On the Anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination, It’s Time to Stop Blaming Germany

The Sarajevo skyline
The Sarajevo skyline

Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

One hundred years ago today, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, setting off a series of events that led to World War I.* One year ago today, Matthew Yglesias looked at that historical moment and what it does and doesn’t say about Germany, which assumed much of the blame for the war. The post is reprinted below.

I’ve been meaning for a while to have it out with Jonathan Chait on the subject of German responsibility for World War I, and since today is the 99th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, I thought today would be the day to do it.

My basic recommendation would be to read Christopher Clark’s great recent book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which is an amazing narrative history of the crisis and the larger context. For the purposes of historiographical ax-grinding, though, I would reconstruct his argument this way. From the standpoint of, say, 1960 or 1980, it was easy to look at World War I overwhelmingly through the lens of World War II and say that this was just another example of Germany’s quest for continental hegemony and that European peace has only ever been achieved by German disunity. But from the present day, things look different. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere, it’s a bit harder to regard Serbia’s irredentist agenda in the early 20th century as so benign. After 9/11 and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a bit easier to regard a terrorist attack as very genuinely being a cause of large-scale political outcomes even if the broader geopolitical context is always relevant. Last and by no means least, after the Lisbon Treaty, it’s quite a bit harder to regard the Habsburg dynasty’s multi-ethnic Central European polity as inherently doomed and outdated. With Croatia’s accession to the European Union, virtually all the Habsburg lands are now once again part of a loose but substantial political federation and it’s not totally crazy to imagine the relevant territory having evolved in that direction without passing through the veil of world wars and communist dictatorships.

So Clark’s viewpoint, I would say, is that we should take things a little bit more at face value. Serbia and its Russian superpower sponsor were genuinely trying to destroy the Habsburg empire. Franz Ferdinand’s assassins really did have ties to the Serbian state. He was assassinated in part because he was known to be a moderate who favored further decentralization of imperial authority and concessions to the interests of South Slavs, and Serbian nationalists thought his rise to power would undermine their effort to incorporate Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia into Serbia.* The authorities in Vienna and Berlin had a legitimate interest in pushing back against the attempted dismemberment of the Habsburg state. And then things got nasty in no small part thanks to French politicians having persuaded themselves that a Balkan crisis would be the best possible shot at teaming up with Russia to wage a war against Germany and take back Alsace and Lorraine. Nobody is blameless in the whole affair, but it’s much much more complicated than “Germans be starting wars.” The Entente powers were essentially sticking up for a state sponsor of terrorism.

This is all worth bringing up, I think, because the specter of German war guilt very much continues to haunt European affairs and in a sense the global economy. Nobody discusses it aboveboard, but part of the subtext of a huge amount of European Union politics is a constant kind of checking over the shoulder to see if those dastardly Germans are trying to conquer the continent again. But while Germany certainly did make one effort to conquer Europe, how you think about World War I really drives the question of whether there’s a pattern of German aggression or not. After all, Germany is hardly historically unique in terms of having once waged genocidal war in search of living space, but present-day American foreign policy initiatives aren’t typically read through the lens of the expropriation of Native Americans.

I’ve been very critical of many of Angela Merkel’s initiatives over the past few years, and agree with those who think Germany needs to show more leadership on the continent. But part and parcel of that is that they can’t be constantly snarked at (or worse) every time they try to wield influence. And the best starting point there is to start getting the history right and not getting so sucked into what’s now practically century-old wartime propaganda. There was plenty wrong with Wilhelmine Germany, but it’s not as if the vast colonial empires of France and Britain or Woodrow Wilson’s drive for white supremacy and Southern redemption were flawless models of democratic liberalism either.

* Correction, June 28, 2013: An earlier version of this post described Serbia’s territorial ambitions as including Slovakia when in fact their goal was to incorporate Slovenia. (Return.)

*Correction, June 30, 2014: A recycled version of this post misspelled the first name of Gavrilo Princip. (Return.)