It was freed, but at horrendous cost. During the war Serbia was occupied by the Austro‐Hungarian army. Princip died in prison of tuberculosis and never saw the new state he was instrumental in creating. While in prison he spoke with psychiatrist Martin Pappenheim, who wrote that Princip believed a war was inevitable, so he “cannot feel himself responsible for the catastrophe.”
In fact, the war was not inevitable, but many policymakers thought so, leading some of them to believe that it might be best if it broke out then rather than later. The month that followed the assassination may be the most studied period of history. On July 28, Vienna declared war on Serbia.
The Austro‐Hungarian government believed that it had to destroy a regime bent on the empire’s dissolution. Belgrade, however, was backed by Russia. Imperial Germany was treaty‐bound to aid the Habsburgs. The Romanov dynasty was similarly allied with France, which was determined to regain territories seized by Germany in 1871 at the conclusion of the Franco‐Prussian War.
Although Berlin possessed the continent’s finest army, winning a war on two fronts would be problematic. So Germany adopted the Schlieffen Plan, which required an early attack on France through Belgium while Russia still was mobilizing. The United Kingdom was concerned about maintaining the continental balance of power and created the so‐called Triple Entente against Kaiser Wilhelm, who was a nephew of the British king and cousin of the Russian tsar. But the Asquith government refused to make its military commitment clear, hiding it from its own people and even its cabinet, as well as from Germany. Over time Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Ottoman Empire joined the conflict, creating a global human slaughterhouse.
This was not a war between angels and demons, but of two sets of sometimes ugly authoritarians and militarists. Critics long have highlighted the mistakes and brutalities of the major Central Powers: Germany, Austro‐Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Yet the former two were liberalizing though flawed constitutional orders. Imperial Germany had a larger franchise than imperial Britain, though the former’s government was responsible to a monarch who governed rather than an elected legislature backed by a mostly figurehead king, as in the UK. Both the Germans and Austro‐Hungarians were too willing to jump off war’s precipice, but they were not alone in that proclivity.
On the other side, Serbia was a state sponsor of terrorism. Belgium was perhaps the world’s worst colonial administrator, presiding over mass murder in the Congo. The UK and France enforced authoritarian rule over hundreds of millions of Africans and Asians. France, which convulsed Europe in years of conflict during the Napoleonic wars, was a revanchist power determined to regain Lorraine and parts of Alsace lost to Germany in 1871, even if doing so required another continental war. Imperial Russia, the great anti‐Semitic despotism, was ruled by a monarch determined to maintain absolutist control and resist liberal currents. Its later collapse was eagerly embraced by subject peoples, in the Baltics, Ukraine, and elsewhere, who fled its control. Italy joined the so‐called Triple Entente after being promised territorial booty, Austro‐Hungarian lands to be handed over with nary a nod to the wishes of their peoples.
None of this great tragedy concerned America in any important way. The British, however, launched a brilliant propaganda campaign in the U.S. using falsified German atrocities. (As a result, in World War II many people initially were skeptical of similar claims made about Berlin’s behavior, though in that case the stories did not adequately describe the horrors committed.) London borrowed heavily from U.S. banks, giving them a stake in a British victory. Activist, moralistic, imperialistic believers in the Social Gospel urged war to create a secular heaven. And Wilson, a man of boundless, hubristic ambition, was determined to transform the entire globe. He realized that only if he made America a belligerent would he be in a position to impose his views on the other warring powers.
His call to arms was a masterpiece of eloquent sophistry, which brought hardened, cynical solons to tears. His central casus belli was that the German government had “put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean.”
There could be no more fraudulent justification for war. The UK used its dominant navy to impose an illegal “starvation blockade” on Germany — treating almost everything, even food for civilians, as contraband. This campaign killed hundreds of thousands of noncombatants as well as violated neutral, meaning American, rights. Yet Wilson’s protests to London were merely pro forma, lest he discomfit the British war effort.
In contrast, his complaints about the German U‐boat campaign were both vociferous and hypocritical. Submarines were ill‐equipped to enforce a traditional blockade, which required stopping vessels to check and search for contraband. Worse, London secretly armed many such ships and ordered them to ram any U‐boat that attempted to comply with traditional practice by surfacing. Even passenger ships, like the Lusitania, were turned into reserve cruisers, armed, and used to transport munitions.
The latter was sunk in May 1915. It left New York with 139 Americans aboard — after the German government ran advertisements warning Americans not to travel on the ship. It was torpedoed 11 miles off the coast of Ireland; 1198 passengers died, including 128 Americans. But the Lusitania sank only after a second explosion, caused by ignition of the cargo of ammunition. After denying the obvious for decades, the British government admitted in 1982 that the wreck was too dangerous for divers to explore because ammunition littered the ship’s remains.
Wilson’s position was beyond outlandish. He believed that the presence of just one American should immunize a reserve military vessel of a belligerent power under orders to attack enemy submarines and carrying military contraband through a war zone. It was a nonsensical claim, understandable only as policy calculated to allow Washington to enter the war on behalf of the Allies. To make such a position the cause for war was murderous partisanship.
Berlin nevertheless drew back, hoping to avoid giving Wilson an excuse for war. As the exhausting conflict ground on, with blockade‐induced malnutrition and even starvation stalking the home front, in early 1917 the German government announced the return to unrestricted U‐boat warfare. Hence Wilson’s plea to Congress.
“I was for a little while unable to believe that such things would in fact be done by any government that had hitherto subscribed to the humane practices of civilized nations,” he declared to the assembled members, after studiously ignoring the consequences of the British blockade. “The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind,” he insisted, requiring the U.S. vindicate the most precious “human right” of traveling on belligerent ships carrying munitions through war zones.
Thus, he urged Congress to act: