Learning Little from World War I

Looking back on the century of war and slaughter that has followed the start of World War I, one is reminded of Pete Seeger’s classic lyrics: “When will they ever learn?” Today, major world leaders behave with much the same thoughtless hubris as their forebears in 1914, as Gary G. Kohls recalls.

By Gary G. Kohls

One hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the wealthiest men in Austria, was murdered in Sarajevo, Serbia. The shooting became the spark that started World War I, the war that was widely called “the war to end all wars” because of the unendurable mutual mass slaughter of an entire generation of young European men (on all sides of the war).

But who was the Archduke, the victim of the momentous assassination? Besides his excess wealth and his over-privileged position in life, there were lots of traits to despise about Franz Ferdinand. As a member of the Hapsburg dynasty, he joined the military as a child and, given his elevated status in life, he was frequently and rapidly promoted in rank. He received the rank of lieutenant at age 14, captain at 22, colonel at 27 and major general at 31.

Trench warfare during World War I.

Trench warfare during World War I.

But the Archduke had no significant experience as a commanding officer in wartime. Europe had been in a prosperous peacetime economy for generations. A year before his assassination, Franz Ferdinand had been appointed Inspector General of the empire’s armed forces, and he was in Sarajevo discharging his duties while the empire’s occupying army was on maneuvers.

The Archduke was also a compulsive trophy hunter. Today many would call him a “slob” hunter. In his own diaries, he documented over 300,000 game kills over his lifetime, 5,000 of which were deer (100,000 of his hunting trophies were on exhibit at one of his castles).

For every oppressed Serb, the autocratic Archduke and his empire were just the latest cruel colonial powers that were occupying Serbia, oppressing and taxing the Slavic people and denying freedom for those unfortunate indigenous folks who had been living, toiling and suffering there for centuries.

The Assassin

Gavrilo Princip was the young Serbian who pulled the trigger on the Archduke and his wife Sophie, killing them both with one shot each from his 9 mm pistol. The assassin was an impoverished, unemployed, tuberculosis-infected 19-year-old Serbian who grew up on a tiny farm in a rural part of the Balkan Peninsula that had been colonized and oppressed for centuries by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Many of the Slavic people converted to Islam from their traditional Orthodox Christianity under the Ottomans, but the Princips had remained Christian.

Six of Princip’s siblings had died in infancy or early childhood, which certainly negatively impacted the family psychologically and very likely angered the young boy, who never had an opportunity to attend school until he was 13 years old. His father needed him to help work the tiny 4-acre subsistence farm.

Early in his teen years, Princip moved away from his family to better himself by enrolling in a school in Sarajevo – his first formal educational experience. He proved to be an apt student and, in his studies, learned about Serbia’s brutal history under the Ottomans and then under the jackboot of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Likely angered by what he learned about the unjust suffering of his people, he joined a secret pan-Slavic liberation movement (the Black Hand) that led him to that fateful day, June 28, 1914.

Interestingly, before Princip was born (in 1894), his impoverished, downtrodden and exploited father had once been a member of a militia group that tried to overthrow the Ottomans, whose overlords routinely took the first fruits of every farmer’s harvest – thus ensuring the relative starvation, continued poverty and ill health of his family.

By the time 1914 rolled around, the Ottoman Empire had been supplanted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was ruled by a dual monarchy dominated by the elderly Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who had designated his nephew Franz Ferdinand to succeed him.

So now there was a new and deeply hated colonizing oppressor-overlord that was also an enemy of ethnic Slavs and Serbians. Seeing no willingness on the part of the oppressors to grant their freedom through negotiations, Princip joined up with the Serbian nationalist movement that had been demanding liberation and self-rule.

And, as usual, when ruling-class oppressors keep denying the legitimate international human rights to achieve liberty, equality and brotherhood – the slogan of the French Revolution – they often are forced to increase the decibel level.

Root Causes of World War I

Figuring out the roots of the “Great War” is an enormously complex issue. Hundreds of books and thousands of scholarly papers have been written on the subject. Some of them have been written by militarists to obscure the issues, but one of the usual conclusions that all authors draw is the fact that many of the European Great Powers at the time had, over the decades, made alliances between one another that pledged that one would come to the defense of the other if either one was attacked.

