On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were murdered by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. The assassination set off a chain of events that led to the outbreak of the First World War in Europe and affirmed famed German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s prediction that the next great war would start because of some “foolish thing in the Balkans.”
The chessboard diplomacy that followed in the next month before hostilities broke out is brilliantly chronicled by military historian Gordon Martel in his book, The Month That Changed the World: July 1914. Focusing on the decisions of heads of state and ambassadors, as well as military men of the European countries involved, Martel posits that war was not inevitable as many historians have claimed.
Martel explains that 1914 was “the year of Peace in Europe” and that there was very little indication that a cataclysmic conflict was about to break out. The last large-scale war had ended nearly a half century before when France was defeated by Germany in the 1871 Franco-Prussian war. But there were no significant wars between the great powers on the continent since that time, and the arc of history seemed to indicate that peace was nearly a permanent condition.
The only part of Europe that had experienced bloodshed and war in the years before World War I was the Balkans, where borders had been in a state of flux and peoples had been uncomfortably thrown into a tossed salad of rival ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. Gavrilo Princip, a young Serb bitter about living under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been a part of Narodna Odbrana, a Serbian nationalist group committed to creating a new Serbian nation. The organization believed that a single act of anarchy and violence could rouse public opinion to their cause. With Princip’s murder of the Austrian Archduke, the entire region was sent into turmoil, and the seemingly implacable stability that had marked European diplomacy for half a century cracked and collapsed.
Austria, egged on by it close German ally, made a list of demands to Serbia that could not be met and set off the month-long negotiation that ended in catastrophe. Martel makes it clear how many leaders did not take the incident seriously. He remarked that Russian Czar Nicholas II was so lackadaisical about the events taking place that he “continued with preparations for the royal family to leave… on board the imperial yacht for their annual sailing trip to the Finnish Skerries.”
Martel gives a day-by-day account of the byzantine system of negotiation in the final days of July and explains the rushed military preparation of a continent totally unprepared for war. While the narrative does not rise to the level of literary masterpiece like Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, it surpasses her work in its level of detail and analysis regarding the complex system of diplomacy of early twentieth century Europe.
The ultimate conclusion from Martel’s work is that although a single event like the assassination of the Austrian Archduke can set forces in motion and lead to war, those events could have been largely shaped by leaders to prevent war in 1914. After describing how various leaders could have changed the course of events, Martel said that historians ultimately have no way of knowing how these decisions could have changed history. He concluded, “What we do know is how those in positions of authority made the choices that produced unprecedented suffering and upheaval. The tragic era that followed can be explained only by their hubris, combined with chance and circumstance.”
Martel gives a valuable lesson to readers and modern leaders about the importance of national security strategy, and how fragile a seemingly implacable global system can be overturned by a single event.