Home/Articles/That 1914 Feeling

That 1914 Feeling

It was an open-and-shut case. The rogue state had been sponsoring international terrorism for decades. Its leaders had long expressed ambitious expansion plans to swallow their neighbors or large chunks of nearby territory. It was run by men who had not only slaughtered their predecessors but also women and children in crimes that astonished the world. And now there was every reason to suspect it had actively plotted and supported a terrorist conspiracy.

The leaders of the great, civilized multinational state that had been the victim of the outrage were determined to root out what they regarded as the source of the terrorism. They were going to invade that rogue state, topple its killer rulers—and no one, in truth, disputed that they were evil—and take it down.

So morally certain were they of the rightness of their cause that they saw no need to rally international opinion. They dismissed arguments that the rogue state was part of one of the largest ethnic groups on earth and that hundreds of millions of their ethnic cousins might rise up on their behalf and in their defense. They knew that they were part of the greatest concentration of military power and high tech weaponry ever known in the history of the world. They would have their war, and the rogue state at the heart of the axis of evil sworn to dismember their great and internationally respected nation would be destroyed at last. After all, the troubled corner of the world where the rogue state existed had long been a breeding ground for terror. It was time for the great nation to take it in hand and re-order it for its own good, bringing enlightenment and civilization where none had existed.

But it did not work out that way. Because the rogue state in question was not Iraq but Serbia. The great nation that had been assaulted by terrorist attack was not the United States but the Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary—the most enlightened, tolerant, and long-lasting political system that Central Europe had ever known—or has ever known since. The outrage that terrorized the great nation was not the destruction of the World Trade Center but the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. And the terrorist group that carried out the atrocity was not al-Qaeda but the Black Hand.

Like the civilian strategists of the Bush administration, the military commanders of Austria-Hungary were convinced that the rogue state they were about to assault had masterminded the terrorist plot. But like the Bush administration today, they did not have any hard evidence actually to prove it. The alleged meeting between 9/11 plot leader Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague appears to have been a figment of the fertile imaginations of Iraqi dissidents encouraged by hawks in the Department of Defense. Ironically, the link between key elements of the Serbian government and the Black Hand was all too real, but the Austro-Hungarian intelligence service was too incompetent to find it.

Serbia’s aggressive designs on her neighbors were also real and were indeed all fulfilled at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The perception across Europe that Serbia was a murderous rogue state that harbored international terrorists was quite true as well. The previous Serbian royal family had been slaughtered in a frightful coup a decade before—the queen and her young children literally cut to pieces by the conspirators. The killers continued to hold positions of power and leadership at the time of the archduke’s assassination a decade later.

Serbia, like Iraq, was part of a larger world. Serbia was Orthodox Christian and Slav just as Iraq is Muslim and Arab. Still, Austria-Hungary, backed by Imperial Germany, had got away with annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina, including fateful Sarajevo just six years before. Russia, still enfeebled by the aftermath of its 1905 defeat by Japan and the revolution that had erupted thereafter was in no condition prevent the seizure. This gave Austria-Hungary’s leaders the misplaced confidence that “the Slav Street” could be safely ignored forever, just as neoconservatives today argue that Arab popular nationalist pressure, the “Arab Street,” is also a myth because it did not erupt in 1991.

There was no United Nations Security Council in 1914, but there was something very similar, a venerable Concert of Europe in which the five great powers of the continent—Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia—had, for an entire century, worked with a surprising degree of unity to prevent any local wars from getting out of control.

Their arrangement in many respects foreshadowed the more formal structure of the one part of the United Nations that has been constructive and truly valuable over the past six decades —the veto power accorded to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that they have wielded both for themselves and their favored client states.

Far from being the seed of an impractical and unattainable world government, the UN Security Council veto system reflects hard, real nation-state interests and political realities—realpolitik indeed. Today, with its cavalier determination to ignore that restraint, the Bush administration is proving as heedless of consequences as Austria-Hungary’s leaders and their German allies were when they shattered the Concert of Europe and delivered their similar ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914.

Winston Churchill—who has been endlessly (mis)quoted by today’s neoconservatives to justify their imperial fantasies, wrote in his great history, The World Crisis, how he perceived that ultimatum when he learned of it on July 24, 1914. Churchill used terms eerily appropriate to the Bush administration’s uncompromising diktats to Saddam Hussein: “This note was clearly an ultimatum; but it was an ultimatum such as had never been penned in modern times. As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor.”

Churchill was right, of course. For he knew that the rulers in Vienna, like the War Party today, were as intent on their own destruction as the Gadarene swine. They did not want to be satisfied. How the Serbian extremists rejoiced! For, like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on 9/11, the Black Hand was laying a far vaster trap for the great, tolerant empire it hated not just perpetrating a terrorist attack against it. The Serbian nationalists in 1914, like al-Qaeda in 2001, wanted Armageddon. They wanted an apocalyptic Clash of Civilizations that would bring the Hapsburg Empire crashing down in ruins. And, thanks to the self-righteousness of the empire’s leaders, they got it.

Like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Serbia’s leaders, while no moral exemplars, proved cagey opponents. They too went through the motions of yielding to international pressure and did not reject the Austrian ultimatum outright, but accepted most of its terms, just as Saddam allowed United Nations arms inspectors onto his territory and acknowledged their discovery of some weapons. But the Hapsburg Empire’s leaders were set on war, just as America’s are today.

The leaders of other great powers then, as now, balked at the prospect of even such a “just war.” Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary played the role of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac today. He suggested an international conference to defuse the crisis—a mechanism that had worked well and often before. It was indeed the method the Concert of Europe had used for generations to deal with such kinds of unpleasantness. But Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, contemptuously rejected the proposal in terms that President Bush and his courtiers are literally echoing today.

They should rather heed the wise advice of their own hero Churchill. Writing in his autobiography, My Early Life, from the vantage point of 1930, he recalled the supreme confidence of his own British Empire in 1899 that the Boer War would be over in weeks, perhaps even days, and warned, “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any way war will be smooth and easy. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also had a chance.”

There were those at the time who could see where the July ultimatum to Serbia would lead. Count Berchtold, the foreign minister of the empire dined one warm, pleasant Viennese day at his favorite café with an old friend, the liberal Jewish editor of one of Vienna’s most respected newspapers. He laughed off his appalled friend’s warning that unleashing hostilities against Serbia would set off a general war in which their beloved empire would be destroyed and horrific communist revolutions would sweep the entire continent of Europe.

“And who will lead this terrible revolution of yours?” the foreign minister asked. “Mr. Bronstein, I suppose, sitting over there, endlessly arguing as usual with his friends!” Mr. Bronstein became better known to the world as Leon Trotsky, right-hand man to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and future creator of the Red Army. 

Martin Sieff is Chief International Analyst for United Press International.

leave a comment

Latest Articles