Let’s avoid the failures of 1914


One hundred years ago, on 28 June 1914, a 19-year old student murdered the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo. Nobody knew it by then, but what followed was the first global catastrophe in the 20th century. The First World War.

On 23 July, Austria presented an ultimatum to Serbia. On 28 July, Austria declared war on Serbia. On 30 July, Russia called a general mobilisation. On 1 August, Germany, allied to Austria, declared war on Russia. On 3 and 4 August, France and Great Britain, allied to Russia and to each other, entered the war.

When it ended in 1918, the war had cost 17 million lives and caused massive destruction. On 15 August 1914 the fighting reached East Africa. The first shots were fired on the territory of what is now Taita-Taveta County. It lasted more than four years. The German forces gave up only after the capitulation of their armies in Europe.

Looking back, we ask ourselves: Why? Was there no way to stop the catastrophe? And: What lessons can be learnt today, a hundred years later? Looking back, we see a picture of failure. The failure of military and political elites. But also the failure of diplomacy.

Nobody tried to calm down the feverish excitement in the weeks and months before the war. Nobody tried to quell the recklessness.

Nobody tried to dispel the mistrust after years of building antagonistic alliances.

It should have been the task of politicians and diplomats to weigh up level-headed alternatives. It should have been their task to work out compromises. It should have been their task to stop the deadly mechanisms of mobilisations and declarations of war. But they failed, with disastrous consequences.

Reading about the chain of events that led to war in July 1914, one is still shocked by the inability of leaders, politicians and diplomats to break the vicious cycle. Some historians call it the ‘sleepwalking of European Governments’ of the time.

Today we know what can happen when countries stop talking to each other. Without open channels of communication, the peaceful resolution of conflicts is not possible. The foundation of the United Nations after the Second World War was based on the realisation that countries need a global forum to resolve disagreements by discussing – rather than shooting at each other. And despite any criticism about the complex nature of international institutions, the UN remains the single most important piece in the puzzle to prevent diplomacy from sleepwalking ever again.

Nowadays, we live in a multipolar world with many political and economic centres of gravity. The complexity of this new world order and the increasingly short lifespan of information make diplomacy even more difficult. The new world calls on all major regions including Africa to take even more global responsibility. The digital revolution has accelerated communication. There are more ways of direct communication for politicians and diplomats between each other, but also with civil society and the wider population. They should be used.

The lessons of the political and diplomatic failure one hundred years ago are relevant to us. Instead of building blocks opposing each other, we need to promote a culture of exchange and mutually beneficial interaction. We need to promote regional integration, be it in Europe or East Africa. The idea of rivalry between countries for the ‘biggest slice of the cake’ is outdated. In economics, politics and culture, more benefits can be realised through cooperation.

In the post-Cold War era, numerous State and non-government actors need to be involved in decision-making. Communication is a decisive factor to prevent war and find solutions to common challenges. These challenges are many and most of them are global: climate change, the eradication of poverty and the fight against terrorism, just to name a few.

No country will succeed in overcoming these challenges by itself. Rather than confronting each other, we need to find common solutions to common problems. Rather than allowing ourselves to sleepwalk and stop talking, as our ancestors did in 1914, we need to engage in active dialogue. Germany will continue to push for sustainable global solutions based on cooperation, for a solid international framework to solve conflicts peacefully. We will continue to work with our partners all over the world. We look forward to continue cooperation with our friends in Africa.

(Peschke is the German Ambassador to Kenya)

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