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.
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.
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.