When Empires Die: Thoughts on the Centennial of World War I, Part I

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This is the first in a series on World War I and its parallels with our current times.  After a review of the events leading up to the Great War and of its aftermath, this series will investigate current events in light of biblical prophecy.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie with their three children in 1910
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie with their three children in 1910

The world took a giant step toward death on June 28, 1914.  On that day a young atheist shot and killed a prominent Catholic and his wife in an obscure Southeast European city.  Within five years, four world empires were dismembered and two new ones arose in their place.  Within 40 years, three more global empires breathed their last as the new world system spawned in 1914 grew to maturity.  Today, one hundred years later, that world system wheezes with its own death rattle, soon to expire in the process of giving birth to yet another global system which may be the last – and worst – of its kind.

As a historian, a political scientist, a soldier, and an intelligence professional, I cannot let the centennial of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination pass without pausing to remember what his life and death meant to the world.  The circumstances that brought the Archduke and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, to Sarajevo, Bosnia, are not difficult to explain, but to understand the significance of their deaths, both in their day and in ours, requires a detailed explanation.  If that explanation seems too focused on Europe, the simple reason is that Europe in 1914 ruled the entire world.  No nation outside Europe – neither ancient India, nor populous China, nor even the rising powers of America and Japan – was immune to events that shook the state system of the Continent.  If we are to know why the world went to war in 1914, we must look at the major players of that state system.  Only then can we begin to discern what happened to the world in the summer of 1914, and what is happening to the world now in the summer of 2014.

Iron and Clay

Franz Ferdinand was Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, one of six European Great Powers that determined the fate of the globe.  At one time Austria commanded the attention of all Europe.  In 1772 Austria had joined with Russia and Prussia to begin slicing off pieces of Poland, a process that resulted in the disappearance of that nation from the map just over 20 years later.  That was in the same era Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn painted in music the supremacy of Austrian culture.  Then came the French Revolution and the regicide of Louis XVI and his Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette.  Naturally Austria led the way in seeking retribution for this revolt against what was perceived as the God-given natural order, but a new reality dawned in the person of a diminutive revolutionary officer born on the island of Corsica.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s humiliation of Austria in the Battle of Austerlitz at the end of 1805 was the beginning of a century of geriatric woes for the House of Hapsburg.  Austria declined as the centrifugal forces of ethnic nationalism, together with the meteoric rise of the German Empire, eclipsed the ability of the House of Hapsburg to hold together the realm they had ruled for a 600 years.  In 1867 the Austrians were compelled to share power with the Hungarians, bringing into existence the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.  At best it was an uneasy power-sharing deal, a Band-Aid approach to balancing the aspirations of Hungarians, recalling their own proud national legacy, with the reality of centuries of Austrian dominance.  It was not long before Italians, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, and Bosnians began to agitate for their own share of power.  By the turn of the 20th century, Austria-Hungary very much revealed that image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream – not so much the head of gold, but the feet and toes of iron mixed with clay (Daniel 2).

"Dropping the Pilot" Kaiser Wilhelm II Dismisses Chancellor Bismarck Sir John Tenniel, 29 March 1890
Dropping the Pilot
Kaiser Wilhelm II dismisses Chancellor Bismarck
Sir John Tenniel, 29 March 1890

As Austria waned, another Power grew up in Central Europe.  In a series of wars from 1862 to 1872, “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck elevated the fortunes of the House of Hohenzollern, transforming the Kingdom of Prussia into the Empire of Germany.  Bismarck’s masterful manipulation of alliances and dynastic wars united much of German-speaking Europe, initially at the expense of Austria, and later as the senior power in German-Austrian cooperation.  Having won Germany’s central place on the continent, Bismarck concluded a bewildering series of overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) agreements with the other European Powers to ensure that place.  But then in 1890 a new king arose who did not know Bismarck.  Young Kaiser Wilhem II disagreed with the Chancellor’s assessment that Germany was a “sated power”.  Proclaiming that Germany would claim its own “place in the sun”, Wilhelm removed the elder statesmen and pursued policies more to his liking and that of the aggressive younger men who advised him.  Those policies brought greater prestige to Germany, but at the price of alarming France and Russia with the construction of the largest land army on the planet, and alarming Great Britain with a naval building program that threatened Britannia’s rule of the sea.  As for Bismarck’s carefully-constructed international order, it, too, came to resemble those feet of iron mixed with clay.

HMS Dreadnought The world's first battleship became the symbol of the naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain.
HMS Dreadnought
The world’s first battleship became the symbol of the naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain.

