Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Powder Keg

Every conflict has that defining moment. It can be big or it can be small. With WWI, it was both. But I think it’s the lead up that that made the moment so big. For years Europe had been going through transition. Areas like the Holly Roman Empire and the Italian city-states, formally separate countries and entities, had banned together to become single countries. At the same time, other areas like the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire were experiencing internal struggle from nationalistic groups vying for independence.

Since becoming a unified country Germany felt increasingly vulnerable. With France and Russia at either side, Germany (which was unified primarily from Prussia, known for its strong military) grew its military for protection. In direct comparison, France, Britain, and Russia were threatened by Germany. With such a strong military presence on the content, the balance of power was shifting dramatically.

In reaction, many countries signed strategic alliances to help solidify their safety and power. France, Britain, and Russia joined together to sign a treaty against everyone’s wildest expectations. That left Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire together to form their own alliance. However, geography was against them, since under any circumstance they could be waging a two-front war.

With so much tension, all that was needed to light the powder keg was one spark.

Enter the Balkans. A highly volatile region, the people there were tired of being shoved into the Austro-Hungarian Empire unable to form their own country. As many groups during the time, the people living in this region were willing to fight for their own country away from the central empire government.

With similar Slavic and Orthodox roots, Russia supported the nationalists in the Balkans. But they couldn’t do anything without going against Austro-Hungary and igniting conflict.

With such a fragile peace, it would take something very small to rock the boat.

On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este, Austro-Hungarian, Royal Prince of Hungary and of Bohemia, and heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovinian.

One nationalist group, the Black Hand, had a plan; their goal was to assassinate Franz Ferdinand during his parade. The original plan was that he would die from a bomb. In fact, one was thrown into their motorcar, but it bounced out and detonated in another car instead. Insisting on visiting those who were injured, the Archduke and his wife got in the car, although they got held up. It was there, sitting in a traffic jam of their own making, that a young member of the Black Hand spotted the couple and seized the opportunity. He grabbed the gun and shot both the Archduke and his wife at roughly 10:45 a.m.

Killing the heir to the throne didn’t go unnoticed, and Germany took the opportunity to press their ally Austro-Hungary to move toward war.

This was the moment that began the end of peace.

A strange part of me is looking forward to what will be written. Because while the 4-year war that ensued from this single moment was horrible, it also changed the course of history. Empires would be wiped out with a single pen stroke, a generation would be depleted, and the atrocities some saw would inspire a golden age of art and literature.

Here’s the first of many reflection articles from the Wall Street Journal.

Happy History!

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