So Russia had pledged to militarily defend Serbia if Serbia was attacked. Likewise Germany would come to the aid of Austria if Austria was attacked. Both France and England had promised to come to the aid of Russia and Belgium if either nation was attacked. And so it went, in domino fashion

And so when a Serbian group assassinated the heir to the throne, Austria, to not appear to its critics to be “soft on crime” and to “save face,” felt that it had to do something to punish Serbia even if the nation had nothing to do with the assassination.

After an investigation into the details of the assassination did not prove Serbian national guilt, Austria still decided to issue a 48-hour ultimatum (to be enforced by invasion if not accepted), that was actually designed to be rejected. Serbia actually accepted all of the terms of the ultimatum (save for one clause) and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. And the dominoes fell. And the rest is history.

There is, of course, a lot of research that has documented the blunders, the laziness, the outright idiocy and the hubris of the ruling-class aristocrats, captains of industry, kings, diplomats, generals and the ever-present uber-patriotic newspapers in every city looking to sell papers.

Each of them had a role to play in the continued butchery that gutted an entire generation of young men, tens of millions of whom died on the battlefields or returned home crazy, haunted and demented – as well as mentally, spiritually and/or physically disabled – because of the miscalculations of each nation’s incompetent and misguided leaders who couldn’t get themselves to use the words “retreat” or “we were wrong” or “mea culpa” or “please forgive me”.

Of course, the lessons from each and every international or civil war has been consistently unheeded by subsequent generations of so-called national leaders in the military, industry or politics. They consistently ignore the will of the people who are the ones who have to sacrifice their young to the vicious Gods of War and Mammon.

This 2014 centennial year of the beginning of the “War to End All Wars” will offer many opportunities to explore the blunders of the national leaders that allowed the mutual slaughter to continue, including the generals who suppressed the Christmas Truce of 1914 when disillusioned soldiers on all sides met in No-Man’s Land to celebrate a holiday dedicated to peace on earth. Heeding the wisdom of the millions of soldiers in the trenches would have saved the bodies, minds and souls of tens of millions of combatants.

By prolonging the war beyond Christmas 1914, the generals on all sides of World War I continued to blunder badly, thinking – from the safety of their bunkers that were well out of reach of the enemy’s artillery shells – that they could still single-handedly and gloriously win the stalemated and unendurable (at least for the front-line solders) trench war, perhaps dreaming about writing their memoirs after “victory” was achieved; saving face through self-deception, thus avoiding the cognitive dissonance they would otherwise have experienced; advancing in rank (and pay grade); and being awarded more of the cheap trinkets and ribbons that would be pinned on the breasts of their nicely laundered and perfectly pressed officer uniforms.

No unforgettable stench of death came close to their nostrils. And the military commanders’ illusions were reinforced by the co-opted war correspondents, most of whom weren’t actually seeing or smelling the carnage at the front. Most approved journalists dutifully covered up the blunders and the carnage.

Today, many American TV networks just skip these middlemen and hire retired generals to do the bidding of the Pentagon and recite the U.S. government’s talking points, all the while overlooking, covering up or lying about the unwelcome real truths of war.

Dr Kohls is a retired physician who witnessed in his practice the soul- and psychic-devastation of war, domestic violence, punitive parenting, malnutrition, homelessness, poverty and the serious dangers of the chronic use of psychotropic drugs. He has tried to warn against the physical, neurological, psychological and spiritual consequences of all forms of violence.

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9 comments on “Learning Little from World War I

  1. B. Randy Kirsch on said:

    Our so called leaders are nothing but a bunch of bought and paid for psychopaths. They will never get their hands dirty. Oh,sure! We’ll be told how “it took great courage” to send our young people (less well-off young people, naturally) to fight and die.
    Only when these chicken-shit popularity contest winners, i mean “courageous war time leaders” have to lead the charge on the field of battle, will war end.

  2. HISTORICVS on said:

    We look with contempt upon the leaders of World War I today only because of the work of historical revisionists of the 1920′s, who exploded the myths created by the warring states to reveal the true monstrousness of that unnecessary conflict.

    We still think of World War II as “the good war” because revisionists were silenced in the cold war that followed the victory of the Soviet Union over Germany, and the even more monstrous myths of that equally preventable war still pass among all but specialist historians for truth.

    • Will you please explicate on what you mean and the context by which you mean it, so that myself and others unfamiliar can come to some sort of understanding? I really don’t know what you mean by revisionism and counter-revisionism here. Who attempted to revise what and why? I admit that no war is ‘good’ and I don’t know of any war in which I could identify the ‘good guys’. Instead, every war I know of, both sides were ‘bad guys’ though sometimes varying greatly in the degree as to who was the ‘bigger terror and greater evil’.

