Monday, June 23, 2014

Not a cause, a pretext

As the 100th anniversary of the Great War approaches much is being written about lessons that should be drawn from the events leading to that war. From the very beginning of my teaching career at least one of my course responsibilities each year would include the First World War and so, in preparation, I would read more and more about it. After the war the victors decided to attribute most of the "war guilt" to Germany — guilt for starting the war. A consequence was the requirement that Germany pay reparations to the Allies, and that, and many other grievances arising from the Treaty of Versailles,  contributed to the rise of Hitler. Was Germany in fact guilty? Later many historians argued that responsibility was far more widespread and even that the war was inevitable. For what it is worth I think David Adesnik, in "War and Responsibility," has it right:
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, as they rode through the streets of Sarajevo. Journalists and pundits have relied on a few select metaphors to describe the consequences of the assassination. It “triggered” the First World War. It was the “spark” that “ignited” or “set off” the “kindling” or “powder keg” of latent European antagonisms.

These descriptions are deeply misleading, however. They fail to convey that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife were not a cause of war, but a pretext. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians deliberately chose to prevent a diplomatic resolution of the assassination crisis because they wanted to crush Balkan nationalism with violence. After decades of ferocious debate over responsibility for the First World War, an increasing number of historians now accept that one side undermined potential diplomatic solutions despite the obvious risks of a broader conflict. ....

...[T]he true lesson of Sarajevo is that great wars happen because dangerous men want them to. Those men do not have to be monsters like Hitler or Stalin. They may be narrow-minded, reckless, or aggressive like Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei, Kim Jong-Un, or certain leaders in Beijing. Looking back at the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand one hundred years ago, it is clear that the preservation of peace ultimately depends on maintaining the strength and determination necessary to deter or defeat such adversaries. ....

...[A]ssassinations were a “familiar technique” for radicals in turn of the century Europe. Why, then, did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand lead to war, whereas “no previous assassination within living memory had provoked a major international crisis?”

The answer is that Austria-Hungary, with the full support of its German ally, chose to exploit the crisis. .... [more]
Adesnik goes on to give a good summary of the decisions leading from the assassinations in June, 1914, to the outbreak of war that August.