Understanding the Great War

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 31, 2014

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914 set off a chain of events that a few weeks later led to an all-out war involving virtually all key European powers and their enormous overseas empires at the time. How did this happen?

As a Sarajevan, I was socialized from an early age to think about the causes of the Great War, a question that happens to be one of the most studied in all of human history. I vividly recall my first primary school trip to “Princip’s footsteps” — markings embedded into the sidewalk where the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, fired. We boys took turns standing in the footprints and re-enacted the killing; the girls giggled. There was no doubt that this behaviour was desirable: with our teachers we read the plaque that said the assassin’s shots expressed the will of Yugoslavs to be free of foreign tyranny. Is it true Sophie was pregnant? a classmate asked. Yes, said one teacher, but Princip’s bullet hit her after it ricocheted off the car.

If the Great War is indeed an object with great many functions, purposes and meanings, then paying attention to how historical interpretations of its causes shift — and fail to shift — always hold important clues and cues about our changing world.

Trying to grasp the meanings of the words “tyranny” and “ricochet” proved to be the easy part. In later grades we learned that Princip was a hero and that his “Young Bosnia” was a multinational society of revolutionaries who fought for the unification of all South Slavs. The proof: one of Princip’s co-conspirators — seven teenagers armed with pistols, grenades, and suicide cyanide pills who nervously waited for Ferdinand’s motorcade that day — was a chap named Muhamed.

At home, alas, I learned that Young Bosnians were trained and equipped by a secret Belgrade-based organization called “Freedom or Death.” So was Princip a terrorist? By the time it became possible to openly discuss this question in school, Yugoslavia had started to fall apart, and the fact that one person’s terrorist was another person’s freedom fighter was no one’s idea of breaking news. Since this time, little has changed in fact: there are now two Sarajevos, and so two truths about assassinations past.

My primary school teachers also taught me how to think within a broader historical materialist framework. To understand First World War we must go back Lenin, declared one of them in grade seven. Financial capital operating in the core needed colonies for materials, labour, and markets. This led to inter-imperial wars among core nation-states as well as to nationalist movements and anti-colonial wars in the periphery. True, the teacher concluded, socialist revolution never occurred in the core, but Lenin wrote that imperialism was the latest, not the last stage of capitalism. Many years later, I was amused to find out that Eric Hobsbawm treated this point as particularly revelatory in one of his books.

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I revisited the causes of the First World War in earnest as a first-year university student. Joseph Nye’s Understanding International Conflicts explained it all with a brew of three levels of analysis, three types of causes, several analogies, half a dozen counterfactual thought experiments, with a dash of phrases like “path dependence” and “overdetermination.” In this concoction, some causal theories evaporated (Lenin’s, for one), others crystallized (the nature of the European balance of power system, nationalism, leadership complacency). Nye’s conclusion: “war was not inevitable until it actually broke out in August 1914. And even then it was not inevitable that four years of carnage had to follow.”

Things got more complicated in graduate school. The more I ventured into the philosophies behind the agent-structure problem, black swan events, post-Humean teachings on causality, fact-value distinctions and the like, the harder it became to accept even the most basic narrative structure of history. An example: “First World War broke out in August 1914.” Careful! The conflict may not qualify as a world war in a non-Eurocentric sense until a month later, when Japanese troops invaded the German settlement in Qingdao. Next, “to break out” is devoid of precision, and “August 1914” accepts the Gregorian calendar over the Julian calendar to say nothing of the Chinese, Hebraic or Islamic methods of recording the passage of time.


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This was pure acadamese of course, but it did vindicate an intuition I developed back in primary school — that all historical explanations are themselves historical. I also learned that truly multicausal explanations of the war may be rare and even impossible — I am referring to explanations that account for the complex interaction between and among causes that are both structural and agential, short and long term, intentional and unintentional, material and ideational and so on.

Rather than turning into a lost cause, my search for the causes of the First World War remains alive, even if it is now “reduced” to an attempt to understand why people write about the past as they do. The centennial year has already seen no shortage of conversations and controversies about the war, many of which project contemporary debates about the rise of China, world trade, civil-military relations, multiculturalism and the like back to 1914. As scholars revise standard accounts or, better yet, access new evidence, new dialectics emerge.

This is why I am not ready to give up in my quest: if the Great War is indeed an object with great many functions, purposes and meanings, then paying attention to how historical interpretations of its causes shift — and fail to shift — always hold important clues and cues about our changing world.

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