The Great War Centenary Thread: The Thread to End All Threads

*July 28, 1914:

Europe has been at peace, by and large, for close to a century. Since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Great Powers have been in a stately dance, by and large avoiding war. Certainly, there have been some wars and rumours of wars, such as the brief Seven Weeks War between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but compared to Europe’s long and bloody history, the 19th Century has been a time of peace. The religious wars of the 17th century, the numerous conflicts of the 18th century, and the twenty-some years of the Napoleonic Wars, all belong to the past. Indeed, many believe that war itself is a thing of the past.

The only obvious trouble spot is the Balkans. The spirit of nationalism is alive in the Balkans, which contain a bewildering number of different ethnic groups: Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Macedonians, Greeks and Albanians. They have different languages, different cultures, different religions: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam. The different ethnic groups in the Balkans are proxies for two of the Great Powers: Austria (ruled by the ethnic German Catholic Hapsburg dynasty), and Russia (ruled by the Slavic Orthodox Romanov dynasty). There is complicated jockeying for position: by the smaller nations in the Balkans, such as Greece, Romania Serbia and Bulgaria; by the major powers; and by the competing ethnic groups, seeking to establish their own nations. Those tensions in turn affect the Great Powers, as their own national interests and alliances come into play.

Nationalism is a threat to the declining Ottoman Empire’s control of its European possessions, and also to the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. Like the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire contains many different ethnic groups, divided by language, by religion, and mutual tension. Austro-Hungary is not a nation-state, but a monarchical one, a collection of different territories and countries acquired by the Hapsburgs over the centuries by traditional monarchical means: conquest, inheritance, and strategic marriages. The monarchy itself is one of the few unifying forces in the Austrian Empire.

Politics can be dangerous in the Balkans. In 1903, the moderate King and Queen of Serbia were brutally assassinated one night in their own palace, by officers of their own army, because they were too moderate towards Austro-Hungary. In their place, the officers installed a new King, allowing them to push a much more nationalistic foreign policy, with Russia in the background, always interested in the “little Slavic brothers” of the Balkans. Small nationalistic groups also form, with murky and unclear connections to the Serbian military. One of them is known as “The Black Hand.”

At peace on the surface, Europe is actually in an uneasy, unstable balance. The complexities and dangers of the situation are so notorious that the great German Chancellor, von Bismarck, is reputed to have said that the next major war would be set off “by some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is the heir presumptive to his uncle, the elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor-King, Franz Joseph. Franz Ferdinand became heir presumptive when his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide in a hunting lodge in 1889, in despair over the Emperor’s command that he abandon his mistress. Unable to go on without her, Rudolf killed his mistress before committing suicide. (Her views on the issue are not known.)

Franz Ferdinand’s own love life is somewhat unusual. He has been married for fifteen years to Countess Sophie Chotek. Her family is not noble enough to meet the standards of the Emperor, who only consented to the marriage on the condition that it be morganatic: she would not share her husband’s status, she could not appear in public with him at imperial functions, and their children would not be in the line of imperial succession. The only exception to this rule is when Franz Ferdinand is carrying out military duties. She can accompany him in those situations.

The Emperor has instructed Franz Ferdinand to pay a visit to Sarajevo, to show the imperial presence and to inspect Austrian army units there. Since he will be going in his military capacity, he is able to take Countess Sophie and they can appear together in public. At Sarajevo, they are to travel through the streets in an open car.

The Black Hand is active in Sarajevo. As the Archduke’s motorcade progresses in the streets of Sarajevo, one member of the Black Hand, Nedeljko Čabrinović, throws a grenade at the motorcade. He misses the Archduke’s car, but the grenade explodes and injures people in the following car. After a short rest at the Governor’s residence, the Archduke insists on being taken to the hospital to visit the casualties.

As the motorcade moves through the streets of Sarajevo, there is confusion about the route to take. The cars stop. The Archduke’s car is in front of a small café where a member of the Black Hand, Gavrilo Princip, is sitting. He walks to the car, pulls out a pistol, and fires several shots into the car.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are both dead. The July Crisis is upon Europe.*

Note: Please see the parallel thread, The Great War Thread: How to Participate, to see how I envisage this thread developing.

There was a great article in Time or Newsweek on the person of the century (1901-2001 or more likely 1900-2000). The point of the article was that even a person most people haven’t heard of (Gavrilo Princip) can change the course of history.

Would something else set off WWI? possibly.


Well, that clears it up.

You kind of have to wonder what the Serbs expected to happen. Did they think that their involvement in the assassination would go undiscovered? That the Austro-Hungarians wouldn’t care? That Russia would be able to protect them? None of these were realistic. This seems like a case of a small country giving a bigger neighbour an excuse to declare war on them.

