From the French newspaper Le Petit Journal on July 12th, 1914

Birth of the Modern World: The Cataclysm that Shaped Today

An assassination in 1914 that helped determine the structure of the modern world

Cody Trusler
Dec 2, 2019 · 10 min read

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” - Sir Edward Gray, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom

So why was this event, and the month after, such an impact on human history? How does a centuries-old conflict, which ended four years after it started, affect today? In order to understand this question, we have to delve into the event that triggered the First World War.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie shocked the European powers for two major reasons.

One, the royal couple was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The implication of this is simple to understand in retrospect today. The next in line to the head of state was assassinated in the streets by a terrorist of a neighboring state. This is would be like assassinating the president-elect of the United States. Because of this, the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted retribution for the action taken by a citizen of another country.

Two, Gavrilo Princip was not acting alone. As a member of the Young Bosnia, a terrorist organization, he had ties to the Black Hand.* The Black Hand was a military organization created by the Serbian King. Association with the Black hand connected the Serbian government to Gavrilo Princip. The assassination linked Serbia to an assassination of a leading member of a foreign power.

Serbia’s connection to these organizations sparked outrage in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nation prepared to declare war on Serbia for their part in the assassination. Given the time period, this is a reasonable response, but Austria-Hungary had another issue: the Russians; Serbia's powerful ally. Russia claimed to be the protector of the Slavic people, which at the time, included Serbia. But after losing a war against Japan in 1905, they were viewed as a weak state. Russia made alliances of their own with other powerful nations of Europe such as France. Austria-Hungary was a brittle state due to the many ethnic groups withinside the Empire. Because of this, they decided to ally with Germany. This resulted in the chain of events that choose the sides of the war.

Germany eventually became the central player in World War One, but in the beginning they only after the outbreak of war, they only declared war due to the terms of their alliance to Austria-Hungary.* Kaiser Whilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, told his ally that they had a Blank Check* and left for his yearly vacation after this proclamation. Leaving the German high command in charge did not change the view of the Germans. TheGerman leaders pushed Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia and finish the fight, leaving Germany as an advisor rather than the key decision-makers until the crisis’ breaking point. Once Kaiser Whilhelm II returns from his trip, he realizes it is too late to deescalate the rising tensions. Despite attempts to do all within his power to stop the war, his efforts will inevitably fail.

Austria-Hungary also felt they were bullied in the Concert of Europe*, which was established after the end of the Napoleonic wars to establish peace among the great powers. The Concert of Europe was a quasi forerunner to the United Nations of today and acted in the name of peace among those powers, but was failing to accomplish peace in its death throes. Austria-Hungary had to deal with the turmoil politically; but rather than sending diplomats to Serbia they decided on hostilities. Austria-Hungary also wanted to bypass a congress session to attempt a fait accompli*, or a victory with little resistance. This may have worked had they decided to mobilize their forces sooner rather than worry about what the Concert of Europe would view this decision of war. This is when the problem escalated.

The Ultimatum of Austria-Hungary, July 23th, 1914.

Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Belgrade on July 23rd. Their response was a ruse. The document was designed for rejection. Austria-Hungary made demands that were equivalent to giving up sovereignty, such as asking Serbia to allow their police to investigate the crime in Serbian territory and to request to make arrests in the conspiracy of the assassination of the archduke.

If today, the United States went to Russia and demanded the ability to make a formal police investigation into the meddling of the elections or the United States would go to war with Russia.

On July 25th, Serbia agreed to most of the points in the ultimatum with the one exception of the aforementioned Austrian-Hungarian police were not to be involved in the Serbian investigation of the assassination. Serbia also stated in the response that if Austria-Hungary was not satisfied with the response Austro-Hungary could dispute it at the Concert of Europe. This was never going to happen. As tensions rose in the Balkans, something far worse started to manifest in the east; Russian mobilization.

The Washington Times commenting on Austro-Hungary’s declaration of war on July 28th, 1914.

On the day of the response to the ultimatum, Russia started a partial mobilization. This meant they were preparing troops for conflict. The problem is that once mobilization starts the other powers have to prepare for an attack. Germany sent Russia warnings regarding mobilization and demanded Russia to call off its military. This begins the breakdown of negotiation, and because of the lack of cooperation, diplomacy disintegrated. Three days later, on July 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Two days later, Russia gives full mobilization orders to their entire military which starts exacerbated the domino effect. On August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia, then declared war on France two days later. In an attempt to fight and win a two-front war Germany invaded Belgium. German was given an ultimatum by Britain, who protects Belgian neutrality, to remove themselves from Belgium or face war. They refuse the ultimatum, and on August 4th one of the most catastrophic wars in human history had begun.

What did this do to the world? For starters, the monarchical systems which ruled Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire collapsed inside of four years. Democracy, fascism, and communism took their roots in the scarred hellscape that was a recovering Europe. The events of World War One formed many situations that we are affected by today.

