This is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  With the centennial of this, many more will follow and we will see the First World War in the mainstream media once again.

The causes of World War I continue to intrige historians and there has been very little break in the evaluation of the outbreak of war, but several books have been released this year, probably in anticipation of a renewed interest in the subject.  Richard Alduous wrote eloquently and concisely on the origins of the war:

“[Fritz Fischer’s’  hugely controversial account, “Germany’s Aims in the First World War,” published in English in 1967, accused Germany of intentionally starting the war. Historians since have all weighed in on the blame game. Of recent scholarship, Max Hastings backs Fischer in holding Germany responsible; Sean McMeekin argues it was Russia’s fault; Niall Ferguson points the finger at Britain; while Christopher Clark shows Europe “sleepwalking” into war. Despite these bold and often compelling accounts, the case remains unsettled.”

He wrote this in a review of Margaret Macmillan’s latest book The War That Ended Peace: the road to 1914.  As his summary shows, new books remind us to reconsider old hypotheses, and interestingly, with World War I, there is more consideration of different countries and their level of responsibility than there is of systemic causes – nationalism, militarism and the alliance system as any good IB student knows.  For all of these authors, June 28, 1914 is the starting point for the war; from here, there are a series of diplomatic calculations that eventually led to the mobilizations and declarations of war.  But there is not as much consideration as to why the assassination took place.

That is the work of Tim Butcher, author of The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War.  This work looks at the growth and development of the Black Hand society, its motivations for the assassination and the plans that succeeded only through a series of missteps on that fateful day.  He also reminds us that political assassinations were far more common in that volatile time, when democracy was a rare phenomenon and the political frustrations of the unrepresented let to acts of political violence.  This is the story that the students will remember – just as they can remember verbatim the story that you tell them of Rasputin’s murder but cannot remember the causes of the Februarry revolution, they will remember the story of Gavrilo Princip. Part of the reason for this is that he is young, like them, and his story is intriguing.

So, how do we take this story and turn it into something not just memorable but also relevant to their study of World War I?  One way is through counter-factual history.  Ask them what they think would happen had he failed?  Or had the driver taken the proper route to the hospital?  They then need to confront the idea of Europe without the catalyzing event.  While such ideas make bad history essays, they are excellent talking points.

Another way is to look at why Princip became a revolutionary. What conditions radicalized him?  Why was he interested in the subject?  By having the students analyze his motivations they can look at Balkan nationalism.