I hope the United States will follow George Washington’s wise advice and avoid getting caught up in any European unpleasantness - these petty, arcane, occasionally bloody squabbles of the crowned fools we were well shut of 1776. It’s obviously none of our business.

Why would the US get involved. An army barely enough to fill a parade in Paris. And whoever heard of a US Navy.

And why would there be a war in the first place? Just some diplomacy and the odd artillery duel. No one is going of war over the Balkans for god sakes!
Or over some ArchDuke whose own family did bit not like him.

Little Nemo, I’ve wondered about that as well. It’s understandable that small cells might do something like an assassination, but you would think a government would analyse the next step and likely reaction. If you kill the heir to the throne, don’t you expect some push-back? On the one hand, though, gas it ever been thoroughly established just what connections there were between elements in the Serb government and army, and the Black Hand? If there were connections, were they rogue government operators, or was it formally approved? On the other hand, this was a government which gained power by hacking their own king and queen to death one night, so personal violence as an element of statecraft was not foreign to them.

The Serbian military was only nominally under civilian control. A military coup had killed the king and queen in 1903 so the new king had to realize they could do the same to him. Foreign intrigue served to unite various factions in Serbia from domestic fighting.

The official Austrian annexation of Bosnia had only occurred in 1909. It was still a recent event and many Serbs may have not seen it as a permanent situation. They might have convinced themselves that Vienna might have been willing to concede a territory it had only held for five years, especially when that territory was the source of ongoing ethnic unrest. And the Serbs might have hoped that Germany and Italy wouldn’t back Austria-Hungary in an offensive war.

The Serbs had won in both the first and second Balkan wars in the years right before the assassination. This may have given the Serbian military too high an opinion of their strength.

So I guess it was just a combination of factors that led Serbia to overestimate its chances for success and underestimate the risks it was taking.

Well, I’m with you as to the Army. But our Navy isn’t too bad, and provided fine service during the SpanAm War not that long ago.


Isn’t this speculation?

I think they expected Russia would back them against Austio-Hungry, and either the Hapsbergs would back down or Russia+Serbia would win the resulting war against Austro-Hungry+whomever took their side, and a Greater Serbia would result.

Which is more or less what happened, though the price was something like a fourth of Serbia’s population, so it was a pretty costly “win” for Serbian nationalists.

Also this was not that long after The Great White Fleet of 16 battleships sailed around the world making port calls.

Pish, you Americans and your “navy”. We know what a navy is.

One thing’s for sure, if it does come to shooting, it won’t last long.

Also, this is something that has been kept rather hidden, but there are quite a few people in the relevant places who know about it…

Just the year before, in 1913, the Austro-Hungarian secret services found out that their former chief of counter-espionage, Colonel Alfred Redl, had actually been a Russian agent all along! Austria-Hungary must be aware that whatever had passed through the hands of Redl (not just the identities of Austrian agents and informers, but all military plans of the Austro-Hungarian army) ended up in the hands of the Russians.

That definitely would include whatever contingency plans they had to fight Serbia, whose main ally is -yep, you guessed it- Russia!

With so little time to change plans, who in their right mind would risk war with someone who is guaranteed to know all of your plans in advance?? The Austro-Hungarian Empire would have to be bonkers to go and start a war with Serbia in these circumstances!

*“Hey Ferdinand! You just got Serbed!”

I’ll leave now…

Seems like nothing is going to come of this, despite what the war-mongers are wishing. Hell, vacation plans are still in the works for most rulers - not something you’d see if they were all planning on fighting each other.

I’ve heard that Tisza is meeting with the Emp. to dissuade him from going to war. Tisza is going to make the case that the Hungarian people oppose Berchtold’s desire to use the assassination as a precept to a general war against Serbia.

I’m quite confident that the Emperor has no desire to upset the largest ethnic group in A-H and will tell Berchtold to STFU and calm down.

I tend to agree. From everything I’ve read about Franz Josef, his primary (only?) goal is to die in peace and bequeath his empire intact.

Furthermore, if Austria-Hungary did war on Serbia, and win, what would they do with it? They would be like the proverbial dog that caught the motor carriage.

I think we’ll end up with the token removal of a few Serbian officials complicit with the Black Hand.

Sure, there were a lot of pre-Dreadnoughts, but they were still in use in other navies, too. And by the time we joined the war the Royal Navy was on our side and the High Seas Fleet was bottled up.

Enough about this third rate shooting. Just another anarchist assassination like McKinley or King Carlos or Stolypin or Canalejas or King George. These terrorist attacks are horrible but they’re really just isolated events that never change the course of history.

So let’s talk about something important like the situation in Ireland.