It is often wondered why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a world-wide war that caused heretofore unimaginable destruction of life and property – war that George Kennan called the “seminal catastrophe of the 20th Century.” The murder itself was the product of a local spat between the virtually moribund Habsburg Empire and upstart Serbia over whether the Austrian province of Bosnia in which lived a large Serb population should be freed to join Serbia. There was no reason on the surface why this dispute was of critical interest to any other Great Power of Europe at that time. Nevertheless it became the flashpoint of the Great War.
One hundred years ago on July 31, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. A week later a general European war involving the major powers of that continent had commenced. Soon Japan would be involved and ultimately,– and decisively – the United States of America would join in. Almost every part of the British and French colonial empires provided men and material to fight the war. Minor theaters of fighting occurred in the Pacific and Africa. Significant fighting occurred in the Middle East. Major fighting took place in eastern Europe, mostly on the Russian frontier, but the titanic struggle that took more than four years and nearly wiped out a generation of European men was that of the Western front – France and Belgium. But why? This front was nearly on the other side of Europe from that of Serbia and Bosnia.
The answer to that question is murky at best. The time-line from the Sarajevo assassination to the British declaration of war shows successive dots that are difficult to connect without extensive background information and historical analysis. A lot has to do with nationalism, or, more precisely, tribalism. Much has to do with the entangling alliances between great powers. The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy versus the entente between Russia and France (with which Britain was loosely associated) divided Europe into two armed camps. The existence of a long-running arms race together with standing military forces constantly at the ready was a major factor. As Dean Inge metaphorically observed, the wherewithal of war seems to beg to be used. From the 1890s until just prior to the outbreak of war, Germany and Britain had engaged in an almost frantic competition to see who could build the greatest number of the most technologically advanced warships.
The manner in which the events of June 28 through August 4 played out do not answer the question, but they provide some hints. Serbia was a client state of Russia. They shared the same Slavic ancestry, a common religion and alphabet, and distinct, but closely related, languages. More important was geography. Serbia was a small but feisty emerging nation in a part of the world strategic to the Russians. Most of Russia’s seaports were far enough north to be ice bound for much of each winter. The major exceptions were the ports on the Black Sea, such as Odessa, and Sebastopol in the Crimea. The trouble was, the only outlet from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the world’s oceans was though the Bosporus and Dardanelles. These narrow waterways were entirely controlled by the Ottoman Turks, never Russia’s friends. Serbia, along with other Balkan nations recently independent from Ottoman domination, could be an influence on the manner in which the Turks treated Russian commercial interests. Thus, in the view of Austro-Hungarian statesmen, war with Serbia risked war with Russia.
The octogenarian Emperor Franz Josef had no wish for a war, and neither did the Hungarian Minister-President Istvan Tisza, albeit for different reasons. The Austrian foreign minister Leopold von Berchtold and army chief of staff Von Hötzendorff dearly wanted to militarily crush Serbia. In order to bring the Emperor and Tisza around, Berchtold sent an emissary to the German Kaiser to seek diplomatic support, should Russia threaten intervention. (Note: The word “kaiser,” derived from the Latin “Caesar,” means “emperor” in German. Both Wilhelm, the German Emperor, and Franz Josef were “kaisers” in their language. Wilhelm is commonly referred to as “The Kaiser” and that appellation will refer to him here.)
The Kaiser, for all the opprobrium heaped upon him by British propaganda, was not a villain. He was an impulsive, pretentious, and not too bright man who had been thrust into a position of power by accident of birth. He liked to strut around in military garb and play soldier, but the last thing he wanted was war, particularly one with Russia. As it happened, Russia had for some time been allied with France in an entente that required each to come to the other’s defense in the event of attack. One thing that the Kaiser and his military advisors feared was a two front war. Germany simply did not have the resources to fight such a war, and it would be unwinnable. In the 1890s, the Kaiser attempted to negotiate a mutual defense treaty with the Russian Tsar Nicholas II who happened to be his first cousin. Nicholas signed such a pact, but he promptly repudiated it after his foreign policy advisers brought the inconsistency with Russia’s entente with the French to his attention (Nicholas was not all that astute, either).
The German general staff came up with a strategy to deal with an imminent threat of war with Russia, in which France would join. This stratagem, called the Schlieffen Plan called for Germany to invade France in a manner that would draw the French defenders into German held territory along the southern border while the main force drove north and encircled Paris, thus neutralizing the French military threat. Upon that event, the bulk of the German forces would go east to fight the Russians, who were expected to be slower and more ponderous in bringing their forces to bear. The Schlieffen Plan had erroneous assumptions, and plenty of flaws. The most serious assumption was that of Russian slowness. The main flaws were the necessity of almost perfect timing, and speed. These, it was believed, required an invasion of France through Belgium, whose neutrality had been guaranteed by treaty in 1837 by the European powers, including Prussia, the German Empire’s predecessor state.
The July 5-7 meeting between the Kaiser and Austrian envoy was an Austrian success. Wilhelm gave his full diplomatic support – some termed it a “blank check” to Berchtold. A caveat that the Kaiser made, perhaps the wised counsel of his life, was for Austria to do what it had to do quickly, and make sure it had Italy’s approval, or at least acquiescence. As it turned out, Berchtold did neither.
