“What decided the German government to prepare for an eventual European War was a crisis that was brewing not in the highly industrialised and capitalistic West, but among the primitive communities of the south-east of Europe. War came to the West from the East; it was forced upon the West by the East.”
This is a statement made by French historian Elie Halevy some ten years after the First World War. It was first brought to my attention by modern historian Richard Vinen, in his book on Europe in the twentieth century. He rightly points out that Halevy’s statement is ‘a beguiling explanation’ that lets the Great powers off the hook. I, too, have a difficult time swallowing this ‘came….from the east’ statement. Right from the opening salvo, all the major participants began documenting their own stories and accounts of who started the war and its justifications. I have my own theories and so do many others about who is to be blamed. Interestingly enough, Germany takes the fair share of blame and rightly so. Was it not the German emperor himself, who said it was ‘now or never’ in relation to a new conflict ? A new war was to be provoked, like Germany had provoke France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the assassination of the Archduke provided the perfect moment. Though, it is here with the assassination of the Archduke, that Austria-Hungary, not Germany, is first assigned guilt for planning to use war ‘as an instrument of policy’.
Austria had been frustrated by Serbian aggression for years and now finally they got the excuse that they had been looking for to teach Serbia a lesson. Beating his chest for war, more than any other Austrian official, was General Franz Conrad Hotzendorf, chief of Austro-Hungarian general staff. He had been ‘hell bent’ on a war with Serbia as early as 1908, but had been kept in check by Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, with the Archduke’s murder, nothing now stood in the way of an immediate attack on Serbia.
The Austrians were utterly convinced that the Serbians were behind the assassination. Serbian Prime Minister Pasic did his best to appear conciliatory and respectful towards Vienna, but even he knew that Vienna believed that Princip and his co-conspirators had links to Belgrade. In the end, Austria’s resolve to pinpoint the blame for the Archduke’s murder led back to at least one Serbian official. This official’s name was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, also known as Apis. He was ‘the motor of the whole operation’ that was the Black Hand. Ultimately, the Archduke’s assassination was a plan devised by the Black Hand and carried out by native Bosnian Serbs. In the end, it was more than enough in evidence that Austria needed to carry out its plans. Serbia had tried in vain to humble Austria, in fact, arguably embarrass its status as a Great Power. Many smaller nations too, wished for its demise, but Austria at the turn of the twentieth century desperately wished to survive and prosper. It was almost inevitable, that Austria had to show Serbia, who was in charge in the Balkans. Consequently, Kaiser Wilhelm’s military cabinet offered to back Austria-Hungary with a ‘blank cheque’ of support in relation to the tragedy in Sarajevo. From here on end, Germany’s involvement becomes more implicit.
Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef was more concerned about how well military manoeuvres were carried out in Sarajevo than the death of his nephew Archduke Ferdinand. His lack of remorse was recorded behind closed doors in the build up to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia.
In my opinion, I believe Austria and Germany must accept primary blame for the eventual outbreak of war. Germany was a willing, if not the driving participant in the events leading to the outbreak by encouraging Austria to take extreme measures against Serbia. The ‘blank cheque’ essentially gave Austria the go ahead to do whatever it thought was necessary. Germany was itching for war and ultimately hoped Austria would take action against Serbia sooner rather than later. To strike ‘while the iron was hot’ would be to the advantage of both Germany and Austria against their ‘enemies’. Unfortunately, Austria’s initial reluctance to strike against Serbia and to choose to play out a waiting game at first was arguably her undoing ? It allowed the great powers, especially Russia time to mobilise. In an interesting footnote in the history of the First World War, Austria would later, as Hew Strachan points out in his book, “cast aspersions on its ally, holding Germany responsible for getting it into a war which was bigger than it could handle.” Some historians also argue that Germany’s military, in particular, the Kaiser himself, was either criminal or ignorant in making it easier for the whole of Europe to be dragged in a wider conflict.
Why would strong intelligent and industrial nations like Britain, France and Germany embarked on a war of such great destruction ? That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question that is far too detailed and complex to outline here. However, in short, what happened was a product of fear, militarism, ambition and a complicated set of alliance.
Germany played an important key role in aggravating the Great Powers rivalries. Germany was keen to preserve and expand its growing empire at the expense of its neighbours. Already forging ahead in modern industries, Germany next sought to become a colonial power and was part of the “scramble for Africa”. With Germany trying to attain the same prestige as Britain and France, one of the consequences of this was the build up of military muscle. The warship, in particular, came to be seen as the symbol of power and Germany embarked on expanding its navy, in the hope of rivaling Britain’s supremacy of the sea. Both Britain and France viewed this as a threat to their colonial dominance and wealth. As a further consequence an arms race followed. Armies were professionalized and a policy of compulsory military service was either introduced or extended. With numbers of servicemen swelling to unprecedented numbers it created a further feeling of fear amongst the Great powers.
A French cartoon depicting Bismarck dividing Africa like a cake and giving pieces to the European Great Powers.
What would be years of ‘sabre-rattling’ between the Great Powers as they pushed each other to the extremes without actually engaging in a real war, would finally come to head with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Germany, who had already felt that it had been surrounded by its enemies for years, decided to guaranteed Austria-Hungary support in retaliating against Serbia. Austria, unwittingly, became an accomplice in Germany’s plans, keen on using the assassination to fight a nationalistic Serbia, its rival, for supremacy in the Balkans. Four weeks after the assassination and when all the evidence that could possibly be gathered against Serbia, an ultimatum was delivered to Belgrade on the 23rd July. A list of formal demands and measures was meant to strike at the heart of Serbia’s dignity- in particular a clause that would allow Austria the right to intervene in Serbia’s domestic affair. A few days later Serbia agreed to most of Austria’s demands except those that belittled her sovereignty. Austria, unimpressed by Serbia’s resolve, broke off diplomatic relations and on the 28th of July declared war on Serbia. At this point, a series of poor political decisions, suspicion and a further misdirected sense of honour would plunge the Great Powers into a deeper crisis. They were about to embark on a course that there was no turning back from.
Notes and Further Reading
Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism,War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, Penquin Books, 2000.
Paul Ham, 1914: The year the world ended, Doubleday, 2014.
Peter Hart, The Great War 1914-1918, Profile Books, 2013.
Michael Howard, The First World War, Oxford University Press, 2002.
John Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson, 1998.
Hew Strachan, The First World War, Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Norman Stone, World War One: A short history, Allen Lane, 2007.
Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, Little, Brown & Co, 2000.
Photo Credit Every effort has been made to trace and acknowledge appropriate credit. All images appear to be in the public domain. The header image is a 1912 Punch cartoon entitled ‘The Boiling Point” by Leonard Raven-Hill.