Some say history is made by vast social and economic forces. Others say that even vast forces are launched by the actions of individual human beings . Yesterday’s newspaper, in two separate articles, showed the difference made by two individuals, one whose actions led to the deaths of millions; the other whose actions led to saving the lives of billions.
“ ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die! Stay alive for the children,’ the dying Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand urged his wife as she slumped over him in the open-topped sports car. But Gavrilo Princip’s shot had already killed her. A bodyguard asked Franz Ferdinand if he was in pain. ‘It’s nothing!’ he replied repeatedly. Those were his last words.”
This is the way Simon Kuper began his Financial Times piece on what happened in Sarajevo 100 years ago on June 28, the beginning of World War I. The article is about many things, the city of Sarajevo, the doomed archduke and his morganatic bride, Sophie — virtually shunned at court on account of her low rank — but most of all Princip, the Serb nationalist, who started the conflagration with a mere pistol. There were many causes of that war — an entire bookshelf’s worth in my office alone — but the fact remains that if Princip had hesitated, if he had missed, if he had not wandered to seek a sandwich at Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen when Franz Ferdinand’s driver had taken the wrong turn, the Great War might not have happened.
And neither would have the swift collapse of four empires, the arbitrary creation of the modern Middle East, Germany’s hyperinflation, the rise of fascism, Hitler and, of course, World War II, the Holocaust, Soviet expansionism, the Cold War and so much more. The very first domino was toppled by a single man, a tubercular who was to die before the war he started had ended. The lone assassin had changed history.
[Norman] Borlaug is not a household name, but he deserves to be. He was an Iowan, a Norwegian Lutheran of the Lake Wobegon mold: quiet, stubborn, intense. He bred strains of wheat that would endure in the Third World. He spent much of his life in Mexico, away from his family, so that he could develop varieties of wheat that would offer success to farmers working with challenging soil and climate. His model of agriculture — it is called the Green Revolution and looked upon warily by the local food gurus who hate industrialized anything — was adopted in India, Pakistan and other places. He believed that freedom from hunger equated to freedom from violence, and in 1970, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is credited with feeding and thus enabling the lives of one billion people.