How an Assassination in 1914 Changed the Course of World History for Ever

1914 was a Turning Point in History: The World would never be the Same Again!

How an Assassination in 1914 Changed the Course of World History for Ever
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Assassination of an Austrian Archduke by a small rebel organization in 1914 precipitated the First World War and indirectly led to the extinction of the great Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the ascendancy of the Arabs, a new wave of Pan-Islamic conservatism, the Bolshevik Revolution, humiliating defeat of Germany, League of Nations, and according to some, even the Great Depression. After 28th June, 1914, the world was never the same again!

World history is replete with instances of political assassinations to an extent that it would not be wrong to say that every monarch or heir apparent can be considered as being at risk of it. Most of these assassinations change the ruler or the regime, without any extreme upheavals for the people at large. Even fewer have strong repercussions beyond the local borders. However, there have been some such events that changed the whole course of history, with widespread repercussions.

One such assassination took place in June, 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovania, which was at that time a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On 28thof that month, the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand Este, was assassinated along with his wife by a member of the Serbian nationalist organization that called itself “Black Hand” and indulged in violence aimed at liberating Serbian territories from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and reuniting them. The name of the assassin was Gavrilo Princip.

It is very unlikely that this man had any idea whatsoever about the repercussions that his act would unfold, affecting people in every continent across the globe. The echoes of the shots that he fired can still be heard from time to time, more than a century later, in some parts of the World!

The Chain of Events it precipitated

Early twentieth century was marked by ultra-nationalism, imperialism and colonialism. After nearly five centuries of dominance, Ottoman Empire was on the decline, while the British Empire had spread across the globe. But there were several other contenders who were aspiring to challenge its dominance. This was also a period of hectic political forays, where no nation trusted another and each of them sought to extend their influence by entering into a network of defence treaties.

The Austria-Hungarian Empire responded to the assassination of the heir apparent by issuing a July Ultimatum to Serbia, whom it blamed for the assassination. The ultimatum contained ten demands, out of which Serbia was able to meet only eight. Not satisfied, or, as many argue, intent on using this opportunity to invade Serbia, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28th July, 1914.

Bound by its treaty to Serbia, Russia was obliged to intervene, by announcing that it would mobilise its forces in support of Serbia. On the contrary, Germany was bound by its treaty to Austria-Hungary, and keen to limit the Russian influence, it responded by declaring a war on Russia on 1st August. The treaty of France to Russia dragged it into war with Germany, which declared war on France on 3rd August and invaded neutral Belgium with the intention of attacking France on its own soil. On 4th August, Belgian King made a plea to Britain referring to a 75 year old treaty that obliged Britain to come to the aid of Belgium. Britain responded by declaring war on Germany.

The entry of Britain to the war extended the conflict to Asia, Africa, North Africa and Australia. It involved all of the British colonies, especially Australia, Canada, India and South Africa, each one of which played an important part in the war. Japan, which had a treaty with Britain, also joined soon thereafter by declaring war on Germany on 23rd August, 1914. During the same month, a secret alliance was signed between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, after which the Ottoman army attacked British communication lines through Suez Canal on one hand and attacked the Caucasian territories of Russia on the other.

Italy and United States stayed away for a while, but were gradually dragged into it. Italy was bound by treaties to Germany and Austria-Hungary, but instead chose to join the ‘Allied Forces’ consisting of Britain, France, Japan and all their allies, in 1915. America resisted becoming a part of this war till 1917, when it had to finally enter the fray, after German naval attacks on its merchant ships. This pitted the powers belonging to the Allied forces on one hand and another group on the other, known as ‘Central powers’, which consisted of the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and included Germany and Bulgaria.

All these events resulted in an immense war between the forces of the Allied group and the Central powers that soon spread throughout the world, resulting in an unprecedented ‘Great War’ that has been referred in history as the ‘First World War’ or ‘World War One’.  This war, involving more than forty million armed soldiers of the Allied forces fighting against nearly twenty five million soldiers belonging to the Central powers was by far the bloodiest of all wars till then and took a great toll on both sides, accounting for nearly forty million casualties, including nearly ten million deaths. It lasted for almost five years, finally coming to an end with a German ceasefire on 11th November, 1918. Expectedly, that day is still celebrated and remembered by the world as the ‘Armistice Day’. However, by the time that happened, so much had changed that the world was never to be same again!

