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Origins of World War I: Empire in Europe to 1908

The great absurdity called World War One had its origins in historical development involving empire. That war cannot be said to have been inevitable, but given the mentalities of people with political power and the gullibility of the many others it can be said to have been likely.

An overview of empire from the 1870's includes the Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey and including Balkan territories: Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and others. A neighboring empire to the north, centered in Vienna, was ruled by the Habsburg family. It also included Serbs and Romanians, and there were Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, a few Italians, some Germans, and Hungarians. The Ottomans and the Habsburgs believed that they had a God-given right to rule over their various subjects.

The Habsburg in Vienna, Franz Joseph, was a devout Roman Catholic who believed that his politics, his authoritarian rule and his imperialism, were in tune with God's righteousness. Franz Joseph was respectable. His imperialism had origins in an ethos and arrogance of power that went back centuries. Franz Joseph's imperialism was a part of Europe's ruling elite in general viewing empire as proper.

Europe in the last half of the 1800s was militarily superior to the Ottoman Empire. In 1877, mass opinion arose in Russia in support of their fellow Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman-ruled Balkans. Tsar Alexander II was goaded into a war with the Ottoman Empire, a war fought in the Balkans and the Caucasus and a war of short duration — settled in January 1878. A treaty in March (1878) between Russia and Turkey freed Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro from Turkish rule. That treaty gave autonomy to Bosnia-Herzegovina and it created a huge autonomous Bulgaria under Russian protection.

During that war, the Russians had mollified Austria's Franz Joseph by giving him permission to invade Bosnia-Herzegovina, a land of Eastern Orthodox Christians and some converts to Islam. Franz Joseph's army marched into Bosnia-Herzegovina with banners flying that told of Roman Catholicism, and Bosnia-Hercegovina's Orthodox Christians abhorred the idea of Roman Catholic foreign rule.

Franz Joseph was pleased by gains that compensated for his loss of territory in Italy, but while applying his rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina he chose for the sake of appearances to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Serbs in the newly independent state called Serbia disliked seeing their fellow Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina subjugated by Franz Joseph. Orthodox Serbs viewed Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a greater Serbia.

Fast forward to 1908. Franz Joseph, now 78, shocked Europe by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina. He wanted to die leaving his empire as great as it had been when he ascended the throne back in 1848 as the empire's caretaker. His vanity didn't sit well with the Orthodox Russians. They saw the Serbs as brother Slavs. Russia's long-standing agreement with Franz Joseph's Austria-Hungary concerning the Balkans was at an end.

Two days after the annexation, a secret society formed in Serbia that called itself Narodna Oderana (National Defense) — also known as the Black Hand. It was dedicated to the liberation of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Habsburg rule. And the annexation altered the attitude of young Serbians in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Students there turned from a strategy that was gradualist and peaceful (a strategy that had been advocated by the Czech nationalist Thomas Masaryk) to a greater respect for violence, bolstered by their respect for those who had martyred themselves trying to assassinate the Turkish conquerors of their land centuries before. Youths in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo were now more inclined to consider assassination as one of their tools for liberation.

CONTINUE READING: Power Rivalry to 1912

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