Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nationalism, Hysteria, and Gavrilo Princip

Need to fill some space, so enjoy a history paper from October 8, 2006.

Since the beginning of history, human emotions and sensibilities have been used and misused by nations and empires in war. Nationalism, ethnicity, and government systems have all been utilized as wedges to make the people of one country the moral superiors to another, to create the mindset to justify organized killing without remorse or feeling.

Not many would have thought that two shots fired from a young Bosnian’s Belgian pistol would create the largest war that humans had known. However, in further inspection, it becomes apparent how different factors with differing goals each inadvertently created the nightmare that was to come.

On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian nationalist terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. Ferdinand had been an isolated lobbyist in the Hapsburg Monarchy for allowing more freedoms to the southern Slavs that were in Austria-Hungary’s borders. (Geiss, 143-4) During the nineteenth century, the dominant German Austrians allowed the Magyar population to establish much autonomy under the Kingdom of Hungary. Ferdinand had hoped that the monarchy could do the same for those in Bosnia and Croatia, as well as granting universal suffrage across the empire. (Geiss, 143-4) The concept of Austria granting more autonomy to south Slavs infuriated Serbian and Bosnian nationalists, that wanted to create a “Greater Serbia” in the same territory. (Fay, pt. 1, 370)

In Serbia, most press outlets celebrated the killing, stating its justice and touting Serbian nationalism. (Scott, 69) Serbia felt betrayed when Austria annexed Bosnia in 1909 from the Turks, and felt that its reach should spread north into the territory. (Scott, 69) The government of Prime Minister Nicholas Pasic tried to mute the cheerfulness of the nationalists, fearing reprisals from Austria. (Jannen, 6) He was aware that some mid-and lower-level Serb government officials were involved with the terrorist group that planned the murder, the Black Hand. Any close inspection of these links by Austria would be used as a casus belli for a war. (Geiss, 83) Pasic, in fact, had heard of plans for a terrorist attack in Bosnia right before the event and tried to warn Austrian officials. (Geiss, 83) Still, the Serbian press played up the event as a great victory for Greater Serbia, drawing ire from Austrians and others. (Fay, Pt. 1, 64)

After the assassination, reactions in Austria were varied. Much of the nobility in Austria and Hungary were not deeply saddened, and in fact, almost relieved that the main purveyor of a Trialist system was silenced (Fay, pt.2, 18-27) However, some in the Austrian government saw this as an opportunity to expand Austria’s reach into the Balkans and stop the ever-increasing flow of separatism within Austria-Hungary. Count Leopold Berchtold, Minister to the Imperial Household and Foreign Affairs, saw the clear pretext that Austria could use to either annex or neuter Serbia. (Geiss, 191) He almost single-handedly pushed press reports within Austria to more militant tones, while surveying European governments for their reactions to potential Austrian actions. (Geiss, 191) By the day after the attack, Croats and Muslims in the city of Sarajevo rioted against their Bosnian Serb neighbors, burning shops and parading black-lined portraits of Franz Ferdinand. (Jannen 8-11) Soon, Austrian Germans began their own attacks on Serbs and carried protest signs to support the monarchy. (Jannen 8-11)

Meanwhile, in Germany, there was a more mild reaction to the assassination. The Hohenzollern monarchy was allied with Austria-Hungary, and counseled their ally to work cautiously. (Geiss, 184) Instead, Count Berchtold helped draft an ultimatum to the Serbian P.M. Nicholas Pasic, demanding Austrian reach in Serbia to investigate the murder and the Black Hand. (Geiss, 83) The demands were bold and clearly intended to either destroy Serbian sovereignty or cause war. Given a two-day deadline, Pasic and his government tried to negotiate, but found the ultimatum unchangeable. (Fleming, 146-9)

