An Article by Frank-Walter Steinmeier published at The Guardian on January 27, 2014
On 28 June 1914, telegraphs were spreading news of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian throne. Five weeks later the first world war broke out. In our collective German memory, this event is often overshadowed by the second world war and the crime against humanity that was the Shoah. Nevertheless, for many of our neighbours, the countries in which the bloody battles and terrible killing in the trenches took place, the first world war remains etched in their memories. In France today it is still called la Grande Guerre, the Great War, and George Kennan declared it to be the "seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century. The history of those five weeks between the assassination in a restive, peripheral region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the outbreak of war between Europe's great powers has been told many a time.
On the centenary of the catastrophe, numerous new studies have been published which try to render the incomprehensible comprehensible. They detail the calculations of those then in power in Europe's capitals, the rash predictions of a swift military campaign and the misjudgments on all sides.
The history of the outbreak of war 100 years ago and of the collapse of the fragile balance of power in Europe in the summer of 1914 is a disturbing tale of the failure of the governing elites and the military, but also of diplomacy. This is not only the case for the fateful days of July 1914. Relations between the continental great powers and their interlinked or even interrelated ruling dynasties had been built on sand long before the chain of political misjudgments and military mobilisation was set in motion.
Europe in the early 20th century was experiencing an early economic globalisation, but foreign policy lacked both the will and tools to foster a peaceful balance of interests. It was beset by deep mutual mistrust, – and secrecy. Countries had no qualms about thrashing out power rivalries to the cost of other parties.
This never led to the development of viable institutions capable of settling disputes. The archives of the warring parties clearly reveal that misconceptions and political short-sightedness prevailed, but that in no way gives us Germans grounds to downplay our foreign policy failings during those disastrous weeks. In Berlin, instead of de-escalation and understanding, the lust for escalation prevailed.
Seventeen million people around the world lost their lives in the first world war, countless suffered and were marred for life. This year, on the former battlefields, we will pay tribute to the victims – in Alsace, in Flanders, on the Marne and on the Somme, around Ypres as well as in the east.
It is extremely fortunate that the prospect of war breaking out in the heart of Europe has become unimaginable. In the place of a fragile balance of constantly shifting alliances and following the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Germany during the second world war, we have built a European community of law. Through the European Union, we have found a way to resolve our differences peacefully. Instead of the law of the strong, Europe is governed by the strength of the law.
For some, the pursuit of compromises around negotiating tables in Brussels is too arduous, protracted and unwieldy. This commemorative year reminds us of the importance of remaining aware of what an achievement of civilisation it is that small and large EU states, once opponents in numerous conflicts on our war-torn continent, can spend long nights seeking joint solutions in a peaceful and civilised manner.
The loss of trust in the European project which has accompanied the economic crisis in Europe, in recent years particularly prominent in the young generation hit by unemployment and the lack of prospects in large parts of the EU, holds great danger. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to fall back on nationalist rhetoric, sung to the catchy tune of criticism of Europe. Given our history, we must firmly resist this.
Today, the shaky system of balance of power has still not been overcome in many parts of the world. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the iron curtain, troublespots abound: the Middle East and parts of Africa lack a stable regional security architecture; in east Asia, nationalist tendencies and competing ambitions are threatening peace and stability in the region and beyond.
The outbreak of war in 1914 put an end to the initial phase of globalisation. Europe's economies and cultures were so closely intertwined that at the time, war seemed impossible, irrational and against each country's own interests. Yet it still broke out.
Today, our world is more interconnected than ever. This offers many opportunities; it creates wealth and new freedoms. Yet our world is also vulnerable, full of friction points and conflicts of interest. Prudent foreign policy and diplomatic craftsmanship are more important than ever now.
Having a sober view not only of one's own interests, but also of one's neighbours interests, acting responsibly and thinking about consequences with a level head are vital to safeguarding peace. Avoiding the hasty adoption of positions and constantly seeking new room to compromise are two fundamental principles of diplomacy. The history of 1914 provides a vivid insight into what happens when we ignore them. Did the July crisis have to lead to catastrophe? Probably not. Yet emotive rhetoric overrode the courage to pursue a laborious balancing of interests. Can we rule out something similar happening today? The answer depends solely on us, on us being responsible and on the lessons that we take from history.