Reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of World War I, has reminded me how depressingly slow we are to re-assess our opinions in the light of new information. As a kid, I viewed World War I essentially as the less-cool prequel to World War II, with roughly the same teams and outcome but nerve gas instead of nuclear weapons and wooden toys instead of real airplanes.
Later, of course, I learned about the astonishing stubbornness and stupidity with which the war was executed, how the generals sent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of defenseless infantrymen up against dug-in machine-gun and artillery installations. The good guys seemed a lot less good, though at least the Germans and their little Austrian buddies were still the bad guys, right? As for the particular incident that triggered the war, I never totally understood that, but a lot of books indicated that it wasn’t very important, just a pretext for a war that was going to happen anyway.
At some point, as I learned more about the history of colonialism I should have asked myself if the Germans, with their supposed scheme for world domination, were any worse than the British, French and Russians, who had pretty much achieved world domination, or the Americans, who were fast catching up. Had the Germans or Austrians done anything, in the early years of the century, as nasty as the Americans in the Philippines, the British in South Africa, the Italians in Libya, the Russians and Japanese and god knows who-all else in China and Korea? I’m sure the Germans were very militaristic, but none of these countries maintained their empires by dropping leaflets. Intellectually, I knew all this, but it didn’t make me abandon my rooting interest in the Allies, just as you can find out that many of the players on your favorite NFL team are horrible criminals and still be a fan of the team.
And the Balkan wars of the ‘90s should have caused me to look again at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which set the whole thing in motion. I always knew that the assassin, Gavrilo Prinzip, was trying in his misguided way to liberate Bosnia from Imperial rule. In fact, he was a Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalist, hoping to join Bosnia to the Greater Serbia which had recently eaten Macedonia and Kosovo and carried out an early version of ethnic cleansing. Those names are a lot more familiar now than they were in my youth, and Prinzip’s ends start to look as dicey as his means. It’s hard not to think that most Bosnians were better off with King Log in Vienna than King Stork in Belgrade.
We’ve also gotten more familiar with the concept of state-sponsored terrorism. This was the issue between Austria and Serbia, that the Austrians believed the Serbian government had encouraged extremist groups in Bosnia and had done nothing to curb their operations in Serbia. Indeed, it seems that Prinzip and his fellow assassins (no fewer than seven were waiting in Sarajevo for the Archduke) were educated and trained in Belgrade, given guns and bombs from Serbian government arsenals, smuggled across the border by Serbian officials, all according to a plan ultimately supervised by the head of Serbian military intelligence. The organization involved, the so-called Black Hand, was not identical to the Serbian government, and the Prime Minister was careful to maintain deniability, though equally careful not to interfere with the Black Hand’s work.
Given all that, it’s not surprising that the Austrians were royally pissed, and expected some more redress than the smirking they got from Belgrade. Russia’s gallant defense of its beleaguered “little brothers” looks either cynical or deluded, and France’s decision to pile on looks rather opportunistic. Clearly Austria bungled its response to the situation, and Germany was terribly short-sighted, especially in its invasion of Belgium, but the point is that Austria was just like everybody else in thinking that they were acting in self-defense.
Clark is not primarily interested in blame, but in the dynamics of a situation where every player considered himself (the big players were all men) backed into a corner by circumstance, where everyone was able to shift the responsibility to someone else for decisions that led to an outcome which nobody really enjoyed. People in positions of power managed to convince themselves simultaneously that war was inevitable, so one might as well fight it at an advantageous time (before your Russian enemies got too powerful (!), before your Russian allies lost interest) and that someone else was sure to back down at the last minute, so you could win by standing firm. I guess the moral is that men in positions of great power did not get where they are today by being rational.