Dear Ideologically Possessed Violent Mobs, Please Don't Assassinate Franz Ferdinand Again
Updated: Sep 23
While teaching my college business law course yesterday a discussion arose relating to the current political/social environment. The discussion turned to the efficacy of current protests and the potential counterproductive nature of mobocracy. A student asked the following question which caused me to pause, and I have spent the last day reflecting on it:
What is the best way to obtain productive societal change quickly, without having my efforts cause more problems than they attempt to solve?
That's a great question. My response to the student was, "I don't know, I don't think anyone truly knows, but I know for sure we don't want to assassinate Franz Ferdinand again."
I was pleased that one of my students appeared to understand my reference to Ferdinand, while the rest stared blankly at me. Class ended shortly thereafter so I was not able to expound, but her question is one that deserves a pensive response. I will attempt to do so here.
The title of this article will not immediately resonate with most people. After all, studies have definitively proven Americans have an abysmal knowledge of history. In 49 of the 50 states, Vermont being the singular exception, a majority of residents would fail a basic citizenship test (Vermont squeaked by with a 53% passage rate). This week news headlines read "Surveys find 'shocking' lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z." That's not good, but also not shocking. In an often misattributed quote, Harvard Philosopher George Santayana perfectly encapsulated the risks that abound with this level of historical ignorance:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Indeed it does appear to be the case that infancy, in both behavior and intellect, persists among those who fail to retain historical knowledge. A similar sentiment is expressed in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:
Cat: Where are you going? Alice: Which way should I go? Cat: That depends on where you are going. Alice: I don’t know. Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
Society is complicated, and productive societal change generally only happens through deliberate incremental movements forward, performed by individuals possessing a solid understanding of what their actions imply and what means they wish to achieve. Progress requires high resolution clarity and clearly expressed objectives. It requires an astounding amount of arrogance, or recklessness, to assume random acts of violence will achieve a truly productive societal outcome. Just as a child randomly hitting a nuclear reactor with a hammer is unlikely to actually fix the reactor, so also randomly burning down businesses and accosting families eating lunch is unlikely to cure our society. Within the infinite spectrum of potential outcomes that may result from assaulting strangers on the street and burning down small businesses, virtually none of them are productive. Some of them can, however, be catastrophically terrible, as was the case with Franz Ferdinand.
In 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary. In the realm of world leaders he was fairly low in the hierarchy. He was, however, an astoundingly accomplished trophy hunter (his journals record him hunting over 270,000 big game animals). He also appears to have been anything but gregarious and likable. Austrian journalist Karl Kraus wrote at the time that Ferdinand "was not one who would greet you ... he felt no compulsion to reach out for the unexplored region which the Viennese call their heart." In other words, Ferdinand was a leader who appeared to be somewhat deficient in tact and sensitivity. For a number of reasons, not the least of which was Ferdinand's public perception, a grassroots anarchist opposition movement began gaining traction.
One of the largest factions of the opposition to Ferdinand was known as Young Bosnia, a group of largely university educated students who had read the likes of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and developed a strong admiration for Marxist Russian Socialism. In the early 1900s Young Bosnia was largely an intellectual movement. By 1914, however, it had grown to a more volatile group, much more prone to violence. An association was formed with another group, known as the Black Hands. The Black Hands were the action arm of softer handed Young Bosnia. Young Bosnia and the Black Hands had different idealogical motivations. The prior wanted Marxist mandates related to equality and wealth distribution, and the latter desiring a more militaristic unification of Serb-inhabited territories. Both, however, found common ground in wanting the destruction of the current status quo and a hate for Ferdinand, and thus a working relationship was formed. The destructive culmination of this relationship occurred outside a cafe on a small street in Sarajevo. In the afternoon of June 28, 1914, a 19 year old Young Bosnia member name Gavrilo Princip was sitting at a Cafe. He was reflecting on a failed morning assassination attempt, via grenade, by Young Bosnia on Franz Ferdinand. To his surprise, and presumably delight, Ferdinand's car came to a stop, broken down, directly in front of the cafe. Princip walked outside, drew his concealed .380 FN Model 1910, and fired two shots. One shot hit Ferdinand in the neck, the second hit his wife Sophie in the abdomen. As Sophie hunched over Ferdinand's last words to his wife were "Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!" Ferdinand and Sophie both died that day and Princip was taken into custody.
The result of Ferdinand's assassination, known as the July Crisis, was something no one could have anticipated. The July Crisis describes a series of interrelated diplomatic and military escalations among the major powers of Europe, following the assassination of Ferdinand. These events culminated with World War I. I will not attempt to recite the entirety of that history here, but needless to say Austria sought to enact revenge on Serbia for Ferdinand's death. Austria was trepidatious, however, given Serbia's alignment to the Russian Empire, so they sought a guarantee of support from Germany. A German guarantee was granted, action was taken by Austria, lines were drawn, and allies were formed. The result was a four year conflict involving the mobilization of more than 70 million military personnel, and the deaths of over 40 million people. Of course that's not even close to all the bloodshed that resulted from Ferdinand's death. The vacuum created by WWI directly led to the rise of Hitler (15-30 million deaths), Lenin and Stalin (15-60 million deaths). Even Mao (20-45 million deaths) would likely not have been the same murderous tyrant without WWI (in his formative years Mao was infatuated with studying the warfare and socioeconomic underpinnings of WWI). Those 3 monsters (4 if you include Mao) are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the numberless smaller monsters a war that size creates, and you begin to grasp the totality of devastation caused by the single act of an ideologically possessed 19 year old.
