The Great War

What re­ally trig­gered World War I, and could it hap­pen again?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - Sto­ries by TAN YI LIANG star2@thes­

AHUN­DRED years ago to­day, in 1914, a bomb blew up and gun­shots rang out in Sara­jevo, then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, killing the heir to the Em­pire, Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand of Aus­tria, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Ho­hen­berg.

Those shots, fired by Gavrilo Prin­cip, one of a group of six as­sas­sins, have since gone down in his­tory as the cat­a­lyst for the domi­nos that fell and trig­gered World War I, a war that lasted from July 28, 1914, to Nov 11, 1918, and that killed over 37 mil­lion civil­ians and mil­i­tary per­son­nel (, tinyurl. com/ovmeokb).

This has been stated as a his­tor­i­cal fact in al­most ev­ery text­book since – that the killing of the arch­duke in turn led to a war be­tween Ser­bia and Aus­tria-Hun­gary, and within weeks, Bri­tain, Rus­sia, France and Ger­many had picked a side and de­clared war against each other. But was the Sara­jevo in­ci­dent all Europe needed to erupt into war?

His­to­rian Jaroslaw Su­choples, a se­nior fel­low with Univer­siti Ke­bangsaan Ne­gara’s In­sti­tute of Malaysian and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (Ik­mas) doesn’t think so.

“The as­sas­si­na­tion was the pre­text that ig­nited the whole mil­i­tary con­flict. But it was not the rea­son,” says Su­choples.

The rea­sons be­hind the dif­fer­ent na­tions en­ter­ing into con­flict were more com­plex.

“The Ger­man Em­pire wanted to be at the same level of im­pe­ri­al­is­tic de­vel­op­ment as the other great pow­ers of the era such as Bri­tain and France, so there was com­pe­ti­tion be­hind great pow­ers. Other great pow­ers such as Aus­tro-Hun­gary and Rus­sia com­peted eco­nom­i­cally in the Balkans,” ex­plains Su­choples.

He adds that Rus­sia was keep­ing a wary eye on the at­tempts by the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire to ex­pand its in­flu­ence in the Balkans and stood ready to clip its wings to keep the re­gion un­der its eco­nomic in­flu­ence.

“Ger­many had a world politic pro­gramme that was adopted by Kaiser Wil­helm II. How­ever, it was com­pletely un­fea­si­ble. The other great pow­ers found it very hard to un­der­stand why Ger­many, which had no vi­tal in­ter­ests in the Balkans or the Mid­dle East, wanted to ex­pand their in­flu­ence.”

Ac­cord­ing to Su­choples, many fac­tors sug­gested that some con­flict was in­deed in­evitable; he cites the anal­y­sis of for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger, who de­scribed the out­break of World War I as a break­down of diplo­macy be­tween the Euro­pean pow­ers.

“For Kissinger, the out­break of World War I was the re­sult of deficits in the diplo­matic ap­pa­ra­tus, and the overwhelming po­si­tion of the mil­i­tary at that time. I would agree with him that mil­i­tary lead­ers were look­ing for an ad­ven­ture, they had mod­ern tools of war and wanted to use them,” says Su­choples.

He adds, how­ever, that not many would have re­alised the kind of cat­a­clysm that could re­sult from any con­flict in Europe in that era, say­ing that World War I was the first true mod­ern con­flict with the mass move­ment of mil­lions of soldiers for the first time in his­tory.

Fur­ther­more, while the ma­jor­ity


of the bat­tle­fields were in Europe, there was also fight­ing in the Mid­dle East, and it all in­volved soldiers from around the globe – in­clud­ing the Asian and African colonies of Bri­tain and France, as well as New Zealand and Aus­tralia.

The war also marked the emer­gence of the United States and Ja­pan as world power play­ers. “The United States, for the first time in global his­tory, emerged as a real great power, one that could in­flu­ence the global sit­u­a­tion,” says Su­choples.