  3. Tatiana on said:

    The Lusitania *was* carrying munitions after all! As divers confirmed in 2008.

    If the US had stayed out of War One, there’d have never been War Two.

  4. Kiza on said:

    Thank you Dr Kohls on this very inspired text and for repeating Pete Seeger’s lyrics: “When will they ever learn?”. In my mind, these words have always applied to “The War to End All Wars”. But, Sarajevo is in Bosnia not in Serbia. Bosnia was a border land between Turkish (Sunni muslim) empire and Austro-Hungarian (Catholic) empire. Serbia was a neighbouring Orthodox Christian country liberated from Turkish empire some 30 years earlier after an almost 500 year occupation. Thus, Serbia was a non-empire land wedged between expanding Catholic Austro-Hungary, a declining Turkey and an unstable Russian Empire. Austro-Hungary jumped at the opportunity and simply annexed Bosnia, just rolled its army in. The Austro-Hungarian empire had some really positive characteristics, but it was also an extremely exploitative empire as you describe. Many of the local Serbs, Croats and slavs converted to Islam, usually called Bosnians, rebelled against annexation. Apparently, a rogue section of the Serbian intelligence service (Apis, Black Hand) did provide pistols to the rebels, but this was definitely not a policy or even secretly supported activity by the Serbian Government. Yet, the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia which started WW1 was not in revenge for the killing of Ferdinand, it was to occupy the regional mini-rival and fill the ‘void’ created by withdrawing Turkish empire. Only the highly politically biased narrative states: “The shots that started WW1″. What started WW1 was an Austro-Hungarian military attack on Serbia, not the shooting of Ferdinand. But the greatest irony is the revisionism dominating the new ‘historical literature’ in the Anglo-sphere, in which Russia and France have replaced Germany and Austro-Hungary as powers itching for WW1. Therefore, in the Anglo-sphere the history is always adjusted to fit the current narrative.

  5. Bozidar Kornic on said:

    WW1 was used by the super powers to expand their holdings, mostly by Austria-Hungary.
    The Berlin Peace of 1878 agreement assigned the Ottoman empire to give up the area called Bosnia and Herzegovina (as I understood) in 1906-8 which was done. the treatment of the population in the acquired territory was, as already described, very oppressive, exploitative, which caused the people to more than just resent the new ruler Austria-Hungary.
    Russia wanted exit to the Mediterranean sea, Austria wanted wanted nothing less than the entire Balkan, Germany wanted her colonies, and so on, and so on. The day when the young Princip assassinated the Archduke, was one of the most important days in the Serbian history, the 28th of June was to commemorate the loss of the Serbian kingdom in 1389 to the Ottoman Empire. It was rumored that the Austrian higher military circles wanted to eliminate the archduke whom they referred as an ‘old fart.’ It was also rumored that the Austrian military intelligence actually penetrated the Young Bosnia organization to which Gavrilo Princip belonged, and that the idea to assassinate the Archduke came from the Austrian military.
    It was not an accident that the Archduke was assassinated, he was betrayed by his own security. Princip actually tried on the same day twice to kill him, and only on the second try he succeed.
    So, the stage was set to accommodate the ‘greater’ interests of a number of great military powers. Sarajevo ASSASSINATION was just an EXCUSE to complete the desires of the players.

  6. Hillary on said:

    The Ottoman Empire was “falling apart” & the great powers of Great Britain and France and the Zionists were looking to “help” and like vultures divide the spoils.
    And the rest is history.

  7. For a reasonably complete and useful understanding of the lead-up to ‘The Great War’, the world of the time, the people involved and the nature of the warfare, seven books should be read. Three are by Barbara Tuchman, two of which should be read first, in order: “The Proud Tower” and “The Guns of August”. Three are by Frances Wilson Huard, who lived in Easterrn France, “My Home In the Field of Honor”, “My Home In the Field of Mercy” and “With Those Who Wait”, and one by John Reed (aka Jack Reed) “The War In Eastern Europe”. These tend to have more information and less propaganda than most Approved Histories.

  8. Sorry, the third Tuchaman book, which I forgot to include, is “The Zimmermann Telegram”. This one, John Reed’s book and the middle F.W.Huard book are sometimes difficult to find. The first and last of Huard’s are available online, through Project Gutenberg.