Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

Heir of last Austrian monarch: WWI inevitable


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.”

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Franz Ferdinand assassination relic displayed

franz ferdinand austria hungary

The shirt Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he and his wife were shot in the streets of Sarajevo in June 1914, sparking the fuse that  led to World War I, is on display in Vienna.

The blood-splattered garment, once white but now stained a dark brown, is being exhibited in a glass display case at the Austrian Military Museum.

The museum contains more artifacts related to the assassination of the man who was heir to the crown of Austria-Hungary than any other location, according to the Guardian.

The shirt was in the possession of the Jesuit religious order until 2004 when it was found in their archives and passed to the Austrian Military Museum on permanent loan.

Because of its delicate condition it is only rarely put on public display, according to the publication.

This time it will be viewable through the middle of next week in a dimly lit room.

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Balkan wars were dress rehearsal for WWI

Already there is considerable discussion about how the 100th anniversary of World War I will be commemorated. Given that, in the eyes of many historians, the 1914-18 conflict is the pivotal event of the 20th century, it’s hardly surprising.

But, as is often the case when celebrating famous events, it’s apparent that a circumscribed look at the events that led to the Great War isn’t part of the equation.

Few seem to realize that 100 years ago today war was raging in Europe in the form of the First Balkan War. Beginning in the autumn of 1912, the Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria) joined forces to drive the Ottoman Turks out of the latter’s remaining possessions in Europe.

Bulgaria, however, was dissatisfied with the division of spoils in Macedonia following the conflict, and went to war against the Serbs and the Greeks in the Second Balkan War in June 1913. The Romanians also joined in, and the Ottomans managed to get some of their lost territory back. Ultimately, Bulgaria lost most of the territories it had gained in the First Balkan War.

Minor conflicts? Hardly, writes The Economist.

“The wars cost perhaps 200,000 lives and reshaped the map of south-eastern Europe. They ushered in an era of ethnic cleansing and population exchanges, which saw millions lose their homes and ancient communities uprooted and dispersed. The two Balkan wars were also the overture of the First World War. The final spark that set the powder keg alight was the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.”

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Polish veteran, age 112, promoted to captain

More than 90 years after first enlisting, a 112-year-old Polish officer has been promoted to captain.

Poland’s Defense Ministry said on Friday that Józef Kowalski, a veteran of both the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet War and World War II, had been promoted from lieutenant to captain.

In a statement, the ministry said that Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak visited Kowalski in a nursing home in Tursk, in western Poland, on Thursday to award him his promotion, according to The Associated Press.

Kowalski was born Feb. 2, 1900, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He fought in a Polish cavalry unit formed during World War I, the 22nd Uhlan Regiment, but given that Kowalski is not listed as a veteran of the Great War, he apparently did not see action during the bloody 1914-18 conflict.

Kowalski is listed as the only survivor of Poland’s victorious war against Bolshevik Russia, which broke out in February 1919. It said that after the war he studied at a cavalry school but chose to return to his family farm.

The Polish-Soviet War pitted the newly formed Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine against the Poland and the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

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Last son of last Habsburg ruler dies at age 95

The last surviving child of Austria-Hungary’s last emperor died earlier this month in Mexico, just two months after his older brother passed away.

Felix Habsburg Lothringen, 95, was the third son of  Emperor Karl I and Empress Zita.

Felix’s brother, Otto von Habsburg, died in early July. He was the eldest son of the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Charles I. 

Felix was the last surviving child of Charles and Zita’s eight offspring.

To put into context how long both brothers lived, they outlived the Habsburg Empire by nearly 93 years and their father by more than 89 years.

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