Historical Consequences

The chain of events that began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand Este, not only led to the Great War of 1914-17, it also changed the power balance of the world and redefined the history of mankind, in a way that no one could have envisaged at that fateful day of 28th June, 1914. Notably, it is not only the destruction of the war that makes this event so critical, but also the change in long term trajectories that the empires, nations and civilizations underwent as a result of the chain of events precipitated by this assassination. These long term changes were brought about by a combination of severe and widespread destruction, hyperinflation of nationalism and widespread changes in political boundaries in and around Europe.

Break-up of Austro-Hungarian Empire

The World War One was particularly destructive for two great empires, which largely disintegrated by the end of this war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken into separate nations by the treaties that brought the war to an end. These treaties, particularly, the treaties of Saint-Germaine and the treaty of Trianon, divided the Austro-Hungarian empire into several new states including Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, while certain part of its territory was taken up by Romania and other allied powers.

Breakup of the Ottoman Empire

The most radical consequences of the war were faced by the Middle East, which still suffers from several of its consequential after-effects.  As a result of the war, the Ottoman Empire disappeared from the political map of the World. It all began with Enver Pasha, the supreme commander of the forces of Ottoman Empire, attacking Russia in December, 1914. His forces met a fate not dissimilar to those of Napoleon before him and Hitler a couple of decades later. The consequences of his Russian debacle were severe. The battle of Sarikamish cost him 86% of his 100,000 armed men, and the Ottoman forces were never able to come out of those losses.

The weakened Ottoman forces subsequently lost to the British forces in the Middle East, ceding control of Jerusalem in December, 1917, which was followed later in September, 1918, by another decisive loss in the battle of Megiddo. Finally, in November, 1918, Istanbul was taken over by the Allied forces, bringing the curtains down on one of the most powerful empires in modern human history. Its decimation, however, unleashed new forces that were destined to torment the world for a long time to come!

Radical Reformation of the Middle East

This chain of events had many important long term consequences on the future of the Middle East. First, the occupation and division of the territory of the Ottoman Empire by Allied powers, particularly Britain and France led to a series of confrontations ending with the creation of several new states in the Middle East, including Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria apart from Armenia, Cyprus and the Arab states. A consequent effect of this political reorganization was the ascendancy of the Arabs, who have long been under the control of Mongols for several centuries. Another consequence of the World War One was the creation of a lasting political alignment of the Arab states and Allied forces that in one form or the other, has continued since then.

However, the most important of all political consequences of what happened during the war, was the persecution and expulsion of religious minorities across the Middle East and adjoining areas that virtually changed the identity, culture and demography of the region for ever. The worst sufferers were the Christian Armenians and Assyrians who were seen as a threat by the Ottomans. The Armenians were deported en-masse from Anatolia to Syria during 1915 to 1917, an event that saw lives being lost at an enormous scale. Estimates of deaths vary from one to five million. The Assyrians had an even worse fate, as two third of their population was massacred by Ottoman forces, causing 500,000 to 750,000 deaths during 1915-17. During the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, massive population exchange took place between the two warring states, with Greeks living in Turkey getting exchanged for Turks living in Greece. It would not be wrong to say that World War One and its consequent events led to severe ethnic cleansing of the Middle East and changed it from a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural region to an ethnocentric Muslim dominated territory. The impact of this event in inspiring calls for a purely Muslim territory within India a few decades later, which led to the partition of India in 1947 with mass displacement people and death of nearly half a million Indians is often overlooked in history!

In short, the World War One changed the Middle East forever, laying seeds of a turbulent political struggle that has not ceased till date! 

