An illustration of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie, from Le Petit Journal, 12 July, 1914

Rhyme of the times

Within six weeks of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, most of Europe was at war


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A major power in Eastern Europe, an empire that has seen better days and with a long-standing grievance against a much smaller neighbour. It begins a military build-up which many think is a diplomatic bluff — right up to the point when invading troops pour across the border. To general surprise, the smaller power puts up a much tougher fight than anticipated. The invading troops take heavy losses, get sucked into a war of attrition, and the invading state faces humiliation in the eyes of the world. 

Misfire: The Sarajevo Assassination and the Winding Road to World War I, Paul Miller-Melamed (Oxford
University Press, £22.99)

All this sounds familiar from recent headlines. It actually describes the situation in the Balkans following the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Duchess Sophie. If there ever were shots “heard around the world”, they were the ones fired at the archduke’s car at close range by Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb nationalist, on 28 June 1914. Within six weeks most of Europe was at war. 

In recent years there has been much talk about how the current situation resembles the 1930s, with the rise of extreme nationalism. Suddenly, it seems, we are even further back, to the eve of the First World War. One should not push parallels with 2022 too far — for a start, while Serbia posed an existential threat to Austria-Hungary in 1914, Ukraine certainly does not similarly imperil Putin’s Russia. Ukraine is not a member of a military alliance with other powers obliged to come to its aid — but there are some approximate precedents.

Misfire’s jacket blurb stresses the “vast disproportionality between a single deadly act and an act of war that would leave ten million dead”, and that Paul Miller-Melamed argues “the real causes for the world war” were not the assassinations in the backward Balkans. The real architects of the confrontation need to be sought elsewhere in “‘civilised’ Europe”, that is, in the capitals of the Great Powers. 

Well, quite, but this is a slender hook on which to hang the supposed originality of the book. In schools, pupils learn that the origins of the war went much deeper than the assassination and can be summed up by the word main — standing for militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Hype aside, however, Misfire is an interesting and valuable book. 

Sarajevo fascinates because a world-shattering event was triggered by a single incident. Deaths in the First World War were so numerous that they are difficult to grasp. We can come to grips with a couple of fatalities, while larger numbers have a horrible tendency to become mere statistics. Of course, the victims at Sarajevo — Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie — were not ordinary people, and neither was Princip, as Miller-Melamed demonstrates. He is good on the very different contexts from which the assassin and his victims emerged.

The Balkans were the last place left for the Habsburg empire to flex its muscles

Assassinations were not unknown in this period, but none had led to war on such a scale. What made Sarajevo different was that in 1914 Austria-Hungary was at crisis point. Over the previous decades it had been shut out of Germany and Italy, two of its traditional spheres of influence. The Balkans were the last place left for the Habsburg empire to flex its muscles, but here imperialism collided with nationalism. Serbia aimed to incorporate all the Serbs in the Balkans. This was an attractive idea to many of the Serb subjects of the Habsburg empire, and was thus deeply destabilising, as it threatened the very existence of Austria-Hungary.

The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 needs to be seen in this existential context. Aehrenthal, the Habsburg foreign minister, wrote that when these lands were added to existing Habsburg territories, such as Croatia, it would create “a south Slav entity” which would possess “a magnetic force so powerful” that Serbia “will be unable to resist it”. This ambitious plan was probably wishful thinking, which in any case was never carried out. As Miller-Melamed rightly says, “the Bosnian Crisis never truly concluded”. 

Instead, it grew worse. The Sarajevo murders brought it to a head, but at a more dangerous time. In 1908 Russia was weak, smarting from defeat by Japan and a failed revolution. By the summer of 1914, the Bear was back on its feet. Franz Ferdinand’s death offered Vienna both an opportunity and a huge risk. The murders were not straightforward state-sponsored terrorism. Serbia was something of a failed state, and the assassinations may have been freelance killings — but Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia. 

Miller-Melamed argues that “no one power directly willed world war in July 1914, but only one wilfully decided on military action — ‘even at the risk of a world war which is at all not ruled out’ — in the immediate aftermath of the assassination”. Soon, the Habsburg leadership was being urged on by Germany. Austria-Hungary and Germany both decided on a local war with Serbia, but were prepared to run the risk of escalation — although of course no one in Vienna or Berlin could have envisaged the eventual magnitude of the war that they unleashed. 

Vienna issued Belgrade with an ultimatum designed to be rejected

In the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Germany had restrained its ally. In the 1914 July Crisis the opposite was true. As the British historian Vernon Bogdanor (whose work does not appear in the bibliography of Misfire) has pointed out, international mechanisms were in place to allow the punishment of Serbia without war, but Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, was not interested. On 23 July 1914 Vienna issued Belgrade with an ultimatum that was designed to be rejected. Even though most of it was accepted, Austria-Hungary declared war anyway. 

For Miller-Melamed 23 July, not 28 June, “was the flashbulb moment for the formative tragedy of the twentieth century”. He is right. The murders of Franz Ferdinand and his wife did not make war inevitable, but it could no longer be avoided once the Austrian leadership decided that Serbia had to be attacked. 

Far from elites “sleepwalking” into war, as a currently fashionable theory has it, the conflict came about because of a calculation that the risks of a general war, although high, were acceptable. Ironically, once at war the Austro-Hungarian armies were roughly handled by the Serb forces, which in 1914 inflicted humiliating defeats on the invaders. 

Miller-Melamed claims that “the best-written books on the July crisis all give the impression that Armageddon might somehow have been averted up to the last minute”. Well, perhaps, but there are a number of works which argue that war was unavoidable because the German-backed Austro-Hungarians were determined to destroy Serbia (perhaps these books lack literary style?). While the originality of this part of Misfire’s thesis should not be exaggerated, the book is nonetheless a rewarding read, richly detailed, well researched and argued. Reading it during Putin’s war on Ukraine, I am reminded of the line attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”.

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