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20 December 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:39am

Was the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey today’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment?

Events which at the time seem small and unconnected often combine to lead to major cataclysms.

By Tobias Stone

Back in July I wrote a piece entitled “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit and Trump” exploring historical patterns, or at least what we can learn from history.

The main crux of the argument is that events that at the time seem small and unconnected often combine to lead to major cataclysms that historians, with the benefit of hindsight, trace back to these interconnected, smaller events.

I suggested that when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed, very few people worried this would lead to the biggest war humans had ever fought, and the death of around 70 million people. Or when a ship docked in Europe back in 1347, and a few rats climbed ashore, nobody stopped to worry that this would lead to the loss of a third of Europe’s population in the Black Death.

I argued that we are probably in the midst of a series of apparently quite small, unconnected events which could be looked back upon as our Archduke Franz Ferdinand moments by future historians, wondering why we weren’t able to see the coming storm we were creating.

I have been wondering why, for example, people live on fault lines only to evacuate their homes once earthquakes are imminent, or live near beaches and only run to the hills when they can see a tsunami on the horizon.

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People generally won’t take drastic action until it is nearly too late, or is indeed too late. We can’t see things coming if we have no precedent for them. History teaches us lessons, but equally nobody had witnessed something like the Black Death, the First World War, or even the Holocaust before it happened, so nobody had a reason to fear it. Looking back it’s easy to wonder why nobody tried to stop it, but at the time one imagines that most people had no idea.

And so here we are — 2016 has been a tumultuous year. It has been dominated, if you live in Europe or America, by Brexit and Trump. But if you live elsewhere it will have been equally dominated by the war in Ukraine, sanctions in Russia, the devastation of Syria, the refugee outpouring across the Mediterranean to Europe, and many more wars, crises, and human made situations that ultimately punish those least able to oppose them. Many people have died violently this year.

As the year draws to a close we are confronted by what may well combine to be our Archduke Ferdinand moments. It is now clear that Russian interference in Western politics in some way influenced the Brexit referendum and American election. Only the post-truth politicians like Donald Trump and Putin contest this. It is otherwise accepted as a fact. Quite what it means is less clear. Did it change the outcome? Can Trump have a mandate in an election influenced covertly by a hostile foreign power? How close will Trump’s new administration be to Russia?

Many people are pleased to see the back of 2016, which will not go down as a good year with anyone. But 2017 looms like a black storm cloud on the horizon, making it dark before the sun has set.

Yesterday a Turkish policeman assassinated the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. The gunman is reported to have shouted: “Don’t forget Aleppo” after opening fire. While 2016 may have been bad, December 2016 was really bad. Add together:

Remember that Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane that flew into its airspace on a mission in Syria, and that Turkey itself turned the corner from fledgling democracy into fledgling dictatorship this year too.

What will happen next? I find it hard to believe that January 2017 will be a pleasant renaissance of peace and stability after the storm of 2016.

Currently my money is on David Cameron calling the referendum on Europe being the tipping point which future historians identify. That led to the Brexit vote, which empowered the Trump vote, both of which gave Russia a boost as it brazenly influenced the outcomes. Consequently, the UK, Europe, and America are weaker places, and less able to oppose Russian actions in Syria. In turn, these are partly designed to cause a refugee crisis in Europe, further destabilising it. The Middle East is divided and at war, Europe is falling apart, Turkey and Russia have already engaged in a real military confrontation, and now an assassination, which the leaders of Turkey and Russia have described as an attempt to disrupt efforts to repair ties between their countries.

Clearly nobody can predict what will happen next, apart from predicting that 2017 will be particularly unpredictable, dangerous, and fragile. Drink and make merry on New Year’s Eve, the hangover may be particularly bad this year.

Tobias Stone is an academic and entrepreneur. Read more of his writing on Medium.

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