Of World Wars and Ham Sandwiches

The foundations of history are held hostage by the whims of our predecessors — how Herodotus felt about the Spartans two thousand and five hundred years ago determines what we know about them today. A mathematical fact is an unflinching cinderblock of provable truth; an historical fact is no more than mutually consensual quicksand. How can we even begin to build objective structures in a field where everything we know can be overturned by a botanist discovering a scrap of North American tobacco in the stomach of a mummified Egyptian king?

Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and self-proclaimed Yugoslav Nationalist, was born on July 25, 1894. On June 28, 1914, he and five others set out to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in an attempt to revitalize the Serbian struggle for independence. The events that preceded the attack played out much like a black comedy of errors; each assassin was given a weapon and a position on the archduke’s motorcade route, and each in turn failed at their task.

So much of what we know about the past hangs on nothing more than a scribbled word or phrase. So much of it is invented — sometimes out of necessity, sometimes merely out of preference — that we may wonder if any of it is true at all. For what purpose, then, do we study it? If there is no objective truth at the end of the rainbow, why bother seeking it out?

The first and second assassins failed to act; the third threw a bomb. It was deflected by Franz Ferdinand and detonated on the car behind him, wounding several people. In desperation, the assassin swallowed a cyanide pill and sprang into a nearby river, hoping to kill himself before he could be captured — only to discover the pill was old and ineffective and the river was six inches deep. He was pulled out of the water and severely beaten.

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