The German support, however, brought Franz Josef and Tisza around. Von Hötzendorff, for all his bluster, realized that the Austro-Hungarian army would not be ready for military action until mid-August at the earliest. Nevertheless, Berchtold crafted a series of 10 demands, often called an ultimatum, to Serbia. It was delivered on July 23 with a 48 hour suspense. Serbia accepted all but the two demands that would impinge on its sovereignty and independence. Austria-Hungary rejected the response ans insufficient and declared war on July 28. The next day the Austrians bombarded Belgrade, the Serbian capital just across the Danube, and Russia ordered mobilization of its army along the Austro-Hungarian frontier. Germany then demanded that Russia demobilize by noon August 1. That ultimatum expired without answer. Germany then considered war with Russia, and thus France, imminent.
Anticipation of World War I‘s centennial has brought forth numerous books, articles, television events, and so forth. Many have pondered why the war actually occurred. Making sense that any of us can comprehend is probably best accomplished by reducing it to the aphorisms and sound bites preceding this essay.
While the flashpoint that started events rolling was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, that by itself or even the reaction to it did not necessarily lead to a world conflagration. What made the war a global one, and one that lasted so long and cost so much in lives, was that it involved a clash between the British and German Empires.
Britain was the lone superpower of the early 20th Century. I use that term carefully. In this context it means a state that is dominant in political, economic, military, and cultural affairs in a significant portion of the world. The British Empire was geographically global. Its financial system was the standard for much of the world. Its navy dominated the seas, protecting its merchant marine as well as able to quickly move troops to quell troubles and put down insurrections. Its language was fast becoming the lingua franca of the world (though French was still officially the language of diplomacy).
Germany was the major challenger to British global hegemony. Though almost a brand new country, by 1914, its industrial production was nearly matching that of Britain. The Prussian army, to which the Empire succeeded after unification in 1871, was the most efficient and best trained and led in the world. Since the 1890s, Germany had engaged in a naval arms race with Great Britain and nearly, but not quite, caught up. Late to the race for overseas colonies, Germany had nevertheless obtained several African possessions and a number of Pacific islands to give it a global reach. In short, The main rivals for world hegemony were the two Empires. The newer one threatening, and the older one threatened.
France, possessing overseas colonies mostly in Africa with a smattering elsewhere, though not a contender for superpower status, was still a player. Since its defeat by the Prussian led coalition of German states that resulted in German unification in 1871, France had undergone a series of national identity crises. Its nep-Napoleonic Second Empire had been supplanted by the Third Republic, which did not suit many Frenchmen. The principal sore that continued to fester, however, was the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The French had been, and were, itching to recover those lands. The only possible way was military, so France concluded an entente, nominally defensive, with Russia, and bided its time.
While the Schlieffen Plan looked good on paper, like football game plans, most military strategies go out the window once the first shot is fired. Several problems immediately surfaced. First, the Plan apparently did not take into account the number of rivers the Germans would have to cross; second, the Russians mobilized and attacked faster than expected, thus requiring more German assets in the east than anticipated; third, as noted previously, attacking through neutral Belgium was necessary for adherence to Schlieffen’s timetable. Germany requested, than demanded, that Belgium allow German troops to peacefully pass through that country. When the Belgians refused, the Germans attacked and met with more stubborn resistance than expected, thus delaying the campaign. Great Britain, one of the signers of the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, demanded that the Germans withdraw from Belgium. When that demand was rejected, the British government, doubtless mindful that a German victory would give its principal rival a huge leg up, had its excuse. The British Empire declared war ostensibly to uphold a principle of international law and entered into the fray against Germany. The rapidly deployed British Expeditionary Force, together with the French who perceived what the German strategy was and had time to bring some their forces to bear, thwarted the Schlieffen Plan and stopped the German offensive at the Battle of the Marne.
The war then became a four year impasse. Neither side could bring enough power to bear to break the stalemate until the United States intervened three years later. Part of the reason was that modern military technology, especially the machine-gun and high-explosive artillery projectiles, favored the defense, and made effective nineteenth century offensive tactics obsolete. It is often said that generals are always prepared to fight the previous war. To the extent that is true, the “previous war” for Europeans fighting each other was the Franco-Prussian war where the Germans defeated the French in months, and the Crimean War where the British and French, on the side of the Ottomans, fought Russia in the mid-1850s, using the same tactics as employed in the Napoleonic Wars fully a century earlier. The other brush-fire and colonial wars were fought against ill-equipped and trained indigenous insurgents, not regular European armies.
Thus, the spat between Austria and Serbia morphed into a World War because one empire was defending its economic hegemony against the insurgency of another, and because the European military establishments wanted to try out their long conceived plans and their state of the art technologies. As it happened, they really did not know what they were getting into.
An oversimplification? Perhaps. But then the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Make sure the computer is plugged in and all connections are attached before you call the IT guy. It’s called Occam’s Razor.