In the coming few years, we are going to be deluged with events marking the centenary of events during the First World War. One thing that I am certain of is that those events – at least in the UK – will focus upon the loss of life on the Western Front and some of the more iconic events during the war. I predict that Christmas 2014 will be wall-to-wall with the Christmas Truce and its resulting football match in No Man’s Land, for example. And the commemoration events will have a political subtext depending on who is doing the retelling.
We are already hearing a number of commentators – including some who claim to be historians – blaming the First World War on “German expansionism” and “Prussian militaristic values” and glossing over the confusion and jockeying for position that took place in the years leading up to 1914. Yet many of the ills laid at the door of Germany, including militarism and expansionism, could be found in the establishments of all the great European powers at that time. Our modern commentators are merely repeating a view held by some politicians and commentators in 1914; but they were a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
I very much also expect that the events of the summer of 1914 will be glossed over, partly because they are difficult to understand, partly because they rely on the politics and events of the preceding thirty years, and partly because they throw up political issues that will be uncomfortable for some today.
I have been doing some reading around this subject over the past few years (not specifically in anticipation of this anniversary), and I felt I ought to put my own thoughts down to get them straight. I offer them for the information of others.
Although the events in Sarajevo were just the trigger point for a lot of different issues that had been boiling away for some time, the story bears retelling. In the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary was made protector of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina on behalf of Turkey in 1878, following an international conference. But in 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina and made it formally a part of the Empire. This was a source of irritation to Serbia, which for years had harboured the idea of turning back the clock to the fourteenth century in pursuit of what they called “Greater Serbia”. This was not a direct political policy as such, but more of what we would now call a “national aspiration”, backed by various politicians, newspapers and opinion formers. Serbia had therefore expressed hostility towards Austria-Hungary for a number of years, and after the Serbian coup of 1903 and the Second Balkan War of 1913 Austria in turn had determined that at some point, war might very well prove necessary against Serbia, and began to plan accordingly.
“Greater Serbia” was also the aim of a number of extra-legal pressure and terrorist groups which operated within Serbia with a degree of official collusion; the most notorious of which was known as “Black Hand”. The Black Hand was run by an individual code-named “Apis”; this was the unofficial identity of Lieutenant-Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who rose to the position of Chief of the Serbian General Staff’s intelligence service. This meant that the Black Hand had access to military resources at the highest level.
On the morning of Sunday 28th June, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was making a visit in his role as Inspector General of the Army to inspect military manouevres being conducted in Bosnia. He brought his wife, Sophie, with him. The Black Hand determined that the Archduke would make an ideal target and selected a team of Bosnian recruits who were trained, armed and given encouragement in their pan-Serbian aims. Between May 26th and June 4th, Gavrilo Princip was inserted into Bosnia with the aid of agents of the Black Hand to meet his fellow conspirators in Sarajevo, brief them and then to carry out the assassination.
Franz Ferdinand was not just a target because he was a figurehead. He was also a target because he had plans for Bosnia-Hercegovina. He had come to the view that in the interests of peace and prosperity, and the improved development of political life in the empire, the south Slavic lands – today, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina – should be constituted as the third kingdom within the Empire, thus changing it from the “Dual Monarchy” to a “Triple Monarchy”. Austria-Hungary was two countries with separate political systems, Parliaments and state machineries, but ruled over by a single monarch (at this time, the ageing Kaiser Franz Josef). Archduke Ferdinand’s plan was to accord the south Slavic lands the same status within the Empire. This would vastly improve the rights of the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina; but it would cement the nation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sideline Serbian ambitions.
The three assassins, armed with bombs and pistols, had ample opportunity to carry out their attacks. The Imperial party was travelling down main roads in open-topped cars and with minimal security. Yet the first two attempts on Franz Ferdinand’s life failed. The first assassin lost his nerve before throwing his bomb. The second threw his bomb, but it bounced off the Archduke’s car and detonated under the following vehicle which contained various senior officers. Upon hearing the explosion and seeing the commotion caused and one of his fellow conspirators arrested, the third, Gavrilo Princip, decided to abandon his attempt, but to wait and see if the Archduke returned via the same route.