Germany’s rise came at the expense not only of Austria, but of the three Entente Powers:  Great Britain, France, and Russia.  After nearly a thousand years of conflict, Britain and France had emerged from the imperial struggles of the 18th century as the military, economic, and cultural leaders of the Great Powers.  Britain enjoyed supremacy at sea, as well as a small, but highly effective, army.  Powered by a well-entrenched commercial establishment, led by some of the greatest statesmen of history, and ruled by the wise and long-lived Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901), Britain could boast by 1900 that its flag flew over one-fourth of the globe.  What the United Kingdom lacked in manpower was easily offset by calling on the multitudes of India, Egypt, and Africa, as well as the Commonwealth states of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  With these strengths Great Britain served as the great balancer of Europe, siding first with one set of powers and then with another to ensure that none gained an insurmountable advantage.  And yet Britain had weaknesses, chief being its dependence on maritime trade.  When Germany threatened to challenge Britain for control of the sea lanes, the world’s first arms race occurred.  Both powers strove to out-build one another with more and larger battleships.  While Kaiser Wilhelm nourished a dream of building his empire into a sea power the equal of Britain, he failed to see that the very possibility of such a thing would ensure British enmity.

Napoleon III President of France 1848-1852 Emperor of France 1852-1870
Napoleon III
President of France 1848-1852
Emperor of France 1852-1870

There was nothing Germany could do to avoid the enmity of France.  The tribulation of the Napoleonic wars had left France at the mercy of the other Powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.  From the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 to the defeat of Napoleon I, France had been the catalyst for the irrevocable changes in Europe.  And yet France remained an indispensable part of the European state system.  Loss of France as a Great Power would introduce an imbalance that could not be overcome.  For that reason, the Powers welcomed France back into the fold as an equal, albeit chastened, partner.  France became a monarchy again, at least initially.  The political history of France during the 19th century reflected the schizophrenic nature of the state.  Revolution came again in 1830, bringing a new monarchy, and then again in 1848, bringing a new Republic.  Just four years later, the president of that Second Republic, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, became Emperor Napoleon III, sovereign of the Second French Empire.  Napoleon III aggressively – perhaps recklessly – pursued French territorial expansion overseas and influence in Europe.  His efforts set France on a course of acquisition second only to that of Great Britain, bringing the Tricolor to power over much of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even Mexico.  It was French power that ensured the rebirth of a united Italy, and that checked the attempts of Russia to expand its influence over the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Land.  Yet French power was brittle:  an unstable mixture of autocratic monarchy blended with republican nationalism.  For all the appearance of strength, France was a hollow shell waiting only for some astute observer to notice that her emperor was naked.  Otto von Bismarck noticed, and in 1871 took action.  The Franco-Prussian War was a humiliating defeat for France.  It ended the Second French Empire, birthed the German Empire, and created a deep-seated demand for revenge.  Overcoming the disgrace and regaining the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine consumed the consciousness of the men who established the Third French Republic.

The Third Republic found a willing ally in Russia.  Both were continental Powers who had experienced severe internal unrest, humiliation in wars with lesser-rated powers, and obstacles to their imperial ambitions, as well as a fear and distrust of the growing German threat.  Centuries of expansion toward the south and east had brought Russia to the shores of the Black Sea and the Pacific, and yet the empire of the Tsars still lagged behind the wealthy and technologically superior West.  In 1812 Russia became the graveyard of Napoleon’s famed Grande Armée, ensuring his defeat and Russia’s prominence in the restructuring of Europe.  For the rest of the 19th century Tsar Alexander I and his successors walked a tightrope.  One on hand they required a rod of iron to rule their far-flung empire, stretching from Central Europe to Korea.  Without that strong hand, Poles, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and other nationalities would rise up to demand their rights, and quite likely states of their own.  On the other hand, promoting nationalism at the expense of imperial rivals had its potential rewards.  Russia required access to capital and technology to turn its largely medieval empire into a modern force that equaled the highly advanced British, French, and Germans.  That, in turn, required a warm-water port with unhindered access to the world’s sea lanes.  Russia’s Pacific ports at Vladivostok and Port Arthur did not fit the bill, being nine time zones removed from Europe.  Neither did St. Petersburg, hemmed in on the easily-interdicted Baltic Sea.  That left the Black Sea, with Sevastopol on the Crimea as the premier Russian port.  Yet since the Ottoman Empire straddled the entrance to the Black Sea, the only way Russia could ensure unhindered access to the Mediterranean was by somehow neutralizing the Ottoman Turks.  Balkan nationalism provided the key.

Tsar Nicholas II and Family, 1913
Tsar Nicholas II and Family, 1913

France had unleashed the genie of revolution in 1789.  The French experiment in democracy spawned nationalist movements from Ireland to Greece, kindling the flames that eventually overwhelmed the old state system.  Like all the Great Powers, Russia sought to harness nationalism as a weapon.  Serbs, Bulgarians, and others found patrons in the Tsars, and before long Russia became the champion of a Pan-Slavism movement that sought to free the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula from centuries of Ottoman domination.  In 1878, these efforts succeeded in a war that pushed the Ottoman border back to the very walls of Constantinople (Istanbul) and won independence for Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria.  However, Russia had gained too much, not only against the Ottomans, but also against the Austro-Hungarians.  The massive defeat left the Ottoman Empire vulnerable to disintegration, and Russia’s success encouraged the Slavic populations of Austria-Hungary to renew their efforts at national recognition.  The entire system teetered on the brink of disintegration until Chancellor Bismarck intervened, facilitating the Congress of Berlin in which the Great Powers adjusted Russia’s gains to a more manageable level.  Humiliated and stymied in the Balkans, Russia had nowhere else to turn.  Internal forces demanding changes to the oppressive and inefficient imperial order compelled Tsar Nicholas II to launch a disastrous war against Japan in 1904.  Russia’s loss catapulted both Japan and the United States into the ranks of the Great Powers – Japan because of the astounding demonstration of first-class military and naval might, and the United States as the diplomatic power who ended the Russo-Japanese War through mediation by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Checkmated again, Russia turned inward on itself, looking for an opportunity to repair its sagging prestige.

