Let’s Go To the Movies – PT 15.

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37 DAYS (2014) – Mini-series                                  

This superb British drama mini-series, broadcast by the BBC in March 2014, covers the 37 days leading up to the outbreak of World War One, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, to the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany on August 4. The three-part series clearly quashes the theory that the war was an inevitable result of the Sarajevo assassination of the Archduke and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. War could certainly have been avoided if all parties had truly wanted peace but such was not the case.

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The Archduke and his wife just minutes from assassination

That said, it was evident, however, that chance had much to do with the assassination itself. Although not mentioned in 37 Days, it is interesting to note that the tragic spark that ignited the rush towards war was the result of astonishing bad luck that began nearly twenty years earlier. Back in the 1890s the Schiller family had met to discuss how to invest the family’s funds in a business. The choice boiled down to opening either a florist or a delicatessen. Had they settled on opening a florist, the assassination on June 28, 1914 would never have taken place, but they opted for an eatery instead. Unbeknown to them, that decision would, in due course, change the world forever.

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The assassination car in the Vienna Museum of Military History

On that fateful day in June 1914, the initial attempt to kill the Archduke with a bomb thrown at his motorcade had been bungled. It had injured several people, however, and it was decided that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie should bypass any further possible attacks and drive directly to Sarajevo Hospital to comfort the wounded. Unfortunately, the man entrusted with advising the Archduke’s driver of the change in plans was among the wounded headed for the hospital. Consequently, the driver was not informed of the change, an accidental omission that would have staggering consequences.

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Assassin Gavrilo Princip

One of the assassins, a twenty year-old named Gavrilo Princip, had panicked on seeing the failed first attempt to kill the Archduke and moved to Schiller’s delicatessen to have a bite to eat and to gather his thoughts before deciding on his next course of action. When the first two cars in the motorcade turned into a nearby side street, the driver of the Archduke’s car automatically followed them. Told he was going the wrong way, he stopped the vehicle and prepared to reverse out of the side street. By sheer chance the car had stopped alongside Princip who was standing outside Schiller’s. Against all expectations, he had been presented with an opportunity to carry out the assassination squad’s plans. He stepped up to the footboard of the car and opened fire at point-blank range, mortally wounding both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. They would die shortly afterwards.

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Ian McDiarmid as British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey

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Sir Edward Grey 1914

The assassination set in motion a string of blunders, some unintentional, some not. Austria-Hungary was bent on occupying Serbia’s capital city Sarajevo, so it issued a list of demands (an ultimatum, in fact), fully expecting the Serbs to reject them. To the astonishment of all, however, the Serbs acquiesced, eager to avoid occupation or war at any cost. The Austrians refused their acceptance of the outrageous terms and threatened invasion anyway. The Serbs, however, very fearful of Russia, had signed a treaty with the Czar some years earlier, one that guaranteed Russian support should Serbia be threatened by a foreign power. Austrian sabre-rattling resulted in Czar Nicholas II mobilising more than a million men, and this made the Germans nervous. Germany was a mortal enemy of Russia anyway. The Kaiser was also pledged to support Austria-Hungary in the event of war.

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Helmuth von Moltke

It was clear to everyone that Russia was not mobilising for war with Germany, but General Helmuth von Moltke, Deputy Chief of the General Staff and a personal friend of the Kaiser, began mobilising for war in the west with the French. The Kaiser, mortified at the possibility of fighting a war on two fronts, ordered him to divert the west-bound troops to the east in preparation for war with Russia. Moltke refused to do so, arguing that such a drastic alteration of a long-planned major mobilization risked organizational chaos. The Kaiser (at that stage) was convinced that Britain would not go to war on France’s side and that Russia was the main threat to Germany, so he insisted his orders to Moltke be acted upon.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

It was not long before it became apparent that Britain was bound by a treaty, one that Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had signed in 1912, to defend the Channel ports against any enemy action. The Kaiser knew that any attack on France would involve the Channel ports, changed his mind once more and mobilization against the west resumed, much to Moltke’s delight. The Germans had already planned to ignore the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality that the European super-powers had all signed. The plan was to attack the French by going through Belgium and treaty be damned! The French hated the Germans and distrusted the British. Germany and Russia were bitter enemies, both believing there was room in Eastern Europe for only one of them. In short, nobody trusted (or much liked) anyone else. Ironically, the last nations to declare war prior to the opening of hostilities would be Austria-Hungary and Serbia. By then no-one noticed or cared about either of them and the world had blustered and blundered its way into a global conflict that would kill millions and change the map of Europe forever.

One cannot help but wonder how things in the world might be different today if the Schillers had opened a florist’s instead of a sandwich shop. Princip would not have stopped there and he would not have been availed of the opportunity to carry out the assassination that led inexorably to the First World War. If the war had not happened it is possible that Czarist Russia may have survived intact and there would have been no Cold War and no nuclear arms race. No ‘Space Race’ neither. Corporal Adolf Hitler would never have risen to power in post-war Germany, because the nation would not have been reduced to poverty paying reparations for the 1914-18 conflict. Without Hitler, there would not have been a Second World War and no Holocaust either. How many of the millions killed in both world wars might have lived to make a difference in our world today? Of course, we shall never know. Food for thought though.

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