The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Nationalism
This essay will seek to persuade the reader that nationalism as a whole contributed a more direct cause to the break out of World War I than assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.
Many argue that the cause of the first world war was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia in June of 1914. While the assassination of the Archduke prompted Austria to declare war on Serbia with Germany’s support in July 1914, causing a ripple effect of countries declaring war on each other, it could be argued that ultimately, it was nationalism and nationalist views that started the chain of events. Nationalism defined is loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. Nationalists overestimate the value of their country and puts the country’s interest above everything else.
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The Archduke’s visit to Sarajevo in June 1914 was to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. This annexation had incensed Serbian nationalists because they believed the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be part of Serbia leading to the plot to kill the archduke during his visit to Sarajevo. Following the Archduke’s assassination, Austria-Hungary was outraged and immediately blamed the Serbian government. Knowing that a nation as powerful as Russia supported Serbia, Austria reached to Germany for guarantees that Germany would assist Austria-Hungary against Russia and their allies, including France and possibly Great Britain. With Germany’s promise of support, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, was a Serbian nationalist, a member of the secret Black Hand society, a nationalist movement favoring a union between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Despite orders from the prime minister of Serbia, a sympathizer of the Black Hand’s objectives – Bosnia-Herzegovina achieving independence from Austro-Hungary, to stand down the assassination plot for fear of war with Austria-Hungary should an assassination be successful, the severe nationalist views of Black Hand and Gavrillo Princip pushed them to move forward with the assassination. One may say that Princip was merely acting on orders, however, he and his accomplices were given orders to kill themselves following their attempts on Ferdinand’s life. Their willingness to carry out such a task shows that nationalist views and beliefs instigated the assassination which caused the outrage in Austria-Hungary leading to that first declaration of war against Serbia.
Within days of the declare of war on Serbia by Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia. Due to Russian-France alliances Germany sought to invade France. Though, due to the German dominance of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France had lost money and land to Germany, fueling French nationalists to have a desire to enact revenge. Also, as a lesson learned, France built fortifications along their border with Germany. These facts drove the Germans to plan their attack through neutral Belgium. Following Belgium’s refusal to allow Germany to pass freely through to France due to their desire to remain neutral Germany’s nationalist belief that they were superior led them to believe that they would quickly overrun the Belgians allowing them to flank the French armies and force them to surrender. With Britain’s assistance Belgium was not able to stop the advance but they were able to slow Germany’s advance toward Paris. Germany’s nationalist arrogance allowed them to overpower the Belgians, however, they did not take into account that the Belgians would put up a fight and France’s allies would send assistance and the toll that these facts would take on their troops and weapons.
In the century preceding World War I Europe had experienced mostly peace. With the exception of the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the subsequent defeat of France by the Prussians, Europeans had not experienced war or substantial military defeat for more than half a century making war a far off memory. This created overconfidence in military power and naivete about the outcome of a potential European war and bred nationalism.
Nationalist ideals led to delusions about the military abilities and strength amongst the European powers. Coupled with economic powerfulness, the British believed that their powerful navy would lead them to win any war they faced. Germany had a great deal of confidence in the Prussian military’s efficiency and believed that their expanding fleet of battleships, submarines and armaments would lead them to be able to execute the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy to defeat France before Russia had a chance to support them without issue. Russia believed that their large population and the size of their army, the largest peacetime land force at 1.5 million, gave them a blatant advantage over any smaller western European country. France believed the defenses and fortifications put in place following their defeat by the Prussians would allow them military advantage against advances. The nationalist overconfidence allowed these European nations to expect that they would not suffer greatly if faced with war and would lead to hasty pursuit.
While the western European powers were busy promoting their own superiority and breeding their super powerful delusions of themselves, eastern European nationalists were demanding independence. Their nationalist beliefs were not empirical. They were about the rights of races and religious groups that sought independence from their imperial controllers. Pan-Slavism, the belief that the Slavs of eastern Europe should have their own independence was strong during this time. Slavic nationalism was strongest in Serbia and contributed to the opposition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s control. Following Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, some Serbs joined radical nationalist groups, such as the group Gavrillo Princip was a part of, Black Hand, in hopes of driving Austria-Hungary from the Balkans. These Pan-Slavic nationalist beliefs directly led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which then led to the outbreak of World War I.
The nationalist overconfidence of the western European nations contributed to their belief that if they were already this powerful then they certainly could become more powerful. They sought to increase their empires leading to imperialism and imperial rivalry. Imperialism is when a powerful nation seizes or controls territories outside its own borders, then claimed and governed as colonies. Used primarily for economic dominance, the already established global empires sought to expand their imperial power to further their role as what they perceived as the most powerful. In 1914, before the start of World War I global empires included the British Empire, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Spain, the United States, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Italy. The imperial instability of many of these global empires contributed to European tensions. As the Ottoman Empire began to shrink western European countries scrambled to secure territory in the region. This paired with nationalism created more opportunities for rivalry and increased tensions. Again, rising tensions in the Balkans and the nationalists’ desire for independence rather than Austro-Hungarian control of the colonies directly led to the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, further proof that nationalism was a direct cause of the first world war.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century military power was considered a sign of national and imperial strength. Nationalism and imperialism in western Europe specifically led also to militarism as empires sought to build bigger and better armies and navies to outdo rival empires. Militarism places great importance on military power and can also lead to military rule over civilians. It can cause governments to drastically increase military spending and receive influence and or dominance from military leaders, their interests and their priorities. Militarism in Europe prior to World War I produced an arms race which increased new military technologies. Additionally, militarism influenced culture, the media, and public opinion in Europe. Persuaded by nationalism and advice from military leaders, European governments increased military spending and their military equipment adding to their false confidences in their abilities to win any war brought upon their country.
The effect of militarism in Europe leading up to World War I also lent to an environment where war and a battle of power was preferred over negotiation or diplomacy. By the beginning of World War I, European powers were not only prepared for war, they were expecting it and, in some cases, were hoping for it expecting it would increase their standing amongst the super powers of the world. Militarism, nationalism, and imperialism were all intertwined in the lead up to the flashpoint that ultimately preceded the first declaration of war on Serbia by Austria-Hungary. Following the declaration of war on Serbia, the rest of the European powers were quick to prepare to defend their alliances, preserve or increase their current empires and demonstrate the military strength they had spent millions of dollars on and years increasing.
In all, the superior attitude brought primarily through nationalism and added to by imperialism and militarism amongst the largest European empires led to an idea that if anyone threatened the idea of their dominance over one another a war was the answer. For many years leading up to World War I it was as though the powers were waiting for someone to shoot first.
While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo may be the turning point event that caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, nationalism present in both Eastern and Western Europe in the years leading up to World War I is the root cause of that assassination. As stated, nationalism defined is loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. Nationalists overestimate the value of their country and puts the country’s interest above everything else. Coupled with the almost anxious anticipation of war amongst the European empires seeking to display their world position and prove their dominance the road to war was paved. If nationalism wasn’t present previously amongst the Serbs and had they not been fighting for independence against Vienna’s colonization of Bosnia and Herzegovina the desire to mortally wound Archduke Ferdinand would not have been present. Therefore, nationalism is a more direct root cause of the start of the first world war.