An attempt at revision of the First World War: a single voice or more than that?

It is not so easy to collect one’s thoughts in such a limited space offered by such a reputed daily newspaper as “Politika”. It is difficult to make an assessment when distance in time from the events that have taken place is insufficient, in order to put it, without any prejudice, into an objective context. However, it is possible to single out the major events that led to the outbreak of the First World War. 

A lot has been researched and written about the Great War, an armed conflict of large proportions that shook the whole world. Until recently, no divergent views were heard among the historians over the causes of the War; who were the guilty parties and who were the victims. There were living witnesses, proud elderly people who would not accept lies, told or written. The forged friendships between countries and peoples that were thought to be forever have outlasted. 

Nevertheless, in recent time, voices have been raised placing the facts of that time in present-day context, referring to the St. Vitus Day assassination as an act of terrorism that triggered the First World War. These trends, however insignificant, superfluous and despicable they may seem, cannot leave us indifferent. Judging by all indicators, a fresh attempt is now at work to put the blame, outright, on Serbia, unfairly and without any grounds. The way is paved for the culprits to clear their conscience and wash their blooded hands, thus taking the blame off their back.   

For the third time in a century, Serbia stands in someone’s way. The trend towards revising history and fabricating a terrorist act as the causus bello for the start of the First World War alludes that Serbia drew a large part of humanity into world conflagration. Will the victorious powers allow this to happen? Have the victims of the just struggle for freedom been in vain? We have no right to fall silent, even though the lie is reflected in a single voice.  

From the plethora of events, one should highlight the most striking ones explaining what led up to the First World War, by looking at it from various angles. Any action is masterminded by a thought and the catastrophe of the First World War was preceded by the desire and aspirations of certain leaders to trample under foot other nations in order to ensure better living conditions for their own people. In their judgment, the less worthy population should be annihilated on their way of achieving “just” ends.  

The truth about this was best illustrated by the contempt of “small” peoples, demonstrated during the annexation and Sarajevo crises.   Let us briefly recall the historical facts about the First World War and its underlying causes from many of our own and foreign sources.   

The antagonisms between the Great European Powers became apparent at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, especially in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean of North Africa and the Balkans. These aspirations were based on the redistribution of colonies, primarily in economic, political and military strategic fields. The Balkan Peninsula could not have avoided being drawn into the rivalry between the European powers.  

Chairman of the US Historians Association Charlton J. H. Hawes said about the outcome of the Berlin Congress:   “Before 1878, we had the Eastern Question concerning one sick-man (Turkey) and after 1878, we had a number of maniacs, because the Berlin Congress had driven the Balkan people into madness.”   It’s a big unknown what Europe would be like today, had Serbia remained a vassal state of Austria-Hungary as it was during the reign of King Milan. Let us remember the unfavourable foreign trade arrangements and the railway convention, acceptance of the occupation of Bosnia and the disastrous secret agreement between the King and Vienna. For the sake of truth, Milan managed to become a crowned monarch owing to such arrangements, including many other personal privileges. The wheel of history turned with his abdication, inconsistent policies pursued by King Alexander Obrenovic and accession to the thrown by King Peter I Karadjordjevic after the May coup. Serbia turned to the settlement of its internal problems and changed its relationship with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.   

In a nutshell, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was a prelude to WWI, with Austria-Hungary having an eye on conquering the former territories of the Ottoman Empire and crushing Serbian resistance and fully neutralizing, assimilating and marginalizing Serbia and the Serbian nation living in the territories of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Old Serbia, Serbia and Macedonia.    Austria-Hungary and Germany prepared themselves for the war for more than six years. Militarily, the two powers were unsurpassed. The timing of the conflict was chosen by Germany, which allowed and encouraged its allied Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia unprovoked, following the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand. The attempt to link Serbia to the event failed. The ultimatum given to Serbia and the declaration of war on it, have already become common knowledge.  

The Austro-Hungarian military plan was to trample Serbia before Russia, which took several weeks to call up its troops, could appear on the battlefield to face the overpowering enemy.   The Austro-Hungarian army attacked Serbia whose forces defended the lines on Mount Cer. The battle of Cer began on 12 August 1914. During the next two weeks, Serbs not only defeated the Austro-Hungarian army offensive, but forced the entire Austro-Hungarian army to retreat. The consequence of this was that Austria-Hungary had to keep a significant number of its troops on the battlefront with Serbia, which weakened its positions against Russia. French Marshall Joseph Joffre praised brilliant Serb victories as follows: “Subtle manoeuvres made on Mt. Cer and at battle of Kolubara, which were guided by the reasonable judgment, free spirit and strength showing the masterly Serbian commanding, all deserve a glorious place in our strategic studies.”  

If the assassination carried out by the Mlada Bosna Organization is a terrorist act which brought about the outbreak of WWI, the question arises as to why the war did not erupt after the assassination of Franz Joseph. The gunman Oberdank, whom the Austrians sentenced to death in 1882, had a monument erected in his honour in Venice, in 1912, and had a whole cult built around his personality. When the Italian Sterle published the article glorifying Oberdank, he was sentenced to five years in prison in Vienna, causing demonstrations in Italy and closing of the University of Rome. Bearing in mind that the occupying force was the same (the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Vienna took place in 1908), “Mlada Bosna” was modelled on “Young Italy”.   

In 1912, count Tisz was assassinated in the Hungarian Parliament, and in 1913, Romanian nationalists carried out an assassination by a bomb in Debrecen; Dojcic made an assassination attempt at Commissioner Skerle in Zagreb and in May 1914, he made the same attempt at Zagreb’s Sefer Theatre.   If Mlada Bosna is a terrorist organization, what is then the French Resistance Movement of WWII and its Commander-in-Chief Charles De Gaulle, though in Britain at the time? Are not all means allowed in fighting the occupiers?   

To recall: the French Resistance Movement acted against the German forces of occupation and collaborationists of the French Government in WWII. The Movement was subordinated to the French Government in Exile and to the Free France Committee in London under De Gaul. Members of this Movement organized assistance to prisoners of war, propaganda, sabotage and subversion, including military activities in favour of allied countries.   Mlada Bosna advocated the national, political, social and cultural liberation of Serbs representing, in Serb ethnic territories, the majority population living as slaves from the invasion of these territories by Ottoman Turks. What actions were taken by Mlada Bosna? Following the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, groups of young people expressed their resistance to the occupiers through protests, burning in effigy Austrian and Hungarian flags, and by distributing leaflets and brochures in Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, Banjaluka, Trebinje and other towns.  

Incidentally, it is also worth noting that Christian Orthodox Serbs were not the only ones who achieved the aims of Mlada Bosna, i.e. freedom for Bosnia, first and foremost.    Members of Mlada Bosna other than Gavrilo Princip included also: Bogdan Zerajic, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Danilo Ilic, Borivoje Jevtic, Trifko Grabez, Jezdimir Dangic, Veljko Cubrilovic and Vaso Cubrilovic, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, Ivo Kranjcevic, later Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric, Dobrosav Jevdjevic, Jakov Milovic and, in particular, ideologue of the Organization, Vladimir Gacinovic.  

If the assassination in Sarajevo triggered WWI and if that was the excuse for the Austrians to attack Serbia on 12 August, why did the French and British colonial troops invade the German protectorate of Togoland on 7 August 1914 and why did the German colonial troops attack South Africa on 10 August?   If the Serbs were to blame for the start of the War, why did French vessels board the first Serbian Army transport at Durres on 6 January 1915 after a lot of hassle with Italy which was dead set against it?   

No other war prior to it so dramatically changed the map of Europe. Four empires disappeared: German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. Four dynasties: Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov and Osman dynasties, with their aristocracies falling together with them after the war. Belgium and Serbia were totally devastated. France, Germany and Russia also sustained heavy losses. Serbia, according to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, lost 1,247.435 people or 28 % of its total population, according to the 1914 census.   