Take, for example, the Soviet Union and the major impacts that the country exerted on the world. Not only did the Soviet Union become a superpower in the mid-twenty century, but it also would shape modern Europe and the Middle East. If Germany and Russia Empires not been at war, Russia could have focused internally on the rising issues of their own state. More importantly, Germany would not have sent Vladimir Lenin back to Russia to cause civil unrest. When Russia collapsed in 1917, Lenin was there to take advantage of a weak new state and establish a communist one in his wake. He also appoints people to powerful positions, including the man who would shape twenty years of Russian history. Stalin would undoubtedly change Russia, which went from an agricultural state into a dominating industrial power while he was a dictator. The state would once again change after his death, however, and when the Soviet Union collapses in 1991 the borders of many newly independent nations would further shape Europe. The Soviet Union would never have gained this had it not been for the events that led Lenin to Russia during the First World War.

Obviously, an event that shaped the 20th century was the Second World War. After the First World War ended, the powers came together in Paris to prevent another conflict from occurring. In 1919, the governments of the world came together for the Paris Peace Conference. Germany, for its part in the conflict, was harshly punished for starting the war and was billed for war reparations for its part in starting the conflict. The German state, in the last days of the war, overthrew Kisar Whilhelm II and established the Weimar Republic. The new government decided to end the war with a ceasefire and troops were sent home. Removing the troops would cost them because they could not reengage in hostilities if there was no agreement; including against the harsh punishment for the war. Because Germany agreed to the terms of the war they had no choice but to pay, which destroyed their economy and left a weak state in its financial collapse. Fifteen years after the treaty in 1919 the Nazi Party would come to power and suffocate the young struggling republic, and it would continue the onslaught of war for another generation.

The Second World War could be considered a continuation of the first but was never a solidified event. What I mean by this is that without the events of 1914 this war may never have happened. For example, if Germany had not been declared war on by Britain, Germany easily could have defeated the French and Russian armies in the battle by making France capitulate and facing Russia with a full force focused on a single front. Britain during the early stages of the war stops a German army from taking Paris by exploiting a gap in the lines. This single event changed the outcome of the war and prolonged it to four of the bloodiest years in human history. The Second World War shapes the politics of today with ideas such as not amassing the powers to fight a total war, or even de-escalation of situations that could lead to conflicts.

Another event that happened, is to a nation that joined later. The Ottoman Empire, which was in the twilight of their empire, decided to join Germany and fight against the Russians, French, and British. The Empire would collapse and be carved up by the powers of France and Britain. This would have many lasting effects, but there are two in mind that affect life today in the Middle East.

The borders we see today in areas such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon were all formed from the French and British controlling the territories of these countries after the war. The formation of these states did not all come peacefully. For example, the Arabic states waged wars against Israel to attempt to destroy the state’s existence. Israel, which was created from the mass movement of Jews from Europe, with a major influence from the Zionist movement. Jews were given the opportunity to migrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. The Belford Declaration allowed Jews an easier method to move to their ancestral homeland but would cause tension with the Palestinians that already lived there. The tension would rise into small skirmishes, from Britain making immigration to Palestine more strict and the agreement to give the Jews a state of their own, lasted until the Second World War. In 1947 Israel declares independence but at the cost of war with all of its neighbors. Many wars would be waged against Israel until uneasy peace was obtained with most of their neighbors, but that did not stop the conflict with inside Israel. Palestinians waged aggressive uprises independence for their people, these are known as the Antifatas. The Conflict in Israel and Palestine is still waged today and is a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. This is also a topic for another time.

All things considered, the July Crisis would bring a catastrophic war that still haunts the world today. The birth of the modern world came from the old world being engulfed in flames and forged in that fire. The rise and fall of nations would shape the nations that we know today. This should be a grave reminder of what to keep an eye out to prevent catastrophes, like World War One, from ever happening again. When a terrorist, or freedom fighter depending on the perspective, unknowingly triggers a global conflict and ignites the world, history often remembers what happens and tells us why we live in the world we do today. The best we can do is remind ourselves of what others died for in an attempt to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us.

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  1. The Black Hand was an organization to enact assassinations. The group, created in 1901, was made up of officers of the Serbian military. They often gave equipment to terrorists in the Balkans to spark revolts in hope of uniting the Slovic peoples under Slovic leadership and not a foreign power, like Austria-Hungary.
  2. Germany a relatively new nation at the time, was formed in 1871. Germany became a powerful state in a single night and would become an economic power after the unification of the many states that were once independent states. This included Prussia, which was a highly militaristic state.
  3. The Concert of Europe was like the United Nations in the idea of keeping the peace but it was a political machine of its time. It did not do much to stop events or wars like the Crimean War 1853–1856, Franco-Prussian War 1871, the Moroccan Crises 1905–1906, 1911, and the Balkan Wars 1912–1913. I would not say that the Concert of Europe is acted as the United Nations today other than it was a political body that served as international cooperation.
  4. The Blank Check was the conformation that Germany would support Austria-Hungary by any means, including war.
  5. Fait accompli is to win a war without any flaws. Like a military capitulation without a fight.


  • July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean McMeekin
  • Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins
  • The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, by Neill Ferguson
  • Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings
  • The Seminal Tragedy World War I, by Extra History
  • Blueprints for Armageddon, By Dan Carlin, Hardcore History

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Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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