The Guns of August Still Rumble


1914, The Jacobin War


One hundred years later, are the rumbling guns of August, still echoing in European skies, able to offer us a lesson from history?

At the  dawn of the first day of January 1914, Europe was deep in the easy-going opulence of the Belle époque and still confident in a radiant future for humanity. Civilization, modernity and progress were synonyms. The 20th century had opened with the ingenuous presumption of having once and for all left behind the evils and errors that had afflicted mankind since original sin.

Winston Churchill recalls in his “Memoirs” that “the spring and summer of 1914, in Europe, were characterized by exceptional tranquility” (The World Crisis  ( 1911-1918), Macmillan, London 1943, p.103). Who could have imagined that the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, would have inaugurated an era of death and destruction on a world- wide scale?

Yet, after  the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne’s  killing on the 28th June 1914, Europe,  in the space of a month, plummeted into an immense catastrophe.  From 1914 to 1918 the best youth of Europe bled to death in fratricidal combat.  Almost nine million men were missing by the end of this global conflagration.  In the history of conflicts which have always accompanied human events, The First World War occupies a central place, not only for  its extension world-wide and terrifying number of victims, but most of all for the newness and intensity of the ideological hate among peoples, which built up in the rival trenches.

The attack  alone between Soissons and Compiègne on the the 16th April 1917 cost one hundred and seventeen thousand deaths to gain five kilometers; three hundred and sixty thousand were the French victims in the first offensive battle at Verdun in October 1916.  Emilio Gentile who dedicated an excellent book  to “The Apocalypse of Modernity (Oscar Mondadori, Milan 2014) asserts that  “hate and horror became universal during the Great War, in a way perhaps that had never happened before in the history of mankind.” (p. 18).  The French historian Jean de Viguerie demonstrates how the traditional doctrine of a “just war” , by its nature defensive, was substituted in 1914-18 by a new conception of war – offensive, total and incessant, with its roots in the French Revolution (Les deux patries. Essai historique sur l’idee de patrie en France, Dominique Martin Morin, Boère 204).   The first global conflict, was in this sense, a continuation of that call to arms launched on the 11th of July 1792, when the National Assembly proclaimed “the country is in danger”.   The  rallying cry “destroy the enemy”, both internal and external, originated with the French Revolution,  and as happened with the “infernal columns”   between 1793 and 1794 which wiped out the insurgents at the Vendee.

Started as a conflict between the great powers, the Great War was transformed  into a new type of conflict, which made it a “global civil war”  or as it has also been defined, a “world revolution” (Lawrence Sonhaus, First World War, The Global Revolution,, Einaudi Turin 2014). The protagonists of the conflict were overwhelmed by an inexorable dynamic, which pushed them towards war.  The assassination in Sarajevo was simply the spark that detonated the conflagration, but the deeper reasons for this war cannot be limited to the French-German tensions related to the borders on the Rhineland  nor the political and economical competition between England and Germany.

After the killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, planned in Belgrade , Austria wanted to give a lesson to Serbia.  Berlin promised its support to Vienna. France assured its backing to the Russian presence in the Balkans. The French President Poincarè was certain that Vienna and Berlin would never have risked challenging the French-Russian alliance, and  he was able to assure the support of Great Britain, which had also held secret negotiations with Russia against Turkey.  Austria and Germany, by contrast, were convinced that the  war would have remained at a local level and that England had no interest at all in dragging itself into a war caused by an Austrian- Russian conflict in the Balkans.

In the afternoon of Thursday the 23rd July, Austria gave the Serbian government an ultimatum which was judged inacceptable. On the 28th July the Austro-Hungarian Emperor declared war on Serbia and bombed Belgrade.  On the 30th July,  Czar Nicholas II succumbed to the pressure of his generals and signed an order of general mobilization, which in the optics of that era, was equal to a declaration of war against Austria.  On the 31st July the German government sent an ultimatum to Russia, inviting a halt to the bellicose preparations along with an ultimatum to France, asking what their stance would be in the case of  war between Russia and Germany. Faced with Russia’s refusal to stop mobilization, Germany declared war on the 1st August. A few minutes before, France had also issued orders for a general mobilization.  On the 3rd of August Germany declared war against France and the German troops invaded Belgium and Luxemburg. The following day Great Britain entered the war against the German Empire; on the 6th of August Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia. On the 11th and 12th of August France and England declared war on Austro-Hungary. The sound of the big guns began to thunder all over Europe.