Franz Ferdinand continued to his engagement, an official reception at Sarajevo town hall, but afterwards decided to break from the planned schedule and visit the injured officers in hospital. However, no-one thought to inform the drivers, and they made the turning to carry on to the National Museum, the next destination on the original itinerary. When they were told to stop and turn around, the three cars of the motorcade stopped to make a turn in the street, directly opposite where Princip was standing. The Archduke’s car came to a halt no more than a few feet from him. Unable to untangle his bomb from concealment under his clothing, Princip drew his pistol and fired two shots directly at the Archduke and his wife. The crowd seized Princip (and he would most likely have been lynched had the police not intervened) whilst the car sped off to the Konak palace, official residence for the duration of the visit; but Sophie, the Archduke’s wife was dead by the time they reached the palace, and Franz Ferdinand bled to death from a wound to his jugular vein very shortly afterwards.
Strangely, the only crowned head of Europe who attended Franz Ferdinand’s funeral was the Emperor Franz Josef himself. All other heads of state stayed away; “security” was given as the pretext, but then (as now), that was hardly a very sound argument. Instead, Franz Joseph, by now aged 84, had declared himself unable to cope with the stress of anything more than a family funeral. Had a state funeral been given, with all the major European heads of state attending (after all, Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Imperial throne), some level of discussion would have inevitably taken place and some degrees of consensus might well have emerged over what Austria’s next steps would be and what would be acceptable to all the Powers.
The car that the Archduke and his wife were travelling in can still be seen today, in the Arsenal Museum in Vienna. It is a chilling reminder of the events that were to shape the rest of the twentieth century. After the assassination, Austria-Hungary determined that this was the final straw in their long-running exasperation over Serbia in its hostility towards Vienna. Using plans already drawn up, they decided that they should act against Serbia. They reasoned that elements within the Serbian military establishment were behind the assassination (the signs were quite clear), but they had no hard evidence. Following a ministerial meeting on 7th July, they agreed to present Belgrade with an ultimatum. Further meetings established a timetable, which envisaged sign-off on the final draft on 19th July, and presentation to the Serbian Government in Belgrade on 23rd July.
There then followed a period of intense diplomatic discussions, shuttle diplomacy and leaks, which gave all parties time to prepare their responses and reactions. Matters were complicated when the Russian minister in Belgrade, Nikolai Hartwig, died suddenly of natural causes. Hartwig was a skilled diplomat and was actually in a meeting with his Austrian opposite number when he suffered a massive heart attack. This cut off a line of communication between Vienna and St. Petersburg (and by extension, Belgrade) which might have averted or ameliorated the chain of events that followed.
The ultimatum itself required Serbia to:
suppress the various pro-Serbian unity organisations and newspapers who had spread anti-Austrian propaganda,
take action against compromised military personnel and officials implicated in the assassination plot,
immediately arrest two named Serbian officers who Austria (rightly) considered to have taken an active role in the conspiracy (one – Apis’ deputy – had recruited the three assassins; the other was a “sleeper agent” in the Serbian railways who was the team’s handler),
explain the official pronouncements from various Serbian senior officials following the assassination that expressed satisfaction with the killings;
give access to Austrian investigators to allow a full examination of the facts, and
allow Austrian officials free rein to carry out that investigation in Serbia and to ‘suppress’ such individuals identified by that investigation.
A response was demanded within forty-eight hours.
