The grandson of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary believes no one nation was responsible for World War I, and that if the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 hadn’t triggered the conflict another event would have.
Karl Habsburg-Lothringen, grandson of Charles I, who ruled Austria-Hungary from 1916 until the end of the war two years later, told a group of European newspapers earlier this month that his family should not be blamed for causing the conflict that cost more than 10 million lives.
“If you were to simplify it, you could say that the shooting (of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary) in Sarajevo started the First World War,” he said. “But if there hadn’t been the shooting in Sarajevo, it would have kicked off three weeks later somewhere else.”
The fatal shooting of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, by 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip is widely held to have begun a chain reaction that dragged much of Europe, including Russia, Germany, France and Britain, into war.
“It would be wrong to point the finger at one state,” Habsburg-Lothringen said. “If you do that, you would have to take into account that there were already significant tensions, especially between Germany and Russia, who had already started to mobilize their troops along the borders.”
Instead, Habsburg-Lothringen, 53, pointed to nationalism and militarism among the leading European nations as among the main causes for the war.
“Many were already in the starting blocks, waiting for the great conflict,” he said. “If you had to blame someone, then the greatest blame would lie with nationalism itself.”
Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia, for example, had for decades pursued a policy of confrontation over influence in eastern Europe, while Germany and Great Britain were locked in a naval arms race and France was still smarting from its defeat by Germany and the subsequent loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the 1870-71 France-Prussian War.
But Habsburg-Lothringen said his grandfather had only “inherited the war,” following the death of Emperor Franz Joseph in November 1916.
“He had nothing to do with it,” he said. “In addition, he had made several attempts to pacify the situation, which he was criticized for at the time, and he used family contacts to lead peace talks.”
Charles I “clearly saw that a basic problem was the situation of the Slavic people within the Habsburg empire,” Habsburg-Lothringen added. “Maybe he also realized that the Serbs saw him as their main enemy, because he wanted to balance out, but essentially minimize, the dominating influence of the Serbs among the Slavic people.”
Princip was part of a group that wanted Bosnia to become part of Serbia. He pulled off the assassination with the assistance of Serbian military officials.
Austria shortly afterward gave Serbia a series of demands which would force them to investigate the killing and crack down on anti-Austrian propaganda, demands that were mostly accepted by Serbia.
Still, a month later Austria declared war on Serbia.
When Russia mobilized in support of its ally Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia, and then France, and invaded Belgium. When Germany did not withdraw from Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany in early August.
Within a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides were dead and many more wounded, the beginnings of what was then the bloodiest war in human history.
(HT: Remembering 1914)