A century ago, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb youth, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, and his wife Sophie Chatek, and the dominos fell like thunder that forever resonates.

An assassination may strike you as a rare event but, according to Greg King and Sue Woolmans in their 2013 book, The Assassination of the Archduke, at the time it was a “common” occurrence. “The sultan of Turkey was killed in 1876; American President James Garfield and Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881; President Sadi Carnot of France in 1894; the shah of Persia in 1896; the prime minister of Spain in 1897; the empress of Austria in 1898; King Umberto of Italy in 1900; American President William McKinley in 1901; King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia in 1903; Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia in 1905; King Carlos of Portugal and his son Crown Prince Luis Felipe in 1908; Russian prime minister Peter Stolypin in 1911; King George of Greece in 1913.”

The point of this grisly list is that the assassination in Sarejevo seems now to be the most consequential of them all but was not at the time otherwise unusual. What could possibly have been going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to result in so many?

The best answer is an earlier wave of, would you believe, globalization, the phenomenon so much admired these days by the orthodox: the globalization of trade and investment, facilitated by a Second Industrial Revolution in transport, and, take particular note of this, of communication, and most everything else, including anarchism and nationalism themselves with each feeding on the other.

The Anglo-American scholar Benedict Anderson, renowned for his pioneering book on nationalism, Imagined Communities — in which he coined the term “print nationalism” — wrote a follow-up last year The Age of Globalization: Anarchists and the Anticolonial Imagination. The now-famous Princip was an anarchist and Serbian nationalist and, writes Anderson, anarchism in general was closely linked to small nationalisms. The decades prior to the First World War, so praised for the good times and the long peace, were also sowing the seeds for the Great War.

The conventional wisdom of mainstream scholarship on the origins of the First World War tends to deal with all the chaos by blaming these new nationalisms, or so-called ultra-nationalisms, in the Balkans without taking the time to explain why these were happening, nor why much the same was taking place within the Great Powers. 

Anderson tells us how the telegraph and the press enabled the anarchist to know what other anarchists were doing and follow their examples. Meanwhile, the cheap press was transforming print nationalism into hyper-print nationalism — let’s call it “newsprint nationalism” — at the centres and the margins of empires.   

In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 — the most pathbreaking of the books that have come out on the occasion of the centenary — the Australian-British historian Christopher Clark tells us that “In Britain…a burgeoning mass press fed its readers on a rich diet of jingoism, xenophobia, security scares and war fever.” The historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose books have been most influential, wrote in his Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (1994): “In 1914 ideology was certainly not what divided the belligerents, except insofar as the war had to be fought on both sides by mobilizing public opinion, i.e., by claiming some profound challenge to accepted national values…such as French and British democracy against German absolutism.” But Hobsbawm’s “exception” negates his point; indeed, the passions released were such as to lead to demands for “total victory,” for, in effect, unconditional surrender. (Hobsbawm’s incoherence here is part of his larger neglect of nationalism, which, Marxist that he was, he prefers to denigrate rather than understand.)

At the centre, this nationalism fed competing imperialisms. At the margins, it added anti-imperialism to the brew of nationalism and fed terrorism; “Princip’s motive,” writes Michael Newton is his Age of Assassins, “was revenge for all the indignities visited on the Serbs by Austria.” Both contributed to the risk of war.

The Canadian scholar Harold Innis, who pioneered the study of the role of communications in history, wrote, in his cryptic style: “In a literal sense, wars are created as crime waves are created, by the newspaper.”  Clark notes specifically the shock and awe of print, the suddenness of its interaction with the vibrant oral cultures of the Balkans. “An imagined Serbia,” he writes, was “projected on to a mythical past.” 

We hail the American Revolution, which led to the reification of freedom of the press, as the shot heard round the world announcing this new democracy, but it was also an act of regicide, of violence, that had their own appeal.

Just as there are those — in their multitude — who celebrate the American Revolution, there are those who hail Princip as a national hero. Yugoslavia was created after the First World War and Princip was honoured for his role. 

Yugoslavia no longer exists but Princip is still a hero. This June 27,  in the separate Serb-run district of East Sarajevo, a park, containing his statue, was named after him.

A century on from 1914 there remains the matter of trying to understand all of this. Thanks to Innis and McLuhan, there is a Canadian way of doing so — it passes by the name of the Toronto School of Communications — by paying attention to the evolving impact of media on consciousness. Innis was thinking this way as long ago as the 1940s. His work holds up remarkably well in the light of subsequent scholarship.

For those who like lists of the causes of the First World War, the press should be included. I doubt we can count on the mainstream press, even as it joins in the celebration of the First World War, to tell us this.

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member...