The opinion across Europe, even in those countries sympathetic to Serbia, was that this was harsh but fair. Whom, after all, would do any different? At the same time, it was widely recognised that the last two points were such a major breach of Serbian sovereignty that no-one could imagine the Serbians complying with it. Moreover, the pan-Serbian organisations were beyond the reach of the Serbian government, both in law and in terms of public support. They had committed no crime against Serbian law, and the ultimatum demanded their suppression as a pre-condition, not as the result of any investigation that might lead to them; and the level of support they enjoyed within the Serbian military almost certainly meant that any investigation would have been frustrated from the outset by non-cooperation or even blatant refusal to submit to legitimate instruction from the civilian authorities.
However, the extended timescales of drafting and submission, although allowing time for the European powers to consider their reaction and the reactions of others, did not allow enough time for Austria to mobilise its own forces, which were scattered across the empire. Military thinking at the time had not grasped the concept of ‘asymmetric warfare’ and thought only in terms of moving regiments, engaging in mass troop movements and invading foreign territory. Nowadays, a state faced with a similar issue would insert a small unit of elite forces with a specific objective and extract them again when that objective had been achieved. Military planners did not think that way in 1914.
If Austria had been able to achieve its immediate limited war aims in the July or early August of 1914, honour would have been satisfied, none of the other European powers would have had time to mobilise or to start thinking about the knock-on effects of mobilisation, and a general war could have been averted. Instead, by sharing the terms of the ultimatum with the other powers, Austria-Hungary gave away its hand and allowed others time to consult, plan and consider the consequential effects of making military moves.
As it was, the Serbian response – initially drafted to concede the vast majority of Austria’s demands – was stiffened by Russia communicating that they were prepared to stand by Serbia. This drew Germany into the conflict, ostensibly to stand by its ally, Austria-Hungary, but also to precipitate a war that the General Staff had seen as inevitable for some time. Russian mobilisation caused France to prepare for hostilities in support of Russia. This in turn caused Germany to plan for a war on two fronts. Their war plan, based on the infamous “Schlieffen plan” of 1905, required a lightning attack to knock out France first before turning to engage Russia. The terms of the 1904 Entente between France and Britain set out a number of measures (such as the withdrawal of the bulk of the French navy from the Channel) which had as a natural consequence British intervention should an attack on France come from that direction. In any case, such an attack by Germany had to involve moving armies through neutral Belgium; and both Britain and France had treaty obligations to protect Belgian neutrality. German attempts to obtain Belgian agreement to their armies passing through the country were rejected by the Belgians as unacceptable at any price. Once the armies began to move across Europe, all the pacts and treaties came into effect, nations felt their hands were being forced, and one by one the nations of Europe declared war on each other.
The reasons why:
1) War as politics
There is a famous quotation from von Clausewitz: “War is the extension of politics by other means”. This was certainly the expectation of many European governments in the nineteenth century. War was seen as a cyclical occurrence, out of the control of governments, let alone populations. (This attitude persisted into the Cold War era: I have a particular memory of US civil defence films that give advice on what to do “…if The Bomb goes off…”, as if it were some sort of accident or natural event.)
Europe was a continent where war had been a regular occurrence; military staffs had always planned for the next war at the end of the last one. Most commentators felt that certain countries were more guilty of this than others, but the truth is that most nations worked on this basis. The question of which nation would be pre-eminent in Central Europe, Austria-Hungary or Prussia, was settled by the two states going to war in 1866 (Austria-Hungary lost. Things might have been very different had they won). Accordingly, when that question raised its head again in the first decade of the twentieth century, the assumption made by the military General Staffs in Austria, Germany, Russia and (to a lesser extent) France was that the matter would be settled in the same way, by a limited war, a duel of nations. There were nine wars in Europe in the twentieth century before the outbreak of the First World War, and only 1901, 1902 and 1909 were free of any conflict.
The results of previous wars, of course, coloured opinions in the defeated countries. In 1913, France elected Raymond Poincaré as President, and he had belligerent views against Germany that were based wholly upon revenge for France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871.
