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World War One:
a Unique and Unbiased Overview


Academically trained historians dislike describing people as stupid, and I am among them. But describing those who led Europe into the Great War and who influenced policy during that war need a label that suggests something other than intelligence. Europe's aristocracies included a few brilliant people, and some intelligent people supported empire. But there was Germany's failed diplomacy and chauvinist passions in the years before 1914 which contributed to Europe dividing into two hostile camps. The Habsburg emperor and those around him who started the war cannot be described as brilliant. There was the stupidity around Tsar Nicholas. There was the lack of understanding of warfare by British, French and German generals that made the war worse. (Germany went to war to defend itself and should have pursued defensive warfare rather than invade Belgium and France.) There was a failure of intelligence, especially on the German side, when offensives and plans for a quick victory by both sides were exposed as miscalculations. Then there was reluctance to accept a negotiated compromise settlement to undo the mistakes, followed by the slaughters of 1915 and 1916. The US entered the war, and President Wilson for awhile wanted such a settlement, and Social Democrats spoke up for a peace without annexations and indemnities. But there had been too much demonization (in the US as well) and too many whose passions exceeded their understanding of the war as tragedy and confusion, and this resulted in a peace treaty that conributed to more conflict. There were lessons to be learned about passions and demonizations, which are with us today. I'm not among those who denigrates the intelligence of humanity in general or "the masses." People fail mentally now and thern and here and there, and in the early 1900s it came together in a collective failure known as the Great War.

Empire to 1908

The great absurdity called World War One had its origins in historical development that humanity didn't handle very well, which is to say that the war was not necessarily inevitable, but, given the mentalities of people with political power and the gullibility of the many others, perhaps it can be said to have been close to inevitable.

The historical development just referred to was empire. In the 1870's the Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, included Balkan lands: Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and others. A neighboring empire to the north, centered in Vienna, was ruled by the Habsburg family. It also included Serbs and Romanians, and there were Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, a few Italians, some Germans, and the Hungarians. The Ottomans and the Habsburgs believed that they had a God-given right to rule over their various subjects.

The Habsburg Franz Joseph, said to be emperor by the grace of God, was a devout Roman Catholic who believed that his politics, his authoritarian rule and his imperialism were in tune with God's righteousness. It was respectable. His imperialism had origins in an ethos and arrogance of power that went back centuries. Empire had been a part of civilization since the beginning of conquests more than four thousand years before. It was viewed as proper by Europe's ruling elite.

Europe in the last half of the 1800s was militarily superior to the Ottoman Empire. In 1877, mass opinion arose in Russia in support of their fellow Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman ruled Balkans. Tsar Alexander II was goaded into a war with the Ottoman Empire that was fought in the Balkans and the Caucasus and of short duration – settled in January 1878. A treaty in March between Russia and Turkey freed Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro from Turkish rule. The treaty gave autonomy to Bosnia-Herzegovina and it created a huge autonomous Bulgaria under Russian protection.

During the war, the Russians had mollified Austria's Franz Joseph by giving him permission to invade Bosnia-Herzegovina, a land of Eastern Orthodox Christians and some converts to Islam. Franz Joseph's army marched into Bosnia-Herzegovina with banners flying that told of Hapsburg Roman Catholicism. The peoples of Bosnia-Hercegovina did not accept Roman Catholic foreign rule. Franz Joseph was pleased by gains that compensated for his loss of territory in Italy, but for the sake of appearances he chose to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire. Serbs in the newly independent Serbia disliked seeing their fellow Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina subjugated by Franz Joseph. The Orthodox Serbs viewed Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a greater Serbia.

In 1908, Franz Joseph shocked Europe by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina. This didn't sit well with the Orthodox Russians. They saw the Serbs as brother Slavs. Russia's long-standing agreement with Franz Joseph's Austria-Hungary concerning the Balkans was at an end.

Two days after the annexation, a secret society formed in Serbia that called itself Narodna Oderana (National Defense) – also known as the Black Hand. It was dedicated to the liberation of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Habsburg rule. And the annexation altered the attitude of young Serbians in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Students there turned from a strategy that was gradualist and peaceful, a strategy advocated by the Czech nationalist Thomas Masaryk. Now among the students came a greater respect for those who had martyred themselves trying to assassinate the Turkish conquerors of their land centuries before. Youths in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo were now more inclined to consider assassination as one of their tools for liberation.

CONTINUE READING: Power Rivalry to 1912

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.