The unimaginable catastrophe of World War I

A century ago, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, made an official state visit with his wife, Duchess Sophie, to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, which the empire then occupied.

Late that morning, the cars in their imperial procession made a wrong tum on the unfamiliar streets of Sarajevo and halted to get their bearings. At that moment, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian freedom fighter (or terrorist, take your pick) stepped out of the crowd and fired two shots into the back seat of the open car carrying the Archduke and Duchess. Both died within minutes.

And Europe proceeded to come apart at the seams.

Less than six weeks later, on Aug. 3, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium as the first step in their longstanding Schlieffen Plan to score a quick military victory over Republican France.

France had a military alliance with Tsarist Russia, which had already begun mobilizing its huge army in support of its client Balkan state of Serbia, the “spiritual leader” of occupied Balkan states like Bosnia. Serbia was being threatened with invasion by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with the support of its German ally) for “refusing to cooperate fully” in the investigation of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination.

Germany regarded Russian mobilization as a threat against its eastern provinces and assumed Russia’s French allies would attack from the west, so it decided to mount a preemptive invasion of France through neutral Belgium.

However, the constitutional monarch of Great Britain had guaranteed the territorial integrity of Belgium. The British declared war against rampaging Germany on Aug. 4 and began landing contingents of its small but highly trained army in France on Aug. 7 to support the French and Belgian armies.

By the middle of August, the major league lineup was basically set: The alliance of Britain, France, and Russia was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Clear? I thought not. But the parties plunged ahead with great enthusiasm into the five local wars that broke out during August in different parts of Europe. Austria-Hungary was fighting Serbia in the Balkans and Russia in southern Poland and Galicia. Russia was fighting Germany in East Prussia. France squared off against Germany in Alsace-Lorraine and Germany fought Belgium, France and Britain in Belgium and northern France.

All confidently expected the war to be over by Christmas. They got the Christmas part right, but not the year.

The unimaginable catastrophe of World War I, which would remake the world, dragged on with maximum mismanagement by all parties until November 1918. It destroyed the remains of 19th-century European society and wouldn’t really be settled until the end of World War II, when the western allies and the Soviet Union finally smashed the resurgent monster Germany had become in the wake of the 1918 Armistice and established a new Europe amid the ruins.

World War I may have been inconclusive, but its cost was staggering. All told, the 16 nations that ultimately ended up fighting spent the equivalent of some $3,000 trillion (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on the war. They mobilized 65 million troops, 12 percent of whom were killed and another 33 percent wounded.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was replaced by some half-a-dozen ethnically based nations, most of which were overrun by Germany in World War II and later became puppet states of the Soviet Union.

The people of Europe, having borne the brunt of the suffering, lost all confidence in the so-called “ideals of western civilization” they had taken for granted before 1914. They also lost faith in their governments, which they were convinced had persistently lied to them, protected their elites at the cost of everyone else and squandered millions of lives by mismanaging the war.

Virtually everyone, victor and vanquished alike, was left bankrupt and owing more money to the United States (which sat out most of the war and became the world’s leading creditor nation) than they could ever possibly repay.

It was quite a scorecard for a war that settled virtually nothing.

originally published: August 9, 2014

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