2) Extra-legal factions in Serbia
The assassination in 1903 of the Serbian king and queen was carried out by a faction within the Serbian Army. This faction then continued to organise and agitate after the overthrow of the monarch, in pursuance of the Serbian “national aspiration” of Greater Serbia. Furthermore, these factions went unchallenged by the government, partly because they were afraid of a public backlash (orchestrated by the press) if they moved against a party advocating Greater Serbia, and partly because there was an element of sympathy within government for that ambition. The extra-legal factions became increasingly organised, first with openly active groups, like the Serbian National Defence (formed in 1909), and later with secret groups, the most infamous of which was “Union or Death!”, formed in 1911 and better known as the ‘Black Hand’. The Black Hand was organised in a classic cell structure and employed elaborate initiation ceremonies which were reminiscent of those said to be encountered in freemasonry.
Opinions were also inflamed by emigré Serb groups in America, who felt able to agitate with even more bellicosity from afar than those at home (a pattern repeated in conflicts since then).
More broadly, the acceptance of patriotic aims, no matter how aspirational, as a driver for policy influenced the Serbian government and made them reluctant to act against the Black Hand and similar para-military and extra-legal groups.
3) The European Arms Race
Two of the major European powers, Britain and Germany, had been engaged in an arms race for the preceding twenty years. The application of turbine technology had led to the development of a class of super-battleship, the ‘Dreadnought’ and ‘Super-Dreadnought’ – the ‘ultimate weapons’ of their day. With ships like these, any nation could project power on a global scale, although they did require considerable logistic support in the form of coaling and provisioning facilities at harbours remote from home waters. This was, in turn, one of the major factors behind imperial expansion in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
Britain and Germany had played tit for tat in planning and building new ships for their navies. This led in turn to an opinion in some quarters in the German General Staff that war might be necessary at some point in the near future simply because if Britain was allowed to get too great a lead in increasing the size of the navy, Germany would never be able to catch up. (Having said that, there appears to have been a number of dates by which the German General Staff are accused of wanting war by; although 1914 is mentioned with regularity – mainly because of the widening of the Kiel Canal – other discussions centred around 1920 as the date by which the German and British navies would be expected to achieve parity.) This is turn is reflective of attitudes within the military establishment and governments which I shall mention later.
At the same time, the continents’ militaries were becoming more professionalised, with the establishment of Staff Colleges turning warfare into a profession. Much of the military strategic thinking and planning came out of the different staff colleges. The mechanisation of warfare was a pan-European issue, with alliances driven as much by the financing of military expansion as by political expediency. France, for example, was financing the re-arming of its ally, Russia, and Russia’s client states in the Balkans.
Just as Germany feared losing credence in naval power when compared with Britain, they also feared losing similar credence in ground forces when compared with Russia. Again, the German General Staff considered that a war against Russia would be necessary before the decade was out, as by the early 1920s Russia would be more powerful in land forces than Germany.
