The Sarajevo Syndrome

An attack in a remote capital a century ago sparked World War I. Could events spin out of control again?

On June 28, 1914, the motorcade carrying Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, made a wrong turn on the streets of Sarajevo. His car had no reverse gear, so the engine was disengaged and the car pushed back onto the main road. That gave Gavrilo Princip all the time he needed. The 19-year-old Bosnian Serb stepped up to the car and fired twice at point-blank range, fatally wounding both Franz Ferdinand and his wife. “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for our children,” the heir to the empire said as his helmet, plumed with green ostrich feathers, slipped from his head.

The cataclysmic chain of events that ensued has troubled political and military thinkers to this day. Austria-Hungary made severe demands of Serbia, which it correctly suspected of involvement in the assassinations. Serbia rejected the ultimatum. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a web of alliances began to ensnare the entire continent. Russia, as an ally of Serbia, declared it was fully mobilizing its armed forces. Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary, preemptively declared war first on Russia, then on France, Russia’s ally. The guns of August began to sound. By the time World War I ended in 1918, roughly 17 million combatants and civilians had died, with nothing to show for their loss.

Photo illustration by 731; Lithograph: Bridgeman Art; Still from Verdun: Visions D’Histoire; Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Change 1914 to 2014, and Sarajevo to Homs or Mosul or Donetsk or Kashmir or Panmunjom or the Senkaku Islands or the Spratlys or name-your-own conflict zone. Now as then, fights over small places whose names belong on a quiz show threaten to embroil the world’s most powerful armies. The powder kegs are in place, waiting for a Gavrilo Princip to light the fuse.

What can be done to avoid a recurrence of the Sarajevo Syndrome? The First and Second World Wars offer different lessons. Those of World War I are clear: Keep local conflicts local; communicate; avoid escalation, even if that means letting down a putative ally. World War II has a different moral. The mistake that led to that conflagration was failing to stand up to evil. The haunting image of 1938 is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of “peace for our time” upon his return from Munich—having meekly acquiesced in Adolf Hitler’s annexation of German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

“In World War I it was miscalculation, stumbling your way into a conflict that was avoidable. In World War II the lesson was about understanding the signs of aggression when you see it … so you don’t end up on the defensive in a war,” summarizes Kathleen Hicks, a former U.S. Department of Defense official who is director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Looking to historical precedent, Hicks says, is “what you see day in, day out in American foreign policy: where on the spectrum you are sitting and which lesson to apply.”

It’s the lessons of World War I that loom large at the moment, and not just because of the centennial. We are closer to the world of 1914 now than we were during the Cold War, which lasted from the 1950s to the ’80s, or during the decade or so when the U.S. emerged as the lone superpower. Once again the world is multipolar. Nuclear weapons seem to have lost their power to freeze potential combatants in place. China is on the rise, fueled by its manufacturing might and resentment over a history of foreign colonialism. Russia may be on the wane economically and demographically, but President Vladimir Putin is punching above his weight. Even U.S. allies are exerting independence: Japan is going nose to nose with China over the Senkakus in a way that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

Another echo of 1914 is the instability wrought by failed states. Today we worry about Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and other nations that are or threaten to become power vacuums and havens for terrorists and criminals. In 1914 the long decline of the Ottoman Empire had created a rush for territory and political influence in the Balkans that drew in Italy, Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Greece, and others. Europe compounded the crisis by tying the entire continent’s fate to a conflict in its most volatile corner. Mostly forgotten now is that World War I was immediately preceded by the First Balkan War (1912-13) and the Second Balkan War (1913). “The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War,” writes historian Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, a history of the failed diplomacy that preceded World War I.

There is a pessimistic theory that rising powers and incumbents inevitably come to blows: Athens and Sparta in classical Greece; perhaps China and the U.S. one day soon. According to the Thucydides Trap theory, it was the economic and military rise of Germany after its 1871 unification under Wilhelm of Prussia that upset the balance of power in Europe and made World War I inevitable. “Germany either had to trust that Russia and France would never attack it, and that wasn’t rational, or it had to initiate the war on its own terms,” says George Friedman, founder and chairman of Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company.

Clark argues in The Sleepwalkers that World War I was very much evitable, possibly even unlikely given the common interests that existed at the time between, for example, Germany and Britain. The war was, he says, the result of miscommunication, shortsightedness, and an abdication of personal and national responsibility. Each nation’s diplomats acted as if their hands were tied—as if they were responding in the only way possible to the provocations of others. In a letter on July 12, 1914, German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow wrote that keeping the conflict between Austria and the Serbs from spreading “will depend in the first place on Russia,” while adding, “if the fight offers itself, we dare not flinch.” War is what you get when no one dares flinch.

Today, China’s maritime skirmishes with Japan, Vietnam, and others are probably the closest parallel to the feints and jabs that preceded World War I. Those who see wars as inevitable can argue that the antagonism between China and Japan is a continuation of territorial and political rivalries that date to the 1870s or earlier. Such resignation to fate supplies only prophecy, not solutions.

If war is a choice, then the mistakes of the First World War provide important diplomatic and policy lessons. One is the danger of misunderstanding. Speaking in April at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Asia needs to damp hostilities and promote communication through forums such as the 18-nation East Asia Summit, which includes the U.S., China, and Russia. “One of the profound lessons of 1914 is how rapidly circumstances could change from utterly benign to utterly catastrophic within the space of months,” he said.

The essential thing is to see clearly and decide unemotionally. That is not what Europe did a century ago. “In this sense,” Clark concludes in the final sentence of his book, “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, but blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

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