WWI centennial uncovers old wounds

Considered the start of chain of events that led to World War I, the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife occurred 100 years ago this Saturday.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The shots were carried out by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian teenager from Bosnia who was part of a revolutionary group that opposed occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary. Ferdinand was heir to that empire’s throne. Princip, whose father opposed the Ottoman empire when it occupied the area, wanted an independent Yugoslavian nation for Serbs and other Balkan ethnic groups.

Most historians agree Ferdinand’s death ignited what had been a “powder keg” of tensions stemming from decades of conflict between empires, countries, and ethnic groups. Austria-Hungary and Serbia went to war. Sides formed, and World War I erupted. It lasted for four years, leaving tens of millions of soldiers, civilians, and war horses dead, wounded, and traumatized.

The United States didn’t get involved until 1917, when it intercepted an encrypted note from Germany to Mexico requesting an alliance against the U.S.

The losing countries fell into ruin, especially Germany, and the “war to end all wars” paved the way for nationalist groups responsible for World War II activity to take root. The former ruling empires dissolved and Yugoslavia was formed. So Princip today considered either a hero or a terrorist, depending on where his name is mentioned. A scholarly conference held last week in Sarajevo to mark the war’s centennial revealed that conflicting political viewpoints about who was responsible for it are still contentious.

All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and The poems by Wilfred Owen are prominent examples of works about World War I by people who were in the throes of it. Remarque was a German solder and his papers can be found in ArchiveGrid. Owen fought for the British and his papers are also in ArchiveGrid. Another interesting collection at the Center for American History at the University of Texas documents the experiences of 20 American soldiers.

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