Rise of Pan-Islamism

The break-up of Ottoman Empire was an event that led to very severe resentment among the religious scholars of the region, who saw it as a defeat of Islam at the hands of Anglo-Saxon-Zionist forces. Much of the subsequent rise of Pan-Islamic aspirations had their root in it. The ascendancy of Arabs enabled the relatively radical and intolerant Wahabi school of Islam, patronized by Arab states, to dominate the Muslim religious studies, thereby leading to an extremely conservative socio-religious philosophy that dragged the society several centuries back. Even worse were the consequences of communal clashes, ethnic cleansing and the psychological scars of the defeat in war, which alienated the people from the modern values of secularism, democracy and individual rights, as these were seen as ideologies belonging to an inimical force. Even after a century and the surge of petrodollar driven unprecedented prosperity, the scars of World War One and its consequences still constrain the progress of modern liberal values in the Middle East.

In short, much of what we observe in the Middle East today seems to have a close link with what happened on the fateful day of 28th June, 1914 in Sarajevo.

The Bolshevik Revolution & the Rise of the Communists

Another unprecedented consequence of the Great War unleashed by the assassination of Ferdinand was the Communist revolution in Russia, which in turn led to ideological, political and economic repercussions that dominated the second half of the twentieth century. The Great War of 1914-17 had enormous impact on the Russian society. As the war progressed, Russia suffered huge loss of manpower. By the end of October, 1916, it had lost around 1.8 million soldiers who were dead. In addition, another two million had been taken as prisoners of war and another one million were missing, taking the total to nearly five million. Such widespread losses, including some humiliating defeats at the hand of Germany led to severe criticism and resentment of the Tzar Nicholas II, the ruler of Russia.

The economic effects of war on the Russian economy were even more important. To finance its war effort, the Government decided to print money. As usual, it ultimately proved to be one of its greatest blunders, which led to severe inflation that rose to an average of more than a hundred percent during the period of 1914 to 1917. To make it worse, while the prices were rising in the markets, the peasants were not the major beneficiaries, as most of the profit was cornered by the middlemen.  Workers also did not get corresponding raise of wages, leading to severe financial distress.

The final straw came when, following a few war debacles, the Tzar Nicholas II decided to commander the army himself and left for the front, leaving governance in the hands of Empress Alexandra, whose rule was deeply resented by people because of poor administration, her German origins and her closeness with an unsavoury mystique named Rasputin. Many historians also claim that the clandestine support extended by Germany to the revolutionaries may have also played an important role. Together, their overall consequence was the overthrowing of Tzar and a period of Civil War that ultimately led to creation of the Communist Soviet.

As the Communist ideologies clashed with the rest of the World, the world was divided in two opposing blocks trying to undercut each other. Neither would ever be the same again!

Treaty of Versailles & Rise of German Nationalism & Hitler

Another important consequence of the war that began with assassination of Franz Ferdinand, was the humiliation of Germany at the end of the war along with the imposition of ‘Treaty of Versailles’ with Germany on 28 June 1919, which held Germany and its allies responsible for all loss and damage suffered by the Allies and imposed reparations of 132 billion gold marks on Germany. The economic impact created by this reparation is cited as one of the major factors that led to the rise of German nationalism and fascist Hitler, culminating in another great war two decades later. At the end of it, the world had changed even more, and irreversibly as well!

League of Nations & Great Depression

The war that began on that fateful day of 28th June, 1914 led to several other consequences too, each of which deserves a claim as a historical milestone in its own right. One of them was the formation of the League of Nations, as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This became the precursor of what is known today as the United Nations. Another impact, for which there is lesser consensus and greater divergence of views, is the role of First World War in leading to the Great Depression that began just after the war. The huge destruction of man and machine throughout the globe by the Great War of 1915-17 is cited by some as one of its causes.

The World would Never be the Same Again!

What happened on 28th June, 1914 was not just an act of terrorist nationalism. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand Este by the Serbian nationalist organization actually led to a series of events that resulted in over 36 million casualties during the World War One. More importantly, it set into motion a chain of events that redefined the political boundaries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, gave rise to Pan-Islamic nationalism, and began the Communist experiment, with the end of Tzar Nicholas II and his Russian empire. The repercussions of the events of war paved the way for the World War II and sowed the seeds of United Nations.

Thus, it would not be wrong to claim that 28th June, 1914 was the first great turning point in the history of twentieth century. It changed the world and our lives forever!

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