Saturday, June 28, 2014

100 Years Ago Today: Why Did This Assassination Result in Total War?

World War I is one of the most challenging wars to wrap one's mind around because we as Americans did not understand the nature of aristocracy, geography or history in pre-war Europe. We maybe knew of a few names like Napoleon or Bismarck or King James or King Louis or whatever. But it was a mishmash. When we studied the war in high school we pretty much only knew that trench warfare was a horrible experience, brought home most forcefully by Hollywood films like Paths of Glory and Legends of the Fall.

It wasn't till I read the book Maximilian and Carlotta that I inadvertently saw how World War One came about. How did this man from the royal family in Austria end up as Emperor of Mexico? Once you grasp this you understand how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on this day 100 years ago resulted in a world war.

Maximilian was younger brother of the heir to the throne, so trying to find his life purpose was not easy if his father and brother lived long lives. He travelled to historical places and drank wine to honor those who died here and there throughout history but most of what he did was killing time till there was some occasion to serve someone in a more official capacity.

As it turns out, the occasion did indeed arise when seven French soldiers were killed during an incident in Vera Cruz, Mexico. This backstory is neglected in the Wikipedia account of Max and Carlotta, but the book details it like this.

France, like all prideful nations, insisted that the shedding of French blood should not go unpunished. The solution was to take over Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine forbids European powers to meddle in the affairs of North and South America, but we were in the midst of a vitriolic civil war at the time, and the French knew Abe Lincoln was not going to put up a fight, so they (the French) came into Mexico and set up a government, installing Max as Emperor, something he was altogether happy to do. In October 1863 he took the throne. It was a short-lived failure. In 1867 he was executed by firing squad after being captured trying to escape the country during a government overthrow.

By reading Maximilian and Carlotta I came to understand that royalty in all the countries in Europe were connected one way or another by blood relations in order to stabilize the powers. If you invade me, all the kingdoms I'm related to will rise up against you, so you better think twice before you interfere with that border town.

Ultimately, when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, someone had to pay. Austria declared war on Serbia. This led to more wars being declared until the Central Powers (which included Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies were all at war with one another, because of these family ties and commitments.

The propaganda machinery was set in motion in the U.S. to stir up animosity for "Kaiser Bill" and the Germans in order to overcome our national disposition to let Europe solve its own problems. When the Germans sank the Titanic with a giant iceberg, that was the last straw and we jumped into the war with both feet. No, wait, wrong sinking. Umm, oh, this is where the Lusitania story comes in.

For what it's worth, there is value in studying history. The events of 1914 provided many lessons for future leaders. Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August, which analyzed the first world war in detail, provided insights that later kept JFK and his brother Bobby from mistakes that may have resulted in World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Just a little food for thought on this significant day in history.

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