Last Monday was an ominous day: Andrey Karlov, Russian ambassador to Turkey, was shot dead in Ankara; a terrorist attack in Berlin left at least 12 dead, and Donald Trump, perfunctorily as it was, got the minimum of 270 electoral votes he needed to become the president of the United States. The elements of a major geopolitical crisis were summed up on a single, violent day.
The assassination of the Russian ambassador sent shivers down the spine of even the barely literate in history. Even if you let aside the shock that causes footage of a murder as it is happening, the similarities were too powerful as not to invite instant, and harrowing parallels to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. As we know, the shooting of the Austro-Hungarian aristocrat was the trigger for the Great War, later known as the First World War.
So eerie was the reminiscence that within hours of the shooting at Ankara, David Frum, much to his credit, hurried to write a piece for The Atlantic warning against falling to the temptation of comparing the assassination of Ambassador Karlov to Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s. As Frum points out, in 1898, much beloved Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. Yet at the time, the Imperial Court at Vienna had no appetite for war with Italy and had the murderer tried as a common criminal: he committed suicide in prison in 1910.
“The empress was a figure widely popular with the public and much loved by her husband, the emperor,” Frum writes, whereas the “dour Archduke was disliked by both.” Yet, “the shooting of the archduke led to war, not because anybody important grieved for him, but because the Austrian leadership in 1914 welcomed an excuse to punish Serbia for a string of provocations.” And the assassin’s connections to Serbian nationalists “provided that excuse.”
The point is, in 1914 the world was sitting atop a powder keg. One thing or the other could have lighted the fuse. In the end, it was the shots fired on June 28, 1914, by Bosnian Serb nationalist student Gavrilo Princip. Like Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the Russian ambassador’s assassin, Princip was in his twenties too, that age when penniless idealists no one in his right mind would have given much thought about are prone to becoming useful or useless idiots – it depends on the viewer’s perspective – and dangerous too. That’s why so many acquaintances of both Princip and the Turkish police officer were so shocked to see them act the way they did. Because nobody expected anything like that from them, small, unimportant people.
And they are right to be surprised. Because it is not the small, unimportant people who have grievances – be it Austro-Hungarian oppression of Serbians, be it Russia’s bombing of Islamist militants in Aleppo – who unleash the big wars. They are brought about by people like Emperor Francis Joseph or by the country’s leaders. Princip or Altıntaş, a typical policeman who was both nationalist and struggling financially, buy into the ideas hawked by demagogues like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president who has been poisoning the country’s politics with his nationalist islamist rhetoric ever since he came to power in 2003.
More importantly, Erdoğan too has been infiltrating Syria with thousands after thousands of islamist militants that have been freely crossing from the Turkish border, as your correspondent witnessed. He has been feeding them and housing them in Kilis, Urfa, Hatay and other cities and regions along the border, where these islamist terrorists “fighting for democracy” in Syria have been coming for breaks between battles in Aleppo and elsewhere, medical treatment, and the types of relief that combatants can be expected to seek after the strains caused by butchering other people for the sake of a higher ideal.
And wars are started by presidents of countries like the United States. Ankara 2016 is not, indeed, Sarajevo 1914. But if the murder of the Russian ambassador in Turkey had coincided with an incident like the downing of the Russian combat jet by a Turkish fighter in Syrian airspace in November 2015, we would be on the brink of a massive geopolitical crisis. With an ignorant bigot like Donald Trump at the White House – whose biographer has noted “his willful lack of interest in history”, let alone his likely incapacity to find Russia on a map – it is very legitimate to dread what can befall a lot of innocent people and the world.