The nobody who changed the world

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The nobody who changed the world

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 café 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.

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.