Thursday, 16 October 2008

WRONG: Germany started World War One

Germany didn’t start the war, and despite what Baldrick would have you believe, neither did it begin when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.

Europe in the early part of the 20th century was a good time for factions: communism, anarcho-syndicalism and a festival of less-popular -isms were battling for the support of the masses while, at the other end of the social scale, the competing imperial monarchies flexed their impressive moustaches in Africa and Asia. It was a family affair – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and King George V of the United Kingdom were all Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, as were the wives of five other crowned heads of Europe (*Sweden, Spain, Romania, Greece and Norway).

An unfortunate side effect of the struggle was an arms race, as no one nation could afford to get left behind. Germany and France were already at loggerheads over who owned the Alsace-Lorraine borderlands and Turkey and Russia were grumbling at each other across the Balkans.

As it was, the spark for this powder keg was provided by one of the century’s clumsiest assassination attempts. A gang of Serbian nationalists, probably associated with a terrorist group called the Black Hand, resented Austria-Hungary’s influence on their side of the border and hatched a plan to blow up the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand (Uniquely in history, he inspired both a global war and a well-tailored indie band.) during a state visit to Sarajevo. The first conspirator chickened out as the motorcade passed by. The second threw a bomb, which missed. In the ensuing panic, the other five failed to do anything at all.

That would have been that, except that Franz Ferdinand decided later to visit the blast casualties in hospital, and his driver, unaware of a change in plans, happened to take a wrong turn. As he backed up to return to the official route, he passed the seventh member of the conspiracy, Gavrilo Princip, who had gone to get his lunch. Presumably unable to believe his luck, the 19-year-old Princip shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife five times. Too young to be executed, he was imprisoned for life but died of TB in 1918.

To cut a long story short, Austria-Hungary bullishly used the assassination as an excuse to invade Serbia. Russia unexpectedly declared war against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia. Germany had already agreed to side with Austria-Hungary, so declared war on Russia. France came out in support of Russia, so Germany declared war on them too.

Here’s where it gets really stupid. To get to France, Germany had to go through Belgium. The Belgians refused permission, but Germany ploughed through anyway, and that’s where Britain – to Germany’s surprise – got involved, thanks to a 75-year-old treaty designed to protect Belgium’s independence. The Turks (the Ottoman Empire) joined the Germans, the Italians joined the Allies in 1915 and Bulgaria joined the Austro-Hungarians. Even America stuck its oar in towards the end. Some 15 million deaths later, the Germans (and the Austro-Hungarians, etc) lost.

No comments: