We all know the standard narrative about World War I: the Great War was initially caused by Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That’s giving Gavrilo too much credit, though (and believe me, dude gets a lot of credit). The truth is, the First World War was set off by a bunch of very scared people being dumb at the exact same time, in a situation where being dumb had huge consequences. It would be fair to say that pretty much anything could have set off a World War in the 1910s, but the specific chain reaction that actually did it is pretty phenomenal. Here are 3 extremely dumb decisions that triggered the First World War:
I said before that Gavrilo Princip gets too much credit for starting World War I, but he at least deserves some of the credit. I mean, he is the guy who killed Franz Ferdinand, after all. But the assassination plot that ultimately downed the Archduke was a little more complicated than “step one: pull out a gun, step two: shoot the Archduke, step three: enjoy unprecedented freedom of action for mother Serbia.” For one thing, there were actually six assassins out to get Franz that day, all waiting in the crowd along his pre-published parade route. It was like the Kennedy assassination, if Lee Harvey Oswald had been six dudes. Or if Oswald and the second gunman had each been three dudes, but let’s not get into that. There needed to be six dudes, because 1910s weaponry was remarkably bad, liable to malfunction basically whenever. Add to that the fact that most of the would-be assassins were students and farmers, not professional soldiers, and it’s easy to see why the first assassination attempt—a grenade some guy tried to chuck into Ferdinand’s car—didn’t have the desired effect. A couple of people were injured, Franz and his wife were seriously freaked out, and it looked like World War I would have to wait at least another couple of months to get started. I mean, there’s no way Franz would continue along his scheduled parade route after someone tried to kill him with a bomb, giving the remaining assassins another chance to take him out, right?
1. Staying on the Parade Route:
To be fair, Franz did enlist a couple of noblemen as extra bodyguards. To be less fair, that’s pretty much the only precaution he took. Other than a quick visit to the hospital and a brief outburst during an official function about how freaked out he was, Franz pretty much kept on truckin’ as if his life wasn’t in serious danger.
Whether this was a deliberate decision or a catastrophic mistake is up for debate, but either way it gave our friend Gavrilo Princip a golden opportunity to lie in wait for his target, on a street corner near the Latin Bridge. Some people like to believe that he went to the deli on that corner to eat a sandwich, and only ran into Franz Ferdinand by accident on his way out, but that’s bullshit. The real story is at least as interesting, and even more dumb. See, Gavrilo knew Franz would be driving by, but the noble bodyguard riding along with Franz didn’t. When the noble realized that they were still taking the published parade route, he shouted at the driver to turn around and take a different route. The driver obediently threw the car into reverse, and promptly stalled out. Right in front of Gavrilo Princip…
Princip wasn’t any better of a shot than his podunk brethren. He’d never even fired a pistol before. But some shots are just too easy to miss. Like, you know, when your target pulls up ten feet away from you and stops his open-roofed car.
2. The Austrian Ultimatum:
One possible sane response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand would have been to, say, not send anymore Archdukes to Sarajevo. The problem was that Serbian nationalists and their shadily conscripted wetwork operatives weren’t the only ones looking for a fight. Austria-Hungary had been itching for an excuse to charge in and subjugate the kingdom of Serbia for a long time, possibly because Serbia was a competitor in the Balkans, and possibly because Serbia’s military intelligence arm had successfully murdered its entire royal family a while back and replaced it with a different, less Austria-friendly royal family.
Whatever the reason, many people in the Austria-Hungarian government saw the assassination as the perfect excuse to write up a list of insultingly harsh demands and send it to Serbia, in the hopes that Serbia would reject them and give Austria-Hungary a guilt-free justification for war. They weren’t completely stupid, though. They knew Russia supported Serbia, so they were going to need some backup to make this war work. They went to their traditional allies, Germany, and asked for support. Germany basically told them, “Sure, we’re with you. Just make sure you declare war AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.”
But this was mainly an Eastern European conflict. No way Western Europe could possibly be relevant to the dispute, right?
3. The Schlieffen Plan:
Serbia predictably rejected Austria-Hungary’s demands, so Austria-Hungary predictably declared war on Serbia, which lead Russia to predictably declare war on Austria-Hungary. Germany watched this all unfold, and thought to itself, “Everybody’s behaving so predictably, maybe we should do something unpredictable. Like attack France.” That’s right. Germany’s response to the conflict in the Balkans was to mobilize the majority of its troops and send them in the exact opposite direction of the Balkans. This may sound crazy—and, let’s be clear, it totally was—but there was a certain logic to it. The premise of the German strategy, based on some memos drawn up by Field Marshall Alfred Von Schlieffen before the war, was that Russia was closely allied with France, which meant that if Germany went to war with Russia, the French would hit them in the back. Germany’s only hope was to completely obliterate France before the Russians could mobilize, then swing back around and take out Russia. This was essentially the geopolitical equivalent of running into a building lobby firing an uzi with each hand à la Neo from The Matrix.
This would have all been fine (no it wouldn’t have) if it weren’t for the fact that in order to get to France in time, and hit it at an unexpected angle, Germany had to march troops through Belgium and Luxembourg, two countries that weren’t involved in these shenanigans at all. It turns out that marching thousands of troops through neutral territory to surprise attack someone who was maybe going to attack you later isn’t a great PR move. People started picking sides, and pretty soon a good chunk of the world was involved. So that’s how 3 dumb decisions spiraled into the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. Think about that the next time you load up Google Maps. But at least the war resolved the conflict in the Balkans, right?