Monday, July 28, 2014


Today, July 28, marks the 100th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, the official beginning of the First World War. From his Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl, Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary Franz Josef I signed the momentous decree, the tragic consequences of which for his own empire he happily did not live to see. The immediate trigger had been the assassination, one month before of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian terrorist; but, within a week, the war would engulf Europe's major powers. The fact that Austria-Hungary no longer even exists as such is but one testimony to the total transformation of Europe that that unfortunate war would bring about.

Wars can accomplish all sorts of things and solve all sorts of problems (for example, slavery and secession in the case of the U.S. Civil War, German and Japanese imperialism in the case of World War II, Saddam Hussein's annexation of Kuwait in the case of the 1st Gulf War), problems that probably would not get solved any other way. What stands out so appallingly about World War I, however, was how little it solved and how much long-term harm it did - much more harm than any conceivable good. Of course, the small Balkan War that began on July 28, 1914, was intended to resolve the (relatively) serious problem of Serbian-inspired terrorism and its long-term threat to the stability of Austria-Hungary. And, had it remained a small Balkan War, it might perhaps have accomplished that end. (There had, after all, been small Balkan Wars in previous years. So it was not impossible to imagine another.) But, of course, the thing about World War I was how it immediately involved the major powers and quickly became about much more than a serious but presumptively manageable Austrian-Serbian quarrel. Instead, it became something no one on either side had expected and no one had wanted, but which created a momentum all its own which no one on either side seemed to now how to stop.

The lesson is not - as some sentimentally (and very foolishly) resolved in the 1920s "never again to war for king and country." But there were lessons to be learned from the civilizational suicide that was World War I - lessons that we still find it hard to assimilate adequately into our strategic thinking. If nothing else, World War I was a warning about how badly (and how quickly) things can get out of hand, how the assumptions everyone takes for granted at the beginning of a conflict may have little to do with how things actually turn out - and how hard it is for nations to backtrack, to climb back up from the brink once they have jumped over it. 

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