Franz Ferdinand and the end of the 19th century: a time for thought

Archduke FerdinandYesterday 100th anniversary of the death in Sarajevo of the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne Franz Ferdinand provides an apt moment to consider history’s turning points. His death ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer on the ABC on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, why he was killed and why his death was so important. Britain’s Duke of Portland invited Ferdinand to shoot pheasant at his estate in November 1913. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidentally discharged the guns narrowly missing the two dukes. Portland later said, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

As the word ‘postponed’ hints, the First World War was always coming. Franz Ferdinand’s death was the excuse, not the cause. German militarism had been on the rise for 20 years, the delicate European balance of power was tottering and individual leaders were reckless and stupid. European nationalism was a demon the great empires could no longer control. Franz Ferdinand, the imposed Hapsburg leader of a patchwork of Slav nations, was especially vulnerable. There were six assassins waiting for him in Bosnia on the day of his death. Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke and his wife after several failed attempts that day.

It was only time before a Slav nationalist would take out their grievances on a Hapsburg bringing down the delicate house of alliances that European monarchs built.

It was fitting an Austrian’s death brought the greater 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich, who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. Europe was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s hegemony. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on battlefields. As Europe industrialised and a growing middle class became prosperous, the patchwork peace enabled the major powers to concentrate on building colonial empires in other parts of the world. Those powers got together again in genteel surrounds of Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust world borders on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of the Berlin Treaty. A de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the powers agreed it would be de facto part of the Austria-Hungary Empire which occupied and administered Sarajevo. Bosnian Slavs were unhappy to have their masters changed without their say, especially as the Treaty recognised the independence of next door Serbia. Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, conscious of its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1906, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia. The powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end Ottoman’s interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for a continental war to resolve the matter but German generals were not ready to mobilise until the summer of 1914.

It was inevitable the Balkans was the matchstick for war. But the desire was Europe-wide. Fukuyama said an “intangible but crucial factor” was the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro-Austrian demonstrations in Berlin. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring quoted a worker in the Berlin crowds who said they were all seized by one earnest emotion, “War, war and a sense of togetherness”. Eckstein quotes an anti-war German law student, drafted when hostilities broke out in September. The war was “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded and in every sense destructive,” the student said. Yet he willingly enlisted. Duty was a moral imperative regardless of reasons to abstain. “The decisive issue,” the student said, ” is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.”This notion of Pficht was echoed across Europe and across British dominions around the world as a sense of duty and excitement for action proved a potent brew.

If the Archduke’s death was the end of the 19th century, then the First World War was a bloody interregnum, where as Churchill wrote, the life-energy of the greatest nations were poured in wrath and slaughter. Hobsbawn said the shorter 20th century spanned from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty as cynical (despite Wilson’s 14 points) as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch summed up Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Similar hopes for the end of all wars were held in 1946 and institutions like Bretton-Woods seemed to keep an entente cordiale at least in the western world. Then when the Wall fell, hopes again rose of ending all wars.

Writing in 1991 Fukuyama following Hegel and Marx, hailed what he called “the end of history”, a period where the dignity of democracy would rule triumphant. But the ‘new world order’ didn’t last long at all. China and Russia adopted capitalism without the democratic trimmings while Versailles’ creations like Iraq began to fracture. Bosnia and the Balkan map looks familiar again to Franz Ferdinand while 1930s style ultra-nationalism has returned to a frightened and lost Europe. Religious zealotry has made many parts of Asia and Africa no-go zones for moderates. It is crucial to seek answers from the past, to understand our present. Arnold Toynbee may be right in saying history was ‘one damn thing after another’ but that is no reason not to understand its consequences. Anniversaries like Franz Ferdinand’s death provide a time for thought we should not miss.


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