World War I Didn’t Need to Happen

A Historical Editorial

World War I image from Wikipedia

Exactly 100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria arrived in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo with his wife to inspect the Austrian troops stationed there. As their motorcade, protected by local police, approached a bridge, a bomb was thrown. A group of terrorists was trying to assassinate the Archduke, in the hopes that doing so would lead to the end to Austrian rule in Bosnia and its unification with Serbia as part of a proposed new country called “Yugoslavia”. The bomb succeeded in injuring about 20 people, but the Archduke wasn’t one of them.

With the bomb plot a failure, one of the terrorists, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, decided to go to a nearby deli. Meanwhile, the Archduke and his wife decided to go to the local hospital to visit the wounded. In a twist of fate, the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn, and passed right in front of Princip. Seizing the opportunity, Princip pulled his gun out and fired.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand image by Achille Beltrame from Wikipedia

When I was in high school, I was taught that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the spark that began World War I – the largest-scale war that had ever been fought up to that date, involving dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica, with more than 68 million combined troops fighting each other and about 10 million people killed in action. Furthermore, the peace treaty that ended the war in 1919 was so unpopular, it led directly to World War II.

The worst part of it all, though, is that it didn’t have to be this way. There were many points on the path to World War I where the people in charge could have stopped and said, “Hey, isn’t this road we’re on kind of… dangerous?” Here are just a few.

The Tangled Web of Alliances

1914 Alliances image from Wikipedia

After defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck realized that the French were so humiliated that they might come after Germany seeking revenge. To prevent this, Bismarck worked tirelessly to forge alliances with the other major European powers, in order to make a French war of retaliation virtually impossible. To this end, Bismarck forged alliances with Italy and the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, and worked hard to court Russia as well.

Then, in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne of Germany, and forced Bismarck to retire. Wilhelm II was not as diplomatically careful as Bismarck, and under his watch, relations with Russia deteriorated. Soon, Russia decided to instead ally itself with France, and the UK decided to take up friendly relations with those countries. For France, this sudden shift meant that a war with Germany was a much more viable option; they could count on the largest country in Europe and the most powerful navy in the world to back them up. All of Bismarck’s carefully planned work was torn apart and undone.

If Wilhelm II had either kept Bismarck around, or at least recognized what his chancellor was trying to accomplish and worked as diligently on the diplomatic front as Bismarck had, then Europe would not have been divided into two rival camps, treaty-bound to support each other in the event of a war. Instead, bungled diplomacy led to a situation where all it took was a single assassination to pull the two alliances into war with each other.

Were they really pulled into war against their will, though?

The Blame Game

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

When the terrorists behind the assassination plot were arrested, the Austro-Hungarian government almost immediately blamed the government of Serbia for the attack. As Austria saw it, Serbia had come up with the plan, hired the assassins, and provided the weapons. While it was true that some high-ranking officers in Serbia’s military intelligence had supported the plot, scholars to this day are not sure if the Serbian government even knew about the plot, let alone if they supported it. It could very well have been that these high-ranking Serbian officers were acting on their own without orders; all of the officers who were implicated were also members of a secret conspiratorial society called “The Black Hand”.

It almost seems like the Austrian authorities were all too eager to blame Serbia. After all, in 1903 a military coup had overthrown Serbia’s pro-Austrian king and replaced him with a pro-Russian king. Since then, Serbia and Austria had clashed again and again and again, as Serbia’s dream of uniting the peoples of southeast Europe into their proposed “Yugoslavia” ran headlong into the Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled many of the territories Serbia wanted. To Austria, Serbia was a country that needed to be put in its place. Thus, they rushed to judgement because they were itching for an excuse to do just that.

Still, historian Luigi Albertini argued that Serbia could have done more to assure Austria that they were not behind the assassination. He wrote, “What Serbia ought to have done to prove her innocence and render it more difficult for Austria to hold her responsible for the crime was to open a judicial inquiry into the possible complicity of Serbian subjects and take the necessary measures in that event.”

Instead, Serbia just denied everything and did nothing, confident that they had Russia’s support. Austria, meanwhile, got Germany’s support to send an ultimatum to Serbia. When Serbia wouldn’t comply with every single point on the ultimatum, war began.

