In one sense we want to forget the world wars, and in another, we want to remember. Whether it’s books, TV, radio, movies, politics, museums, games, school, road signs, national holidays, or the news, the reminders are everywhere and unending. They are on my mind for two reasons. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Also, I am close to completing a biographical narrative and anecdotal history of the period. For the families of both my parents, the turmoil began in 1914 and didn’t end until decades later. They were close enough to the conflict that everyone, not just the soldiers, felt the consequences. It didn’t help matters that they were on the losing side. Before the dust settled after World War II, many family members, relatives, and friends were dead. Then they suffered the peace that followed—the one we called the Cold War. The change in government and the lawless, violent occupiers cost them their homes, property, and their livelihoods. For me the consequence was that I grew up as an American instead of a European.
But even here in distant North America, far from where the wars raged, those conflicts were stories so huge that their aftershocks still linger. World War II stemmed directly from the flawed settlement of World War I. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, and countless other conflicts all followed from unfinished business left over from the Second World War. And the never-ending troubles in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Asia promise to be with us for years to come. While the causes of World War I are complex, the spark that ignited it was a simple one: a terrorist killing. The murder took place in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. The victim was the heir to the Austrian Empire’s throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Because of the enormous consequences, the setting was something I needed to see for myself in the 1990s. Although another regional Balkan war had just recently ended there, I was still quite surprised to find that this site of major importance drew fewer visitors than a small restaurant. That has surely changed in this anniversary year.