The English historian, Niall Ferguson, recalls that on the vigil of the war, descendents and relatives of Queen Victoria sat on the thrones not only of Great Britain and Ireland, but also of Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany, Belgium, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria. In Europe only Switzerland, France and Portugal were republics.  “Despite imperial rivalry in pre-war diplomacy, the personal relations among the monarchs themselves remained cordial, even friendly: the correspondence between George, Willy and Nicky, reveals the continuation of the existence of a royal, cosmopolitan and polyglot elite with a certain sense of common interests.” (The Truth Silenced. The First World War: the greatest error in modern history, tr. It. Corbaccio, Milan 2002, p.559).

An Italian scholar, Alberto Lumbroso  published The Imperial and Royal Correspondence 1870-1918 (Bompiani, Milan 1931) wherein he collects telegrams exchanged between the European sovereigns during the “the tragic week” which closed July and opened August of 1914.  On the 29th of July an intense telegram from Willy (William II) convinces Nicky (Nicklaus II) to renounce the general mobilization for a few hours as well as  the order of only  one  partial mobilization against Austria.  On the 31st July, the Kaiser turned once again to his cousin, appealing: “Peace in Europe can only be saved by you, if Russia decides to stop the military measures that threaten Austro-Hungary.” When Nicky receives Willy’s last telegram, asking for “an immediate, affirmative, clear and precise reply” to “avoid incalculable disasters” , Germany’s ambassador has already consigned the declaration of war to the Russian Minister of Foreign affairs.

Europe precipitated into the abyss in gleeful frenzy. Pacifist predications had produced the opposite effect in young Europeans, thirsty for glory and heroism. In the more recent national States, like Germany and Italy, war was seen as an occasion to create a new national conscience.  Social Darwinism affirmed the inevitable character of combat and Catholic Modernism saw in it a form of spiritual purification. If for Benedict XV war was a “useless slaughter” , for Romolo Murri, and his disciple Luigi Sturzo, founder of Christian Democracy in Italy, war was a “powerful purifier” destined to raise up “the value of divine and eternal principles of morality, law and religion.” (E. Gentile, op. cit., pp 211-212).

In Masonic circles, war was seen as an act of  national solidarity and as an instrument of self-redemption for the peoples. The Hungarian historian, Francois Fejtò, in his main work, Requiem for a Dead Empire. The dissolution of the Austro–Hungarian World ( Mondadori, Milan 1988), demonstrated the existence of an “ideological plot” hatched by  political lobbies and secret societies to strike a mortal blow to Hapsburg Austria which represented opposition to the world created by the French Revolution.

According to Fejtò – the Great War –  [was] an ideological conflict of the masses, whose aim was the “republicanizing and de-Catholicizing of Europe” and continuing, at a national and international level, the work interrupted by the French Revolution.   A chapter in his book is dedicated to the role of masonry , whose objective was to “extirpate the last vestiges of clericalism and monarchism from Europe.” (p. 320).  Austro-Hungary, heir to the medieval Holy Roman Empire, represented the main stumbling block  in mankind’s progress and to the establishment of  “universal democracy”.  “ It is undeniable – writes Fejtò – that  the demolishing  of Austria corresponded to the ideas of the Freemasons in France and in the United States, that they were almost without reserve in favour of its dismantling and that their influence had contributed to it.” (p.357).

By drinking at these ideological fonts, the political interventionists saw the war as an achievement of modernity, i.e. the last phase of a cultural process that would have definitively freed Europe from the last residues of obscurantism.  Typical of this perspective, was the work of Moravian Thomas Masaryk and the Bohemian Eduard Benes, promoters along with  the Englishmen, Wickham Steed and Hugh Seton-Watson of the Congress for the Oppressed Peoples of Austro-Hungary, organized in Rome from the 9th to the 11th of April 1918.  For them, as Augusto Del Noce explained well, radical democracy had turned the war into a revolution, by globalizing the thought of Giuseppe Mazzini, read in the key of the Enlightment, and suppressing all  religious and “romantic” aspects. (Introduction to Wolf Giusti, The Decline of a Democracy, Rusconi, Milan, 1972). The legacy of the Hussite movement, interpreted as a national and social movement, beyond its religious significance, converged into a scheme where the First World War was seen as a vendetta by the “defeated” at the Battle of White Mountain (1620) which had jointly marked the victory of the Counter-Reform and the Hapsburgs.

Another important congress, of all  the allied and neutral types of Freemasonry to decide on the future order of Europe after the war, was held between the 28th and 30th of June 1917 at the French Grand Orient in Rue Cadet, Paris.  The base of its philosophy was contained in the book by Ernest Nys, Idèes moderns, droit international et franc-maconnerie (1908), which set out the Masonic plan for the new international society. This project achieved  by the Peace Treaties in Paris of  1919-1920,  created, as the French  historian Francois  Furet notes, “a European revolution more than European peace,  ” (Le Passè d’une illusion. Essai sur l’ièe comministe au XXe siècle, Calmann-Levy/Robert Laffont, Paris 1995).


