On This Date in History World War I essentially began on this date in 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He and his wife Sofie were visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia. I believe he was there in an effort to help negotiate differences between Austrians and Serbians. It seems destiny doomed him. First, his car was bombed by a Serbian nationalist who tossed the bomb at the car. Ferdinand deflected the bomb and it exploded with just some shrapnel injuring Sofie. No matter….he kept going. He gave a speech, chastised the Mayor of Sarajevo for the unfriendly welcome and ordered his driver to take the couple to a hospital. The driver took a wrong turn and ended up on a street named for Ferdinand’s father, Franz Joseph. The driver realized the mistake and stopped the car to turn around. It just happens that Gavrillo Princip was on that street. He was another Serb nationalist who saw his fortune and pulled a pistol and shot the royal couple. So, the Serb plan failed but fate helped them reach their objective. There was no proof that the Serbian government was involved but after several weeks, the Austrian army invaded anyway and the war was on.
You probably didn’t know all of this because the Great War is not adequately covered in high school history. It was a huge conflict that shaped the 20th century. It’s a crime that educators generally ignore it. So, how did this conflict grow? Silly alliances. In his farewell address, George Washington had warned the United States against getting into foreign alliances, partially for this reason. Austria Hungary had a deal with Germany and Italy that is one was attacked all would be considered attacked. Serbia had a deal with Russia. Russia had a deal with France. France had a deal with Britain. Historian John Keegan says that had Austria acted unilaterally against Serbia, it wouldn’t have triggered the war. But because it delayed and got Germany’s endorsement, all the dominoes fell. The belligerent countries really didn’t have too much of a beef with each other but felt compelled by alliances to act. The result was the ruin of Europe, over 20 million killed and the seed sown for the rise of Hitler and World War II.
Washington was a pretty smart guy and his farewell address offers other interesting bits of advice we would be wise to follow. One thing that jumped out at me when I re-read the address was his opinion regarding the importance of religion in public discourse. It may surprise you.