1914—It Changed Your Life
ALMOST 70 years ago, on Monday morning, June 29, 1914, the newspapers carried a shocking headline: “HEIR TO AUSTRIA’S THRONE IS SLAIN.” Perhaps that item of news seems very old to you now—almost like something out of ancient history. Nevertheless, it startled those who were alive at the time. And it set in motion a chain of events that still affects you.
These events, moreover, were evidence of other far more momentous happenings that will soon affect your life very profoundly indeed. Let us see how all of this is true.
Its Effects Are Still Felt
First, how is your life today, in the 1980’s, affected by that assassination of long ago? Well, that was the event that triggered the first world war. That war, along with the peace agreement that followed, shaped the world we know.
Before that war, the world scene was dominated by empires, most of them built up by formidable European powers. The war led to the breakup of these empires, and today the stability of the world is no longer maintained by a few powerful European countries. Instead we see something that threatens even the survival of mankind: a relentless contest for superiority between two superpowers, communist Russia and capitalist America. This situation, too, finds its roots in the first world war.
Before that war, Russia was a vast, backward country dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church and ruled by the czar. America, though strong, was in no way viewed as a rival of the European powers. The first world war changed all of that. According to historian René Albrecht-Carrié, “the [first world] war marked the coming of age of America in the community of states.” He adds: “The power of the United States at the end of the war in all respects far outdistanced all others.” The vast wealth of America, in comparison with the economic exhaustion of the European powers, led to her present world dominance.
In Russia, rumblings of rebellion had been heard before the war. During the war Russia took the field against Germany, so Germany sent the Russian revolutionary Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to his native land, in the hope of increasing the internal unrest there. The strategy was successful, and Russia left the war. Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks, took control of the Russian revolution, and the direct result of that event is the Russia we see today.
Apart from the rivalry between the superpowers, there is today unprecedented agitation and instability among and within nations. This is also a part of what historian Charles L. Mee, Jr., calls the “terribly mixed legacy” of the first world war and the peace treaty that followed. As part of that legacy, he enumerates “the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the riots and revolutions that plague a world without political order.” You still read about that bloodshed and suffering in your morning newspapers. And remember, the second world war spurred the development of nuclear bombs, which cast a threatening shadow over the very existence of life on earth.
Author Mee adds, however, “at the same time, the collapse of the old order was a necessary prelude to the spread of self-rule, the liberation of new nations and classes, the release of new freedom and independence.” Before 1914, most nations were ruled by a privileged, hereditary aristocracy. Class structures were rigid. The first world war accelerated the breakup of that system. As historian René Albrecht-Carrié says: “It was the First World War that broke the dyke of the nineteenth-century social structure; the claims of the Common Man for recognition could no longer be denied.” Today, it is difficult to imagine the power the old ruling classes once had.
Yes, the world that we know today started to be formed when that assassin’s bullet cut down the heir to the throne of Austria 70 years ago. Your life would be very different if that tragedy, and the war it triggered, had never happened. But other things were happening during the early years of this century. Most people were completely unaware of their significance. Yet these things touch your life even more profoundly.
[Picture on page 3]
Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, five minutes before being slain