100 years later, remembering the crucible called World War I

The June 29, 1914 front page of the Chicago Tribune displaying the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination. (Tribune archive)

"The Great War … was a rupture," Van Rompuy said. "This is the end of yesterday's world, the end of empires, aristocracies and also an innocent belief in progress."

Nenad Prokic, a Serbian playwright and former lawmaker, struggles to make sense of the conflict a century after his compatriot, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, angry about Austria's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, gunned down Franz Ferdinand. A month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary retaliated, its ally Germany moved on France, Russia and Britain mobilized their forces, and within a week, all had formally declared war.

The repercussions were enormous on Prokic's country, which lost a quarter of its people, including more than half its male population.

"We could not recover from that," he said.

The nation of Yugoslavia, and a fragile hope, emerged from the rubble. But that fell apart violently, too, in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which gave the world the brutal euphemism of "ethnic cleansing." Serbia, an international pariah for years afterward, is hoping to rehabilitate its image and gain a foothold in the EU.

"Now we are trying for a quarter of a century to organize a new state for us — very unsuccessfully, I must say," said Prokic, who lives in Belgrade.

In his new play, "Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun," Prokic explores the buildup to World War I and the "human stupidity" that tries to turn mass carnage into virtue. The drama premieres Saturday at the London International Festival of Theatre, which is devoting the entire weekend to works dealing with the war's enduring aftermath.

Onstage will be more than 19,000 dominoes, for the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. At the close of the play — which ends in the present, with the characters discussing Europe and the crisis over Russia's seizure of Crimea this year — the dominoes will be toppled.

Naturally, the first domino represents Franz Ferdinand, whose death June 28, 1914, touched off the war that was supposed to end all wars.

"One hundred years ago, the butchery began, and so many lives disappeared," Prokic said. "We must at least try for a moment to avoid such a big catastrophe in the future."