Center for American Progress

Sarajevo Centennial: Old Orders Collapse and Today’s Turbulence Is a Legacy

Sarajevo Centennial: Old Orders Collapse and Today’s Turbulence Is a Legacy

The tinderbox of circumstances and realities that required only the tiniest of sparks to plunge the world into thirty years of global chaos a century ago are in many ways still with us today. The first Great War destroyed monarchies, redrew a continent, and reminded the world of the destruction mankind is capable of.

In this photo from June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie walk to their a car in Sarajevo minutes before their assassination. (AP/File)
In this photo from June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie walk to their a car in Sarajevo minutes before their assassination. (AP/File)

This month began with American and European leaders joining their honorable World War II veterans in Normandy, France, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944, approximately 160,000 Allied troops landed on the shores of German-held France securing an Allied victory and restoring freedom and liberty to a portion of Europe. It was a grand moment for the veterans, who sacrificed so much for the peace that was to follow in the Allied victory over totalitarianism in the century’s second great global conflagration: World War II.

Tomorrow, Europe and the West will remember another anniversary. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were shot and killed while riding in an open car. The assassination in Sarajevo set in motion a chain of events, and like falling dominoes, the great powers in Europe, bound by alliances, declared war on one another. By August 1914, Europe was enveloped in World War I.

The long-term consequences of the “War to End All Wars” sparked in Sarajevo were massive and are still part of today’s headlines a century later. The four-year war resulted in 37 million soldier and civilian casualties, reshaped centuries-old empires, and showed the depth of destruction possible by mankind. Because of the assassination in Sarajevo and the resulting world war:

  • Russia would see the end of its monarchy and face two revolutions. Bolsheviks would displace the empire that ran from Europe across Siberia to the Pacific, and the Communist era would begin. Seventy years later, the Soviet Union would collapse and give way to a new Russian nationalism that in 2014 has pressed its interest into the Crimea and Ukraine as Russia attempts to restore its empire through energy monopoly and intimidation.
  • Kaiser Wilhelm II would leave Germany bankrupt and in ruins after its previous leader Otto von Bismarck had led Europe through a century of peace. German working-class resentments over war costs and burdens would lead to the rise of the Nazi party and a devastating second world war. In time, a unified Germany would emerge as one of the strongest democratic and economic pillars of today’s Europe.
  • The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary that stretched through Europe’s center—and was the seat for the Congress of Vienna, which charted the path to a 100-year-long European peace after the Napoleonic wars—would cease to exist. In the 1990s, American and NATO peacekeeping forces would return to Sarajevo and the Balkans where their mission would end an intense period fraught with ethnic conflict and help to create an environment for workable peace and recovery.
  • The Ottoman Empire—established by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, stretching from the Balkan states to the Middle East, and the link between the east and west hemispheres—would disband after five centuries. The colonial powers of Europe would temporarily fill the void moving into the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. The region of the Middle East would step to center stage as the leading source of global energy supply generating massive regional wealth for some, the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel, a series of painful regional wars, the rise of terrorism, and today’s religious civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

The leaders of a century ago predicted a short war and that the soldiers would be home with their families by Christmas 1914. They could not have been more wrong.

Instead, the war would unfold over four years from August 1914 to November 1918. Battlefield casualties would leave 8.5 million dead. By 1917, American would end its neutrality, bridge the shelter of the Atlantic Ocean to end its isolation, and enter the stage as a global power bringing its young men from the farms and cities to make the world “safe for democracy.”

A century after Sarajevo, the world remains a tumultuous and turbulent place. Leaders are still capable of mistakes and miscalculation, while soldiers drawn from the ranks of their societies are called upon to make immeasurable sacrifices.

But there have been lessons learned, although at a terrible price.

First, the colonial era was replaced by a new period of global interconnectedness. A hundred years later, it is still hard to fathom how a single bullet in Sarajevo dragged the modern world into world war. But it did. And then again, three years ago, a street vendor’s act of solitary defiance sparked uprisings that humbled powerful Arab dictators and plunged at least one country into civil war. In a world more interconnected by the day, the United States follows isolationist tendencies at its own peril.

Second, the nature of political leadership has changed. Kings, kaisers, and tsars gave way to the next generation of leaders. Leadership does matter. Bismarck led Europe into a century of peace. Some of his successors led the continent and indeed the world to the brink of collapse. When leaders act carelessly, the result can have terrible and unintended consequences. But in an age when the United States now looks to increasingly share the burden of leadership, it cannot disengage.

Finally, global integration has had a curious impact on curbing nationalism and social barriers. Germany and Russia led empires that underwent and generated great turmoil. But European integration brought peace and prosperity to Germany and its neighbors, while a revived Russian nationalism has once again unleashed the bully into the schoolyard. Integration remains at the heart of the global order. Nations across the globe, developed and developing, ignore its importance at the expense of the next generation.

The 21st century has begun with its own set of challenges. Information technologies now link a global community and provide for the exchange of knowledge and ideas, in ways previously only imagined. These technologies share dreams of progress and hope but also spread the darker thoughts of prejudice and fear. Great idealism and progress on one side pushing against cynicism and resentment on the other. Those forces—whether in June 2014 or June 1914—connect us to Sarajevo a century ago.

Rudy deLeon is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy secretary of defense. Aarthi Gunasekaran is a Research Assistant at the Center. 

The authors would like to acknowledge CAP senior fellows Brian Katulis and Hardin Lang for their editorial comments.


Authors’ note:

Students, policymakers, politicians, and interested citizens who want to read more details about World War I and its impact should be drawn to the following books for additional reading. Margaret MacMillan’s newest book, The War That Ended Peace, the Road to 1914, which was published earlier this year by Random House takes the reader from the Paris Exposition of 1900, with all its hope and optimism, through the assassination in Sarajevo and the failure of diplomacy and imagination to block the path to war. MacMillan is a Canadian historian who is now a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. Her earlier book on the aftermath of World War I is Paris 1919, Six Months that Changed the World. She reviews the peace talks conducted at Versailles and the unresolved issues after the war.

The Guns of August, written by Barbara W. Tuchman, was published by Scribner in 1962. Her book had a big impact on President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. After reading how the European leaders were captured by their assumptions of a short war, President Kennedy used the book to push back against hard-line advisors on military action, telling his cabinet, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time and call it the Missiles of October.”

Stanford Professor David M. Kennedy wrote Over Here in 1980,published by Oxford University Press. Professor Kennedy focuses on the impact of the war on America’s home front, and the United States ended its isolation to engage in the European war.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow

Aarthi Gunasekaran

Research Assistant