Thus, the chain reaction started, as nations declared war on each other to support their allies, the inevitable result of two countries with powerful allies who just couldn’t back down from a fight.

Or was it inevitable?

The British Attempt at a Last-Minute Peace Deal

Five days before the outbreak of war, the United Kingdom offered to help negotiate a peace deal to avoid a Europe-wide conflagration. The leaders of the Great Powers of Europe weren’t stupid; they knew that this crisis between Austria and Serbia could drag them to war. The British proposed that the leaders of Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia, Italy, France and the UK meet and try to find a peaceful, satisfactory solution.

While Russia got on board with this plan, Kaiser Wilhelm would have no part of it. He called the British plan “condescending”, scolded Austrian politicians for not being more aggressive towards Serbia and Russia, and cheered when he heard the news that the Serbian people were saddened by the precarious situation they now seemed to be stuck in. It was clear that Germany would not support the British peace plan, and by July 25, Russia backed out as well.

However, Russia still hadn’t given up on the goal of finding a peaceful settlement, and with French support, proposed instead for direct talks between Austria and Serbia. Germany countered that Russia should be the one negotiating with Austria, since they supposedly were Serbia’s main ally. What followed were three days of constant wrangling back and forth between the Great Powers. In the end, Austria finally declared war on July 28.

That’s when things get really interesting. Upon hearing the news, Kaiser Wilhelm suddenly had a change of heart. Having pushed Austria so hard to be as aggressive as possible against their adversary, now he wanted to slam on the brakes and get serious about peace. He tried to make a final peace offer, but he was sabotaged by some of the German diplomats and politicians in his service. They sent a message to the Austrians, lying to them and saying Kaiser Wilhelm fully supported their war; meanwhile, one of the top German generals warned the Kaiser that he faced being overthrown by his own army if he tried to stand in the way of war.

So, why was it that World War I broke out, in spite of all the many opportunities to put a stop to it? Scholars have been debating that question for the entire century since it began, but here is my take:

The “War is Good” Mentality

Charge of the Light Brigade image from the Daily Telegraph

This is where I am going out on a limb, but I think I have the evidence to back me up. When you read about the decisions that were made and debates that were held in the build-up to war, you find out that many of the decision-makers were actually pushing for war. They wanted to go to war. They were actively working to try to make a war happen as quickly as possible. Sure, there were other voices calling for peace, but in many cases, they were outvoted.

When we look back at the period before World War I with rose-tinted glasses, we like to imagine it as being peaceful and idyllic.

So sophisticated!

So sophisticated!

But it wasn’t. It was actually very violent. Italy and Germany were unified through the force of arms. Southeast Europe was turned into a battlefield on multiple occasions. The British, French, and others were going off to carve up the world among themselves, crushing the native peoples they encountered as they went.

War was glorified in the arts as the highest social ideal – the honor of the soldier and glory of the battlefield. A uniform and a gun were what turned a boy into a man. Many young European men used military service for their country’s overseas empire as a career booster when they got back home. When the Great War broke out in 1914, many young men volunteered enthusiastically, because they believed that the war would be a swift, glorious victory and a great adventure.

World War I image 2 from Wikipedia

One hundred years later, with recent headlines in the Ukraine and Iraq, it seems fitting to remember the biggest lesson of World War I: don’t rush headlong into something you don’t fully understand. You might not like what you get.

Spanish King Who Restored Democracy Resigns

Now ex-King Juan Carlos I embraces his son, the new King Felipe VI. Image from BBC News.

Now ex-King Juan Carlos I embraces his son, the new King Felipe VI. Image from BBC News.

Spain’s long-serving king is king no more, having formally given up the throne and handed it to his son. Thus ends the reign of the man who created modern Spain, guiding it from a totalitarian, fascist-style dictatorship to a modern democracy.

According to the abdication agreement, Juan Carlos I will still be able to use the title “King of Spain” in an honorary capacity, but the real king will be his son, who has taken the name Felipe VI. The abdication has the support of both of Spain’s largest political parties, and supporters are already buying up abdication memorabilia from stores across the country. However, the news has led to protests by those Spaniards who oppose the monarchy and want to restore a republic.

