Have you ever wondered if it’s possible to pinpoint a single event that changed the world?

One, obviously, was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but one could argue that Lincoln’s murder didn’t really change the world. It clearly changed the history of this country, however. Who can say how different the history of this country would have been had Lincoln not been assassinated? It’s all speculation about how the post-Civil War period would have been different had Lincoln lived. One can speculate that Reconstruction would have been a more generous period and, therefore, much shorter and that bad feelings wouldn’t have lasted for another half-century. But all that is just speculation. We’ll never know how the post-war period would have been different had Lincoln lived.

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that another assassination in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1914, produced the exact opposite result – fact, not speculation. But first, a word of explanation: Before World War I the countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans were separate that became Yugoslavia after the war. Serbia had a strong nationalist movement opposed to the rule of their country by the Austro-Hungarians. Austria and Hungary still exist today, but not as a single empire which, at the time, was under the rule of the Emperor Franz-Joseph. His nephew – and successor - was the Arch Duke Francis Ferdinand. The Arch Duke had been sent to oversee the military training going on in Bosnia in 1914. He and his wife, Sophie, were travelling in an open car through the city of Sarajevo. Six Serbian assassins, all members of a radical organization called the “Black Hand,” were hidden along the Arch Duke’s route into the city. Because the driver took a wrong turn, the car appeared right in front of one of the assassins, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip. He fired the revolver he was carrying twice and killed both the Arch Duke and his wife!

This one event set in motion events that had a profound effect on the entire history of the 20th century.

How, you ask? Well, to begin with, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then Serbia’s ally, Russia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. Then, Germany declared war on Russia in support of Austria-Hungary, France declared war on Germany because of their alliance with the Russians. To attack France, the Germans invaded Belgium – which just happened to be in the way of the German attack. Great Britain had an alliance with Belgium, so they declared war on Germany. The net result was all five of the great European powers – Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Germany, and Great Britain were at war – and all because Gavrilo Princip – one young man – shot and killed the Arch Duke of Austria-Hungary and his wife.

Moving on: by November 1918 the Central Powers, as they were called, had lost the war, Germany being the largest and most powerful of the group. Peace terms were dictated by the winners – Great Britain, France, Italy, and the United States in the Treaty of Versailles. The peace terms were severe and Germany was forced to accept responsibility for the war and pay for all the loss and damage! Needless to say, the harshness of the terms were deeply resented by the Germans.

By 1920, just two years after the end of the war, Adolph Hitler began his rise to power. The Great Depression of 1929 caused the already shaky German economy to collapse and by 1934 Hitler had become Chancellor. Much of his rhetoric focused on the “stab in the back” because of the harsh terms the Germans had to accept in 1918. Hitler began to re-arm Germany to seek revenge for the hardships caused by the Treaty of Versailles – and the world was on its way to a Second World War. One can make the argument that there was really only one world war and that the period between 1918 and 1939 was only a time-out.

Once again, Germany lost the war and their country was divided in four parts each to be governed by one of the allies; the United States, Russia, France, and Great Britain. As could have been predicted, the US and Russia became rivals and the Cold War started with the beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. The US and Russia were mortal enemies with hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at each other until the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 – an event I never thought I’d see, but it proves the point that socialism/communism do not work!

In human terms, the total number of people killed in the wars between 1914 and 1945 is approximately 150,000,000. That’s one hundred and fifty million people! And it all began because one man shot the Arch Duke of Austria-Hungry and his wife one summer day in 1914. It was that one act that set in motion the chain of events that changed the world forever. The argument can be made that something else would have triggered the start of the First World War, but we don’t know that for sure.

Furthermore, the Second World War might have started anyway because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. It’s possible that all sorts of intervening events could have triggered both world wars – like the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the point is that it is possible for one event to change the course of world history in ways that no one at the time could have anticipated. Only in hindsight can we see how one seemingly minor event can set in motion a string of events that change everything.

That’s – 30 – for this week.


Paul W. Barada is a retired Rush County businessman. He may be contacted via this publication at news@greensburgdailynews.com.

Recommended for you