Bad Luck, Fear and History's Gravest Lesson

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Alexander

ONE very good reason for commemorating World War I is that it demonstrates how the law of unintended consequences and pure chance decide the fate of mankind.

The war started, you see, because no one had told the driver!

Everyone else in the official party of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, had been informed about a change of plan. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the morning of June 28, 1914, the shocked Archduke had decided that he must visit the wounded in a Sarajevo hospital.

But the uninformed driver of the first car in the Archduke's motorcade instead turned into the road to visit a museum as had been originally planned -- amid shouts from the following vehicles to stop. He did.

The Hungarian Count Andrassy, according to the historian AJP Taylor, then leapt from the running board of the second car and told the driver to reverse. He did so, slowly of course.

This brought the Archduke face to face with the young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, who had in fact abandoned any hope of assassinating his target after the morning's failure by his co-conspirators.

But he still had his revolver, supplied by the sinister Major Tankosic in the Serbian Army's intelligence section -- possibly on orders from on high, as the imperial government in Vienna liked to believe. Princip leapt forward and fired, killing both the Archduke and his wife.

An outraged Vienna prepared its demands for Belgrade, where the government protested it had never been party to this wicked plan.

The Austrian government first consulted Germany, its ally and possessor of the most formidable army in Europe. Notes flowed between Germany and Austria, the Kaiser urging the Emperor to stiffen his demands -- then suggesting they be toned down. Then he went on holiday.

THIS was not so completely out of tune with the times as might be thought, because no one in Europe at that time saw the great conflict which lurked in these exchanges.

The Kaiser and the Berlin government ended by telling Vienna it could more or less do what it liked. Germany would stand by Austria -- the so-called 'blank cheque'.

The final note from Vienna demanded not just an apology but also the dismissal of officials who had called for an end to Austrian rule in Bosnia, plus the censorship of the Serbian press -- all to be supervised by an Austrian emissary.

Tsarist Russia, which saw itself as the guardian of all Slavs in eastern Europe, stepped into the fray.

Indeed, it began to mobilise its army to help Serbia -- this may sound like a dramatic crossing of a key red line, but mobilisation then was more of a diplomatic than a military threat. …