4) The role of the monarch
Constitutional monarchies were still comparatively uncommon in Europe at the time. Even those nations with long-established constitutional monarchies, such as Great Britain, were still evolving the roles, duties and obligations of the monarch or members of the Royal Family, especially when dealing with other monarchs (often blood relatives) whose role was less well established. Often, monarchs saw themselves as useful additional diplomatic resources, whereas in fact the opposite may well have been the case, that they became “loose cannons”. Indeed, when the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was appointed in 1909, having previously been Minister of the Interior, he had no knowledge of foreign affairs – but that was no problem, said Kaiser Wilhelm, because (in his view), he – the Kaiser – could “look after all that”. The Kaiser had, indeed, created a number of military posts that reported directly to him from the time of his accession in 1883. Ultimately, the entire General Staff reported to the Kaiser rather than to the elected civil government. (This was not unique to Germany.) This is a similar problem to:
5) The lack of collective responsibility within governments
On looking at the various diplomatic and state interactions over the period immediately before the outbreak of war, it is notable that on many occasions, Ministers and ambassadors of different countries made undertakings that they were not empowered to do, or created policy “on the hoof” that had not been cleared with their respective Cabinet colleagues. Partially this can be attributed to the absence of any profession of “diplomat”; diplomatic posts were still decided for the most part by patronage and influence. The principle of collective responsibility does not appear to have existed; or if it did, then it was disregarded by very many ministers of all nations. The German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, had bypassed the Reichstag by early 1914 due to political stalemate and was virtually ruling by decree. And as late as July 28th, the Kaiser’s instructions to his foreign minister, Jagow, to communicate his intention to mediate for peace between Austria and Serbia were ignored. This, in turn, is related to:
6) The failure of governments to exercise the chain of command over the military
The lack of collective responsibility extended into the military command structures and General Staffs. There was an assumption that the military were a law unto themselves, and the concept of civilian control over the military based on the supremacy of the civilian legislature was not well established. In military matters, general staffs were given carte blanche to make policy as they wanted and to formulate plans that drove the diplomatic agenda rather than vice versa. Indeed, military and civilian decision-makers often kept their plans secret from each other. The best-known example of this was the German General Staff’s war plan which permitted the fighting of a war on two fronts by making a lightning attack on France to achieve its defeat before moving whole armies across Europe to fight Russia. A war with Russia required an attack on France whether France was acting aggressively or not, and additionally required tactical invasion of Belgian territory purely as a matter of convenience. There was no challenge to the concept of this plan; the civilian administration was not given the option of ordering war against Russia alone. Indeed, the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was not told of the existence of this plan until 1912; it had been in existence since 1905.
The German war plan was, however, far from the only example. At about the same time as von Schlieffen was setting out his ideas for a war on two fronts, Anglo-French general staff negotiations concluded an agreement to deploy a British Expeditionary Force to the Continent in the event of France being attacked. This plan was kept from most members of the British Cabinet until the eve of the war. All nations possessed war plans, and all had various stages in their implementation that were short of war, or made war inevitable. Unfortunately, all those plans were different, and different stages in escalation were attached to certain actions. These were exclusively military matters, so even within governments, the civilian authorities had to take the miltary’s word for what a particular level of mobilization meant. Comparing different countries’ plans and divining the implications of a particular stage of escalation was impossible.
7) International power blocs
The so-called “Schlieffen Plan” started out as a budgetary bid for the war Germany expected to have to fight in future. The assumptions it made arose from the existence of competing power blocs in international politics. Acceptance of the power blocs as factors forcing different nations’ involvement in conflict meant that plans were drawn that required nations to act according to their allegiances or the allegiances of others. But the existence of those blocs prevented governments from thinking “outside the box” to try to isolate nations according to the issues. Furthermore, the blocs themselves were considered to be indissoluble; so, for example, if Germany had to choose between an alliance with St. Petersberg and Vienna, the assumption – which became fact – was that it would always choose Vienna. Once established, regular joint military planning meetings between General Staff members of these blocs further cemented them into permanence.
When push came to shove, not all the power blocs lined up entirely as expected – Italy, for example, was part of the Triple Entente that included Austria and Germany, but it remained neutral in 1914 and later joined the Allies (though some have claimed that Italy’s neutrality in 1914 was in part due to it not having sufficient uniforms for its army). Indeed, in many instances the power blocs prevented earlier wars, in that member states discouraged their allies from acting on issues that only concerned one country (though this probably only helps explain why war was delayed until 1914 and did not occur earlier). But the existence of the power blocs certainly influenced the thinking and planning in preparation for war, and therefore influenced the decisions taken during the summer of 1914.
8) Colonial possessions
…were seen at the same time as both markers of national prestige and bargaining counters in international relations. Such possessions could be swapped between nations as part of trade agreements, or could themselves become causus belli in the event of international tension. The existence of colonial possessions and their potential as bargaining counters made war thinkable because the exchange of colonies was seen as one outcome of a peace settlement that would not seriously inconvenience a defeated nation.
