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Knowledge is power, and, like power, knowledge is useless unless it is shared and applied correctly.

Today I heard part of an interview with Christopher Clark, who wrote a book called The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. He was explaining some of the improbabilities of the incident that sparked World War I. Most people learned in school that WWI was triggered when a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, when the latter was visiting the city of Sarajevo. Some history buffs and trivia fans like me know that Princip was one of six assassins who had lined the pre-announced route of the archduke’s motorcade from the train station to the town hall. After one of the other conspirators threw a bomb that failed to harm Franz Ferdinand, but did injure some of his staff and prompt the motorcade to speed off, Princip and the other assassins thought they had missed their opportunity. Remarkably, though, on the way back from the town hall, the archduke’s car happened to stop directly in front of Princip, who was standing outside of a delicatessen, and Princip took the fateful opportunity to shoot the archduke and his wife.

Leaving the town hall, five minutes before they were shot

Leaving the town hall, five minutes before they were shot

What I learned today was that, after attending the reception at the town hall, Franz Ferdinand and his wife had decided on a change of plans. Rather then head directly back to the train station on the publicly-known motorcade route, the royal couple wanted to detour to the hospital to visit the wounded members of their entourage. The officers in charge of security were very much in favor of such a detour, because it would take the motorcade off the obviously unsafe, pre-announced route and avoid some of the narrow, crowded streets on that route. The archduke, his counselors, and his security detail conferred, and all were in agreement that they were going to change course. They all returned to their separate cars.

The problem was that the drivers of the first two cars — the second of which held the archduke and his wife — were local, and neither spoke nor understood the German in which rerouting conversation had taken place. Moreover, the Austrian officer who had been the liaison with these two drivers had been injured in the bomb attack. Without him there, no one even thought about the need to explain the change of plans to the drivers.

Thus, when the motorcade came to the point in the journey at which it was supposed to diverge from the original route, the first two cars instead turned according to the original plan — because no one had told them to perform any differently. After driving a short distance, the two cars stopped, having realized, from the behavior of the people in the cars behind them, that they were not supposed to have gone down this road. But it was on this road that Princip had decided to wait, in hopes of a second chance to make an attempt on the archduke’s life, and he was astounded when the royal car halted right in front of him. Taking this as a fateful sign, he drew his pistol and fired twice, hitting first Franz Ferdinand, then his wife Sophie. They died minutes later.

In response to this conspiratorial outrage, which had been supported by senior Serbian military officers, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then Serbia’s allies (including England, France, and Russia) declared war on Austria-Hungary’s allies (including Germany and Turkey). Over the ensuing four years, 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died. In addition, the Armenian Genocide, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War — all of these catastrophes sprang, at least in part, from this First World War.

Would the world be any different today if someone on Franz Ferdinand’s staff had remembered to explain the new route to the drivers? Massive geopolitical forces were at work. Maybe the tensions in Europe would have played out the same way regardless. But maybe, without the spark of assassination, they would have resolved themselves less cataclysmicly.

All I know for sure is when I’m working on a project, and I make alterations to the schedule, or to the goal, or to equipment needed, I’m going to try to remember all the people that such changes might affect, and not assume that they will somehow find or figure out those changes on their own.