Broth­ers in arms

The war also sparked the be­gin­nings of na­tion­al­ism in the Asian colonies of Euro­pean na­tions.

Many lead­ers in the anti-colo­nial strug­gle, like Viet­nam’s Ho Chi Minh, be­gan their ca­reers dur­ing World War I, as they re­alised that it was pos­si­ble to fight the West – as the war con­tin­ued, it be­came ob­vi­ous that the great pow­ers had trou­bles and were not in­vin­ci­ble.

In­deed, in the im­me­di­ate post­war pe­riod, there was talk about the self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of na­tions from the likes of US Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son, and Asian lead­ers in the anti-colo­nial move­ment ques­tioned whether self-de­ter­mi­na­tion ap­plied to all, or just to Western na­tions.

“Many people saw the self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of na­tions as a uni­ver­sal ques­tion. Why couldn’t it ap­ply to colony na­tions, why couldn’t they de­ter­mine their own fu­ture ac­cord­ing to this no­ble prin­ci­ple? In this, World War I, or rather its di­rect aftermath, was very im­por­tant to Asia,” says Su­choples.

He points out that the war was the first time many Asians from the colonies ac­tu­ally saw Europe.

“In­dian, Ghurka, Maori units, soldiers from Viet­nam, too. Un­der most cir­cum­stances they could never have left their home­land and seen how people lived in Europe, the dif­fer­ent liv­ing stan­dards.”

Su­choples adds that for the first time, Asians were fight­ing side-by­side with Euro­peans as broth­ersin-arms, like the In­di­ans and the Bri­tish, or soldiers from French colonies with their French coun­ter­parts. Field of death: this World War I ceme­tery near Ver­dun, north east­ern France, is the largest sin­gle French mil­i­tary ceme­tery of the Great War with more than 16,000 graves. yet, that fig­ure is a frac­tion of the to­tal num­ber of war ca­su­al­ties from all the coun­tries in­volved: a stag­ger­ing 37 mil­lion. — reuters

Echo­ing ef­fects

Aside from spark­ing Asian na­tion­al­ism, World War I also led to the el­e­va­tion of women’s rights – in many cases, for the first time. With men fight­ing on the front­lines, the labour short­age at home meant that women had to work, and this changed the world rad­i­cally – when the men re­turned home, women re­fused to re­turn to be­ing home­bod­ies. Women won po­lit­i­cal rights (quite of­ten the right to vote for the first time) be­cause they had re­alised that with­out them, coun­tries could not func­tion.

In this sense, World War I was a land­mark with ef­fects that are felt even to­day.

Asked if a new world war could hap­pen again, Su­choples says that such de­struc­tive wars still re­main a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity, as his­tory tends to re­peat it­self. “In terms of hu­man loss and de­struc­tive scale, of course it could hap­pen again. In this sense World War I and World War II are warn­ings. People usu­ally, af­ter the end of such a war, say such a war can­not be re­peated, but it has hap­pened again and again over the last 200 years,” says Su­choples.

How­ever, Ik­mas se­nior lec­turer Richard Ma­son says he does not think events sim­i­lar to those of 1914 could trig­ger a mod­ern World War III.

“I don’t think there’ll be a World War III be­cause people are be­com­ing more wary of the ef­fects of war; in the era of World War I and II, the main thrust was com­pe­ti­tion. Now, it is co­op­er­a­tion,” says Ma­son.

Could com­pet­i­tive par­al­lels be drawn in the mod­ern era, such as be­tween the United States and China over re­sources in the Pa­cific?

Ma­son replies that diplo­matic ef­forts have im­proved in the last 100 years. “Diplo­mats now are sharp enough and smart enough to not go to the ex­tent of pre­cip­i­tat­ing war,” he says.

Par­al­lels and dif­fer­ences

This is a view shared by Sir Richard Evans, the Regius Pro­fes­sor of His­tory and Pres­i­dent of Wolf­son Col­lege at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, who said in a re­cent talk in Malaysia that the global dev­as­ta­tion caused by World War II made any fu­ture world wars “very un­likely”.

