The Causes of World War I
One of the most brutal and destructive wars in human history began in Europe in August 1914; it would last until November 1918. By the end of 1918, 60 declarations of war had been made between countries. Contemporaries and historians have argued ever since 1918 over what caused this catastrophe. This chapter looks at the long-term, short-term, and immediate events that led to the Great Powers of Europe, their empires, and their allies into armed conflict.
- 1 Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871)
- 2 Characteristics of Great European Powers c. 1900
- 3 Long-term causes of World War I
- 3.1 Bismarck's web of alliances
- 3.2 The New Course and Weltpolitik
- 3.3 Imperialism
- 3.4 The emergence of the Alliance System
- 3.5 The naval race
- 3.6 The situation in the Balkans
- 4 Short-term causes: the crisis years (1905-13)
- 5 Other developments, 1900-13
- 6 The immediate causes of the war: July Crisis (1914)
- 7 What was the contribution of each of the European Powers during the July Crisis to the outbreak of war?
- 8 Historiography
Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871)
After the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815, there were 39 separate Germanic states in Europe; the two largest were Austria and Prussia. The Prussians, under the leadership of their Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, fought three wars with the objective both of consolidating these smaller states into a new German state, and of asserting themselves as the dominant Germanic state instead of Austria. The Prussians defeated Denmark and Austria in 1864 and finally France in 1871.
The final war in 1870–71 saw the well-equipped Prussian Army not only defeating, but also humiliating, France. In early September 1870, at Sedan, one French army was forced to surrender its 80,000 men. The core of the French Army, some 150,000 men, was encircled for two months at Metz and surrendered in October. The war continued for another three months. Paris, which had been under siege since mid September, finally fell in January 1871. Cut off from the rest of France, Paris had suffered horrendously, and there were some clear signs of the effectiveness of modern technology in supporting warfare; for example, in Prussia's use of railways to deliver men and material to the battlefield. Prussia won the military battles, and crippled Paris in an economic blockade.
Thee terms for peace were severe. France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, had to pay an indemnity of 5,000 million marks, and suffered Prussian occupation of parts of France until this sum had been paid. There was also a Prussian victory march through Paris. The King of Prussia was proclaimed the German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in January 1871. German unification (with Austria) was complete.
In France, political and socio-economic problems followed the humiliation of defeat. There was a desire for revenge in France that manifested itself in the political revanche movement.
From tomorrow, France will have only one thought: to reconstitute its forces, gather its energy, feed its sacred anger, raise its generation ... from an army of the whole people, work relentlessly to study the processes and talents of our enemies, to become again the great France, the France of 1792, the France of the idea and the sword ... Then suddenly one day it will rise ... regain Lorraine, recapture Alsace.—The French poet Victor Hugo, 1871.
Characteristics of Great European Powers c. 1900
Before reviewing the key developments in Europe that led up to World War I, it is important that one has a clear idea of the characteristics of the Great Powers of Europe by 1900.
Germany was a democratic monarchyits system system was authoritarian, with power held by the Kaiser and the Chancellor. The power of the German parliament, the Reichstag, was limited. In the 30 years following the Franco-Prussian War, Germany become the strongest industrial power in Europe. By 1900, Germany had overtaken Britain in industrial output. However, although its economy was strong and effective, Germany had acute social problems. Rapid industrialisation had produced a large working classin the expanding cities and a growing middle class. There were socio-economic tensions between these two groups and also between these groups and the authoritarian government. The great Prussian landowning classes, the Junkers, retained political dominance, promoting militarism and allegiance to the Kaiser; they were against reforms designed to move Germany towards becoming a more liberal democracy.
A growth in the German population, and pressure from capitalists to secure international markets and raw materials, led the German government to pursue the 19th century European policy of developing and expanding an overseas empire. Yet, at least initially, the government was cautious in its approach, and attempted to cooperate with the other imperial powers – for example, at the Congress of Berlin in 1884, where the continent of Africa was carved up between the Europeans.
