Friday, January 10, 2014

A Wrong Turn in History: U of I students to Visit Austria, Explore the Start of World War I 100 Years Ago

This post was originally published on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences website on January 9, 2014.

by Doug Peterson

For four weeks this summer, political science professor John Vasquez
will lead students through Austria as they write papers on conflicts
between countries during WWI. They will present their papers at a
conference in Salzburg, held at Schloss Leopoldskron (above).

In one of the strangest twists in history, the wrong turn by a car in Sarajevo resulted in World War I.

There had already been one attempt on the life of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, on the morning of June 28, 1914, explains John Vasquez, LAS professor of political science. An assassin tossed a bomb at the archduke’s car, but according to one account it bounced off of the auto before exploding and injuring an officer in the car behind.

Later that same day, the archduke, who was in Sarajevo to give a speech, decided to visit the wounded officer in the hospital. But along the way, the driver made a wrong turn. Realizing his mistake, Vasquez says, the driver stopped to back up at a street corner where one of the assassins just happened to be. Spotting the archduke’s car, the assassin rushed forward, pointed his gun, and shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

The archduke’s last words to his wife were: “Sophie, Sophie, do not die. Live for our children.” They both died within minutes.

The assassination of the archduke triggered war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which then escalated into a worldwide conflict. But there’s much more to the war’s origins than a wrong turn and an assassination, so University of Illinois undergraduate students will explore the complex causes of World War I in an innovative course that will take them to Vienna, Austria, for four weeks during the first summer session of 2014. The deadline to apply for the class is February 1.

The timing of the course, taught by Vasquez, is ideal because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Students will even get a chance to see World War I documents in the state archives in Vienna, and they will visit the Museum of Military History, where they can view the actual car that Archduke Ferdinand was in on that pivotal day in 1914.

“World War I spread like wildfire, and one of the reasons has to do with alliances,” Vasquez says. “Another has to do with rivalries, triggered by a history of repeated crises between countries.”

Austria-Hungary and Serbia were major rivals, he says, as Serbian nationalists stirred agitation over Austrian territory that contained large populations of Serbians. After the assassination of the archduke, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia an ultimatum, all of which Serbia accepted—except for one part. Austria-Hungary insisted they be allowed to come to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and conduct their own investigation into the assassination. Serbia refused because of sovereignty issues, but the real reason was that the Serbian prime minister suspected their head of intelligence of being involved in the murder.

According to Vasquez, Serbia appealed to Russia for help, while Austria-Hungary turned to its ally, Germany, for assistance, and then Russia made sure its ally, France, would support it if war broke out. The domino effect of alliances transformed the conflict into a world war, although it was almost avoided. Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II both favored a “Halt in Belgrade Proposal” that could have prevented war. But when the Russian czar began mobilizing troops, the plan collapsed and war began.

Vasquez’s class will accept up to 22 students, and each one will pick a “dyad,” or pair of countries from each side of the conflict; then they will write a paper on what brought the countries into the conflict. Vasquez has a long list of dyads from which to choose, but the major rivalries include Austria-Hungary/Serbia, Germany/Russia, and Germany/France.

Students will also study minor players in the war, such as Italy, which essentially auctioned off its alliance to whichever side could offer them more, he says. Italy wanted portions of the Austrian Alps, plus the naval port of Trieste, in return for helping Germany and Austria-Hungary. But when Austria denied this request, he says, “Italy turned to France and Britain and got what they wanted.”

So Italy joined the Entente, or Allied, Powers and after the war it gained the Austrian territory it craved. Illinois students can go on an optional excursion through some of this land in northern Italy, as well as Prague and Budapest. During their four weeks in Vienna, students will be housed in dorms, and they will also travel to Salzburg for a three-day conference where they will present their papers.

In fact, the conference will be held in Schloss Leopoldskron, the stunning palace where The Sound of Music was filmed.

“World War I is very complex, which is why it attracts a lot of attention from scholars,” Vasquez says. “For instance, there is controversy over whether the war would have ever occurred if the archduke had not been assassinated. But Europe was such a powder keg, many believe that if it hadn’t been this, there would have been another spark.”

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