- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

Time magazine has an- nounced its selection of Albert Einstein as "the person of the 20th century." Close, but no cigar.

The person of the century should be the individual whose actions most strongly influenced the century, for good or ill. Arguably, there is another without whose most precipitate deeds the United States might never have needed to provide a refuge for Einstein or taken a military interest in his theoretical work in physics.

Would that most influential person be Adolf Hitler? No, for there is yet another person without whose actions Hitler's rise to power and persecution of Germany's Jews, of which Einstein was one, might have proved unthinkable. Perhaps V.I. Lenin, then, since Hitler's National Socialism achieved power in large degree as a reaction against the perceived threat from revolutionary communism in Russia?

No. The person we are looking for also set in train the events that unfolded in Russia's Bolshevik Revolution. We're looking for a first cause, so Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, for all their accomplishments in reacting to aggression, don't fit.

Should our choice be German Kaiser Wilhelm II for securing safe passage for Lenin to Russia in a successful gambit to spread revolt and take Russia out of World War I? Or the same kaiser for failing to prevent escalation of the Austrian-Serbian crisis of 1914, and Germany's involvement in it?

There is someone further back still, whose hand set in motion this whole historical avalanche.

This column's nominee for the most influential single person of the 20th century is not a person of great prominence, but an obscure man of whom the world would take little if any note were it not for a single act by which he set in motion a whole train of miseries that have plagued our century.

Sadly, this person cannot be credited with any morally great or noble works. Nor did he head any state or elucidate any philosophy.

His name was Gavrilo Princip and he was the Serbian nationalist who assassinated Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in June 1914.

The event ultimately led to war between Austria and Serbia, which brought Russia into play against Austria, which in turn activated Austria's ally Germany against Russia, which then caused Russia's ally France to move against Germany. Soon the entire alliance system of Europe, long considered a clockwork mechanism for securing peace, lurched out of control, launching what was until then the largest, costliest and bloodiest war in human history.

As a result of that war World War I several European empires bit the dust. The Russian Empire, torn apart by war and revolution, was (for a while) sundered of a third of its European base by Germany when the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

By war's end, the Ottoman and Austrian Empires would be broken into several smaller, independent states.

Not long after America's entry into the war, the German general staff found itself unable to continue the meat-grinding stalemate on the Western front, let alone secure victory. Germany began to boil with antiwar and revolutionary outbreaks. The kaiser went into exile in Holland and soon after began bitterly blaming his failure on Germany's Jews, a theme later picked up by an obscure demobilized, Austrian-born dispatch runner named Adolf Hitler.

A blockade that strangled Germany even after its submission, punitive reparations, and a devastating inflation of German currency were all followed in the 1920s by the worldwide economic collapse, the rise of Hitler to power, renewed world conflict, and the ultimate eclipse of Europe as the center of global power.

In the midst of this conflict, the work of Einstein and other refugees from Hitler's Holocaust was to play a key role in developing atomic weapons that hastened American victory over Japan, last holdout of the Axis partners. Then followed the breakup of the wartime Allies into rival communist and Free World camps and the long Cold War, with intermittent episodes of fighting.

But except for Princip, the whole course of the troubled century might have gone in a different direction. As it was, the 20th century's wars claimed the lives of well more than 100 million people, on top of perhaps twice as many deaths from persecutions and forced deprivations.

It is an object lesson of how in our close-knit world even an insignificant individual, motivated by a reckless radicalism, can commit acts with enormous unforeseeable consequences.

The last 100 years have seen many emulators of Princip's crime, in the assassinations of presidents, presidential candidates, civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens who fell in the path of a terrorism against which we gird ourselves at the dawn of a new age.

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