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28th July 1914 - Then and Now

By Clem Sunter

A century ago on this day, the First World War, also known as the Great War, started. A month previously on 28 June 1914, Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated in a car just like John Kennedy.

The incident took place in Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The world hardly noticed at the time.

As one historian observed: "The crowds in Vienna listened to music and drank wine as if nothing had happened".

In Britain, ladies at Wimbledon, Henley and Ascot were decked out in more vivid colours than in previous years, and the dreaded corset had been dispensed with for a looser fit.

Outside Buckingham Palace, the Suffragettes were demonstrating in favour of women getting the vote; and one burly policeman was photographed carrying their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, away from the scene by lifting her up at the waist.

However, the day after the archduke's demise, anti-Serb riots started in Bosnia as it was felt that Serbian authorities were behind the hit.

The latter, incidentally, was a total fluke as the car the archduke was travelling in had taken a wrong turning and stopped to the surprise of the young assassin sipping coffee across the road.

Austria-Hungary then presented Serbia with an ultimatum they knew it was impossible for Serbia to accept and on 28th July the first shots were fired.

Thus began a war in which almost ten million combatants died, which drew in all major powers of the day and which only ended on 11 November 1918 with the defeat of Germany.

The unknown unknown

What really strikes me about the whole affair was that nobody saw it coming; and when the conflict did come, the general opinion was that it was going to be over by Christmas.

Nobody foresaw the stalemate of trench warfare where going over the top meant almost certain death for the sons of millions of mothers. In other words, nobody played the scenario of what actually happened in any shape or form before it actually happened. It was an unknown unknown or something you don't know you don't know.

Now, I know as a scenario planner that one will never capture the future precisely because it is too unpredictable. However, as my mentor and the greatest scenario planner of all time, Pierre Wack, once said to me: "It is much better to be vaguely right rather than precisely wrong."

Nobody was even vaguely right on this one and the world drifted into the biggest war in history, creating a lost generation.

Why is this relevant one hundred years later? Because in front of our very eyes it could all be happening again. I have already written two articles for this website demonstrating how the red flags might go up very quickly.

The first one was on the topic of Russians and Americans completely misunderstanding each other and how they very nearly came to blows in 1962 over the Cuban missile crisis; and the second one was a plea to update nuclear game theory to see if the principle of mutually assured destruction is still valid.

Today's black swan

Since then we have had the potential equivalent of the archduke's assassination in the form of the downing of a passenger airliner over Ukraine with all lives lost.

This has seriously cranked up the second episode of the Cold War that started with Russia's annexation of Crimea. Yet no politician, no guru, no newspaper, no news channel, no social media outlet has mentioned the risk of military confrontation between the great powers.

Markets have shrugged it off. It is a taboo subject and I guess the reason is that the consequences are unimaginable. But as the subtitle of a book entitled The Fox Trilogy which I co-authored with Chantell Ilbury says, being a fox is about imagining the unimaginable and dealing with it.

The game between nations is like chess. Every move you make requires that you consider what your opponent's next move may be as a result of your own move. You have to play scenarios, consider the flags and attach probabilities as best you can.

Otherwise you may blunder into an end-game that is the worst of all possible worlds and which happened 100 years ago. Do you really think that mankind has become less violent when the chips are down and the instinct for survival kicks in?

Current evidence suggests otherwise while the weapons of mass destruction are improving all the time.

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