The First World War is the twentieth century's seminal catastrophe.  It determined the shape of the European continent's history in the past hundred years since the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the outbreak of a second global conflict in 1939 were the direct consequence of the collapse of international order in 1914-18. And since that order was an imperial one the implications of its descent into chaos were global.

The causes of the July 1914 crisis and diplomatic rupture that led to the declaration of war remain highly controversial. This is history's biggestand most bloody—whodunit. And it centres on the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Serbian terrorists while on a visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia - which had been annexed by the Austrian empire in 1908.

Vernon Bogdanor's scintillating account of the matter concentrated on the strategies adopted by Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary and one of the architects of the entente policy that made Britain, France and Russia diplomatic partners in the years leading up to 1914. But he also took his audience into the minds of diplomats, generals and politicians right across the European continent in the last months of peace.

[See upcoming events in the 'Prosperity On The Edge' lecture series]

Professor Bogdanor showed how the illegal annexation of Bosnia, previously ruled by the Ottomans, aggravated the international tensions  and enraged Slav opinion. Grey emerged in his talk as an essentially tragic figure - a liberal who believed in the idea of European security and order but who was impelled to accept war's inevitability.

The Foreign Secretary reproached himself subsequently for not having brought direct pressure to bear on the Austrian government. He had stuck instead to the conventional method of using diplomatic channels with the government in Berlin in the hope that the German government would then influence policy discussions in Vienna. But in the Summer of 1914 Germany was urging Austria to adopt an aggressive posture in response to the assassination- and to the Serbian involvement in organising the Archduke's murder.

Recent commentary and research has encouraged the view that Britain could have stood aside from the crisis and that it ought not to have gone to war in 1914. Its traditions after all were those of a maritime superpower. Vernon Bogdanor demonstrated the superficiality of that view which is based on an isolationist interpretation of Britain's history. Europe's travails are, necessarily, also Britain's. His eloquence and learning recreated the drama of 1914 in the minds of his audience and the Legatum Institute is indebted to Professor Bogdanor for having inaugurated the latest of its salon series of lectures in so exemplary a manner.

The discussion was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Advisor, Legatum Institute.

A transcript of the lecture is available here.

About the Speaker
Vernon Bogdanor CBE, FBA is Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History. He was formerly Professor of Government at Oxford University, and Senior Tutor and Vice-Principal at Brasenose College. He has written widely on government and politics, including books on The People and the Party System, Monarchy and the Constitution, and Power and the People: A Guide to Constitutional Reform. Most recently, he has edited a book on The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century and written on The New British Constitution. He has been an adviser to Government and parliamentary bodies on many occasions, and in 1998 was awarded the CBE for services to constitutional history. He is a Fellow of the British Academy.

About the 'Prosperity on the Edge: 1913-14 The Last Year of Peace' Series
An extraordinary period in human history came to a sudden and cataclysmic end in the summer of 1914. Nineteenth century Europe was an expansionist and prosperous civilisation. Its economy boomed, the arts and humanities flourished, scientific progress accelerated, personal liberty became the birthright of increasing numbers of people. And from 1871 onwards, Western Europe was at peace.

The Autumn lecture series relives the last year of peace as experienced in the lives of key individuals. Their achievements and pre-occupations in the year 1913-14 illustrate the multi-faceted nature of a brilliant culture - one whose legacy helped to shape the world we live in today. International in their perspective and multi-disciplinary in approach, these lectures will make an original contribution to the understanding of human prosperity and liberty.

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