“The de­struc­tion caused by World War II, with it’s mil­lions of dead and ru­ined cities, geno­cides, and wide­spread nega­tion of civilised val­ues and be­hav­iour, had a far more pow­er­ful ef­fect than the deaths caused by World War I,” says Evans.

“People were not as afraid of war in 1914 as they are now, or have been since 1945.

“The idea that war was com­ing had an ef­fect in gen­er­at­ing a mo­men­tum be­fore 1914 among leading people in Europe. Ad­mi­ral Jackie Fisher, leader of the Royal Navy af­ter 1902 said, ‘We pre­pared for war in pro­fes­sional hours, talked war, thought war and hoped for war’ – it was seen as in­evitable and pos­i­tive,” says Evans.

He adds that even poets saw war as a re­lease of the pent-up en­er­gies that had plagued Euro­pean pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety since the 19th century, “a chance to do some­thing glo­ri­ous”.

“War was seen by up­per­class men as an as­ser­tion of mas­cu­line hon­our, a duel on a big­ger scale.

“How­ever, politi­cians to­day are al­most al­ways aware of the fragility of the in­ter­na­tional or­der in the nu­clear age.

“Mas­cu­line pos­tur­ing only earns ridicule the world across,” he points out.

He also says the global geopo­lit­i­cal land­scape has changed dra­mat­i­cally since the end of the Cold War, from a two-su­per­power bipo­lar world to a multi-po­lar one, the re­verse of what took place in the 20 years leading up to World War I.

“This, along with an at­mos­phere where at­ti­tudes to war were largely pos­i­tive, un­like the post-1945 in­tel­lec­tual cli­mate, was an omi­nous de­vel­op­ment with­out par­al­lel in the 21st century. The dan­gers of smaller con­flicts leading to larger ones among larger pow­ers have re­ceded,” says Evans.

He ac­knowl­edges that some par­al­lels to the world of 1914 still ex­ist in the world of 2014, such as the on­go­ing Syr­ian civil war, “with fac­tions stand­ing proxy to Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Ara­bia, and the dan­ger of Is­rael with its nu­clear ar­se­nal and Iran with its per­sis­tent at­tempts to build one.

“China and Rus­sia seem to be lin­ing up be­hind one side of this con­flict with the United States on the other,” Evans points out.

He says that in 1914, sim­i­lar dis­putes and con­flicts had erupted in the Balkans, and states such as Bul­garia and Ser­bia stood as prox­ies for larger pow­ers such as Czarist Rus­sia, Ger­many or Aus­troHun­gary; he cau­tions, how­ever, that it would be wrong to see the states of the Mid­dle East in 2014 as pup­pets of Amer­ica, China or Rus­sia.

“China sup­plies Iran with weapons and nu­clear tech­nol­ogy but can do lit­tle to con­trol its ac­tions in the Mid­dle East.

“China’s poli­cies are also me­di­ated by the need to keep up good re­la­tions with the United States. And not least be­cause of eco­nomic ties to the West, Rus­sia has bowed to in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on sanc­tions on Iran and it has curbed its arms sup­plies to that coun­try,” says Evans.

Armed and ready: This 1916 pi­cure shows French soldiers mov­ing into at­tack from their trench dur­ing the Ver­dun bat­tle, east­ern France, dur­ing World War I. The bat­tle won by the French in Novem­ber 1916 cost the lives of 163,000 French soldiers and 143,000 Ger­man soldiers. — AFP

A pic­ture from June 28, 1914, show­ing Franz Fer­di­nand (cen­tre, right) and wife Sophie leav­ing a func­tion shortly be­fore their as­sas­si­na­tion. — AFP

The man who fired the ‘shots heard around the world’: Bos­nian Serb Gavrilo Prin­cip.

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