It was one hundred years ago today that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo by the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip. This single act was one of the great disasters in world history. Not only did it lead directly to the outbreak of the First World War, which killed tens of millions of people and left Europe in utter ruins, but it also led indirectly to the rise of fascism and communism and an even worse world war two decades later.
Before the summer of 1914, Europe had generally been at peace for almost half a century. Trade and cultural exchanges between nations had never been greater. Art, architecture, literature, and theater had flourished. The motion picture industry was being born. The Orient Express had made its regular runs from Paris to Constantinople. Luxury goods and travel, previously available only to the wealthy, were becoming accessible to the rising middle class. It's no surprise that the French referred to these decades as the Belle Époque.
There were problems, to be sure. Conflicts like the Spanish-American War and the Russo-Japanese War caused turbulence on the global scene. The Balkans, that always volatile tinderbox, had caught on fire in the years just before 1914. Irrational violent action by anarchists occasionally took place. The Dreyfus Affair revealed the depths of anti-Semitism in France. These troubles, though, might have been managed and the overall peace and prosperity of the time might have continued, but for those fatal shots fired by Princip on that dark June day and the stupidity of the national leaders of Austria-Hungry, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain.
The First World War was a nightmare that left between fifteen million and twenty million people dead. For the first time, industrialization was combined with warfare on a grand scale. Horrific things like chemical weapons, unrestricted submarine warfare, terror bombings by aircraft, and unpredicted concentrations of mass artillery fire were introduced. To read about battles such as Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli, Isonzo, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, the Brusilov Offensive, Passchendaele, and the Chemin des Dames is to read about events that chill the blood and make one retch. Amidst all this carnage, the worst of human nature was revealed in the Armenian Genocide, in which over a million defenseless Armenians were slaughtered by Turkish bullets and bayonets.
The First World War shattered the old order, giving rise to ideologies like fascism and communism. Had there been no First World War, the blood-drenched tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao would never have existed. There would have been no Nazi Germany, no SS, no Gestapo. There would have been no slaughter of millions of Jews and other "undesirables" in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. There would have been no Bolshevik Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Cheka or NKVD, no Gulag Archipelago. There would have been no Maoist China, no Red Guards, no Great Famine.
In sweeping away the old order, the First World War also brought down the Ottoman Empire. As corrupt and decrepit an imperial regime as that was, its destruction let loose a series of events in the Middle East that are still inflicting pain upon the world today. The forces of nationalism that were unleashed tore the region apart, set Arab against Jew in Palestine in a conflict that continues to this day, and brought forth forces of religious extremism that eventually led to Al Qaeda and Isis.
Adding another layer onto the tragedy, the First World War only led to an even more destructive war twenty years later. Had there been no First World War, there obviously would have been no Second World War. There would have been no mass genocide in Eastern Europe, no millions of lives lost in bloody battles in North Africa, Italy, the Western Front, the Eastern Front, and the Pacific. There would have been no area bombing of cities like Rotterdam, London, Hamburg, and Dresden. There would have been no atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; in fact, it's entirely possible that nuclear weapons might never have been invented.
One can only wonder, perhaps with bitter tears, how different the world would have been had Gavrilo Princip not fired those shots on the streets of Sarajevo a hundred years ago today.