9) The political belief in Austria-Hungary as a declining state
In 1866, Austro-Hungary and Prussia had gone to war over the question of which country was to be pre-eminent in leadership of the emerging pan-German nation. Austria-Hungary lost and the focus of European power moved to Berlin. Over the following years, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy suffered many setbacks: the assassination of the Empress Elisabeth, the scandal of the deaths at Mayerling (where, in 1889, the then heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, shot his teenaged mistress and then committed suicide), the fiasco of the doomed attempt to establish the emperor’s brother, the Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico (which ended with Maximilian in front of a firing squad) and indeed the marriage of Ferdinand to the countess Sophie, who although a member of the nobility was nonetheless considered too close to a commoner for the comfort of the Viennese hierarchy. Nationalist pressures in various parts of the empire were manifesting themselves as popular movements; paradoxically, efforts by the Monarchy to accommodate these were seen as weakness; other states would have chosen repression of such movements. However, the technique of creating and governing what we would now call a multi-cultural state was in its infancy, and mistakes were made. The multi-culturalism manifested itself in Vienna in the form of MPs contributing to parliamentary debates in their own languages without any translation facilities, with the resulting uproar, lack of efficiency and legislative paralysis.
Franz Ferdinand achieved more popularity in Austria after his death than in life. He was not a likeable man, but this was probably partially brought about by a hardening of his public persona following his marriage. In 1900, Franz Ferdinand married for love, taking a minor member of the aristocracy, Sophie Chotek, as bride. Although Sophie ranked as a princess, the intricacies of Court protocol meant that she was ranked behind some thirty archduchesses for ceremonial purposes, and she had to ride in a separate carriage on formal court occasions. The price of the wedding was that Franz Ferdinand was forced to accept a morganatic union; Sophie would never be declared Empress when Franz Ferdinand ascended the throne, and their children would not be in the line of succession. Nonetheless, their marriage was happy, marred only by continuous snubs delivered for the most part by the Court’s Master of Ceremonies, Prince Montenuovo. This major-domo was responsible for organising the couple’s lying in state and funeral, but he continued the petty vendetta against them even in death; their coffins were delayed at every stage in the journey from Sarajevo to their eventual resting place, the castle of Artstetten near Pöchlarn in the Danube valley (not in the Imperial family vault in Vienna). These calculated insults so shocked the officials and soldiers that witnessed it that their indignation turned into belated hero-worship for Franz Ferdinand, which in turn stoked up public determination that their murders should be avenged upon Serbia at any cost.
Ironically, Franz Ferdinand’s aim was to defuse separatist pressures in the southern Slavic lands under Austrian control by bringing them fully into the Empire as a third kingdom, making the Empire a tripartite state with a greater role for the Slavic lands and populations. This was his preferred solution to the instability caused by Slavic separatists in what were then the occupied lands. These pressures were contributing to the view of the Empire as a moribund entity.
Vienna was also the home to a number of avant-garde artistic, intellectual and scientific movements, ideas and individuals (Freud, Mahler, Klimt and Kokoschka to name but four) which contributed to the air of instability or decadence, depending on the viewpoint adopted. This meant that certain governments in Europe, on viewing Austro-Hungary as preparing for war, saw such a conflict as likely to result in the end of Austria-Hungary as a viable nation, and consequently were reluctant to commit resources to its protection or continuance. War was seen as a social-Darwinist means of precipitating the collapse of such a moribund state. Others – including many subjects of the Monarchy – thought that if the Empire were now to die, it should die honourably.
10) Patriotism and the impact of popular news media
Popular news media were novel in the early 20th century, but they were gaining ground everywhere and quickly finding their feet as manipulators of popular opinion. The media in Serbia were quick to seize and amplify the national mood for ‘Greater Serbia’, and in other countries newspapers played the patriotic card. The British Daily Mail ran a campaign against, of all things, German restaurant waiters in 1905, branding them as ‘spies’. But in many countries, the press appears to have stoked up divisions between nations. The media were quick to wrap themselves in the flag, and whether they led or were following the people is very much a “chicken and egg” question. At the same time, there was a popular opinion in Britain that Germany was set on an expansionist path; contemporary writers and commentators speak of this whilst not giving full credence to voices within Germany who were reining back so-called “Prussian” values.
