The term “nationalism” was not coined until the final decades of the 19th century; prior to that, the notion that people should form an independent political entity strictly on the basis of their language or ethnicity was confined to a few radical philosophers, especially in Germany. Unleashed, it spread like a disease.
The decade before 1914 was pocked with scores of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and violent riots on every continent as the new nationalism took hold. Princip’s bullets were the first acts of nationalist violence of the war, but the first to succeed in creating a new country was Ireland’s, which erupted in the middle of the war, overwhelmed Britain with exceedingly bloody conflict, and created the first of dozens of new nations to be born as a result of the war.
The new nationalism, unlike the new nations, did not pretend to be orderly or rational. Whether applied by Serbians, Arabs, Basques, Jews or Sunni Muslims, it was a self-sacrificing, totalizing ideology that placed the imaginary nation above all else. Today’s ISIL fighters would recognize, in every detail, the beliefs and motives of Princip, and the nature of the Serbian ultra-nationalist organization to which he belonged. Historian Christopher Clark, in his new work The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, makes this vividly clear:
“What must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914,” he writes, “is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles.
“Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extraterritorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization.”
Princip and his co-collaborators were far from being rogue extremists: They were selected by organizations that received funding and support from within the Serbian state. But they were a type of nationalist we would recognize today: harsh ascetics, they rejected alcohol and sexual relations with women, “they read nationalist poetry and irredentist newspapers and pamphlets … sacrifice was a central preoccupation, almost an obsession,” Mr. Clark writes.
Indeed, their act of June 28, 1914, was meant to be a suicide bombing. It isn’t remembered that way – because the bomb exploded beneath the wrong car and a handgun was used instead, and because Princip’s suicide capsule failed to kill him – but the language of martyrdom used by these young men would be entirely recognizable to the foreign fighters of ISIL and al-Qaeda.
This new ideology had dire consequences. The previously polyglot countries of Europe discovered the new language of uni-ethnic nationalism: supremacy, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing. In the years before 1914, anti-Semitism, previously a Christian hatred of spiritual rivals that had peaked in the pogroms of the Middle Ages and gradually faded (though certainly not vanished) after the Enlightenment, burst back onto the scene in a new form: the Jew as disloyal, unpatriotic outsider, as civilizational invader.
The war gave new licence to this ideology. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the Turks expelled and slaughtered Armenians in a mass atrocity widely considered genocidal (they would later also expel millions of ethnic Greeks). Then, starting in 1916, the Irish rose en masse against their British occupier. As the decades of war and extremism unfolded, the ethnic cleansings and expulsions became more intense: While the Great War and the Versailles Treaty did not authorize the hateful movements of the 1930s and 40s, they provided a welcoming climate for their gestation. In the years after the Second World War, the movements would spread with equal vehemence across Asia and Africa.
We are left, a century after those bullets in Sarajevo, with two lasting consequences: a set of lines in the sand, damningly difficult to erase, and a set of ideas etched into countless minds, even harder to obliterate. Ours is a much more peaceful, well-ordered world, but its last remaining threats and menaces are almost all traceable to the dark origins of 1914.