The following article on what started WW1 is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
At first it all seemed very far away. The possibility of a Great War engulfing Europe had not become a reality since the terrifying days of the Napoleonic Wars. But it did not begin due to failure of diplomacy. The reasons for the beginning of World War One all start with a wrong turn taken on a road in Sarajevo.
On 28 June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. It was the couple’s fourteenth wedding anniversary. They were utterly devoted; indeed it sometimes seemed Sophie was Ferdinand’s only friend. Politically liberal and personally difficult, Ferdinand had married against the wishes of his uncle, Austria’s emperor Franz Joseph. As a result, his children were removed from any right to succession, but he was still next in line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
An empire it surely was, even if its welter of nationalities were only tenuously welded together. Ferdinand was an Austrian, skeptical of Hungarians, married to a Czech, and inclined to be indulgent with Croats and Serbs. His reputation for liberalism—in what was a tolerant, cosmopolitan, fatalistic, conservative-reactionary empire, which regarded itself, in the famous Viennese phrase, as being in a situation that was hopeless but not serious—came largely from his support for expanding the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a tripartite monarchy that would have given greater autonomy to the Slavs.
It was not a popular position. Austrian hardliners saw no reason for change, Hungarians feared it would lessen their influence, and Slavic nationalists did not want their people reconciled to Austrian rule; they wanted violence, bloodshed, and nationalist revolution. On 28 June 1914, one of their number—Gavrilo Princip, a tubercular student, an atheist in a famously Catholic if multireligious empire, and a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist movement—committed the murders that eventually created an independent Yugoslavia, all at the cost of a cataclysmic world war.
What started World War 1 began with one death. It ended with 17 million more dead.
WHAT STARTED WW1, PART 1: ATTEMPTING TO HOLD THE EMPIRE TOGETHER
Austria-Hungary’s statesmen knew just how vulnerable they were as a multinational empire. Avenging Franz Ferdinand’s death—even if he was not much liked—was necessary to affirm the dual monarchy’s staying power. Heirs to the throne simply could not be picked off by Slavic nationalists at will and without consequences.While the reaction throughout much of Europe was measured, shock mingling with the assumption that this was a local affair—there was always something new out of Austria-Hungary—Austria’s foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, advocated “a final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia,” a terror-sponsoring state, the power behind the assassins. He was supported by the hawkish chief of the Austrian general staff, Count Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who recognized the danger of Slavic nationalism if it were led by Serbia rather than contained within the Habsburg Empire.
If the the start of the war were limited to Serbia, the empire could fight it successfully. But of Europe’s five great powers—Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain—Austria-Hungary was by far the weakest; it could make no pretense to dominate Europe; defending itself in the Balkans was challenge enough. Barely a quarter of its army was Austrian, another near quarter was Hungarian, and the rest, the majority, was a motley of Czechs, Italians, and Slavs whose devotion to the dual monarchy was open to question. Germany was Austria’s necessary ally to keep the Russian bear from mauling the Austrian eagle—especially as the Russian bear made a pretense of looking on the Balkan states as her lost cubs. What the Russian bear wanted most of all was to splash in the warm water port of Constantinople, the gateway from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, and her cubs could lead her there.
THE GERMAN BLUNDERBUSS
The Austrians took the position that one was either with the dual monarchy or with the terrorists. Germany was with the dual monarchy. But despite Prussian stereotypes to the contrary, turmoil in the Balkans potentially pitting Austria-Hungary against Russia had for decades made Germany the peacemaker of Central Europe. In the famous formulation of Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Reich from 1871 to 1890, “The whole Eastern question”—by which he meant the Balkans—“is not worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian musketeer.”
Germany was Europe’s most powerful state. United only since 1871 (before that it had been a congeries of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, free cities, and confederations), Germany was an industrial superpower, with the second-largest manufacturing economy in the world (behind the United States), double the steel production of Britain, and world leadership in fields from applied chemistry to electrical engineering. Germany’s industrious population was growing—to 65 million in 1913—casting an ominous shadow over the French, who, for all their reputation as lovers, were not having babies; France boasted a population of only 39 million.
The German education system was broad, deep, and effective, stamping out engineers, physicists, and highly trained specialists in every academic and technical field—including the profession of arms, where even the lowliest private was literate. So professional, well-trained, and highly educated was the German army—and so politically dominant was militaristic Prussia within Germany—that the Second Reich was really the kingdom of the German general staff.
But Bismarck knew how important it was for Germany, having forged itself through “blood and iron,” to reassure Europe that it was a “contented” power. His chief foreign policy goal was to isolate France and keep Germany allied with Austria and Russia. As Bismarck said, “I am holding two powerful heraldic beasts by their collars, and am keeping them apart for two reasons: first of all, lest they should tear each other to pieces; and secondly, lest they should come to an understanding at our expense.”
All this changed with the arrival of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who assumed the throne in 1888 and dismissed Bismarck two years later. The Kaiser did not follow Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy admonition about speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Instead, he spoke like an exploding blunderbuss while insisting on having the biggest stick possible and waving it furiously. He practiced diplomatic brinksmanship, thrusting himself forward, asserting German rights—and then almost invariably backing down, grumbling about the lack of respect granted to his empire.
