On this day a hundred years ago, the crown prince of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was riding with his dear wife Sophie in an open-topped automobile through the streets of Sarajevo when a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed both of them. This event led to Austria's declaration of war against Serbia a month later, which began what has since been known as World War I.
I first began studying World War I in my early teens, and this entry is being written without consulting any references beyond a modern map (not that I really needed to look at the map, but I did). By the time I was 15, I entertained the thought that if I had an opportunity to travel back in time and change one thing in the past, I would stop this event from happening. I reasoned that if I could stop World War I from beginning, there would be no World War II, no Cold War (thanks to the Bolshevik revolution that was caused in part by Russia's involvement in World War I), no Holocaust, no rise of Nazism in Germany, no impetus for developing the destructive technologies that arose from all those conflicts (start with nuclear weapons and go down the list from there), and none of the deaths (over a hundred million) that were caused by these events.
Since then, I've concluded that if this assassination in Sarajevo had been prevented, it would have been a mere matter of time before something else had caused the war to happen. Austria had recently annexed Bosnia into its empire, and Serbia had ambitions of its own in that area. The Austrian empire was rather weak and unsound; its territory included the lands of modern Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and portions of Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Italy. Over a dozen languages were spoken in the realm, and nationalistic sentiments throughout Europe had been attracting people to identify with their own ethnic groups for generations. Its emperor was old, and beyond Francis Ferdinand the list of potential heirs to the throne was unpromising. Austria took an aggressive stance against Serbia for its support of Princip; Germany and Italy were allied with Austria at the time, and even though Russia had promised support of Serbia (mostly due to its own territorial ambitions in the Balkan region), German backing allowed Austria to act with more confidence than it would have had on its own. Russian backing of Serbia, in turn, encouraged the Serbian government to reject the demands imposed by its larger neighbor, Austria.
When Austria finally did declare war on Serbia, Russia responded by declaring war on Austria. Germany then declared war on Russia and its ally, France. Germany had already trounced France once before, in 1870, by invading and driving straight to Paris. Its standing war plan against France since then was to repeat their past success with another drive on Paris, though it intended to do so by passing through the Netherlands and Belgium, avoiding French defenses on their shared border. The plan was modified shortly before war became imminent, so that the Netherlands would be skipped and all their forces sent through Belgium. When war began and Belgium refused permission for German forces to pass through its territory, the Germans invaded anyway, causing Great Britain to declare war on Germany. The German offensive was stopped only 14 miles from Paris, and both sides adopted a defensive stance afterward, digging opposing lines of trenches that ran from the Swiss border to Ieper, by the North Sea. (The Flemish town of Ieper, or Ypres, as the French call it, was the only part of Belgium that was never taken by the Germans during the war. It was principally defended by Canadian forces.)
Austrian successes against Serbia and Russia were limited, and most Austrian victories were only won with German support. The Ottoman Empire (its territory comprised modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan) was drawn into the war through German and Austrian encouragement; it had lost territory in the Balkans during the previous two decades due to nationalistic sentiments in the area, and also had a longstanding rivalry with Russia that was encouraged by German successes against them. Bulgaria was also enticed to join the war with Germany and Austria, both to open another front against Serbia and to support the Turks. These four countries were called the Central Powers, and their opponents became known as the Allies. Romania, Montenegro, and Greece would eventually join the Allies in the Balkans. Italy, although initially allied with Germany and Austria, didn't enter the war until 1915; when it did, it took sides against Germany and Austria, with promises from the Allies that the port city of Trieste and some other Austrian territory would be given to them after the war. Japan also entered the war near its outset, and promptly took over Germany's holdings within China.
Three years later, in 1917, the United States would be drawn into the war after having had enough of German submarine attacks against ships bound for Great Britain. The British had gained the upper hand against Ottoman forces in the Middle East by this time, heavy military losses and internal unrest caused by Vladimir Lenin and his ilk would soon take Russia out of the war, every German colony had been taken by the Allies except for German East Africa (modern Tanzania), and the entrenched armies on the Western Front had spent most of the time locked in a stalemate. The arrival of fresh American troops in France was enough to tip the balance in the Allies' favor, so that the war finally ended a year later, on November 11, 1918.
I bring up all these events to illustrate the domino effect that occurred from these entangling alliances. Pride is the common thread that holds these events together, in its various forms: nationalism, territorial ambitions, the desire to project a strong image, refusals to compromise. The reasons why some countries went to war are more justifiable than others; it would be foolish to claim a moral equivalence between, say, Belgium's reasons for fighting with those of Russia, even though they were both on the same side, fighting the same enemy.
People learned a number of wrong lessons from the war. Most notably, there were those who considered the destruction that occurred--over 15 million killed, the breakup of four empires (the Austrians, Germans, Russians, and Ottoman Turks), and newly developed weapons like tanks and poison gases--and concluded that this was the war to end all wars. After the Treaty of Versailles was adopted in 1919, French general Phillipe Petain remarked that it wasn't a peace settlement, but rather a 20-year cease fire. He was proven correct as Germany went to war again 20 years later, almost to the day, partly motivated by resentment over the vindictive measures placed upon it by that treaty.
Considering how many countries became involved in the war, either through their own designs or through their proximity to belligerent neighbors, I'm confident that if Austria hadn't gone to war against Serbia for the reasons that it did, another incident later, in another country, would have set off a similar chain of events. Communism's alluring ideas may have overtaken Russia at another time, as was the case in China. Eugenics and its scientific pretensions would have continued to inform fashionable Western thought until the Holocaust or a similar event would discredit it. Many of those things I once thought to prevent by stopping that assassination would have happened in other ways. But the event that happened in Sarajevo on this day a hundred years ago was a decisive moment that would change the course of history in ways we are still dealing with today.
I feel a bit awed to think it was so long ago. All the people who fought in World War I are now gone, though I've seen and known of a few who were alive at that time. One of my history professors in college remarked that things from his own lifetime aren't old enough to be considered history, and I feel some agreement with that sentiment. I've always had the attitude that 20th century events are all modern history, with eyewitnesses still living who can inform their juniors about what they've experienced. But as the events of the previous century fall further back in the past, I find myself having to rethink my perception of how long ago that time really was.