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Author examines causes, outbreak of First World War

| Friday, November 20, 2015

When Europe went to war in 1914, it was not as theatrically dramatic as the history books make it seem, according to Sir Christopher Clark, winner of the 2015 Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies.

“The story of how this war came about was not a James Bond movie,” Clark said. “This kind of thing does not happen in 1914. It was not an Agatha Christie murder. It’s not that kind of story. It was an intensely interactive crisis [where actors were] willing to take risks — that’s the core cause here: All the key actors were all willing to take risks in this war.”

Clark, who received the award for his book, “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” delivered the 2015 Laura Shannon Prize Lecture on Thursday evening, focusing on the outbreak and preceding events of World War I.

“It seems to me that there’s a theatrical intensity that repays revisiting these events. So I’d like to start by introducing a couple that was about to have a very bad day. Of course, that’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, who were visiting Sarajevo on the 28 of June,” he said.

Clark said the couple was driving along the road by the river in Sarajevo when a bomb was hurled at their carriage.

“The bomb originally missed and landed instead on the covering, the folded roof, and bounced back, probably assisted by the Archduke who had made this sort of swatting motion,” he said. “At this point, you would think that this would be a good time to call off their trip to Sarajevo. But when this was proposed, the response was more that of, ‘No, we can’t do that, this guy was just a lunatic.’”

Shortly thereafter, Clark said, the man who threw the bomb was captured by a policeman and a barber with a pistol.

“Where did these guys go? We need more barbers with pistols,” Clark said. “So these guys jump into the river to get the guy who threw the bomb. The Archduke saw him and told him to get him to an asylum, you know, business as usual. And they decided to go on with the day as planned.”

After the couple stopped briefly to meet with some of the leading men of the city, they decided to reroute their original path, he said.

“They didn’t want to go through the narrow streets in the Bazar district, and it was proposed that that would be dangerous, that it may be filled with assassins. So they decide to change the route, and it was fine, and it was all agreed. And that was fine, but someone forgot to tell the Czech driver that plan,” he said. “So then car number two comes to a complete stop in front of Schiller’s store, and that’s when the assassin had the perfect opportunity to take his shots.”

It was there, in front of the store, that Ferdinand and his wife were killed, Clark said. Ferdinand’s last words were, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die, stay alive for our children.”

“The speed at which his last words were last publicized was incredible — it reminds us how globalized the world was already. He wasn’t JFK, but his death did trigger an immense wave of emotion. We mustn’t understate the emotion generated by the assassination,” Clark said.

Though it was an act of terrorism, Clark said it is important to clarify the difference between Ferdinand’s assassination and recent acts of terrorism.

“This act was not carried out in extreme cruelty; it was not an act of terrorism in the way we see in Paris,“ Clark said. ”It wasn’t that kind of unmeasured extreme murders. It doesn’t excuse these murders, but it helps to qualify them. There’s a difference between them and the terrorists we see in events like 9/11 or the attacks in London.”

Though on the morning of June 28, Europe was at peace, Clark said mere days later Europe erupted in war.

“If you had asked anyone if they thought a major war was on the brink, they all would have said no. It globalized at a really dazzling pace,” Clark said.

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About Rachel O'Grady

Rachel O'Grady is a senior Political Science major living in Ryan Hall and is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor. Hailing from Chicago (actual Chicago, not the suburbs) she's been a Cubs fan since birth.

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