“The Dread Signal of Armageddon”

Archduke Shot-small copyToday is the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo Princep’s assassination of the Archduke Francis Fertinand and his consort in Sarajevo, what Churchill called “the dread signal of Armageddon.”  We’re about to start a four-year palooza of commemorations of the signal episodes from the Great War, including lots of chin-stroking about whether something like it could happen again in the heart of Europe (or on the periphery, like, say, Ukraine).  I offered a few of my own thoughts about this over at Forbes.com back in January.  Among other things I wrote in January was this:

“European disarmament—the great windmill of the 1930s—is coming to pass by degrees, the result of welfare-statism more than authentic Kantian pacifism. Before long most of Europe won’t be able to fight each other even if they wanted to.  (Better watch out for those old Russians, though.  They didn’t get the memo from Brussels.)”

There’s a whole pile of books out in recent months marking the centennial, some of them very good.  But Churchill’s The World Crisis still remains essential reading for anyone who wishes to have an adequate grasp of the epic “War to End All Wars.”  Keep in mind that Churchill dated this span from the “crisis” of the Great War from 1911, when the Agadir crisis suggested the fissure that came three years later.

There are many great passages and insights from The World Crisis, and perhaps I’ll make a series from it here on Power Line.  For today, take in Churchill’s passage, from chapter 8, of the news of the assassination:

. . . on June 28 arrived the news of the murder of Archduke Charles at Sarajevo.  [Comment: not sure why Churchill calls the Archduke “Charles” here.]

Like many others, I often summon up in my memory the impression of those July days.  The world on the verge of its catastrophe was very brilliant.  Nations and Empires crowned with princes and potentates rose majestically on every side, lapped in the accumulated treasures of the long peace.  All were fitted and fastened—it seemed securely—into an immense cantilever.  The two mighty Europeans systems faced each other glittering and clanking in their panoply, but with a tranquil gaze.  A polite, discreet, pacific, and on the whole sincere diplomacy spread its web of connections over both.  A sentence in a dispatch, an observation by an ambassador, a cryptic phrase in a Parliament seemed sufficient to adjust from day to day the balance of the prodigious structure.  Words counted, and even whispers.  A nod could be made to tell.  Were we after all to achieve world security and universal peace by a marvelous system of combinations in equipoise and of armaments in equation, of checks and counter-checks on violent action ever more complex and more delicate?  Would Europe this marshaled, thus grouped, thus related, unite into one universal and glorious organism capable of receiving and enjoying in undreamed of abundance the bounty which nature and science stood hand in hand to give?  The old world in its sunset was fair to see.

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