The opportunity would come in the Balkans, of course.  Nowhere else did Russia enjoy such esteem as in the capitals of Serbia and Bulgaria.  Those nations owed their independence to Russia, although in truth they might eventually have freed themselves as the Ottoman Empire sank into ever deeper disrepair.  Turkey was “The Sick Man of Europe”.  From its height in 1683, when Ottoman forces nearly captured Vienna, Turkey had fallen further and further into decline until, by 1878, it was truly on life support.  Like Russia, Turkey required foreign investment and technology to kick-start a medieval imperial system.  Unlike Russia, Turkey could not call upon a vast hinterland with easily-exploitable resources and untold millions of servants.  The Ottoman sultans simultaneously held the title of caliph, and thus had at least the nominal allegiance of all Muslims regardless of their nationality, but in reality the sultans wielded little power.  The Ottoman Turkish ruling class retained its privileged position at least in part thanks to Greek and Armenian public servants, as well as a military tradition featuring the much-feared Janissaries.  These tools of empire kept Turkey’s multiethnic empire functioning, albeit on life support.  Ironically, all of them were Christian in origin.  The Orthodox Greeks and Armenians merely continued in the roles their ancestors had played before 1453, when the Ottomans ended the thousand year legacy of the Byzantine Empire.  The Janissaries were Christian conscripts forcibly converted to Islam in service of the sultan, Turkey’s ruler.  All of them served the sultan more-or-less willingly as long as it was profitable.  For the Greeks, a war of independence beginning in 1821 ensured the end of their usefulness to the Ottoman state.  Greek independence in 1830 secured lasting animosity, manifested in atrocities and massacres on both sides and a series of wars up to and including the division of Cyprus in 1974.  At the same time, the Janissaries’ influence on the sultan ended rather abruptly.  Having dominated the government for centuries – even to the point of choosing the new sultan – the Janissaries became an obstacle to the reforms introduced in the reign of Sultan Mahmud II.  Consequently, the sultan and his advisors engineered a plan to eliminate the Janissaries, which they carried out rather brutally in 1826.  As for the Armenians, when their simmering nationalism threatened to erupt after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Turks took ever harsher measures at suppressing them.  By 1915, with Turkey engulfed in World War, the Armenian final solution arrived.  Within two years, nearly a million and a half Armenians perished in the genocide perpetrated by the Turks and their Kurdish accomplices.

Sultan Mehmet VI Last ruler of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1922
Sultan Mehmet VI
Last ruler of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1922

But no amount of repression could save the Ottoman Empire from oblivion.  The only reason it survived as long as it did was so that the other Great Powers could enrich themselves from its decline, and because the Powers deemed the dissolution of the Ottoman realm as too difficult to manage.  For over a century the Powers sliced off pieces of Ottoman territory here and there:  France in Algeria and Lebanon, Britain in Egypt, Kuwait, and the Gulf States, Russia in the Caucasus, and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans.  Yet by 1900 the sultans stilled ruled the core Middle East.  Millions of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Yezidis, and others dwelt under Ottoman lordship from Gaza to Basra and from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Aden.  In the process of attempting to educate this diverse population, the Turks permitted Western missionaries to establish schools, such as the American University of Beirut.  These institutions had the unintended effect of transplanting the ideas of nationalism to the peoples of the empire, including the Arabs, Kurds, and Armenians.  Before long they, like the Balkan peoples, began to agitate for national self-determination.  As the 19th century drew to a close, another national voice was heard:  the Jews.  With the advent of the modern Zionist Movement under the leadership of Theodore Herzl and others, Jews began in the 1880s to flee the rising anti-Semitism of Europe and return to their hereditary homeland in what had by that time come to be called Palestine.

It would be another generation before the Jewish presence in Palestine became strong enough to reach toward statehood, but by 1900 the Balkan states were already viable and growing.  Late in 1912 they were strong enough to take matters into their own hands.  Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria united in that year to wrest from Turkey almost all its remaining European possessions and assist Albania in gaining independence.  A dispute among the Balkan allies led to a second war in 1913 in which Turkey regained territory to what are now its present European borders.  By 1914, all of the Balkan states were relatively stable, except for one:  Bosnia.

Part II summarizes the beginning of World War I and its aftermath, leading to analysis of parallels with 2014 in part III.

Please click here to continue to Part II.

Please click here to continue to Part III.

Please click here to continue to Part IV.

Please click here to continue to Part V.

Please click here to continue to Part VI.

© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2014.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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