Conrad Black: Amateur leaders, not evil men, brought ruin to the world

This Sunday the world observes the centenary of the end of the First World War, a war of previously unimagined destructiveness. Pre-war Europe was largely directed by royal personages related to each other. The German emperor, William II, was a cousin of the Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and their grandmother and grandmother-in-law in the case of Nicholas, was Victoria, queen and empress, grandmother also of Britain’s King George V, cousin of the Kaiser and the Czar.

The world blundered into war on a sequence of hair-triggers. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Habsburg throne of the 700-year-old dynasty that ruled in Vienna, then evolved from the spuriously named Holy Roman Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Austria-Hungary had abruptly annexed Bosnia, contrary to popular wishes. The German emperor gave the venerable Franz Josef, emperor in Vienna for 68 years, and his divided government “a blank cheque” to exact revenge on Serbia, the Slavic power that had inspired Bosnian resistance to Vienna and the assassin, Gavrilo Princip. The Austro-Hungarian demands were accepted apart from the insistence on the prosecution of Serbian pan-Slav activists, practically regardless of evidence.

At this, Serbia balked and asked the assistance of its pan-Slav guarantor, Russia, which had just received a visit from the president and prime minister of France, Raymond Poincare and Rene Viviani. These two countries were allies opposite rampant imperial Germany and what had become its somewhat calcified, polyglot, client-empire governed from Vienna and Budapest. The French leaders urged the Russians not to be bullied. The world was generally sympathetic to Vienna and to Franz Josef, and few countries were prepared to express much toleration of assassination. Berlin and Vienna thought Russia was bluffing in its professed support of Serbia against the full Austro-Hungarian demands, and on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary, but when Kaiser Wilhelm demanded that Russia not threaten Germany, his cousin the Czar raised his order to a general mobilization. Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1. These immature despots, not evil men, but utterly irresponsible and neurotic in the case of the German emperor, and plodding and unworldly in the case of Czar Nicholas, thus had begun the greatest war between Europe’s great powers since Waterloo 99 years before, with no justification and not a discernible thought as to where this might lead. (Of course, the Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns were all out four years later, and the entire Romanov family, down to young children, would be murdered before it was all over.) Belgium declined to give Germany free passage into France for its armies, after France had declined to assure Germany of its neutrality in the event of Germany being at war with France’s ally, Russia. Germany invaded Belgium, a country British statesmen had largely devised and had always guarantied, and Germany declared war on France on Aug. 3. Great Britain, loyal to its guaranty of Belgium and to its alliance with France, after one of the …read more

Source:: Nationalpost – News


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