Lessons Learned 100 Years After the Assassination that Triggered World War I

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A picture taken on August 1,2013 shows graves at Notre Dame de Lorette's necropolis at the World War One military cemetery in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, northern France.

To understand the current crisis in Iraq, along with many other contemporary conflicts, you’d be wise to dust off your old high school history books and turn to the chapter on World War I.

We all live with the legacy of the “war to end all wars,” which was sparked by an event that happened 100 years ago on the morning of June 28th 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumed heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. 

The events of 100 years ago set off changes not just to Europe but to the whole world: Four empires collapsed, boundaries were redrawn, countries ceased to exist, and others were born. We also live with the consequences of the flawed peace process that ended the First World War—colonial powers, including Britain, France, and the United States, drew up new boundaries on maps and created new countries, including Iraq, Yugoslavia and Palestine, in their own self interest. 

As many mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, The Takeaway talks with BBC reporter Dan Damon.

Damon is reporting from Bosnia at a place called Andrićgrad—a recreation of different buildings from different parts of Balkan history. At the site, musicians perform to commemorate the brutal moment a century ago that set in motion one of the harshest conflicts the world has ever seen. 

About 60 miles away in Bosnia's capital city of Sarajevo—the site where Ferdinand was shot—another ceremony is taking place, one that Damon says that many Serbs want nothing to do with. 

"They've been holding their own here [in Andrićgrad], and there's a reason for that," says Damon. "I've been speaking to the mayor of Sarajevo, and he says that Bosnian unity is something that both Serb and Corat nationalists are simply not going to allow, even though their leaders signed agreements in Dayton in 1995. What they want to achieve, according to the Mayor of Sarajevo, Ivo Komšić, is a breakup of Bosnia which they could not achieve through force."

Though it was the catalyst for the start of the Great War, nationalism still runs very deep within this region.

"Politicians misuse emotional aspects of our history to cover their own incompetence in terms of dealing with the real problems of our society and our country," says Dennis Gratz, a center-left politician that spoke with Damon. "The whole historical process is observed as we being the victims, and we have to defend ourselves, and if you don't elect us as your representatives, you are doomed."

Damon says that historians still disagree when it comes to the motivations of Gavrilo Princip, the man who shot Archduke Ferdinand.

"Was he fighting for Serbia—and certainly Serbia gave him the gun—or was he fighting for all Serbs who were under the control of empires, including the Austro-Hungarian empire?" asks Damon. "Or was he fighting for Yugoslavia—for South Slavs? And of course Yugoslavia, or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes as it was first called, was created out of the ashes of the First World War. What's significant is it's history—it's 100 years ago—but here it feels so alive."

The Lessons Still to Be Learned

Charles Sennott, the co-founder of GlobalPost and head of the GroundTruth Project based at our partner station WGBH, just launched a new series called "The Eleventh Hour – Unlearned Lesson of World War I." Sennott says that while the start of World War I may be 100 years behind us, the events that led to the great conflict still matter a great deal right now.

"Looking at the way contemporary conflicts are unfolding, and really taking shape along the lines that were created by the maps drawn during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I are amazing," Sennott says. "These maps are now being erased. When you see ISIS openly talking about wanting to erase that history, to cross those lines and create a new map of the Middle East, the Kurds are saying the same thing in a different language and in a much more nicer, diplomatic way."

Sennott says that the Kurds too have a desire to reshape the map and reclaim Kurdistan with a capitol based in Kirkuk, a city located in northern Iraq.

"This is dramatically unfolding not only there, but also in Nigeria," says Sennott. "It's very much fueling the ideology of Boko Haram—the notion that Western colonialism and its education is blasphemes."

As we reflect back on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, Sennott says it should be recognized that the consequences of the Great War are still being felt. 

"The arrogance of the drawing of the maps 100 years ago on this anniversary of World War I is very much alive and burning in so many of the conflicts that we cover everyday right now," he says. 

Sennott says that the world is perilously close to another Great War, as texts like Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914," detail.

"It's an amazing history which tries to make the comparison that we are living in a historical moment that is very similar to the days leading up to World War I," says Sennott. "We have a multi-polar world in which there are rising and declining empires. That creates great uncertainty, and seemingly small events can just erupt into world or regional conflagrations. I think that's the context in which a lot of people are looking at Iraq, and it's why everyone is so worried."

The possibility of a Sunni-Shiite divide blooming into a regional war is "horrifying," says Sennott. 

"If those lines come undone, if the maps of the Middle East are going to be redrawn, we are going to see that theme resonate really across all of the Middle East," he says.

And it's not just the Middle East that stands to be undone.

"The United States is in a moment where its rhetoric is disconnected from the way we really carry ourselves in the world," says Sennott. "We talk about democracy, but did we really stand up for it during the Arab Spring? We talk about these grand issues that inform the narrative of our country, but to the world we're not living up to them."

Sennott again turns to the work of Christopher Clark as an example, saying that if World War I can teach us anything, it's that the balance of power can shift in an instant.

"Empires can decline, they can decline rapidly, and that can create a time of great uncertainty," says Sennott. "I think Clark was right on the money—we're living in a moment where there's a lot at play, and it's really time to dust off the history books."

Check out a clip from "The Eleventh Hour" and related photos below.


Kosovars wave Albanian flags while celebrating after declaring their independence from Serbia in Pristina, Kosovo, on Feb. 17 2008. As of early 2009, only 58 out of the 192 United Nations sovereign member states recognize Kosovo's independence, and the UN Security Council remains divided on the issue.

( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )

The imprint remains of a Kosovar Albanian burned by Serbian forces in Drenica, Kosovo, June 29, 1999.

( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )

A policeman on the Peace bridge that divides the Kosovar Albanian side from the Kosovar Serbian side. In addition to KFOR troops the bridge is manned by police from the Albanian and Serbian side.

( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )

Serbian residents of North Mitrovica protest the new independence of Kosovo in 2008.

( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )

A copy shot of the Latin Bridge where the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand took place on June 28th,1914.

( Archive )
The Latin Bridge where the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand took place on June 28th 1914.
The Latin Bridge where the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand took place on June 28th 1914. ( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )
The Latin Bridge where the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand took place on June 28th 1914.
The Latin Bridge where the assassination of ArchDuke Ferdinand took place on June 28th 1914. ( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )
( Emily Judem/The GroundTruth Project )

Soldiers and Paramilitaries - Bosnian soldiers smoke and take a break on the frontline next to a sign that says 'welcome to Sarajevo' in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the fall of 1994.  Trench warfare was fought all around the city of Sarajevo.

( Ron Haviv/VII/The GroundTruth Project )