The reasons for Juan Carlos’s retirement are not clear, as the only reason he gave was that he was letting “a new generation” take over. However, his health has reportedly been failing him, and the royal family has been rocked by recent troubles and scandals. Yet there is still another reason he lay have wanted to retire instead of stay on the throne until he dies – it gives him a chance to oversee the final stage in a lifelong project to make Spain a stable and democratic constitutional monarchy.

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator whose memory still haunts much of Spanish politics

Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator whose memory still haunts much of Spanish politics

Few European countries have had a modern history as politically turbulent as Spain. During the 19th-century Napoleonic Wars, Spain was invaded by France and then-Spanish-king Ferdinand VII was taken prisoner. The Spanish people engaged in guerrilla-style resistance to their invaders, fighting to liberate their king and their country, but also fighting to establish a more democratic form of government. The rebels adopted a constitution that created an elected government and guaranteed important freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Once the French were beaten and their king was freed in 1814, Ferdinand VII repealed this constitution that he had never agreed to anyway and began ruling as an absolute monarch.

This was the beginning of more than a century of political turmoil punctuated by numerous revolutions and civil wars. During this time, the pro-monarchy factions fought the pro-democracy factions, a dynastic dispute arose over the succession to the throne, and numerous radical groups such as anarchists and communists gained significant support among the Spanish people. The royal family was at one point forced into exile only to return seven years later. At one point, an unborn baby became king of Spain. At another, Spain became so desperate for political peace that the government deliberately set up a system of voter fraud to ensure that power alternated between liberals and conservatives every few years. Spain was briefly a military dictatorship, and twice decided to get rid of the monarchy altogether and become a republic. On top of all of this, two Spanish regions, Catalonia and the Basque country, were making demands for independence during this time.

At last, these political struggles climaxed in the 1930s with the Spanish Civil War, a brutal and bloody affair that pitted a republican government that was democratically elected but dominated by socialists and communists against right-wing nationalists who were inspired by fascism and led by Francisco Franco. Both sides were supported by foreign armies and mercenaries, who used the war as a sort of “practice” for the upcoming World War II. Both sides are known to have committed horrendous atrocities, such as slaughtering civilians. Eventually, Franco won, in part because he enjoyed the support of Nazi Germany and in part because his opponents were often just as busy fighting each other as they were fighting him.

Under Franco, there was only one political party, the “Falange”, and all trade unions that were not under its control were banned. Franco was known to personally sign the death warrants of his opponents. He tried to promote Spanish nationalism by forcing everyone to like what he liked (such as bullfighting, flamenco, and the Catholic Church) and hate what he hated (such as feminism and the use of languages that were not Spanish). In spite of his brutality and Nazi ties, though, during the Cold War he was an ally of the United States.

As Franco grew older, the question of who would take over when he died became increasingly important. Many of the people who had supported Franco’s rise to power in the civil war were monarchists, who wanted to see a king on the throne again. Although Franco had numerous Spanish royals living in exile to choose from, owing once again to those dynastic disputes from the 19th century, he settled on a young prince named Juan Carlos de Borbón.

Juan Carlos as Prince image from Wikipedia

Juan Carlos as a prince prior to taking the Spanish throne

Born in Rome, Juan Carlos was allowed to study in Spain and eventually served in the Spanish army under Franco. In public, the prince claimed to be a true supporter of Franco and his rule, so the dictator trusted him. What Franco didn’t know was that the prince was also secretly communicating with opponents of the regime.

As the aging dictator grew ill, Juan Carlos started assuming more and more responsibility, and when Francisco Franco eventually died in 1975, Juan Carlos was proclaimed King of Spain. At first, the government was still controlled by Franco’s supporters, but he was able to gain the support of Adolfo Suarez, a former key player in Franco’s regime who was able to push through legislation legalizing other political parties besides the Falange and lifting restrictions on free speech, free press, and the trade unions. In 1977, free elections were held, with pro-democracy parties winning the most seats and Franco’s Falange winning less than 1% of the votes. The following year, the king signed a new, democratic constitution.

