Dyphna at Gates of Vienna and I Could Scream has written an excellent post on the most decisive moment in the 20th Century.
The 19th Century is commonly given the “real dates” of 1815 to 1914, from the Congress of Vienna to the start of World War I. A ninety-nine year period of relative peace between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI. On June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand. The following events led to WWI.
When I was studying International Relations one of our seminars was to evaluate the alleged causes of WWI. Europe had been at relative peace for 99 years. Economically it was more integrated than any time up to the present, it controlled major events in most of the rest the world. The international political situation had been stable for forty years and survived crises more serious than the summer of 1914. Simply reciting the events from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand does not explain why.
So what happened??
A big problem in answering the question is the reasons that have been proposed look good on the surface but do not hold up to detailed analysis.
Attempts to do a scientific study of the events leading up to 1914 as a cause and effect model have no ability to predict when applied to other situations.
Many theories as to the cause are economic, greedy capitalists etc. When the actual government, business and personal records were studied from before 1914 there was no evidence of any such intent, most business leaders assuming war would be bad for business. This gets a push from the profits businesses made selling war supplies, but the records indicate this was taking advantage of the opportunity, not prior intent. Following production and trade records show no evidence that match the theories (especially Marxist) of economic inevitability. The only economic cause is that Europe was prosperous enough to feed several large war efforts.
The theories that allege the arms race caused the war do not hold up. There were continuous improvements in each counties armed forces, but no change the there relitive strength for years. It seems that force levels did not play a part in the decision making in the summer of 1914, the leadership would likely have made the same decisions no matter what the strength. And of course in there was forty years of peace before the war, but the greatly disarmed post-war Europe went to war in twenty years. The improvements in armaments and military management greatly effected the course of the war, but this should not be confused with the cause of the war.
There was, of course, the festering Balkans situation, unstable then as now. This especially affected the Austrian Hungarian Empire, which had a large number of minority populations. They were also worried about Serbian nationalism. But worse crises in the Balkans had been handled with out a major war.
The only explanation that makes some sense (I am not 100% convinced) was the result of a role-playing project using game theory. A scenario was set up that resembled the situation in 1914. It was played by a large number of teams. In teams where the personality types of the players matched their counter parts in 1914 - war broke out. Where they were different - war did not break out. This is not to say any individual personality type is a problem, just that combination at that time and place.
So to answer the question:
It seems that in the summer of 1914 there was a period of transient instability, in an otherwise stable structure, because of the persons who happened to be on the job and perhaps other factors (see the comments section on Dyphana’s post.) Into this situation comes Gavrilo Princip who triggers events that start a war. That war and it’s aftermath is a tragedy of untold proportions and which is still with us today.
Thus begins the Twentieth Century.
NOTE: The title is a reference to a comment by Lord Grey, the British Foreign minister, that "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
4 months ago