August 1, 1914 was Tisha B’Av. It was also the day Germany declared war on Russia, propelling what otherwise should have been a local conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia into what would become World War One. Many fine scholarly books have been written attempting to identify the causes of the war. Among the culprits usually listed are: Imperialism, Militarism, Nationalism and, of course, the complicated alliance systems which existed at the time.
While all of these factors certainly helped shape the dangerous environment that prevailed at the time, in and of themselves they were not sufficient to cause a war. After all, they had existed for years prior to 1914, and yet Europe had managed to avoid an all-out continental conflagration. The specific spark that ignited this war was the assassination of the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by Serbian terrorists. They were members of the Black Hand, a terrorist organization sponsored by parts of the Serbian government. They were dedicated to the idea of a Greater Serbia and felt that assassinating the archduke would cause the provinces of Austria-Hungary that contained large populations of Serbian nationals to become part of Serbia.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after receiving what has become known as the blank check issued by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. In essence, the Kaiser guaranteed his support of Austria-Hungary in the event of a war. This was especially important because Austria-Hungary feared that Russia, which perceived itself as the protector of all Slavic people, would come to Serbia’s defense. This is, in fact, what happened. Russia mobilized on July 31, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, then fearing France would honor its treaty with Russia, Germany declared war on it August 3. When Germany invaded neutral Belgium on August 4, England declared war on Germany. Thus, by the end of the first week of August all the major powers of Europe were at war.
One of this episode’s tragic factoids is that serendipity played a role. An initial attempt on the archduke’s life that day failed. Dejected, one of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip, went to a deli on a side street to get a sandwich. The archduke’s car, on its return trip from City Hall, accidentally turned down that street. When the driver realized what happened, he stopped the car to attempt to reverse. At that moment Princip found himself standing five feet from the archduke and fired two shots killing both the archduke and his wife. Sadly, a wrong turn helped lead to millions of deaths.
But perhaps the real cause of the war was the lack of imagination on the part of all the decision makers. It seems they were all prisoners of their old conceptions of war and an inflated self-confidence – none could imagine an all-out war. They did not question their assumptions or think several steps ahead. They did not ask themselves the fundamental question, “What if we’re wrong?”
The Gemara in Gittin (55b) that discusses the background to the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash alerts us to this problem. R’ Yochanan opens the discussion by quoting the verse in Mishlei (28:14): “Praiseworthy is the person who is constantly afraid, but the person who hardens his heart will experience calamity.” The Gemara proceeds to discuss the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza deliberately sabotaged the Roman emperor’s sacrifice by inflicting it with a disqualifying wound that was problematic for Jews but not for Romans. The rabbanim of the time had the opportunity to either sacrifice the animal anyway or execute Bar Kamtza as a danger to society. But R’ Zecharya ben Avukalos prevented such exceptional action, arguing that people would draw the wrong halachic conclusions regarding sacrificing blemished animals and the penalty for blemishing a sacrifice. R’ Yochanan concludes this segment of the Gemara’s story by bemoaning how R’ Zecharya’s humility destroyed the Beit HaMikdash.
Though many questions have been asked about all aspects of this Gemara, one I would like to address is that it seems R. Zecharya heeded R. Yochanan’s opening comment regarding the importance of constantly being afraid. After all, it was his fear of people potentially misunderstanding the parameters of his ruling that motivated him to prohibit the employment of emergency measures. Why then is he so criticized?
Among the answers suggested to this quandary is that R’ Zecharya, due to his humility, limited his perspective as to the immediate issues in regards to the sacrifice. He failed to see that Bnei Yisrael’s existence was at stake. According to R’ Yochanan, the pasuk in Mishlei mandates people to think several steps ahead and to be concerned, even after the decision is made. Being consistently cautious forces a person to rethink his decision and ensure it is appropriate in light of the dynamic events at play. Regrettably, R’ Zecharya made his decision and moved on.
Leaders must constantly evaluate their decisions and try, to the best of their abilities, to envision the multiple scenarios they might create. It is only in this way that calamity can be avoided. Unfortunately, the European leaders in 1914 did not heed this message. However, in October 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s classic book on the outbreak of World War One, The Guns of August. He told his brother Bobby: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [and call it] The Missiles of October.” Fortunately, for the world, Kennedy understood this all important leadership lesson.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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