These changes offended and upset hardliner Franco supporters in the army, who decided in 1981 to do something about it. They attempted to overthrow the young democracy in a military coup, but King Juan Carlos thwarted their plans. He told the civil service not to obey the mutinous soldiers’ orders, and then went on national television to condemn the coup. This was enough to turn the people and the military against the coup. Unable to accomplish anything except look bad, the coup plotters surrendered.

By 1982, Spain’s transition to democracy was complete when a socialist political party won that year’s elections, returning to power for the first time since the civil war. Since then, Spain has functioned much like Europe’s other constitutional monarchies, with the King and royal family mainly serving a symbolic role while democratically-elected officials make the actual decisions. In the decades since Franco’s death, Spain’s thousands of monuments to the dictator have been slowly dismantled, one by one, and recognition has been given for his many victims.

Yet not all has been well for the Spanish royals over the years. In 2012, while most ordinary Spanish citizens were gripped by the Great Recession, high unemployment, and a major financial meltdown, they learned that their king had been on a safari in Africa hunting elephants. Even more recently, his daughter, Princess Cristina is under investigation for tax fraud, and her husband has been accused of embezzlement.

In light of these scandals, many Spaniards are calling for a referendum to abolish the monarchy and return to a republic. Meanwhile, the Spanish region of Catalonia has been agitating for independence. In spite of this, the new king’s accession was greeted by cheering crowds in the streets of Madrid. Felipe VI has been groomed for the succession for the past few years, gradually taking over more and more royal duties from his father. He certainly has some big shoes to fill and some major challenges ahead as he assumes the crown.

The Strange Tale of How Brazil Became A Country

FIFA World Cup 2014 image from GazzToday

We are just days away from the most famous soccer tournament in the world, and boy am I excited! This year, the tournament will take place in Brazil, arguably the best soccer-playing nation in the world! (I say ‘arguably’ because Argentina fans are sure to disagree with me on this.) It’s looking like this year’s tournament is going to be a fun thrill ride, with everybody already placing bets and making predictions on who will win and who will fall.

This week, in honor of Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I have decided to spend a little time talking about the history of Brazil. It seems to me that here in the United States, most people really don’t know that much about this country apart from its soccer reputation, the Amazon rain forest, and Rio. I feel this is a real shame, since there are so many fascinating stories in the history of this largest South American nation. Therefore, it’s high time I told you the strange, convoluted, unbelievable tale of how Brazil became an independent country. I dare you to tell me that this tale couldn’t make a great Hollywood movie.

The Discovery of Brazil image from Wikipedia

Our story begins with Brazil as a Portuguese colony. In the year 1500, Pedro Alvarez Cabral sighted the land and claimed it for Portugal. He named the country after the Brazilwood tree that he and his men discovered there, a tree that can be used to make a type of red dye. Gradually, Portuguese settlers took possession of the land from the Indian natives, planting acres and acres of sugarcane fields worked by African slaves. Later, gold mining would also become an important part of the colony’s economy.

Then, in 1807, something happened that shook up the Portuguese Empire: Portugal was invaded by France. This was a major problem, since, you know, Portugal isn’t very big.

The French army didn't have to march very far to take the whole country, is what I'm saying.

The French army didn’t have to march very far to take the whole country, is what I’m saying.

When the French invaded, the reigning Queen of Portugal, Maria I, was mentally ill and unfit to make crucial decisions in a crisis like this, so it fell to her son, Prince John, to take charge. Seeing the writing on the wall, Prince John gathered up the royal family and 15,000 loyalists, put them on all the ships he could find, and set sail for Brazil.

From Prince John’s point of view, this decision only made sense. He was preserving his dynasty and government from being completely overthrown, and from Brazil he could continue to govern the vast Portuguese Empire that included not only Brazil, but also colonies in Africa, India, and the East Indes. On the other hand, if you think about it, this decision was a HUGE game-changer. Suddenly, Brazil went from being just another colony to being the center of a global empire.

This had a huge impact on the Brazilian people’s daily lives. Well, actually, I take that back. For the slaves, nothing really changed, since they were still slaves. The Indians also didn’t see any change to their status as a people struggling to survive in Brazil’s margins. However, for middle-class and elite Brazilians, being the new center of the empire brought huge advantages.