The new European and world order marked not only a geo-political upheaval, but most of all a Revolution in culture and mentality. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, appeared as the prophet of the new era, in which the free nations would have finally found the way to progress, justice and peace.  He considered the First World War to be the conflict which would have brought an end to all wars. (T. S. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995).The principles of legitimacy and balance, on which Europe was built after the Congress of Vienna, were substituted by the one called  “ the self-determination of the peoples” . The post-war map of Europe saw the emerging of republics in Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and in the three Baltic states, as well as in Belorussia,  West Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (absorbed by force into the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics during the period of 1919 to 1921).

The Austrian Empire was dismantled and replaced by a mosaic of little States no longer homogenous and not even associated to  the Empire they had dismembered. Czecho-Slovakia was artificially created and held a great part of its resources in German, Polish and Hungarian territories, including the ancient Hungarian capital, Poszsonyi (Pressburg). It  not only  consisted of Czechs and Slavs, but also of millions of Germans, who were not renouncing their rights, of a considerable number of Polish in Silesia and of a certain number of Hungarians – convinced irredentists. Masaryk and subsequently Benes would both be presidents.

In the Balkans, the role Austria had exercised was handed over to Yugoslavia, also created ex-novo. It would have been fair, certainly, to recompense the Serbs, but to give them  Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and a great part of Albania plus access to the sea which they lacked in the past, meant re-doubling their territory, with no guarantee of stability in that area.

Italy, on the other hand, which had entered the war mainly against Austro-Hungary, after peace [was established] found itself with a new State on the eastern borders, which created  no less  of a threat than the Hapsburg Empire. It would have been better if Italy had come to a compromise with Austria in order to gain Trieste and Fiume. The disillusionment of Italy  for the “mutilated victory” destined her to come to an understanding with Germany, while Austria could not  aspire, for survival, but to unification with Germany. The path to follow would have been, then, not the “balkanizing”  of the Austrian Empire, but the  “de-balkanizing” of the Balkans.

In the same way, Poland, which from the end of the XII century had played a primary role in Christianity, could have become the bastion of  Eastern Europe and, at the same time, contain the pressures from Germany.  The Conference for Peace instead weakened  Eastern Poland , separating it from Lithuania, which it had been united to by a freely ratified bond for almost five centuries, and recognized the independence of Russia from Ukraine and Courland (the future Latvia), while conceding Prussian lands to the Polish, such as Konigsberg and the Gdansk corridor, inevitably destined to form a casus belli with Germany.

What the powers at Versailles did to Austria, they did not do to Germany. They could have dismembered her; instead they limited to imposing the republican form, [thus] maintaining its unity. The territorial mutilations which William’s Reich was subjected to (a seventh of its territory and a tenth of its population)  left the essential nucleus of its political and social structures intact as well as the mechanisms which had allowed for  political, military and economic expansion.

The Conference of Paris not only did not weaken Germany, but consolidated it, destroying the system of little sovereign states – about thirty odd little states and thrones –  which could have formed a strong element of resistance against totalitarianism.  With this the Paris Conference rendered a greater service to Pangermanism, than what Bismarck himself would have been able to do.  Jaques Bainville noted it immediately: “The work of Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns was respected in what was essential.  German unity was not only maintained, but reinforced.” (Les consequences politiques de la paix, Godefroy de Bouillon, Paris 1996 (1920), p.31). Not only did the Allies respect it – the French historian points out – “ but they consecrated it with their seal; they gave it the international judiciary base that had been missing since 1871.”  (p.669). William’s Empire was, despite everything, a Federation. The new republican Germany was like a centralized State, whose borders reunited sixty million men humiliated by their victors.


The Conference of Paris united and consolidated Germany, but at the same time humiliated its aspirations, pushing her towards rearmament and revanchist policies.  The “injurious paragraphs” in the Treaty of Versailles, for example, article 231, which cast the  moral blame entirely on Germany and her allies for the August 1914 “aggression” as well as the demand to hand over the “war criminals” starting with the Emperor William I, were received by the German public opinion as an unacceptable “diktat” and offered the pretext for the constitution of an “anti- Versailles front” which united progressives and conservatives.  John  Laughland noted how those Treaties go back to “the ethic of punishment” imposed in the name of “humanitarian law” which would characterize the contemporary age, while all the Treaties for Peace, concluded from the beginning of the XIV century until Versailles, contained “amnesty clauses” for the losers. (Total War for the sake of The Good, in “Limes”, n. 5 (2014), pp.61-66).

