The Slovenia Times

Centenary of WWI - The initial catastrophe of the 20th history


2014 will be a good year, optimists are saying. And why shouldn't it be a good one? People in Europe are living in peace, most of them have enough to eat, a place to stay and a job - despite of a heavy economical crisis. But let's take a look back, hundred years ago, the world just entered the 20th century, new inventions and the industry improved living conditions for many people. But problems arose: nationalist intentions in many countries, the general rearmament, social tensions and military-political alliances. All these were reasons for the biggest catastrophe in Europe to date: the First World War, or The Great War.

In this four-part series, we will take a look at the development of the war, with special focus on the former regions of Slovenia and the Slovenes, who participated in the war as part of the Austro-Hungarian army. Though people who actively fought in the war are already dead, the impact of the First World War on history was huge and shaped the following decades.

Slovenes entered the 20th century within the Habsburg Monarchy under Franz Josef I., who reigned 68 years until his death in 1916. The regions Kranjska, Štajerska, Koroška, Goriška and Istra were the historic lands were Slovenians lived. Though modernization came late, the Slovene regions had an active social, political and cultural life. Many Slovenes were studying in Vienna and the newly finished railway between Vienna and Trieste contributed to an economical upswing. Nevertheless, a lot of workers emigrated to more industrialized areas (the vast majority of the Slovenes still lived an agricultural life) in Europe because of poor competitiveness and debt.

The fault for WW1 is often placed on the shoulders of one man: Gavrilo Princip. The Serbian assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia Hohenberg in Sarajevo, during their visit to watch manoevres. Princip was a member of a nationalist underground organisation, which fought against the Austro-Hungarian empire. The shooting of Franz Ferdinand was planned, but the first assassination attempt was unsuccessful. It was a mere coincidence, that the car of of the royal couple stopped next to 19-year-old Princip who was already leaving the area. The shots were the catalyst that pushed the accumulated conflicts and military alliances among European states into military conflict.

Hypothetical question: what if the car would not have stopped? What if Gavrilo Princips attempt to shoot Franz Ferdinand would have failed? Would it have came to the oubreak of the war? Probably yes. The European states were caught implacable cauldron of conflict and fear, military strategists prepared offensive-fedensive military concepts and industrially developed states stockpiled military technology. Several circles within the Austro-Hungarian government favoured war and saw the assassination as a confirmation for a preventive and punitive war. Princip's shots were just the last straw that broke the camel's back.

On 23rd July, Austria Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia, demanding among other things, a ban on anti-Autrian publications and permission for the Austro-Hungarians to search for the assassin themselves on Serbian territory. Serbia was not willing to accept the ultimatum, which was considered as unconstitutional. One month after the shooting of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

An interesting fact by the way: The main reason why Austria-Hungary waited a whole month before declaring war on Serbia was mainly because many army officers, generals and soldiers were on holiday. Simultanously with the declaration of war, the mobilisation and preparation for the war began, also in Slovene regions. 60% of the men between the age of 21 and 35 were mobilized, around 80.000 among them were Slovenians.
The international bonds and treaties triggered a whole wave of mobilization in Europe and the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian conflict thus grew from a local to an international matter and transformed Europe and a large part of the world into a battlefield. The two basic opposing axes were the so-called Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Entente (United Kingdom, France, Italy from 1915 on, Russia and the USA).

Slovenes were sent with different regiments to the fronts, that were opened in Europe: in the east in Galicia, in the south on the Balkan and in the west on the Soča/Isonzo front. With the opening of these 3 fronts and the use of unimaginable amounts of money, material, ammuntion and especially soldiers, the world saw a face of war which was never seen before. Gas attacks, tanks and submarines brought a new, barbarous aspect to modern warfare. The opponents stumbled into a catastrophe, blinded by war propaganda and nationalism.

This article was written in cooperation with the National Museum of Contemporary History in Ljubljana, which also provided the photos.

The text appeared in the latest print issue of The Slovenia Times.


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