If portions of the above history do not strike you as similar to current events, allow me to restate them. A political leader is largely disliked (or conversely embraced) for his callous and bumbling demeanor. Polarity of political opinions develops over time, increasing in intensity. An opposition movement comprised of ideologically possessed intellectuals (mostly college students) forms. The opposition movement becomes progressively more agitated at their inability to influence the government to adopt Marxist principles. The opposition movement thereafter flows outside the college campuses to the streets, where it is adopted and embraced by thousands of disenfranchised individuals, mostly men, predominately on the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy. These individuals generally don't have as much to lose as their intellectual compatriots, and are thus much more inclined to violence. Random acts of violence soon become the norm, giving way to larger scale social unrest. Does that premise sound familiar? One would be remiss to ignore the obvious similarity between the 1900s Black Hands/Young Bosnia, and the 2020 growth of ANTIFA and other movements.
This is not to say these movements didn't/don't have legitimate grievances or sincere motivations aimed towards societal improvement. I am not attempting, in this article, to address the substance of the movements, merely implore caution regarding many of the tactics being used. Humans, much like 19 year old Gavrilo Princip, tend to underestimate the potential ramifications of their actions. We are nodes in a complex system, and our influence can be much greater than we might anticipate. As psychologist Jordan Peterson noted:
You think well, there’s seven billion people in the world and who are you? You’re just one little dust mote among that seven billion and so it really doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, but that’s simply not the case. It’s the wrong model, because you’re at the center of a network. You’re a node in a network, of course that’s even more true now that we have social media. You’ll know 1,000 people at least over the course of your life and they’ll know 1,000 people each and that puts you one person away from a million and two persons away from a billion. That’s how you’re connected and the things you do, they’re like dropping a stone in a pond, the ripples move outward and they affect things in ways that you can’t fully comprehend and it means that the things that you do, and that you don’t do, are far more important than you think.
So what is the appropriate manner to enact large-scale societal reform? As I told my student, I don't know, and neither do you. History has shown that efforts towards quick (i.e. immediate) reform have led to violence more often than not, often significant violence. I am certain, however, that the probability random acts of violence will result in the type of outcome you hope for, is zero (unless of course the outcome you desire is more chaos and violence, which may well be the case). You are a child hitting a nuclear reactor with a hammer. You will not fix it, you will most certainly only make it worse.
That is not to say one shouldn't attempt to influence society, only that one should treat such an endeavor as one fraught with extreme danger. The greatest societal leaps forward have been carried out by individuals who themselves embodied the changes they wanted to see. These changes were not caused by large collectives or mobs. Not groups. Individuals. The individual is divinely sovereign and should always be placed above the identity of the group. Martin Luther King was a sovereign individual who embodied the changes he desired, not a faceless (or masked) part of a mob. The same can be said for any of the great reformers, from Susan B. Anthony to Harriet Tubman. These individuals first undertook the extremely difficult task of becoming the embodied representation of their message. Only then did they have the audacity to spread the message to the public. Becoming an embodied representative is an arduous, and iterative, process that takes both time and discipline. It is much easier to simply throw a brick through a window, which is why there are more brick throwers than Martin Luther Kings.
And that is the answer as best I can formulate it. Become the embodied representation of the ideals you want reflected in society. Do it as an individual, don't you dare outsource that responsibility to a group. Groups will not, and can not, reflect virtues that are not individually held by the members. When a group is made up of flawed and hypocritical individuals, the group dynamic will only magnify, never minimize, those flaws and hypocrisies. For this reason, and many others, entry into ideologically based group movements should be done cautiously.
If I had time to respond fully to my student I may have proposed the following path for her (or anyone else, including myself) to change the world:
Put your room in perfect order. Then your car, and then your home.
Put your finances, education and work (or career path) in perfect order.
Put your personal health (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual) in perfect order.
Put your family and romantic relationships in perfect order.
Read 10 books about those you deem great influencers. Learn about them.
Once the above have been accomplished, encourage your immediate family and loved ones to engage in steps 1-5. By now many of them will have already noticed a change in you, and these conversations will flow organically. They will eagerly accept your advice because you have now become an embodied manifestation of the value of what you are telling them.
Once your immediate family and loved ones have completed steps 1-5, you can then extend a trepidatious helping hand outwards to your immediate community. Encourage your community to engage in steps 1-5, but recognize each of them will have unique backstories that you do not know or understand. The further you extend your hand outside of your immediate circle, the less welcome your message will be. The individual, not the group and not the mob, is the solution to curing society.
Now, it may reasonably be assumed you may encounter great difficulty in mastering steps 1-5. If that is the case you might then ask yourself: If you are unable to even fix yourself, what makes you believe you are qualified to fix the entire world? By contemplating that question you might come to understand what the Proverb meant when it proclaimed he that rules his spirit (or himself) is better than he that rules a city. The world is not in short supply of unqualified individuals who are willing to carelessly roll the dice on upending the structures of society. What is in short supply, however, are individuals actually qualified to undertake such an endeavor. Become that qualified person.
Or, as has been said by someone truly qualified to give advice, remove your beam(s) first, then endeavor to help others remove their motes.
Phillip Nelsen is an attorney, college professor, author, entrepreneur, hunting guide, father and husband.