The key problem here was that although Germany wanted colonies, the globe had already been divided up by the other European powers. Britain's empire was, territorially, the largest. Germany's leaders were apparently undecided at the turn of the new century whether to attempt to work with Britain as an ally, or to compete with the British.
France was a democratic republic and offered extensive civil liberties. Its economy was agriculturally based, with most of the population living and working in the countryside. Nevertheless, France was a wealthy nation. It had a large empire, sizeable gold reserves and had made much overseas investment, particularly in Russia. Politically, the nation was broadly divided between 'pacifist' left wing and the revanchist right wing. France was plagued by short-lived governments, which swung between left and right. This instability had a serious impact on foreign policy, as the right wing wanted to pursue imperialist ambitions and the reclamation of Alsace-Lorraine, whereas the left were against these ambitions. France looked for an alliance with Russia to help 'contain' Germany.
Britain was a well-established parliamentary democracy, with a monarchy retaining limited powers, and had been the first European power to undergo an industrial revolution. It had built a vast overseas empire and established itself as the most powerful international trader of the 19th century. Britain had indeed been the number one economic power of the 1800s, but by 1900 it was, to a certain extent, in decline, both in terms of its international dominance of trade, and in its position as the primary economic power. Not only had the USA overtaken Britain in industrial production, but by 1900 Germany had too. Britain had similar socio-economic problems as Germany, with much working-class discontent. The long-standing political system, however, combined a degree of flexibility with coercion and therefore appeared better able to cope than Germany's autocratic flegling democratic monarchy. The British government had learnt to be alert to public opinion and the power of the popular press.
The changing balance of power in Europe led to a corresponding change in the shape of British foreign policy. In the 19th century, Britain had followed a policy of 'Splendid Isolation', not wanting to be drawn into conflicts between other nations, as this could negatively impact its international trade. By 1900, with competition from the USA and Germany, Britain was starting to review this policy and to look for allies. Britain's major military power was its navy, however, in this strength lay Britain's weakness. Britain depended on the navy but only to defend itself against attack, its sea-based trade, and, consequently, its vast empire. Resources were overstretched. It was paramount that the navy was invulnerable. Britain's traditional enemies and rivals had been the French and the Russians, and it remained particularly suspicious of Russia regarding its relationship to the overland Asian trade routes to India. Britain's interests lay in maintaining its dominance of the seas, preserving the balance of power in Europe and defending the Indian trade route.
Austria-Hungary was a 'dual monarchy'; an Emperor presided over the Austro-Hubgarian Empire, with Austria nad Hungary having their own parliaments. The system was heavily bureaucratic and inefficient.
There had been slow economic grown in this land-based empire. The key problem for the dual monarchy was the national rivalries within their European empire. The 19th century had unleashed powerful nationalist forces and ambitions across Europe, leading to demands for national liberation from states within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire lacked military strength, which had been highlighted in the breif war with Prussia in 1866. A key concern for the Habsurgs was the demise of the Ottoman Empire on their border. This process had strengthened the nationalist cause of many Slavic peoples, who now strived for independence from the Ottomans, and ultimately, wanted to unite with their 'brothers' within the borders of the Habsburg Empire. The Austro-Hungarian regime, therefore, pursued a foreign policy of containment in the Balkans, and as the Ottoman decline left a vacuum of power which Austria-Hungary intended to fill.
Austria-Hungary was a multi-national European empire in an age of nationalism. In general, the empire lacked cohesion economically, politically, and socially. Its greatest concern was the hostility and aggression of Serbia. The anxiety was accentuated by the support given to the Serb nationalists by Russia, who saw itself as the great defender of the 'Slav people'.
The Habsburgs were the rulers of the dual monarchy set up in 1867, Austria-Hungary, and the territories under the Austrian and Hungarian control were known as the Habsburg Empire.
Russia was an autocratic 'divine monarchy,' the Tsar being perceived by many as having been appointed by God. The state was again heavily bureaucratic and ineffective. There had been rapid industrialisation at the end of the 19th century, yet the majority of people in Russia remained peasants, working the land with intensive labour processes long outdated in the modernised European states.
