June 28, 1914

One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated.

Big deal, you say? And well you might. Today, World War I is almost as forgotten in American as the Spanish-American War. You’d almost think this country had fought just two wars:  the Civil War, and World War II.

In part, I think that’s because World War II and the Civil War are easy to discuss. They’re easy to explain. Rationalize. The Civil War was about slavery. (Well. Sort of.) World War II was good vs. evil. (That’s pretty much true.) But World War I is so difficult to describe. I spent last semester discussing this war, at odd moments, with a fellow instructor who teaches economics. Very smart guy. But he could not wrap his mind around why World War I began.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by the 16-year old Serbian nationalist Gavril Princeps was the proverbial spark. You might remember some of this from veeeeeery long ago. Serbia was on the Balkan Peninsula, along with other new nations like Romania and Bulgaria. They craved their independence, and yet they were being threatened with takeover by Austria-Hungary. Tensions were already running high in this region — indeed, tension were running high across Europe. Everyone had spent the past 10+ years aligning themselves with other nations. choosing allies, creating “mutual defense” pacts. By the time June 28, 1914 rolled around, this the Balkans were the “powder keg of Europe.” The assassination was the spark. The resulting explosion was World War I.

But it’s about much more than that. I think World War I is more about ego than anything, to be honest, and that’s how I explain it to my students. In World War II, we had to stop the Axis Powers from world domination. But World War I was about much more — sorry, I have to say it — ridiculous reasons. Of course, in 1914, they didn’t seem ridiculous at all. Nationalism — that rabid, fervent love for one’s country — was rampant. Everyone was raring to go to war to avenge old wrongs, to prove themselves, to kick ass and take names. No one was thinking about the ramifications of that war. No one was thinking about the millions of casualties that would result from four years of warfare. Or the devastation that would ensue.

World War II also has a satisfying conclusion:  the deaths of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini; the downfall of the Nazi regime; the liberation of the camps. World War I just . . . well, doesn’t. The story doesn’t end. In fact, the story just continues . . . because the end of World War I is the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. It’s also the basis for the Depression of the 1920s in Europe (and, oddly, a root cause of the 1930s Depression in America, too). It’s like the first book in a series. You have to get to know all the characters and the story lines in that first convoluted book. The problem is, most of the characters of Book 1 don’t survive to Book 2, let alone Book 3.

So why aren’t we focusing more on the death of Franz Ferdinand and the spark that sets off World War I — “The Great War,” as it was known today? I think in part because in America, we had very limited involvement in this war. In Europe, this is a much bigger deal. But remember, the US didn’t declare war on Germany until spring 1917. The war ended November 1918. Not even two years.

But we should focus on it. It did happen. It could happen again — and for largely the same reasons. The fact that we have to delve into so much European history shouldn’t stop us from studying it. Their history = our history. We have to study European history to look at World War II, after all. Why not The Great War? Is is laziness? I hope not. But I can’t fathom why so many of my students can tell me about World War Ii, and nothing about World War I. Why so many can tell me who Churchill was, but not Franz Ferdinand. I feel it’s my duty to set them straight. And if that means I have to discuss a war with murky beginnings and an unclear end, then so be it. I have to do my best to make it clear to them, so they don’t forget.

I hope this works:  this is a link to the New York Times daily edition from June 29, 1914 detailing the assassination, what it might mean for Austria and the world, and — interestingly — how popular Ferdinand’s replacement was.


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