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Origins of First World War

A Story with Contemporary Relevance

Those who forget history are often condemned to repeat it. The history of the origins of the first world war, which need never have been fought, is worth recalling as the spectre of an unintended, unsought war between two nuclear powers over Kashmir makes its appearance on the horizon.

Irecently finished reading the first volume of Martin Gilbert’s monumental A History of the Twentieth Century and the second of David Kynaston’s equally voluminous and authoritative The City of London. The two accounts overlap over the 14 years preceding the first world war.

What struck me most was how that cruel war, in which the frontline often moved barely a few yards at the cost of thousands of casualties, need not have begun at all – but for the monumental egos, obstinacy, and pigheaded notions of national honour and patriotism of the often aging leadership. In the event, the war gave birth to Russia; the Versailles-dictated peace to Nazi Germany; and the memory of slaughter of an entire generation of Europeans to Chamberlain’s now criticised and finally unsuccessful appeasement of Hitler, to ensure “peace in our times”, his slogan while returning from the surrender in Munich. If the leadership in the major European powers in 1914 (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and, across the Channel, Great Britain) had possessed a fraction of Chamberlain’s desire to maintain peace, it seems in retrospect, the war could easily have been averted – but aging, nay old, leaders who know they do not face the rigours, the hardships, the risks of frontline combat, perhaps do not have too many qualms about sending youngsters to war in the name of national honour, the unity and integrity of the country, war on terrorism and similarly lofty-sounding objectives. (Indeed, once war begins, the same phrases often stifle all critical voices, unless the war turns out to be as drawn out, as horrible, and as purposeless as America’s in Vietnam – but that is an exception.) In the present century, of course, with technology developed so that bombs can be rained on unseen targets from the relative safety of a highflying plane, the ‘still small voice’ vainly trying to focus attention on compassion, on the sanctity of innocent human life, on the plight of children, can be silenced perhaps more easily than back in 1914, whether in Iraq, in Yugoslavia, or in Afghanistan.

But to come back to the first world war, as late as the last week of June 1914, a squadron of British warships was present as an honoured guest at the annual Kiel Regatta in Germany. (Indeed, Churchill had wanted to accompany it to discuss naval arms reduction with Admiral Tirpitz, the German navy chief.) There was a spirit of bonhomie among the two navies, officers and men exchanging compliments and visits. The Kaiser himself, wearing his uniform of a British Admiral, a title awarded him a decade back, went on board a British battleship. No cloud of war cast a shadow over Europe.

In the same week, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was visiting Bosnia, an annexed province of the empire – this was against the advice of neighbouring Serbia’s foreign ministry, in view of the pro-Serb agitation in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. On June 28, a bomb was thrown at the Archduke’s car but he escaped, and continued on his visit. He escaped a second time while visiting a hospital. Later his car took a wrong turn, reversed, but a third conspirator who happened to be there purely by chance, drew his pistol and assassinated the Archduke. Ponder over the series of coincidences, which led to the entirely avoidable event and which, in retrospect, was the trigger for a tragic sequence that led to the war: if only

* the Archduke had accepted the advice of the Serbian foreign ministry not to visit Bosnia;

* the first/or second attempts had wounded him;

* the car had not taken a wrong turn.

But this was not the only (entirely avoidable) event which triggered a turning point in the history of the twentieth century. Many were to follow over the next couple of months, which could as easily have turned out the other way and war may not have resulted – a point to ponder for students of alternative history. For fatalists of course the war had been ‘ordained’ and could not have been avoided. (Incidentally, if God had ordained war, what was the crime for which he punished the millions who were killed and maimed in it? Must be their sins in the previous birth, something which nobody has experienced or witnessed, but which makes such a very comfortable assumption.)

But to proceed with the story, the 19-year old who killed the Archduke was not the agent of Serbia; indeed, his group was actually in opposition to the Serbian government. But, for the Austrian chief of staff, all too eager to find an excuse to attack Serbia, the assassination “was a God-send, a gift from Mars”, the Roman god of war. More interesting is the reaction of the Kaiser: he “did not believe that there was any prospect of great warlike developments. The Tsar would not side with the Archduke’s murderers, and Russia and France were not ready for war”. He promptly proceeded for his annual vacation. Such is the foresight of those in power.