By 1900, discontent towards the regime was growing among the middle classes and among the new urban workers. This mood exploded into revolution in 1905 after Russia had been defeated in a disastrous war against Japan. Although this revolution did not achieve regime change, it led to a very limited degree of democracy being introduced. Working conditions, however, did not improve.
After its defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56) and then in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), Russia was no longer viewed as a 'great military power'. Russia's strength in 1900, was also a weakness, as the Russian people were were increasingly unhappy with their regime. Russia wanted to encourage Slav nationalism in the Balkans to establish its own influence in the region; however, it also wanted to prop up the ailing Ottoman Empire to prevent any expansion of Austria-Hungary.
Turkey was the 'sick man of Europe.' The Ottoman Empire was in decline, and the power of its rulers – the Sultan – had been terminally undermined in most areas. The regime was corrupt and ineffective. Revolts by some national and Islamic groups within the empire could not be contained. Its weakness was exploited by the other European powers for commercial interest, and by 1900 foreign debt and political discontent meant the empire was near collapse. There were divisions between Turks, Slavs, and other Europeans in the Turkish Empire, including between Christians and Muslims. European interference led to widespread Muslim resentment. The Sultan was overthrown in 1909 by the 'Young Turks,' a group whose aim was to modernise Turkey, economically, and politically.
The Eastern Question
This 'question' of what to do about the decaying Ottoman Empire preoccupied the other European Powers. As its decline would lead to a power vacuum in the territories it formerly ruled over, there was the potential for a conflict between the powers for the spoils. Most European powers agreed the best solution for the time being was to 'prop up' the Turkish regime, and try to persuade it to modernise. The Russians, on the other hand, preferred to promote self-government for the Balkan states, but Austria-Hungary was deeply opposed to this idea.
Long-term causes of World War I
As we have seen, the creation of a new state in Europe – particularly one with the economic, military, and imperial potential of Germany – created a certain amount of nervousness among other European countries. France, of course, was particularly hostile in its attitude towards Germany after the humiliation of the war in 1870, and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Nevertheless, Germany under its first ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and its chancellor, Bismarck, did not pursue an aggressive foreign policy. Bismarck worked at creating a web of alliances that would protect Germany from future attack and would allow Germany to work on consolidating its position in Europe. These alliances can be seen below. Germany's main aim was to keep France isolated and stay allied with Russia to prevent the possibility of a two-front war.
Bismarck's web of alliances
The Dreikaiserbund or Three Emperors' League (1873)
The Dreikaiserbund joined Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary into an alliance. Its terms were very vague, but it served Bismarck's purpose of keeping France isolated.
The Dual Alliance (1879)
Austria-Hungary and Russia came into conflict over events in the Balkans and the Dreikaiserbund collapsed. In its place, Bismarck made a separate treaty with the Austrians. This alliance was part of Bismarck's system to limit the possibility of war between the Europeaon powers, and was primarily defensive. Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to assist one another if Russia attacked them. Each country also agreed to remain neautral if the other was attacked by another European country.
The Three Emperors' Alliance (1881)
Russia, feeling isolated in Europe, turned back to Germany, and Bismarck drew up a revised version of the Dreikaiserbund. Again, this offered Bismarck security. The terms of the alliance included an agreement that if either Russia, Germany, or Austria were at war with another power, the others would remain neutral. The alliance also tried to resolve Austro-Russia disputes in the Balkans.
The Triple Alliance (1882)
This Alliance was between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. If any of the signatories were attacked by two or more powers, the others promised to lend assistance.
The Reinsurance Treaty (1887)
The Three Emprerors' Alliance fell to pieces due to Balkan problems in 1885. Thus, this separate treaty with Russia was drawn up in order to avoid any risk of war on two fronts. Bismarck had to make new arrangements to ensure that Germany stayed friendly with Russia.
