Wise Czar

Posts Tagged ‘first world war

World War I Soldier and Ukrainian soldier in 2014100 years ago, the death of one man in an obscure country set off a chain of events that would culminate in the most destructive conflict the world had ever seen. 100 years later, troubling events in the same part of the world once again threaten global stability.

I am, of course, referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in 1914, which ultimately led to World War I, and to the 2014 civil war between Ukrainians and pro-Russian nationalists, which is slowly pitting the major world powers against each other. Although a full century separates these two events, both share common themes that cannot be overlooked:

The Belief that a Giant War is Impossible

Today, as the World War II generation quickly leaves us, there are less and less people who can remember a violent, global conflict. To be sure, there are many small wars, and we are used to those happening on a fairly frequent basis, but I would wager that few people in the western world can envision a devastating world war that would put all of our lives in danger. It just doesn’t seem possible, especially with the increasing economic and political interdependence among countries. After all, we have the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, not to mention a number of other smaller international groups.

Guess what? Westerners thought the same exact thing in 1913, just a year before World War I started. Back then, Europe was still controlled by empires and emperors which competed against each other. At the same time, most, if not all of the royal families in Europe, were somehow related. The kings of Germany, Russia and Great Britain were all cousins! Who would have thought that family would fight family in a world war?

Aside from this, the great powers were strongly economically connected. In 1913, Britain, Germany and France  traded largely with each other. In fact, most of Germany’s exports went to Britain.  We tend to think of the global economy as a modern development, but it was definitely around to a large extent before World War I as well.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Europeans and Americans visited each other quite often in 1913, just like we do today. Tourism was alive and well, although it took longer because there weren’t yet passenger planes.

In 1913, the newspaper The Economist wrote, “ war between the civilised communities of the world [is] an impossibility.” It was wrong. Tragically wrong. This should cause us to reevaluate the belief that another World War is impossible because, unfortunately, the old maxim holds true—never say never.

Nationalism

Franz Ferdinand Assassination

The event that sparked World War I–the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand–was a result of nationalism.

Some say that this historical “ism” was the scourge of the 20th century, and in many (many) ways it was. For those who haven’t had history in 20 years, or otherwise hate it, let me give you a brief refresher on what exactly nationalism is. The standard definition given in schools is “pride in one’s country,” but it goes beyond that. It really comes down to how do you identify or define yourself?  In the United States, we see ourselves as Americans and we are separate from, for example, Poles, who live in Poland. A nationalist, then, promotes identifying with a particular culture or country that is separate from another culture or country.

In 1914, nationalism was brewing in Serbia. At that time, the Serbians were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire, and they wanted their own nation, their own identity. This is why, on June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, dead in the streets of Sarajevo. This violent act of nationalism set the spark for the Great War.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll notice that the chief cause of the violence in Ukraine is…nationalism. People who are loyal to Russia in eastern Ukraine hope to separate themselves from the rest of Ukraine. They are, essentially, Russian nationalists living within Ukrainian borders. On the other side, Ukraine wants to preserve its own national identity, separate from Russia. As a result, the two forces are clashing. When it comes down to it, the conflict is an identity crisis, and such crises have the unfortunate tendency of dragging in other world players.

Alliances

So how exactly did the assassination of one man in 1914 lead to a global war? After the assassination, Austria-Hungary naturally declared war on Serbia. Then the dominoes began to fall. This part always gets confusing, so I’ll try  to keep it simple. Russia was friends with Serbia. Germany was friends with Austria-Hungary. So the war expanded to include Russia and Serbia versus Germany and Austria-Hungary. Then, France came in to help Russia, and Great Britain came in to help France. Finally, the Ottoman Empire came in to help Germany. Basically (In reality it’s more complicated then this) , alliances forced the countries of Europe to all help each other, so it kind of became a gang war where friends were sticking up for friends.

Today, although the system of alliances is not as rigid, there are definitely two camps forming over the crisis in Ukraine. Despite denying it, Russia is clearly helping to directly arm and train the eastern Ukrainian rebels in their fight against western Ukraine. Naturally, Russia stands to gain if eastern Ukraine defeats western Ukraine because the east would probably try to become part of Russia in some way.

On the other side, the United States and much of Europe supports western Ukraine because of its pro-western tendencies and is putting increased sanctions on Russia for supporting eastern Ukraine. So a civil war between Ukrainians has drawn in two of the most powerful nations on earth against each other—the United States and Russia. This has not happened to such an extent since the Cold War and, in a worse case scenario, could lead to a cataclysmic global confrontation that would put every human being in danger.

Naturally, it’s easy for a historian to look back and cherry-pick similarities between two historical events. As much as the causes of World War I and the current Ukrainian crisis have in common, they have many differences. Most importantly, there are no treaties explicitly binding countries to help each other militarily in this conflict. There has been a lot of talk of sanctions and non-military aid from the west, but almost nobody supports an armed conflict precisely because history has taught us what that can lead to. Even Russia has been careful, opting for subversive methods of advancing their agenda instead of direct aggression.

So let’s hope that humanity has, in fact, learned something from history and is able to take measures to avoid another global conflict. Commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I with another world war isn’t a good idea, but that’s just me.