Whenever I need to explain WWI and the resulting shape of the 20th Century I always begin by telling the story of Gavrilo Princip and his sandwich.
Gavrilo was born to poor Serbian Orthodox Christian tenant farmers who had to give a third of their income to their oppressive Muslim landlords. He was a bright student and became politically active as a young teenager and was expelled from school; shortly thereafter he became involved with a Serbian guerrilla/terrorist organization called the Black Hand that was devoted to the cause of Bosnian independence from Austria-Hungary (they wanted Bosnia to join with Serbia.). Then Austria-Hungary declared a state of emergency that was aimed at Serbians. Gavrilo was assigned with five others to assassinate the Archduke of Austria-Hungary during a visit to Sarajevo.
The assassination attempt began as a clownshow. The first conspirator lost his nerve and froze. The second threw a grenade that detonated three cars behind the Archduke’s, causing a panic that scattered the conspirators as the Archduke’s car took off. After throwing the bomb the would be assassin took stale cyanide and tried to drown himself in a four inch deep river. He merely got sick and wet and was captured moments later.
Hours passed and Gavrilo got hungry; he stopped at a cafe’, bought a sandwich, and sat outside and ate with his unfired pistol in his jacket pocket.
Franz Ferdinand had successfully made his speech but insisted on visiting the hospital where those who had been injured by the bomb attack had been brought. There was a communication foul up between his driver and the general in charge of security and Ferdinand’s car turned off onto a random side street. When the driver realized his mistake he slammed on the brakes, stopping the car ten feet away from where Gavrilo Princep was eating his sandwich. Princep stood, advanced, drew and fired, killing the Archduke and Duchess.
This act precipitated a declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia.
At this time the nations of the world had no global court or venue in which all could speak and argue together. Instead it was a hodgepodge of treaties driven by the whims of leaders who arrogantly regarded war as a great game. The assassination triggered a deranged outburst of aggression that soon embroiled the entire world and set in motion World War I, which would kill over 15 million people. The US finally entered the war on the side of Britain and her Allies and were able to bring the conflict decisively to an end. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, proposed terms of peace that would have shared the burden of war costs and debt as fairly as possible with the aim of reconstructing nations and their economies as quickly as he could. This included the creation of a League of Nations where all nations could send representatives to conduct diplomacy in the open before all so that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.
Then Wilson had a stroke and was unable to stop the Europeans from punishing Germany with crushing debt and punitive conditions for peace not could he keep the American nativists and isolationists from refusing to allow the US to join the League of Nations we were creating and hosting. Without the US in the League, it never came into being. Under the debt burden Germany suffered terrifically; they had also been given a constitution that only allowed a febrile federal government with little real power or ability to do anything for the people.
All of the choices made in 1918 led to 1938.
In 1945, after the twenty million dead of WWI was overshadowed by carnage that had consumed at least sixty million human beings in the seven years of WWII, the lesson was learned and the United Nations was formed, with NATO not far behind as the Soviet threat was too obvious to be ignored. The United States had used weapons that were the equivalent to dropping a piece of the sun onto a city; with the smallest possible piece they could drop they had vaporized tens of thousands of humans in a heartbeat. They formed these institutions knowing full well the next time international order broke down humanity would not have a second chance. The last person who served in WWI died five years ago. The average age of a veteran of WWII is in the mid 90’s; a few years ago it was reported over a thousand WWII vets were dying and there’s probably not that many more than a half million left.
The United Nations was never supposed to create total world peace and utopia; it is meant to prevent global war and disorder. NATO was never supposed to be a club where we demand dues but to be a bulwark against Russian aggression. In a world with nuclear weapons triggering world war cannot be made possible by where a teenager buys a sandwich.
Mikhail Gorbachev is one of the most important people of the 20th Century and his wise courageous actions bought you a peace dividend that is impossible to appreciate because who knows what might otherwise have been? You really should listen to him now.