The New Course and Weltpolitik
In 1888, the young and ambitious Wilhelm II came to the throne of Germany, and Bismarck was replaced as Chancellor by Leo von Caprivi in 1890. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Caprivi took German foreign policy on a 'new course' that would overturn Bismarck's carefully nurtured system of alliances. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was allowed to lapse that year, creating the conditions for the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. Militarily, the alliance promised mutal assistance if either was attacked by Germany. It alsoa greed immediate mobilisation in response to a ny member of the Triple Alliance mobilising. There was also a political clause, which agreed mutual support in imperial disputes; the focus of this cause was essentially anti-British. Bismarck's system was destroyed. France was free of its isolation, and Germany now could face a war on two fronts.
Undeterred, however, Germany policy makers from the mid 1890s began to look beyond Europe and to follow a policy that they hoped would make Germany a colonial power, with an overseas empire and navy. Such a policy would also have the benefit of diverting the German population away from the social and political problems at home. This policy, known as Weltpolitik – which was supported by various patriotic groups such as the Pan-German League within Germany – was bound to have an impact on Germany's relations with other countries.
One of the main causes of tension between the European powers in 1880–1905 was colonial rivalries. Over the course of the 19th century, the Europeans had increased their domination of countries in Africa and the Far East, competing to build vast empires. This effort was initially drive be economic motives (cheap raw materials, new markets, and lost-cost labour forces). Over the course of the century, however, territorial acquisition increasingly occured due to a mixture of the Social Darwinian belief that the spread of Western civilisation was 'God's work' and also nationalistic competition with the other European powers (and to a certain extent the USA).
Germany's desire to make its influence felt outside Europe was to bring it into conflict with more established colonial powers, particularly Britain.
The emergence of the Alliance System
Germany's policy of Weltpolitik brought it into conflict with Britain in other ways as well. In 1897, Admiral von Tripitz was appointed as Secretary of State for the Navy. He shared the Kaiser's belief that Germany should mount a naval challenge to Britain, and within a year he had pushed a Naval Law through the Reichstag that provided for the building of 17 ships over the next seven years. This bill was followed by a second Naval Law in 1900.
Britain quickly responded to this threat of its naval supremacy. It was clear to many in Britain that the British position of 'Splendid Isolation' was no longer appropriate or useful. Britain had clashed with France in the Sudan over the territory around Fashoda and was a rival with Russia in the Far East over China. Now, with Germany challenging Britain, it seemed the right time to seek security through alliances. Thus, in 1902, Britain made an alliance with Japan, which gave Britain an ally in the Far East and allowed the Royal Navy to bring back warships from this area. This alliance was followed by an entent with France. Although this entente was not a formal alliance, it settled the rivarly between the two nations over colonial issues and set a completely new direction for Anglo-French relations.
The other effect on Germany's maritime challenge to Britain was to start a naval arms race. In 1906, Britain had launched a super-battleship, the HMS Dreadnought. The battleship's name literally meant that this ship 'feared nothing', as its speed, range, and firepower were far superior to those of any other existing battleship. The irony of the creation of this battleship was that it potentially nullified Britain's historical naval advantage over the other great powers. The dreadnought class made all the older battleships obsolete; this meant that in battleship terms Britain had taken the race back to zero and their traditional numerical advantage was lost. A competitor now could construct similar battleships and catch up with Britain. This situation triggered a 'naval scare' in the winter of 1908–09, as fears grew concerning Germany's rapidly expanding fleet. The British government responded by ordering the construction of eight battleships in 1909.
The naval race also caused a complete change of mood within the British population itself, as newspapers and popular fiction now portrayed Germany (rather than France or Russia) as the new enemy threatening Britain. As Norman Lowe observes, Britain's willingness to goto war in 1914 owed a lot to the tensions generated by the naval race.
The situation in the Balkans
The Balkans was a very unstable area that also contributed to the tensions that existed in Europe before 1914. As you have already read in the introductory section to this chapter, three different empires had interests here – Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.
Turkey had once ruled over the whole of the Balkans, but was now largely impotent. The Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgars had already revolted and set up their own independent nation states and now Turkey was struggling to hold on to its remaining Balkan territories.
