100 years ago today, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serbian radical, shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. This was one of a number of assassinations, bombings, political murders carried out around the turn of the century by various radicals, terrorists and cranks, but this one blew up. Serbia was looking for ways to expand, to take Slavic lands away from the Austro-Hungarian empire; hey may not have planned the assassination, but they certainly encouraged that sort of behavior from Serbs in Bosnia. Austria-Hungary was looking for ways to crush Serbia, to protect their holdings, to remove a threat, to humiliate an enemy, to regain some prestige lost after the earlier Balkan wars. So Austria turned the assassination into an excuse to humiliate Serbia, to neutralize them - or better, to force them to war. But war meant European war - because Russia made promises to Serbia, and Germany made promises to Austria, and France and Russia made promises to one another, and England was hanging around, half promising things to France. And Germany's plans for fighting Russia involved starting by knocking France out of the war and that required invading Belgium, and England guaranteed Belgium's neutrality, and so were brought into the war, from the start. And that was that.
It took another month for the diplomacy to play out, with no one quite grasping the full scope of the coming disaster for a while. Even when they did - no one seemed to quite grasp the full scope of disaster modern all out warfare would bring. And maybe worse, that lack of understanding seemed to be ubiquitous - countries continued to play at war like they were playing a game of Diplomacy, making deals, promises, creating and destroying countries out of nothing. So when it was all over, the world was left with more problems than it started with - Bolshevik Russia; a bitter resentful Germany, ripe for the plucking by worse radicals still; unstable, patched together countries in middle and southern Europe - the patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian empire reproduced in smaller places like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. And a messy patchwork of countries and powers and the like in the middle east - which plague us to this day. Much of it made by the high handedness of the winners. Much like today. (Listening to Dick Cheney talk about Iraq is like resurrecting Kaiser Wilhelm or Moltke the Younger to talk about the wisdom of invading France.)
All that after millions of men were killed in the fighting - a war to end all wars, but one that proved to be a hothouse for future wars. And things started down that hill today, 100 years ago, in Sarajevo.