British soldiers fire machine gun. during World War I battle. Public domain image from WikiCommons.
I was slightly startled to see myself starting back at me in this morning’s Gazette, our newspaper here in Cedar Rapids.
Not too startled, mind you. I had written and submitted a guest column to the newspaper, and an editor had e-mailed me that they did plan to use my column. But I expected the column to be in a Sunday paper, so this morning’s appearance caught me off guard.
Still’, I’m glad the column appeared. I’ve already received several e-mails as a results—one a pat on the back from a faculty colleague, the others inquiries for more information.
Anyway, since this is my blog, I can present the column as it was written. I like the first paragraph, but taking it off doesn’t hurt much, and The Gazette trimmed a few other parts, mostly with no ill effect.
Click here to see the column that they published. And here is the original:
Our World Today, Shaped By One Assassin’s Bullets
The frenetic, sometimes violent, always interesting world we inhabit was profoundly shaped by a crime 100 years ago that launched a catastrophe.
American military pilot William T Ponder in 1917 in France. Public domain image from Wikimedia commons.
On June 28, 1914, as he toured the city of Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had a grenade tossed at his car by members of a Serbian nationalist group. The grenade injured bystanders, but missed its mark. And the Archduke, heir to the throne of a now defunct empire, continued his tour.
After the failed assassination, plotter Gavrilo Princip stopped at a delicatessen for a sandwich. Incredibly, the motorcade carrying the Archduke happened to take the wrong street and wound up in front of the same deli. Recognizing the error, one of the cars stopped, preparing to back up.
That was a fateful pause. Princip stepped up to Ferdinand’s car, raised a revolver, and fired twice, killing Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
You know what happened next. Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Russia supported Serbia. Germany backed Austria-Hungary. France and Britain took the side of Russia. At the end of the “July crisis” came combat. The “Great War,” World War I, was underway.
I wonder what it was like, in the summer of 1914 in Cedar Rapids. The events unfolding in Europe would have seemed much farther away than a similar tragedy today. Travel and time were very different, but everything was changing. And the U.S. stayed out of the war until almost three years later.
During the four years of World War I, more than 9 million soldiers, including over 100,000 Americans, would have their lives snuffed out by bullets, shells, poisonous gas, torpedoes, aerial bombs and more mundane causes—disease and accidents, for example.
American World War I dead in a cemetery in France. Image from Wikimedia.commons.
It wasn’t America’s bloodiest war, nor the world’s. But World War I had a profound impact. It ended a 19th century sense of optimism, and initiated the era that we live in now. It redrew the world map, often in capricious and ineffective ways, setting up problems that bedevil us today.
It was called the war to end wars. Instead, it disastrously became the peace that almost ended peace.
What does World War I mean to us now? Consider a few impacts:
- It ended British domination of the world. The slaughter of a British generation was a blow that the empire would never recover from—the era of European imperialism was doomed.
- It brought about a cascade of social-political revolutions. For just one example, women in most western democracies, including the U.S., were granted the right to vote in the wake of World War I, a change that had a lot to do with the capacity women had shown to run farms and factories while men busily killed each other. Another example? The USSR.
- It changed the whole culture. Music, art, novels, movies—none would ever the same as artists and writers struggled to make sense of incomprehensible tragedy.
As a Journalism professor, I would add that the war highlighted the need for a free press. One calamity of the war is that the German public, “informed” by a slanted, state-controlled media, had no idea until November 1918 that the German army was overwhelmed. Defeat was a bitter surprise, and led to a generation convinced that there had to have been a betrayal and a conspiracy.
That led to Adolph Hitler.
The assassin’s bullets fired 100 years ago still echo today. I’ve been spearheading a series of events planned this fall at Mount Mercy University called “A Century of Glory and Shame: Mount Mercy Reflects on How World War I Made Today.” The free, public events will provide us all with chances to ponder the many meanings of the Great War. The series kicks off Aug. 28. I hope many of you will join us as we think about how one assassin’s bullets 100 years ago still shapes our world today.