Conversation: A Century from the First Shot of World War I

8 MINS READJun 27, 2014 | 22:16 GMT

David Judson: Hello, I'm David Judson, editor-in-chief of Stratfor. June 28 is the 100th anniversary of Sarajevo, the day when an assassin killed Archduke Ferdinand and a hundred years later we look back upon it as the proximate cause of World War I. Since it is the anniversary, this is the reason I have asked George Friedman, the chairman and founder of Stratfor, to join me. Thanks George. This is kind of an interesting issue because it gives us an opportunity to think about this narrative of how history works in a conventional sense, which is sometimes at odds with our own at Stratfor. I went through some of the clips of what is being discussed in the media about this on the occasion of this anniversary, and I randomly chose one that reflected on what would have happened in 1914 had the archduke not been assassinated. "The First World War may not have broken out as a consequence and the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires would have been left standing. Without Sarajevo, moreover, German aggression might not have been punished at Versailles and Hitler would have had no cause for grievance. Without Hitler, in turn, European Jewry was allowed to prosper and grow numerous. Israel may not have come into being, however, as Jewry had no need of the salvation abroad." And it goes on. So, I just thought maybe, you could give us a reality check on that way of looking at history.

George Friedman: If World War I had not occurred, then certainly all the things that followed would not have happened, but World War I did occur and the question is could it have been avoided. Why did it happen? Up until 1871, the center of Europe, which today is Germany, was a fragmented area of competing principalities. It threatened no one. Then in 1871 something revolutionary happened in Europe: the unification of Germany. And this unification created an entity on the North European Plain that was extraordinary. For one thing, it grew rapidly economically. By 1913, it had outstripped Britain, the economic power of the 19th century, in many respects. Britain had the empire yet Germany was a greater exporter. Germany was in the process of building a navy that could really challenge them.

But at the same time, Germany was extremely insecure because of where it was. Everyone was afraid of Germany. Britain France and Russia had joined an alliance against Germany. And Germany knew that if France and Russia plus Britain attacked simultaneously at a time of their choosing, Germany would be fragmented again. And they felt that this was the intention of the British and the French. They also knew they could not fight a war on both fronts, so they devised a plan called the Schlieffen Plan, which existed decades before Sarajevo. To defeat France, while holding on the east against Russia then turn against Russia. This plan was something the Germans expected to have to execute. The French were fully aware of the German plans and they had their own plans to counter it.

The point is, these plans were not what made World War I. What made World War I were the fears that created the plans and these fears were reasonable. Everybody was afraid of this dynamo in Central Europe. This dynamo in Central Europe was terrified that steps would be taken against it. Certainly the assassination was a trigger — it drew in the Austro-Hungarians, it then drew in the Russians and so on. But just as a forest fire can be waiting to happen and that particular match sets it on fire, it is not as if that match had not fallen, there would not have be a forest fire. It was simply that that match happened to strike it off. Under any circumstances the Ottoman Empire would have been in decline, under any circumstances it is very difficult to imagine how the Austro-Hungarian Empire survives but the most important point was that whether now or later, Germany's emergence as a massive European power destabilized the whole system and that had to be addressed. So, I mean the story, the narrative of foolish diplomats who just did not understand what they were letting loose may have been true, they may have been foolish, they may have not understood. This was going to happen.

David: Well I'll come back to the dynamo of Europe and talk about that briefly but this narrative of history there is much made of President Kennedy's reading of Barbara Tuchman's book just before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis and if he had not read that book he might have handled it differently. Can you reflect philosophically on the role of the individual versus the underlying dynamics that drive or influence events that take on historical import?

George: Well you have to drill into the specifics. The fact of the matter was that the United States was overwhelmingly powerful compared to Russia. The Soviet Union did not have the bomber force the United States had. Its nuclear capability at sea had not yet matched what we had. And, frankly we were — missile cap not withstanding — we were far further ahead. Once we discovered the nuclear missiles being developed in Cuba, which were being placed there because Russia was so weak they were trying to use this as a counterbalance, the question was how were we going to step down from it. So, Kennedy was right in the sense that this was now a diplomatic problem of how to allow the Russians to step down with some degree of grace and that was the missiles in Turkey and so on. At the same time that the Russians were going to step down, was I think hardwired into the system. It looked very scary, but when you look deep underneath it, the dynamics were different. In Europe it was very different, the situation was not only scary but anyone who was not scared did not understand the reality. This was not a misunderstanding. And that was I think the problem of Barbara Tuchman's book, which by the way taught us a great deal about World War I but in the end was so focused on the decisions that were made she did not consider what other decisions could have been made. From her point of view it was not necessary to mobilize the German army. But from a German leader's point of view, watching everything else that was going on, how could he not? So I would argue that it was very interesting that Kennedy went to Barbara Tuchman, just to have a president who does that. The lesson he took from that in fact relevant to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I am just not sure that it was relevant to the First World War.

David: Getting back to the First World War and a German dynamo on the North European Plain. Sounds an awful lot like discussion of Europe today a hundred years later with a dynamo on the North European Plain and tensions on either side.

George: NATO and the European Union were created to allow Germany to once again resume its position as the economic dynamo but be so closely linked into the European system, particularly with France, that it would never again pose a threat militarily, which is does not at this point, or economically. Now as we evolve in the history of the European Union, some of the assumptions about what integration would mean have gone by the wayside and certainly Germany's interests are not necessarily those of France and are very different from those of Italy or Greece. Germany has thus far been very careful not to create a military. This is frustrating sometimes because you would want them to have one to do something in Poland or something else but they do not have one. And this is the way they are trying to avoid being a dynamo with an overwhelming military force. Whether this is sustainable over the coming decades, whether Germany remains this economic dynamo that manages to defend its interests without recourse to military action, that really is the test not only of the European Union but of Europe as a whole.

David: Well, so it will be interesting to see a hundred years from now on June 28, 2114.

George: I think I'll write a book on it.

David: Why don't you write a book on that? Yes, we will get on that. But anyhow, thank you George and thank you all for joining us here at Stratfor.

George: Thank you.

Subscribe to Intelligence Over News

Independent Strategic Analysis | Objective Geopolitical Insights

Connected Content

Regions & Countries

Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.