The Archduke Ferdinand was not a popular man in life, but the Austrian popular media did much to promote his better qualities in the days following his death; when coupled with the treatment given to him after death by the Imperial court (see above), this accounted for a major change in public opinion after the assassination. The Austrian media also widely reported the reaction in Belgrade to the assassinations, which the Serbian media, who were wholly supportive of the conspirators, were happy to report at length.
11) The outcome of previous wars
In the 19th century, nations had adopted von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war was politics carried out by different means”. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 had been fought entirely to settle a political issue, and afterwards Prussia and Austria considered themselves as allies, with honour having been satisfied. Although the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 did involve a loss of territory (Alsace-Lorraine becoming Prussian), the bulk of France was not occupied, Prussian troops did not march into Paris and the main other outcome was that France was required to grant Prussia “most favoured trading nation” status for a period of time. The outcome of war was increasingly being seen as a diplomatic issue that would be settled by negotiation after a military victory. Indeed, in the preparation for war, Germany offered Belgium generous terms for compensation in advance for the forthcoming military invasion in fulfillment of the Schlieffen Plan. This expectation that wars would be short, decisive, and followed by negotiation to arrive at mutually acceptable terms made war as a political tool acceptable to many European governments – so much so that none of the international disputes of the twentieth century before 1914 were referred to international arbitration as had been suggested by the 1899 Hague Conference.
12) The expectation of a short war
Those previous wars had also been short wars of movement followed by diplomatic negotiation. The various powers had no expectation that the coming war in 1914 would be any different. Austria was expected to rapidly humiliate Serbia; the European powers seemed surprised that this did not happen, giving them time to think too much about the ramifications of general war and mobilise accordingly. The opinion on both sides was “It’ll all be over by Christmas”. It was also assumed that industrial production would not support a long war; in this, military planners underestimated the expansion of industrial capacity across Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century. As the military and civilian establishments did not communicate with each other (see above), this information was not available to the military planners, assuming that it even entered their minds.
13) The Zeitgeist
There was a social Darwinist belief that military prowess was the measure of a civilization; and also a misinterpretation of Darwin as suggesting that “survival of the fittest” meant the most aggressive rather than the best adapted. “Honour” was also considered to be very important in the definition of national character, and something that it was worth going to war to satisfy. Many nations had conscription (though Britain and the USA did not), and all viewed the profession of arms as a necessary part of a young man’s passage into adulthood. Again, this was an acceptable viewpoint given the expectation that wars would be short. The military was celebrated in a range of popular cultural outlets, from songs and plays to books, articles in the popular press and even the ubiquitous military band in the park on a Sunday. The German general, von Moltke, felt that war was almost a divine imperative that would restore the virility and vital force of the nation, even as he simultaneously recognised that in the new age of mechanized warfare, a European conflict would kill millions. He was not alone in holding both those opposing views simultaneously. And although these were identified as specific “Prussian” virtues, they can be found in all the great European powers.
In many countries, especially those with a patchwork history of struggles for national identity, the military was a mechanism for cementing social and national unity. And in all countries, patriotism was still a major social force; once war broke out, men rushed to the colours in numbers and with a fervour not seen before or since. At the same time, the patriotic and nationalist movements of the time inspired thoughts of revolution amongst activists of both Left and Right; Lenin was in exile in western Europe, publishing the Bolshevik newspaper Iskra (“Spark”) in Geneva, and indeed at the outbreak of war he was temporarily living in Poronin, in what is now Poland but was then part of Austro-Hungary; by September of 1914 he had moved back to Switzerland.