Winners are those who decide on who will be glorified or vilified by history. The reconciliation that is now rightfully being insisted upon must not be to the detriment of the small countries and peoples. The present generations must not insist on changing the course of history by force, because there can be no reconciliation at the expense of truth and justice.   

The alleged terrorist act committed by Gavrilo Princip is not the causus belli of WWI. The cause goes much deeper and further than that. German historian Fritz Fischer wrote convincingly and in a documented manner about this in his famous book entitled “War of Illusions, German politics 1911-1914”. German Emperor Wilhelm was a vehement champion of a war policy towards Slavs, in other words, towards Serbia as well: “The struggle between the Slavs and Germans can no longer be avoided, it will surely take place. But when, remains to be seen....” “The Slavs are not born to be masters but servants, and this must be made clear to them”.  

On 23 October 1913, the German and Austro-Hungarian Emperors Wilhelm and Franz agreed on destroying Serbia. Hence, the German Emperor persuaded Ferdinand as early as 13 June 1914, at Konopiste (Czech Republic) of the necessity to clamp down on Serbia and the timing was most propitious for the war. Nevertheless, Vienna did not agree, but examined the situation. The assassination of 28 June 1914 encouraged the Germans again and they requested that Serbia be destroyed will the explanation that it was a to-be-or-not-to-be situation. Emperor Wilhelm II said that there should be a settlement of accounts with the Serbs, even at the price of a war in Europe. In the words of German philosopher and diplomat Kurt Reisler, the purpose of a war is threefold: defence against present France, preventive war against Russia and fighting with England over domination of the world. Obviously, Serbia was the pretext not worth mentioning at all.  

Clerical, short-tempered and militarist Franz Ferdinand was hated in Hungary (he promised to tame the Hungarians) and was not much liked even by the Austrian Germans. He despised Serbs and came precisely on St. Vitus’s Day to command the anti-Serbian military war games. The Sarajevo assassination was not received in Vienna as much of an evil. On the contrary, Count Czernin described the atmosphere in Vienna as having much more those who rejoiced at the assassination than being saddened by it, whereas Redlich, renowned Austrian politician of the time, noted that there were no signs of mourning anywhere in Vienna and that music was played all around......British journalist and publisher Steed wrote from the Habsburg capital that “inappropriate joy was manifested” in military circles, on editorial boards of newspapers, even at the Court itself and among members of the royal house.   

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have been the pretext, but the circumstances were favourable and the wishes coincided with the opportunities.    What are the reasons for the new interpretation? Perhaps, it is the old theory that conscience can be cleared by silver coins? I dare not ponder what Serbia will have to endure in 2041 if such a constellation of forces and influence be maintained.   Over the last twenty years, Serbia has had neither good nor brilliant diplomacy. We have a priori been identified as responsible for many a hardship caused by the errors committed by the world power brokers in unleashing WWI, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and, God forbid, that there are any more anniversaries coinciding with this point in time. Some have taken maximum advantage and capitalized on it, but let them have not illusions about that. Serbs do not hold their heads up high in good times, nor are they humbled in bad times. In terms of history, twenty years is but a drop in the ocean. Truth is truth; Serbia will not give up on the truth. The courageous and righteous Serbian people will not retreat in the face of the power of money and blackmail. The Serbian people will not pull back even when depicted as hanged at European city squares.   

For this reason, when we proudly remember today the courageous and heroic deeds of the past, we strive to be worthy of them. Let us stop looking for a splinter in someone else’s eye and pull out the log from our own, in order to see the mistakes we are making. We should ask ourselves whether we will be around in a hundred years from now, given the present birth rate? Let us ask ourselves how Serbs of Croatia, Montenegro, BiH and Macedonia live, and what we have done for the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija. Everyday problems facing them cannot be an excuse for failing to settle the question of the destiny of our people. We are bound to do so by the volumes of history to be written by our posterity. To the very last breath, we must persistently fight for the truth and survival of Serbia, for the preservation of our territories, our culture, identity, intellect, language and history.   United we will succeed!