On the 100th anniversary of the Great War onset, GW Today examines the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the path to global conflict.
By James Irwin
The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in late June 1914 had one of the strongest ripple effects in modern history, setting off a series of war declarations across Europe and plunging the world into one of its deadliest conflicts.
World War I, however, didn’t officially begin until a month after Ferdinand’s assassination, and though tensions were high, the fight wasn’t inevitable, according to Ronald Spector, professor of history and international affairs.
George Washington Today sat down with Dr. Spector to discuss the assassination, the path to war and the new Europe it created.
Q: What was the mood in Europe in the summer of 1914, right around the time of the assassination?
A: At the time, things actually seemed to be getting better. The Moroccan Crisis had been settled, the French and Germans had concluded an agreement about the Rhine River, and at the time of the assassination the German Navy was hosting the British Navy at Kiel Week, which is a huge bash with yacht and boat races. Of course, there were certain structural causes present, including the rise of nationalism in the Balkans, the alliance systems and the long-term arms race in naval and land weapons. But these things were in the background. It didn’t seem, in the summer of 1914, that there was much worry about a global war. The French and British newspapers, even for several weeks after the assassination, referred to it as “the Balkan crisis.” They didn’t think this would be a worldwide conflict.
Q: What role did alliances play in setting the table for war throughout Europe?
A: The alliance system and the military preparations of world powers in the years before Ferdinand’s assassination played a large role in setting the stage for escalation. The arms race was sort of like the nuclear competition between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s in that you wanted to know if the other side was about to attack you so you could attack first. The timing of mobilization was very important—you wanted to start your mobilization in time to forestall the opposing army. The Germans, for example, were especially worried about the Russians modernizing their forces. Still, war wasn’t necessarily inevitable. Countries weren’t always true to their alliance responsibilities—the best-known example was Italy, which was involved in an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany but didn’t enter the war on the side of the Triple Alliance and later fought on the side of the Triple Entente as an ally of Britain, France and Russia. And it wasn’t clear that Britain was bound to enter the war, even though it had understandings with France.