At the same time, the intellectual climate was also embracing ideas of the value of destruction. Futurism was a nascent artistic movement of the times, but it held within it the seeds of Fascism and an acceptance of destruction as an artistic statement. Although the artistic, cultural and scientific environment of Vienna was interpreted as ‘decadent’, the rest of Europe was undergoing no less of a revolution of thought; Nietzsche had declared that “God is dead!” in Thus spake Zarathustra and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had sparked a riot at its 1912 première in Paris. The atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (which, despite its name, was not wholly based in Vienna) was beginning to be noticed. In popular fiction, the scientific romances of H.G.Wells had sparked speculation about the nature of time, space and humanity’s position in the universe (which might be distinctly temporary); and this had in turn sparked imitators and related genres, such as the ‘future war’ story.
War in 1914 came about because of all of the above; it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. The immediate cause of the outbreak of war was based on the toppling of a series of dominoes, but those dominoes had been set up by each of the major players in the twenty or thirty years beforehand. (Historians debate over how far back it is possible to identify events that led to war in 1914. Some point to events centuries before.) And there were enough drivers of conflict in place to make war hard to avoid even if one or two of the factors I have described had not materialised. In particular, German insecurity over their relative status drove the General Staff to encourage an aggressive posture and to influence the Kaiser over the need to support Austria-Hungary to precipitate a war against Russia.
And yet there were plenty of voices all over Europe who were pressing for peace, who were trying to avoid war. At various times, the German Kaiser, the French president Poincaré and the Austrian government were seen by their General Staffs or other ministers in their own governments as being too firmly wedded to peace; indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm was prepared to mediate for peace between Austria and Serbia as late as July 28th. Britain, too, was continually offering to intervene through hosting peace conferences and offering to facilitate negotiations. Yet the impetus towards war was too great, mainly caused by the interests and manouverings of the two great power blocs.
Still, war could have been avoided. The Cold War shows many of the same features as were present in Europe in 1914; and there were serious flashpoints in that conflict that could have precipitated war more total than anyone could have imagined in 1914 or 1918. But there were three differences. The first was that in 1914, no-one imagined the might and inertia of the military-industrial complex that stood behind each of the belligerent nations. The idea that a general European war could be sustained for four years never occurred to anyone, either in industry or the military. Little more than twenty years later, the world repeated the exercise, with weapons far more advanced and sophisticated than those available in 1918. The end of the Second World War showed a terrifying leap forward in the destructive power available to the military; and that gave commanders and politicians pause for thought. The exercise of control by the civilian authorities over the military had been refined in the Western powers by 1945; indeed, the Third Reich had caused constitutional experts to seriously re-evaluate that entire issue.
Secondly, that same advance in destructive power had caused a change in the direction of public opinion. This is not to say that populations across the world suddenly rejected war and embraced peace: far from it. But pressure for the avoidance of war was expressed more openly than ever before; and Western governments could not ignore it completely, no matter how they might like to. Pacifist opinion existed in sufficient quantity to tip the scales away from overt belligerence.
Thirdly, the advance of communications meant that overseas wars could be brought home to populations, contributing to the formation of opinions. It also meant that individuals of influence could communicate with each other without the delays forced by long overland or sea journeys for face-to-face meetings; and those communications were not restricted to national leaders, although the personal correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev may well have contributed to the decision by the latter to pull back from the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But the installation of the telephone “hot lines” between world capitals, and the range of other improved communications, meant that leaders and opinion formers in different countries were better able to begin to understand each other, to arrange to meet, or just exchange ideas and viewpoints that could lead to acceptance and tolerance of other viewpoints and the early defusing of potential misunderstandings.
We cannot be complacent, however. As one threat diminishes, new ones take their place. Countries in different stages of political development recapitulate events that other countries have already experienced. The often-repeated (and misquoted) saying, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may by now be a cliché, but like most clichés it encompasses a truth. And Fromkin points out that whilst it takes two countries to maker a peace, it only takes one to cause a war.
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