The  lack of balance generated by the peace of Versailles, favored the two “brother enemies” which came on the scene more or less at the same time in the twenties: Bolshevism and Fascism.  Did the European civil war begin in 1917, as Ernst Nolte sustains or in 1914, as other historians claim?  In reality there is no contradiction, since the Russian Revolution is part of the First World War and cannot be separated from it. The historical European and global  dynamic, between 1917 and 1945, was determined, as Ernest Nolte underlined, by the great “European Civil War”, conducted between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Many European politicians did not understand the underlying affinity linking the two ideological systems, but ascribed the “avant garde” role to Soviet Communism in the process of democratizing mankind.

What happened in Paris  seemed to be the denial of any form of political foresight, unless it might be thought of , as many have, as  a deliberate choice to hinder authentic pacification in Europe and to facilitate the outburst of new conflicts.  The British historian Niall Ferguson, summed it up well: “The First World War was something worse than a tragedy […]. It was nothing less than the greatest error in modern history.” (The Truth Silenced, cit, p.587).


When the First World War broke out, Saint Pius X was governing the Church.  Pope Sarto knew the fragility of the Belle époque culture and while the world was immersed in hedonism, sensed the coming of what he called “the big war” . The news of the outbreak of the war disturbed him deeply, given that he foresaw the tragic consequences.  On the 2nd of August 1914 the Pope sent the exhortation Dum Europa fere omnis, to all the Catholics in the world, imploring the cessation of the conflict with these words: “While nearly all Europe is being dragged into the storm of an extremely gruesome war, of which no one can foresee the dangers, the massacres, and the consequences without feeling oppressed by the sorrow and by the horror, also We could not but be concerned and could not but feel Our soul torn by the most poignant pain for the safety and for the lives of so many individuals and peoples for whose welfare We are supremely solicitous.”

During the Good Friday ceremonies there were prayers for the Church and the Empire;  Pope Sarto  held the Emperor, Franz Joseph in high esteem.  One of his secretaries confided to an Austrian friend that the Pope [who had been] solicited to intervene in favour of peace, had supposedly said: “The only sovereign that I could offer my services to is the Emperor Franz Joseph, who has always shown himself loyal and faithful to the Holy See. However it not really possible for me to intervene with respect to him, since Austro- Hungary is engaged in a just war.” And he had supposedly added that the responsibility of the conflict fell entirely upon Russia, which had triggered off the mechanism of alliances with the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.

The Czar Nicklaus I , who reigned over Russia, could have never imagined that his throne would have been the first to fall in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. This decapitation of thrones was a decisive stage in the process of secularizing society, which had begun in the XVI century and which aimed at the destruction of Christian civilization.

Four great Empires fell: the Austrian, the German, the Russian and the Ottoman. What they had in common was not only the aspiration to universality that by its very nature the word Empire evokes, but the holy establishment of authority.  Upon their ruins the great totalitarianisms of the 20th century established themselves, and sanctified the immanent order of politics.  National Socialism developed in an area of central Europe occupied by the German- Hungarian Empire. Communism took power in Russia, substituting the Patriarchal Empire of the Czar with a new political imperialism. Upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, replaced by the secular Turkish Republic, new  Islamic ideologies began to form from the ‘30s, bringers of another type of totalitarianism, which after the fall of Nazism and Communism, constitutes a new threat for mankind today.

The 20th century, the era of totalitarianism, can be considered the most destructive and cruel century in the entire history of the world.  The terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” appeared for the first time in this century.

The historian, Margaret Macmillan, writes at the end of her ample treatise dedicated to the war, that “Europe could have changed the path that it took, yet in August 1914  it chose to run to the end of a road which would have lead it to self-destruction.” (1914 How the light went out in the world of yesterday, tr. It. Rizzoli, Milan 2014, p.697).  However, was the “suicide of Europe”   an unavoidable  fate?  Many authors , like Philippe Conrad do not think so (1914, La guerre n’aura pas lieu, Genèse Edition, Paris, 1914).   The most unpredictable and perhaps the most inevitable scenario was enforced at the beginning of the summer of 1914.  The unexpected exists in history and sometimes a wrong road is taken unwittingly.

The First World War did not break out by accident, but accident made it an unavoidable fate.  On the 28th June 1914, after the first attempt failed, since the bomb had fallen under the wrong car, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand wanted  to check the conditions of his wounded escort for himself.  However, the driver took a wrong turn and in the midst of the crowd the car was obliged to do a reverse maneuver unprotected. The car ended up in front of the tavern where Gavrilo Princip had been drinking. One can imagine the surprise of the conspirator when he found himself a few meters away from his victim.  He discharged his semi-automatic Browning, and two of the shots from the revolver were enough to change the entire history of the world to come.

After a century we still haven’t emerged from the era of the First World War.