|Behold the man- seems more of a boy, to me
If you had to nominate the individual, who you think, was the most influential person of the 20th century, who would you choose? When I mean influential I mean the person that substantially influenced world events at the time and whose historical legacy lingers, nay insinuates, today. That is a terrible burden for one individual to carry. And you could argue that our modern world has been shaped by many people and forces too numerous to count. But that said, is there one single individual who has had a disproportionate effect? And I don't mean someone who actively participated in many of the cardinal or principle events of the 20th century, I mean someone who set the scene, someone who started a sequence of cataclysmic reactions which eventually meandered to the world we inhabit today.
I suspect many people would select Hitler, or perhaps Stalin, or even Churchill and while it is true that these men played a major role in the world scene since the 1930s, I would argue that their influence has been derivative. I would state that events prior to this period were responsible for how these men reacted to unfolding events during their tenure.
I would also contend that events, and most importantly a single/singular event, by one man in June of 1914 had a seminal effect on subsequent world history. If you are following my line of reasoning you are already contemplating the Great War. While it is true that in 1914, prior to one fateful June day, there existed political tensions between the Great Powers, there seemed no reason why the world should descend into Armageddon. In fact, if anything tensions had eased and there seemed no imminent prospect of a general war. You might want to read my post concerning the military alliances and the balance of power during the early years of the 20th century. Alliances meant to make the war between the Great Powers unthinkable, but as we know this principle failed to produce peace once the cascade of treaty obligations kicked in.
Let me introduce my nomination, Gavrilo Princep, a 19-year-old, idealistic, nationalistic Bosnian student with dreams of South Slav unification and independence from Austrian shackles. On June 28, 1914, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, the heir apparent to the ramshackle Empire visited the Bosnian city of Sarajevo to observe military manoeuvres; it was an unwise move. The Empire had annexed Bosnia in 1908 and the date chosen for the visit was inauspicious as the 28th June coincided with the anniversary of a major defeat of the Southern Slavs by the Turks in 1389. More than one assassin lurked on the streets of Sarajevo that day. Earlier a bomb had been thrown at the Archduke's motorcade, but Ferdinand and his wife were uninjured, although others in the stately procession were seriously wounded. By a strange stroke of fate, later in the day, Ferdinand’s car took a wrong turn as it left Sarajevo town hall and by happenstance, Princip was standing nearby as the car reversed to regain the route. He came out of the shadows and fired two shots mortally wounding the Archduke and his wife.
The deaths resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war on the neighbouring state of Serbia which was suspected of state sponsored involvement in the assassination, however, official Serbian involvement was never proven. As is often the case with major historical events, the spark caught light due to an action which, in hindsight, should never have had the calamitous consequences of a world war. If cool heads amongst the respective leaders of nations had prevailed and if a modicum of competent diplomacy had ensued, the matter, although grave, should not have set Europe afire. In particular, the Austria-Hungarians bear much of the blame as they presented the Serbs with a humiliating ultimatum which the Serbs accepted almost in its entirety. However, the ultimatum was just an Austria-Hungarian pretext for war. The Austria-Hungarians counted on German support and a vague assurance of support from the intelligent, but politically inept and volatile German Kaiser made them bold beyond their means. The Germans, and especially the Kaiser receive opprobrium for not reining in their weaker ally. Europe seemed to slip into war without conscious effort or restraint and the declaration of war by the Austria-Hungarians triggered a cascade of alliances culminating in a war between the Great Powers one month after the Archduke's death.
Poor Princip died in prison in 1918 of malnutrition and tuberculosis. His ambition for a united Slav state free of domination came about with the formation of Yugoslavia during the political maelstrom following the end of the Great War. Surely this idealistic young man could never have foreseen and perhaps never condone his baleful influence on world history.
I am arguing that the Great War set our world on its modern course and provided an heirloom with which we struggle/juggle with today. The First War set the scene for the second great conflict, the influence of which cannot be denied in our modern context. Some would say that the intervening years between the wars were a mere armistice; a period of war without arms.
Princip appeared on the world stage, for but a moment changed it, and then disappeared from history stage left. But he had changed the world and we live with the cultural, geopolitical and technical consequences to this day. And this why, Gavrilo Princip demands to be the most influential individual of the 20th century. I’m reluctant to consider Princip, the ‘Father of the Modern World’, but he certainly deserves to be called his naive, much younger brother.
Listen and weep
Listen and weep