He twisted the lion’s tail when he could. About a third of the world’s Muslim population lived under the Union Jack, so the Kaiser made a trip to Damascus in 1898 and declared himself a Teutonic Saladin: “The [Ottoman] sultan and the 300 million Muslims who revere him as their spiritual leader should know that the German Emperor is their friend forever.” German railroad engineers backed his boast by helping to build the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway and the Hijaz Railway from Damascus to Medina—neither of which was completed before the war, but both of which Britain saw as potential threats to India.
Germany’s diplomatic sabre-rattling had inspired some odd alliances. Since 1892 anti-clerical republican France had been allied with Orthodox czarist Russia. Russia was notoriously weak—her armed forces had been humiliated in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905—but the German general staff could not discount her size (170 million people) or her potential to cause trouble in the Balkans. In the west, Britain’s John Bull became the unlikely escort of the French Marianne in 1904 with the Entente Cordiale. On its face the entente simply resolved imperial issues, but de facto it made Britain an ally of France. It was followed in 1912 by an Anglo-French naval agreement committing the Royal Navy to defend France’s Atlantic coast. In 1907, Britain even agreed to an entente with Russia, which had long been regarded as the great imperial threat to British India. In British eyes the railroad-building, battleship-constructing, Boer-supporting, philo-Islamic German Kaiser had become the greater threat; and the Russians were equally worried that Germany’s increasingly friendly relationship with the Ottoman Turks could block their dream of acquiring Constantinople.
WHAT STARTED WW1, PART 2: AUSTRIA DECLARES A SMALL WAR; FRANCE, RUSSIA, AND GERMANY MAKE IT A BIGGER ONE
On 23 July, Austria delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. The assassination of the Archduke had put an end to Austrian tolerance. Austria demanded that Serbia ban all propaganda directed against the Habsburg Empire, shut down the nationalist organizations that fanned it, allow Austrian officials to help suppress anti-imperial groups in Serbia, sack Serbian officers as specified by Austria, and allow imperial investigators to bring the terrorists who had conspired against the Archduke to justice. The Serbians were given forty-eight hours to respond. To the Austrians’ surprise, the Serbians agreed to almost everything, quibbling only at allowing Austrian police onto Serbian territory, which the Serbs considered an unacceptable violation of their sovereignty. Even the Kaiser thought Serbia’s response was a “capitulation of the most humiliating character. Now that Serbia has given in, all grounds for war have disappeared.” For the Austrians the point had been to establish the pretext for war, not to get Serbian agreement, and Austria decided Serbia’s response was insufficient. On 28 July, the Habsburg Empire declared war on Serbia.
The Austrians’ declaration of war put the cat among the pigeons, or the Teutons among the Slavs. But the first major power to go on full mobilization for what could be a wider war was not Austria or Germany, it was Russia. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Sazonov saw the Austrian ultimatum as a starting pistol—“c’est la guerre européene!”—that provided Russia cover (and allies) for a strategic lunge at Constantinople.
Encouraging Russian belligerence was France, which had its own territorial designs if Russia could tie down German armies on an eastern front. For more than forty years, the French had wanted to regain the territory of Alsace-Lorraine in southwestern Germany. The French knew they could not regain the territory by diplomacy or by fighting Germany on their own. The French could never instigate a war; they could only hope for one in which they had surrounded Germany with enemies and strengthened themselves with allies. And now they had done just that. With the Entente Cordiale, the French believed they had seduced Britain from her previous policy of “splendid isolation” from the Continent. The “Triple Entente” had put the Russian steamroller in the East on the side of la belle France, and in the West procured her the tacit support of the world’s largest navy, backed by the resources of the world’s largest empire.
While Europe’s diplomats and statesmen talked peace, more than a few wanted war. All the major belligerents in the First World War, with the exception of the British Empire and the United States, entered the war thinking they had something to gain. In one sense, what started World War I was opportunism. But all had made fatal miscalculations. Austria, in its desire to punish the Serbs, had misjudged the possibility of a greater war. The Russians, with their eyes on seizing Constantinople, failed to recognize how vulnerable their society was to the shock of a European conflagration. French revanchists misjudged the price of glory.
Germany military planning was for a two-front war. The Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by Field Marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen in 1905—and implemented in 1914 by General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, chief of the German general staff—was to knock out France in six weeks with one enormous blow and then turn Germany’s full strength against the lumbering Russians. Schlieffen polished his plan until the end of his life in 1913. From a purely military point of view, it was a plan of genius, and had it been implemented as designed it might very well have achieved its aims. But the Achilles’ heel of the plan was its amorality. It utterly disregarded the rights of neutral Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—rights that Germany was pledged to uphold. While to the German general staff these rights were insignificant, they became the direct cause of British intervention in the war.
On 1 August, the Germans declared war on Russia; two days later they declared war on France; and on 4 August, they invaded Belgium, which had rejected Germany’s ultimatum for free passage of its troops. Britain then declared war on Germany. German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg rebuked Britain’s ambassador to Berlin: “Just for a scrap of paper, Britain is going to make war on a kindred nation.” That amoral disregard for scraps of paper was one reason Europe’s Armageddon had begun.
When Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary, received word that Germany had declared war on France, he was watching the street lamps being lit below his office window. He remarked to a friend, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the United States, the lamps would continue to burn brightly, and they would be lit again in Europe, but only after the New World came to redress the balance in the Old.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about World War One. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to World War One.
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