Take a few moments today to wish our modern world a happy birthday, because in a very real sense, it was born on this date 100 years ago.
On June 28, 1914, a young Serbian rebel named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo, which at that time was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Princip was a member of a group called the Young Bosnians, which was one of several loosely-connected resistance groups (the most well-known of which was the awesomely named Black Hand) agitating against Austrian rule of the Balkan countries.
Princip and his five fellow assassins were selected mainly on the basis of their being ill with tuberculosis, which was usually a death sentence in those days; that made carrying out what was likely a suicide mission a little easier.
Despite having a plan that amounted to little more than “just kill this fool, somehow,” the plot succeeded when the Archduke’s driver helpfully made a wrong turn at the street corner where Gavrilo Princip happened to be standing and then stalled his car when he tried to reverse. Princip fired two pistol shots from about five feet away. The first struck the Archduke in the neck, killing him almost immediately, and the second struck Duchess Sophie in the abdomen as she tried to shield her husband’s body with her own; she died several hours later in the hospital.
Princip was promptly seized, and within a few hours a police dragnet rounded up some 25 plotters, 16 of whom would eventually be convicted of various crimes. Princip himself, too young for the death penalty under Austrian law, was sentenced to 20 years in prison; he would die of tuberculosis three years later. During the investigation and trials it was established that support for and possibly even the order to carry out the assassination had come from within the Serbian government. This led to a humiliating ultimatum being issued to Serbia by the Austrian government, which, in turn, led to a frantic month of diplomatic maneuvering all across Europe, a period which is known to history as the July Crisis.
Gavrilo Princip’s two bullets knocked over the first domino that would lead to a global conflagration. The “war to end all wars” and its aftermath—which included the Spanish Flu epidemic that spread rapidly, thanks to millions of soldiers moving around the world, the Russian Revolution and its resulting Civil War, and the Turkish War of Independence and its brutal sideshow, the Armenian Genocide—resulted in about 98 million deaths. The political landscape was forever changed as well; five different monarchies—Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy—were eliminated, leaving in their wake a seething cauldron of instability.
The aftermath of the war that Gavrilo Princip started led to a grim economic depression, which, along with the rise of Communism, enabled the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, with tragic consequences for the generation after World War I. It also led to the awakening of Asian independence movements; a young Ho Chi Minh was in attendance at the Versailles Conference in 1919, where his call for Indochinese independence from France was rejected. The great conflict, which had so wounded the western world, also accelerated the rise of Imperial Japan, an ultimately tragic process that actually had begun with Japan’s surprising defeat of Russia ten years before the outbreak of World War I, but which led to the rise of modern Japan, and with it, many of the modern conveniences we now take for granted.
Here are a few more things whose pedigrees can be traced, one way or another, to a teenaged malcontent who happened to be standing in just the right spot on a summer morning a century ago: Commercial air travel. Space flight. Nuclear power (and its evil cousin, the atomic bomb). The United Nations. An independent Philippines.
Of course, playing “six degrees of separation” with specific historical events is only instructive if we understand the broader implications. What Gavrilo Princip really achieved that day in Sarajevo 100 years ago was to set the world on an evolutionary path toward what it is today: A world that, for the most part, paradoxically strives towards ethnocentric nationalism and international cooperation at the same time, but nevertheless away from imperialism and colonialism. There have been exceptions, naturally—the path of history is never quite linear—but without exception, those rebellions against the trend have been dismal failures; notable examples would be the Soviet Union’s bloody misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the equally undignified US war on Iraq in 2003-2010.
That is why we view with skepticism—disdain, in fact—the stubborn insistence of one country to claim territory far beyond its obvious borders, and the equally stubborn insistence of another who feels threatened by that imperialistic ambition that greater powers should amend their own laws to accept it as a client state. Both attitudes are anachronisms, belonging to an era that is long past; an era, in fact, that began to end when Gavrilo Princip drew his pistol on this day 100 years ago. Sovereign identities are no longer established by something so trite as military might, but by the exchange of culture and commerce. If those who rule would stop for just a moment and take a look around this century instead of the last, they would realize that is already happening, and is actually working quite well, all things considered.