Within Germany itself, the press began attacking the Serbian government and supported Austrian claims on Serbia’s sovereignty. (Jannen, 286-7) In Munich, Serbian students were attacked by angry mobs. (Fleming, 286-7) The idea of Pan-Germanism grew rapidly. The Hapsburgs and their Austrian dominions were Germans, and a special relationship between the two countries had existed for years before. (Fleming, 48-71) German nationalism started rapidly expanding as the Serbian government was seen as not obeying a German government. (Jannen, 286-7)

Russia also saw an increase of vitriol that led to its involvement in the war. Russia for years had supported the Orthodox Christians of the Balkans, both against the Muslim Turks, but also against the Catholic Austrians. (Fay, pt.1, 64) Russia felt a particularly strong bond with Serbia, a protégé of Russia with strong ties to its monarchy. Pan-Slavism was a movement that had arisen about fifty years beforehand, coinciding with the slow Turkish withdrawal from the Balkans. (Fay, pt.1, 64) The idea was creating a Greater Russia, allying or annexing Slavic nations in southeast Europe and conquering large portions of Asia Minor. Czar Nicholas and the Russian Empire was going through a period of self-doubt after the loss against Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, as well as various uprisings against Czarist rule. (Scott, 131) The Russian government was looking for a warm-water port, so extra impetus was placed on expanding its influence in the Balkans.

The French press, upon hearing of the assassination, immediately pointed fingers of blame on Austria, and not Serbia, for its manhandling of Bosnia and its condescending relations with the smaller nations of the region. (Geiss, 183-4) As Austrian demands became greater in the coming months, the French press and government decried the Austrian imperialism and that of its ally Germany. (Geiss, 183-4) Anti-German feeling was high, since France had been handily defeated at the hands of Bismarck and Prussia in 1870-1. French politicians felt that if Austria was able to push farther south into the Balkans, it would hurt French allies Serbia and Greece.

In Great Britain in July 1914, a crisis was swelling, and it was not the crisis in Bosnia. Instead, Irish separatism was growing and an all-out civil war appeared likely. (Thompson, 100) British papers, at this time not as influenced by the government, saw the assassination in Sarajevo as an act of terrorism supported by some in the Serbian government. It portrayed initial Austrian rage over the killing as legitimate, and, along with the government, did not see any cause for general European war. When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4, the British press and government swiftly shifted to severe condemnation of the German government, seeing the attack as an assault on a neutral party. (Thompson, 37/42) Even the Anglican Church was used to justify England’s war rationale, stating in publications that Germany’s actions and values were “not Christian,” and that Austria and Germany started the war. (McCabe, 17-19) The Church also stated that Britain and her troops were not sinning by fighting, but serving God and Country. (McCabe, 17) These attitudes soon plunged Great Britain into more than four years of war.

Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance that bound it with Austria-Hungary and Germany. When tensions started to mount and Germany asked for Italy’s help in case of war, Italy skirted the issue. The dream of Italian nationalists was the establishment of a Greater Italy, encompassing South Tyrol, Trieste, and most of Dalmatia. In order to get these territories, Italy would have to wrest them from Austria. Italy stayed neutral through the violence of 1914, but after a secret agreement with Allied officials guaranteeing them the aforementioned territory, Italy joined the Allied cause.

The United States was the mightiest industrial power of the world, but seen as aloof to international politics outside of the Western hemisphere. Initially, U.S. public opinion was split between the Central and Allied Powers. (Fleming, 215) Many Americans of German descent felt sympathy for their brethren and many Americans were apprehensive of the British, of whom they had fought two wars. (Fleming, 218) Overall, however, the prevailing Anglo-American culture tended to skew public opinion towards the English and the Allied cause. (Fleming, 218) After Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and the liner Lusitania was sunk in 1915, the opinions of both the public and the politicians jumped against the Central Powers. (Fleming, 208) The final straw was the Zimmerman note, sent by German officials to the Mexican government, promising land in the Southwest if Mexico should attack the United States. (Fleming, 199-200)