Before, Brazil could only legally trade with Portugal; now that this was impossible, Brazil’s ports were opened up to the world. Prince John also began passing new laws that helped the country become much more economically self-sufficient and business-friendly. A new Bank of Brazil was created, as were military and medical academies, newspapers, and book publishers.

Then, in 1815, everything changed again when France was defeated and Portugal regained its independence. One would expect that this would be the signal for the royal family to return home triumphantly and turn everything back to normal. Instead, Prince John decided he liked Brazil better, and would stay where he was.

Who can blame him?

Who can blame him?

Instead of returning to Portugal, Prince John declared that Brazil would now be a part of the new United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil, and he would continue to govern from Rio de Janeiro. In case his decision wasn’t clear enough, when his mother finally passed away and he became King John VI of Portugal, he held his coronation ceremony in Brazil.

To say the least, this really upset the Portuguese people. Whether he had intended to or not, the new King John had effectively made Portugal a Brazilian colony instead of the other way around. After a few years of this, the Portuguese people felt they had been neglected for too long. In 1820, they rose up in revolt. The rebels demanded three things. First, they demanded the return of their king to Portugal. Second, they demanded the creation of a constitutional monarchy with an elected government. Third, they demanded that Brazil be made into a “proper” Portuguese colony again.

The rebels got their first demand, at least: King John was forced to return to Portugal to deal with the crisis. He left his son and heir, Prince Pedro, in charge of Brazil while he was away taking care of matters back home.

The Brazilian elites and middle class were upset by this new turn of events. They didn’t want to see their home country revert back to a colony, not after all they had gained in the past few years. Luckily for them, Prince Pedro was not a fan of the revolutionary movement in Portugal, either. When the prince was ordered to return to Portugal in 1822, he decided to ignore the order and remain in Brazil. Over the next few months, as Portuguese authorities tried to strip him of his power, Prince Pedro became more and more receptive to those Brazilian voices that called for independence. Eventually, he thought to himself, “Why should I remain a mere prince when I could be Emperor of Brazil?”

On September 22, 1822, Prince Pedro declared Brazil’s independence, and on October 12, he proclaimed himself Emperor Pedro I of Brazil. A brief war followed, as forces loyal to the new emperor fought those who remained loyal to Portugal. While all of this was going on, Portugal itself was helpless to prevent Brazil from leaving, as they were too busy fighting each other. By 1825, Portugal recognized Brazil’s independence.

"Now we're finally free to start our own soccer team!"

“Now we’re finally free to start our own soccer team!”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Less than a year later, King John VI of Portugal died. In spite of his actions in Brazil, Pedro was still rightful heir to the Portuguese throne, and so he was now both Emperor of Brazil and King of Portugal at the same time. This was to be the beginning of one of history’s most violent family squabbles.

King/Emperor Pedro knew that if he accepted the Portuguese crown, the people of Portugal would mistrust him for his rebellion against their authority and the people of Brazil would fear that he was trying to turn Brazil back into a colony again. Instead, he decided the safest decision was to place his daughter, Maria II, on the Portuguese throne in his place.

But he just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Even though he faced rebellions in various parts of Brazil, criticism for his desire to abolish slavery (wait, isn’t that a good thing?), and the death of his wife, Emperor Pedro just could not leave Portugal alone. He forced Portugal to adopt a constitution he had written for them, meddled in the selection of Portugal’s top officials, and arranged for his daughter to marry his brother (Ewwww!).

Inevitably, all this meddling led to a political crisis in Portugal, as the emperor’s brother Miguel decided to take the Portuguese throne for himself. King Miguel wanted to restore an absolute monarchy and get rid of the constitution. In response, those who supported a more democratic government rose up in rebellion. Emperor Pedro found himself unable to sit idly by as all of this was going on.

In 1831, facing a Parliament that struggled with him for power and ever-mounting protests against his rule in Brazil, Emperor Pedro decided to resign. Leaving for Portugal to fight to restore his daughter to the Portuguese throne and support the pro-democracy faction, he was succeeded in Brazil by his son, who became Emperor Pedro II. At long last, Brazil had truly broken free from Portugal and become an independent nation.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Brazil: host of the World Cup, and also the country that found the most roundabout route to independence ever.