But he also said that, should war between Austria-Hungary and Russia become unavoidable, “Germany would be at Austria’s side”. To quote Martin Gilbert, “These six words were the death knoll of wise counsel in Vienna.” In the perspective of German diplomats, a chance to challenge Russia before she became stronger, was to be grabbed. The antagonism was a reflection of the racial divide between the German and the Slav. In July, knowing full well that the Serbian government had no hand in the assassination, the Austrians issued an ultimatum to Serbia, making humiliating demands, and threatening war if they were not met. In Germany “the elite coterie of diplomats and politicians was aware of the dangers of a wider conflict emerging from the alliance system. Yet they also used their intellectual skills to push those dangers away, to rationalise, and to deceive themselves.” Even then, few anticipated a major war: at worst it would be one of those endless series of Balkan skirmishes. The British chancellor, on July 23, echoed these feelings saying that relations between Britain and Germany were better than in years, and that he planned to reduce defence outlay in the next budget. It was the day the fateful Austrian ultimatum was delivered to the Serbs. The terms were so framed that Serbia would reject them, that a quick and successful action would follow – and end before any wider repercussions had time to develop.

But, to the Austrians’ surprise, the Serbs accepted the terms which, as one senior British politician described them, “were the most formidable ever addressed by one state to another”, the like of which no sovereign nation had ever accepted. The Tsar and the British called for negotiations on the basis of the Serb reply. Even the Kaiser felt that “every reason for war [has been] removed.”

But it was not to be. The Austrians rejected the Serb reply as unsatisfactory, and declared war on Serbia on July 28, no matter that their armed forces were not ready to commence proceedings forthwith. Had they been, quite possibly the skirmish would have been over in a week. But the delay was to prove very costly. The jingoistic mass-circulation newspapers, particularly in Britain, had a field day in arousing the anti-German feelings of the man on the street, rarely too far below the skin. The war ministries in Berlin and Moscow were getting active, drawing up contingency plans, fuelling the patriotic fervour. British and German statesman were becoming increasingly powerless to influence events, to bring a measure of sanity – more so as they were bound by a series of treaties, between Serbia and Russia, Russia and France, Belgium and Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary. In Paris, socialist Jean Jaures, calling for solidarity of all European socialists against the impending war, was assassinated by a French fanatic. As late as July 29, The Financial Times argued that “whatever otherwise may be thought of the government of Great Britain, it may at least be trusted to keep this country out of the area of conflict”, even as The Economist enjoined “strict neutrality” and argued that the “quarrel” on the continent was “no more our concern than would be a quarrel between Argentina and Brazil or between China and Japan.”

In the event, by midnight of August 4, the five European powers were at war.

*  *  *

At this stage, a question can legitimately be raised about the purpose of recounting the above history now. The general answer of course is that, as the saying goes, those who forget history are often condemned to repeat it – and an unintended, unsought war between two nuclear powers over Kashmir is a prospect too horrible to contemplate. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the Kashmir legislative assembly and later our parliament, there has been some talk about ‘hot pursuit’ across the line of control in Kashmir. What would be the precise objectives? If the Americans, with their far superior technology, fire power and intelligence supported by Pakistan’s ISI, cannot find the Taliban leadership, bin Laden or their camps after 10 weeks of hostilities, do we have a realistic chance of destroying the training camps across the LoC? (We have failed to apprehend Veerappan even within our own borders.) And, if land incursions across the LoC do not succeed, will there be a temptation to escalate the confrontation to increasingly dangerous levels? It is worth recalling that India Today ran a cover story titled ‘Should India Attack?’ even before the attack on parliament.

Those who do not believe that there is a military solution in Kashmir, that our case is not as legally or morally unquestionable as it is made out to be (remember our actions in Hyderabad and Bangladesh as far as legalities go? the training of LTTE cadres in India? the rigged elections in Kashmir?), perhaps need to raise their voices now. Because once some unretraceable step is taken, the surge of patriotism fuelled by the media and the political leadership will inevitably silence them. A telling example is the paranoid and out of all proportion, but extremely popular, reaction to Dennes’ foolish decisions in a cricket match. A recent case in the US is worth recalling. A respected TV commentator had the temerity to question the description of the September 11 terrorists as cowards (for killing innocent, unarmed civilians). His argument was that the acts were horrible, but the perpetrators can hardly be called cowards – after all they knew they would die and still went ahead, hardly a sign of cowardice. He went on that, on the contrary, those who bomb from miles up in the air deserve the epithet more. Such was the public outcry that the poor man was forced to apologise and withdraw his remarks, on pain of being sacked.

This apart, why are we still trying to woo the US to take up the fight against state-sponsored cross border terrorism worldwide? Whatever the soothing words of Bush and Powell, have we forgotten that

* the US has sponsored terrorism against Cuba for 40 years, encouraging and supporting Cuban defectors to mount all kinds of operations from within US borders?

* in the 1980s, the US sponsored terrorist acts against the elected government of Nicaragua – remember the Iran-contra scandal? Many other countries in Latin America too have been similarly victimised.

* even now it winks at immigrant groups in US trying to overthrow legitimate governments in Vietnam and Cambodia as Time reported a few weeks back?


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