Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sarajevo and our Hundred Years of War

Some centennials are merely historical curiosities. Others deserve attention not just as history but as a window into an unresolved present. Such is this year's 100th anniversary of the start of World War I - the beginning not just of four tragically unnecessary years of European warfare but of a century of still unresolved world-wide conflict.

Sunday, June 28, 1914, was one of those liminal moments in human history, when a threshold was crossed from one state of civilization to another, the beginning of an ambiguous and disoriented century of war and genocide.

No one knew that at the time, of course. We can only expect what has already been experienced. And, after a century of relative peace since the defeat of Napoleon, the imminent unhinging of western civilization in an uncontrollable fratricidal conflict was hardly front and center in anyone's mind - certainly not on that fateful Sunday, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his morganatic wife, went to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo - to a province only recently incorporated into the Empire, much to the chagrin of Serbia and the Serbian terrorist network that would irrevocably change human history that day. When one of World War I's products, Yugoslavia, finally fell apart upon the end of the Cold War, the ensuing Bosnian war continued that seemingly age-old old conflict, highlighting even further the symbolic significance of Sarajevo at the center of the 20th-century's sad story of a world at war with itself.

We can ignore this anniversary, of course, coming as it does at the height of the summer vacation season. Or we can commemorate it nostalgically - a look back at the beautiful but doomed world of civility, protocol, and old-world European elegance. Or we can try to draw some lessons from the foolhardy way the European powers allowed a nasty Balkan quarrel to undo a century of virtual peace and centuries of Western civilization. After a century for most of which the world has been at war with itself as a direct result of that Sunday in Sarajevo, what other choice have we?

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