Across the belligerent powers, culture began to mirror the war cause, signifying the nation’s enemies as barbaric and worthy of defeat. In the U.S. and U.K., Germans were called Huns and tales of the rape and pillage of Belgium were sometimes exaggerated or fabricated. (Thompson, 37) In Russia, the Austrian Empire was seen as an overbearing, obsolete remnant of the 18th century, oppressing Russia’s fellow Slavs. (Geiss, 131) Russia was seen by the Central Powers and some of her allies as a backwards example of absolutism. (Jannen, 105) German nationalism was hyped in Germany and Austria, where the governments and presses of the two allies stated racist ideology of the German controlling ‘lesser people,’ that made an impression on a young corporal on the Western Front. Even in tiny Bulgaria, nationalistic fever stoked by those who felt cheated out of gains made in the First Balkan War, and lost in the Second. Anger against its neighbors, including ethnic brothers like Serbs, Romanians, and Russians was used, despite being allies with these powers in the recent past.

The new Turkish government, just recently taken over by the Young Turks, looked to expand the Ottoman Empire back into Europe, after being pushed back over the last century in humiliating wars. The sanctity of the Turkish ethnos was proclaimed, and in the first part of the twentieth century, a Pan-Turkish movement looked to unite all Turkic people, from what is today Kazakhstan, down to the Ottoman Empire’s tenuous hold in Aden. (Fay, Pt. 1, 246) In order to do this, some felt that the Turks must learn from their past. For years, the Ottomans would allow non-Turkish Christians to live on their soil if they paid a religious tax. However, these ethnicities, tired of oppression by the Turks, slowly rose up and broke away. In order to prevent this again, the Turkish government felt that the empire must be cleansed of these ‘lesser races.’ From 1915 on, the Turkish government sponsored and ordered the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks. (Fay, Pt. 1, 373) In all, over two million people died, including one and a half million Armenians, and the rest of the population was driven out of the Empire and into Russia.

The intangible force of war, the will that it purveys, drives men from the tops of empires to the lowliest peasant. These powers create a feeling of purpose in a society that had largely not seen war. The eagerness of some to force World War One to happen was mostly not done from malice or hatred. Instead, the diplomats that fed the strife or the farmers that signed up for battle were thinking of the good of the state, and in turn, the good for them. Many of the worst crimes committed in history have been done appealing to peoples’ sense to do the right thing. The same strains of nationalism and selfishness can easily be ascertained today. This is seen, in many cases, in the same areas: the Balkans and the Middle East, for example. The virus that is war is many times not caused by evil men looking for wanton destruction. All too often it is done by the seemingly rational, pushed by their sense of country and well-being to do something that is regretted later.

In the end, when reflected upon, World War One is looked upon as a truly mistaken war. All those in Europe that could be called ‘winners’ lost more than they could bear. Romania doubled her territory, but almost half her enlisted men were killed. France gained Alsace-Lorraine at the cost of millions of her young men. Britain remained a great power, but her empire was so shaken that it would collapse within thirty years. Within twenty years of the Versailles treaty, Europe was at war again; this time not twelve million would die, but over sixty million, over half civilians murdered in cold blood. Like most adventures in nationalism, the end of World War One solved few root problems and caused more anger than the ‘victors’ could handle.


1. The War and the Churches, Joseph McCabe, 1915, Watts and Company, London

2. Five Weeks, Jonathan Scott, 1927, The John Day Company, New York

3. The Origins and Legacies of World War One, D.F. Fleming, 1968, Doubleday, Garden City, NY

4. The Lions of July, William Jannen, 1996, Presidio Press, Novato, CA

5. Politicians, the Press, and Propaganda, Lee Thompson, 1999, Kent State University Press, Kent, OH

6. The Origins of the World War, Sidney Bradshaw Fay, 1928, The Macmillan Company, New York

7. The Outbreak of the First World War, Hew Strachan, 1967, Oxford University Press, Oxford

1 comment:

radical royalist said...

I like this post very much. Thank you for putting up all the facts concerning World War I.

Did you know, that Gavrilo Princip was not executed? He was a minor what the Austrian law forbade the execution of juvenile criminals.

It took the USA another 90 years to accept that juvenile should not be executed.