Did A Lie Start WW1?

On 28th June, 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, were assassinated They were murdered while touring Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina

But his killers were a gang of Serbians The subsequent diplomatic tensions between Austria-Hungary and the kingdom of Serbia escalated until they were at war Various alliances soon dragged Russia, Germany, France, Britain and their empires into the conflict Thirty-seven days after the assassination, the First World War had begun By its end, there were 39 million casualties on both sides

But the Great War may only have happened because of a lie The First World War essentially began when Austria declared war on Serbia This triggered a series of treaties to be enacted – promises made years before by the European powers, that obliged them to come to each other’s aid The irony, of course, is that these treaties were drawn up to discourage the European powers from going to war with each other – a kind of Mutually Assured Destruction for the pre-nuclear age Austria’s entire reason for going to war with Serbia was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

The man who pulled the trigger was Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand The Black Hand was a secret society of Serbian military nationalists They wanted to separate all the Slavic countries from the Austro-Hungarian Empire After the assassination, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia, demanding the Serbian government denounce and expunge all the nationalist terror groups Serbia did not comply with the ultimatum, so Austria-Hungary declared war

According to historian Tim Butcher, this is the lie at the heart of the War to End All Wars He argues that Austria manipulated the facts to create a pretext to invade Serbia Gavrilo Princip was actually Bosnian, and therefore a citizen of the Habsburg Empire His family had Serbian roots, but had not lived there for hundreds of years It is true that he moved to Serbia and was radicalised there

But his hatred of Austria arose when the Empire illegally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 The Empire shifted its focus from Princip, to the man who trained and supplied him: Major Vojislav Tankosić, an officer in the Serbian army and a founding member of the Black Hand Through him, officials in Vienna could blame Serbian military intelligence and the Serbian kingdom, for the assassination In truth, Serbia feared Austria, and Major Tankosić violated the Serbian policy when he formed the Black Hand Indeed, Austria only knew about him because the Serbian government kept them up to date on their investigation

Furthermore, the Serbian Ambassador had warned the Austrian Finance Minister that Archduke Franz Ferdinand might be killed in Sarajevo The Austro-Hungarians overlooked this fact when they delivered their ultimatum in July 1914 That is because the ultimatum was designed to be rejected Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold, in his own words, made “unacceptable demands” in the ultimatum In the list of demands, he required Serbia immediately destroy all anti-Austrian propaganda, dissolve all Serbian nationalist organisations, arrest everyone involved in the assassination, and let Austrian officials on to Serbian soil to take part in the investigation and trial

To Berchtold’s surprise, Serbia accepted all the demands – except the last one Austria was encouraged by its ally, Germany Britain tried to arrange an international convention to prevent a world war, but Germany refused They had infamously promised Austria a blank cheque of military support The German Foreign Ministry even kept Kaiser Wilhelm II out of the country during the whole crisis, so that he could not “interfere in things with his pacifist ideas”

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand simply gave Austria the excuse it needed The Habsburg Empire wanted to expand into the Balkans, and Serbia was its greatest rival in the region The Austrian government was able to use a horrendous attack by a small group of extremists to justify its imperialist ambitions, in the name of defending itself from terrorists Unfortunately, many more lies were told by every nation Such is the nature of propaganda, which reached new extremes during World War One

Britain gathered its media barons to lead the new Ministry of Information In addition to censoring bad news about Britain’s military failures, it spread stories that the Germans committed mass murders, and raped and mutilated women and children Investigations during and after the war found no evidence to support these claims When a German U-boat sank the Lusitania and killed 1200 civilians, it was presented as a war crime The USA and Britain both concealed the fact it was really carrying armaments, and Germany had warned it was therefore a target

As war journalist Philip Knightle said, “The entire apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth” In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson said America had to join the war to end tyranny and preserve democracy In 1919, he said, “Is there any child who does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry? This was an industrial and commercial war” This is why the war escalated so quickly The different empires involved were so competitive, they would use any opportunity to take each other’s territory and to weaken one another They did not expect the war would weaken them all so much that it would pave the way for the United States of America to become the dominant power in the world – and lay the foundation for a Second World War Even then, the war could have been avoided

Austria-Hungary ignored the warning of danger to the Archduke in Sarajevo They wilfully blamed the Serbian government for the actions of an underground terror group, whose assassin was born in their Empire They manipulated the truth to justify war with their rival All the major powers hid the truth to encourage millions of ordinary people to fight and die The driving force behind the First World War, was a never ending series of lies

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