A story from the most recent print edition of the Economist tracks the rise of Poland’s economy over the last 20 years. Wedged between two very often powerful neighbors – Russia/U.S.S.R. and Germany – Poland had a rough 20th century. But since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. it has become a model for transitioning from a Communist, state-run economy to free market European Union integration. It has done this while maintaining relatively stable relations with its much flashier neighbors. In a time when the EU has come under a great deal of much-deserved criticism, it is important to recognize that it has done some very good things. Integrating Poland with Western Europe provided strong motivation for the country to tackle serious corruption issues and allowed it to secure vital capital. Common immigration policies have also provided the opportunity for ambitious Poles to travel and be educated abroad, bringing their experience back to the country to improve its institutions. Many Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, would do well to emulate Poland’s efforts.
Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalists. In response to this act of aggression Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia had long considered Serbia under its protection and was also concerned with the potential for increased Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. It mobilized and declared war on Austria-Hungary soon after. Concerned with Russia’s mobilization and required to come to the defense of its ally, Germany declared war on Russia. Germany, believing it impossible to sustain a two-front war and assuming that France would soon join in favor of its ally, Russia, attacked France first, conquering neutral Belgium along the way. This prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany in an effort to preserve Belgium’s neutrality and contest German aggression.
The end result was a “Great War” between the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire – and the Triple Entente – Great Britain, France, and Russia (the United States later joined on their side). It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and is now known as World War I. Before the assassination all countries in Europe were involved in various alliances and understandings. Many observers felt that this made war inevitable, but they foolishly believed that such a war would be quick and decisive and even necessary to realign power.
The war was worse than anyone could have imagined. A combination of terrible military tactics (think U.S. Civil War maneuvers with 20th century weapons), deadly new technology, and civilian targeting shattered the illusions many held of a prosperous, conflict-free, near-utopian future for Europe.