We’ve just passed the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, which certainly is no cause for celebration.
Although the U.S. formally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 — unlike the speedy action after Pearl Harbor, it took Congress four days to concur with Woodrow Wilson’s request for action — American troops didn’t actually engage in combat until a year later.
By the time the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918, nearly 117,000 members of the American Expeditionary Forces had died. While that figure pales in comparison to U.S. casualties in the Civil War and World War II, it’s a horrendous total for just over six months of fighting.
The man responsible for the war’s worldwide death toll of 38 million is someone you’ve probably never heard of : Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb fanatically dedicated to ending Austria-Hungary’s rule of his homeland.
On June 28, 1914, Princip and five co-conspirators set out to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his visit to Bosnia. A planned attack on the archduke’s motorcade in Sarajevo failed. One conspirator chickened out and didn’t throw his bomb when he had the chance. Another tossed a grenade, but it exploded under another car, seriously injuring two members of Franz Ferdinand’s entourage.
The opportunity for assassination seemed lost, but Princip was lucky — unluckily for the rest of the world. Franz Ferdinand wanted to visit his friends wounded in the grenade attack, but his driver made a wrong turn en route to the hospital. When the driver put the car in reverse to get back on course, it stalled — right in front of Princip, who had stopped at a cafe for a meal.
Princip seized his chance, stepping forward and firing two shots into the car. One bullet fatally wounded the archduke, and the other killed his wife, Countess Sophie. Thanks to monumental stupidity by Europe’s monarchs, the murders ignited the fuse for the carnival of carnage that came to be known as the Great War.
The assassination led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, which was thought to be behind the murder plot. When Serbian ally Russia mobilized for an attack on the Habsburg empire, Germany demanded Russia to stand down. On Aug. 1, Germany declared war on Russia, then promptly invaded neutral Belgium as the launching pad for an invasion of France. Within days, what had been a dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia grew into a continental conflagration.
By the time the United States entered the fray, millions had died on the battlefields and in the trenches. Although Russia essentially gave up the fight after the Bolshevik revolution, freeing up German armies from the Eastern Front, the infusion of American doughboys played a key role in forcing the Central Powers to accept an armistice.
To understand how the civilized Western world collapsed into murderous madness, you have to know Europe at the start of the 20th century. For almost 100 years after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Europe had enjoyed unprecedented peace, progress and prosperity (outside of the Balkans, a string of unsuccessful revolutions in 1848 and two conflicts involving Prussia).
But nationalism still percolated in the fat and happy countries. Africa sated much of the ambitions, as Britain, France, Germany and lesser powers grabbed colonies, but the continent was pretty much divvied up by 1900. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution had brought bright, shiny weapons to large armies that had nothing to do. All it took was Princip to fire his pistol to bring down empires and forever change the world.
Perhaps war still would have come without the assassin, but it probably wouldn’t have been the same war on the same fronts with the same results. But think about what Princip did set in motion.
Without Princip, there would have been no World War II because Germany would not have been seething over unsettled grievances. There would have been no Hitler, no Holocaust.
Without Princip, there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Lenin, no Stalin, no gulag. As a result, you can erase, Mao, Fidel and other Red revolutionaries from the history books.
Without Princip, the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires might still exist, leaving many ethnic groups under imperial control. The dissolution of the Turkish empire is at the heart of today’s troubles in the Middle East, as the British and French made a total mess overseeing Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Without Princip, the lives of at least 150 million people would not have been snuffed out on the battlefield or by their own totalitarian governments.
As the year 2000 approached, a number of groups hailed Albert Einstein as the Man of the 20th Century. Without doubt, the physicist was a remarkable genius whose revelations changed the course of science and will reverberate for generations to come.
But if the Man of the Century is the one who had the biggest effect on the world, for better or worse, the title has to go a 19-year-old killer from Bosnia, Gavrilo Princip.