the years since read quite a lot of books about the war, and watched more than a dozen movies and documentaries.
The war continues to fascinate me, even as its cultural resonance fades ever nearer to irrelevance.
The Great War intrigues me because it seems a uniquely terrible synthesis of modern technology with a respect for life that was much closer to medieval.
It was a war dominated not by generals and soldiers but by engineers and chemists.
The men in the trenches were themselves horrified by the slaughter they wrought with machine guns and fast-firing artillery and flamethrowers and poison gas.
War was no longer a contest between men aiming rifles. Now you attacked a man with a silent cloud that made him cough up his lungs, turned to mush by something concocted in an antiseptic laboratory
Never before and not since have so many soldiers died without achieving anything significant. Progress in major battles such as the Somme and Verdun was measured, quite literally, in how many yards men advanced.
These were not victories, as that word has always been defined in war. Neither side “won” at the Somme. The Allies — Great Britain and France, in this case — occupied a few dozen square miles of worthless mud that had previously been under German control, but neither army was any closer to victory, or defeat, than before July 1, 1916.
The most significant result was that another million or so men were dead or wounded or, somehow worse, “missing.”
And yet this unprecedented level of killing lacked any definable purpose save “victory.”
What this meant, exactly, was not certain. But the war had started, which meant one side would win and one would lose, and, well, it had to be better to win than lose so you kept fighting even as a generation of men was gradually but inexorably destroyed.
There were of course terrible battles in World War II.
But at least the men who died on the Normandy beaches helped to achieve something noteworthy.
Indeed, they changed the world as Princip did, the great difference being that their actions stopped evil rather than unleashed it.
The lost generation of the Great War can cite no comparable victory. They deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II, a vainglorious and frankly pathetic figure who lacked anything like the genocidal megalomania that defined Hitler and made his defeat worth almost any price in blood and treasure.
No, the doughboys and the poilus and the Tommies and the Anzacs and the Canadians didn’t shut down Auschwitz or Dachau.
But their sacrifice was as great as any group of soldiers has ever made.
Jayson Jacoby is editor