One hundred years ago this June 28th the heirs to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, were gunned down on a Sarajevo street. The bullets fired by Serb nationalist Gavril Princip rippled throughout Europe and within four and a half years four empires and the entire order of Europe were ripped apart.
But even more than that fell on that day a century ago. The entire world changed in ways that have not come to a place of any stability since. The two most pressing conflicts in the world, in Ukraine and Syria, are over borders carelessly drawn as both nations came into existence after that terrible war and are still unsettled.
We should mark this anniversary of a century of waves that have crashed the world closer than Franz Ferdinand could have ever imagined.
It wasn’t just the empires that fell – German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman. Empires had waxed and waned for centuries before the Great War broke out. It was that it ended empire as a concept and sent the world searching for a new way to organize itself.
This process started out in the image of empire as Britain and France carved up the world at Versailles. Wilson’s perspective, that people should be free to determine their own fate, made no sense to the powers that won the war. While the war was the first arrival of the US as a world power, neither her people nor the power brokers in London and Paris were ready to universalize open representative democracy.
Instead, the horror of the war emphasized the need for power and domination. Communism in Russia focused on the paranoid need to eliminate all traces of the old order, and in Germany opposition to this made fascism look appealing. Japan learned that the western powers only respected brute force and started total militarization, while China learned that it would never get respect.
World War II led directly from the mistakes made at the end of World War I in every significant way, and the US learned that it had to stay involved. That meant digesting a big dose of the powerborker fascist poison that demanded a large standing army and sense of unity that the nation had never maintained before. Where the last half of the century past was very much about America, the US itself became a very different nation in the process.
So did the world. Commerce evolved to fill the vacuum left by the end of empire. For better or worse calls to both freedom and exploitation have all been realized as a new sorting out in the image of the US took hold and gradually outgrew even America itself. Who should run the world? Everyone and no one is gradually the answer, but brute force and ever more destructive weapons still make life miserable for millions.
What matters is that this all started a century ago in a time and place that are almost impossible to understand today. The concept of “empire” that had ruled Europe and most of the world for centuries bled out to a slow death, not unlike that suffered by Franz Ferdinand himself. The process is unfinished as civil unrest spills over border that seem very artificial and commerce itself lives far apart from the constraints of government control.
The world is not rule by Emperors. It isn’t really ruled at all, merely pushed around to the extent the US can manage to keep shoving it around in the shadows of our heritage as a free and independent people.
Where will this take us in the next century? Certainly, some of the strange borders forced on people in Versailles will be erased through horrible wars. The focus on power has already shifted away from a purely military model to economics and the accumulation of advanced technology. It is a very different world.
What about the real promise of freedom that Wilson left on the table to be sneered at? Is it only about power and forcing other people to do what we demand at a price we set? The world isn’t quite ready for genuine freedom and equality. The old order had to be swept away before the world could even spend a few generations imagining what else might possibly replace it.
But the world we live in was defined by that moment in Sarajevo when the world of empires was gunned down in an open car. Since then the only constants have been change and an ever closer world. Where it will take us remains, a century on, an unanswered question.