The Austrians, by 1900, were losing their grip on their multi-ethnic empire. Of the various ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary, the most forceful in their demands for independence were the southern Slavs – the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – who were beginning to look to Serbia for support. They wanted to break away and form a South Slav kingdom with their neighbour, Serbia. Serbia was thus seen as a threaty by Austria-Hungary.
Russia also had ambitions in the Balkans. First, the Russians sympathised with their fellow Slavs; indeed, Russia saw itself as the champion of the Slav people. Second, the Balkans was strategically important to Russia. The straits of Constantinople had to be kept open to Russian ships en route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. With ports in the north of Russia's vast empire iced over for six months of the year, continued access to war-water ports was vital.
The fact that Turkey's power was so weak and could in fact collapse at any moment led the powers to talk of the 'Eastern Questions', i.e. what would happen in the Balkans if and when this situation arose. Clearly, both Austria-Hungary and Russia hoped to benefit from Turkey's declining power.
Growing tension in the Balkans after 1900
In June 1903, the pro-Austrian King Alexander of Serbia was murded and replaced by the Russophile King Peter, who was determined to reduce Austro-Hungarian influence. This appointment caused great anxiety in Austria-Hungary, which already feared the influence of a strong Serbia on their multi-ethnic empire. A tarrif war began in 1905–06, and the Serbs turned to France for arms and finance. Tension increased when the uncompromising Baron von Aehrenthal became Austria's foreign minister. He believed that an aggressive foreign policy would demonstrate that Austria was still a power to be reckoned with and would stamp out Serbian aspirations.
Short-term causes: the crisis years (1905-13)
Between the years of 1905 and 1913, there were several crises, which, though they did not lead to war, nevertheless increased tension between the two alliance blocs in Europe and also created greater instability in the Balkans.
The First Moroccan (Tangier) Crisis (1905)
Germany was worried by the new relationship between Britain and France and set out to break up the entent by attacking France and Morocco. Germany's plan was to expose the weakness of this new friendship. As part of the entente agreement, Britain supported a French takeover of Morocco in return for France recognising Britain's position in Egypt. Morocco was one of the few remaining areas of Africa not controlled by a European power. The Germany thus announced that they would assist the Sultan of Morocco to maintain his independence and demanded an international conference to discuss the situation.
An atmosphere of crisis and the threat of war was cultivated by the Germans throughout 1905, until the French gave in and agreed to a conference at Algeciras, Spain, in 1906. Much to the surprise of Germany, the British decided to back the French and their demands for influence in Morocco. The Germans had little support in the conference, and after several weeks had to admit defeat. Their only gain was a guarantee of their commercial interests.
The result of the first Moroccan Crisis were a disaster for Germany:
- Germany had not gained notable concessions in North Africa, which was a failure for Weltpolitik and a blow for German pride.
- Germany had not undermined the Entente Cordinal - they had strengthened it. Military talks between France and Britain were initiated in January 1906. British foreign policy was now directed to support French interests.
- Several states had considered war as a possible outcome of the crisis, thus signalling an end to the relatively long period of peaceful relations in Europe.
- Germany was now seen as the key threat to British interests.
The Bosnian Crisis (1908)
Following the First Moroccan Crisis, the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was signed, thus confirming to many Germans the idea of a conspiracy to encircle and contain them. This fear of encirclement forced Germany into a much closer relationship with its Triple Alliance partner, Austria-Hungary, a shift that was to have an impact in both the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 and later Balkan Crisis of 1914.
In 1908, an internal crisis in the Ottoman Empire caused by the Young Turks revolution again raised the issue of the Eastern Question, and Austria-Hungary decided to act by annexing the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina that Austria-Hungary had occupied since 1878, but which were still formally Turkish. The Austro-Hungarian annexation caused outrage in Serbia, which had hoped that these provinces would ultimately form part of a Greater Serbia and provide access to the sea. Russia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Petrovich Izvolsky, had earlier met with Aehrenthal and secretly given Russia's acceptance for this move on the understanding that Austria would support Russia's demands for a revision of the treaties governing the closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. However, Aehrenthal went ahead with the annexation before Izvolsky had managed to gain any international support for his plan. In fact, not only did he encounter hostile reactions in London and Paris, but the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, and the Tsar were unenthusiastic about any agreement giving Austria control over fellow Slavs.
Relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia became very strained and there was talk of war. It was at this point, in January 1909, that Germany decided to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with its ally. Germany reassured Austria-Hungary that it would mobilise in support if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia. By contrast, Russia had little support frm Britain or France. The Russians – weakened by the 1904–05 war with Japan – had no alternative but to capitulate to the German 'ultimatum' and recognise Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia. Serbia, facing the overwhelming military potential of Austria-Hungary and Germany, backed down.
The results of the crisis were important in raising tension in the region, and between the alliance blocs:
- Russia had suffered another international humiliation, following on from its defeat by Japan. It was unlikely that Russia could back down from another crisis situation and retain international influence and political stability at home. Russia now emabrked on a mssive rearmament programme.
- Serbia was enraged by the affair, and it led to an increase in nationalist feeling. The Austrian minister in Belgrade reported in 1909 that 'here all think of revenge, which is only to be carried out with the help of the Russians.'
- The alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary appeared stronger than commitments of the Triple Entente.
- It ended the era of cooperation in the Balkans between Russia and Austria-Hungary; the situation in the Balkanas became much more unstable.
- Germany had opted to encourage Austro-Hungarian expansion rather than acting to restrain their approach to the region.
The Second Moroccan (Agadir) Crisis (1911)
In May 1911, France sent troops to Fez, Morocco, on the request of the Sultan to suppress a revolt that had broken out. The Germans saw this as the beginning of a French takeover of Morocco and sent a German gunboat, the Panther, to Agadir, a small port on Morocco's Atlantic coast, hoping to pressurise t he French into giving them some compensation for such an action.
The Germans were too ambitious in their claims, demanding the whole of the French Congo. This assertiveness was popular with public opinion in Germany, but such 'gunboat diplomacy' as it was called by the British implied the threat of war. Britain, worried that the Germans might acquire Agadir as a naval base that would threaten its naval routes to Gibraltar, made its position clear. David Lloyd George (Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer) gave a speech – called the Mansion House Speech – to warn Germany off. He said that Britain would not stand by and watch while 'her interests were affected.' This speech turned the Franco-German crisis into an Anglo-German confrontation. In November, the crisis was finally resolved when Germany accepted far less compensation – two strips of territory in the the French Congo.
The results of the crisis, again, increased tension between the European powers:
- German public opinion was hostile to the settlement and critical of their government's handling of the crisis, which was another failure for the policy of Weltpolitik.
- The entente between Britain and France was again strengthened. Naval negotiations between the two began in 1912, and Britain agreed a commitment to the defence of France by 1913.
- There was increased tension and hostility between Germany and Britain.
The First Balkan War (1912)
In 1912, encourage by the Russians, the Balkans states of Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro formed a Balkan alliance known as the Balkan League. Their key objectives was to force Turkey from the Balkans by taking Macedonia and dividing it up between themselves. Turkey was already weakened by a war with Italy over Tripolitania the year before they were almost completely driven out of the Balkans in seven weeks. Austria was horrified; it could not accept a strengthened Serbia and Austrian generals called for war. There was a danger, however, that Russia would support its ally, Seria, and that events could spiral into a wider European war.
Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was anxious to stop the war spreading, and so called a peace conference in London. As a result of this conference, the former Turkish lands were divided up between the Balkan states. Yet Austria-Hungary succeeded in containing Serbia by getting the conference to agree to the creation of Albania, which was place between Serbia and the Adriatic Sea. This agreement caused more resentment between Serbia and Austria-Hungary.
The Second Balkan War (1913)
Due to the disagreement over the spoils of the First Balkan War, another war broke out in the Balkans in July 1913. Bulgaria now went to war against Serbia and Greece, over territory Serbia had occupied. The Bulgarians felt that there were too many Bulgarians living in areas given to Serbia and Greece, namely Macedonia and Salonika.
The Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold Berchtold, did not approach this situation with the same caution that he had displayed towrdsa the First Balkan War. He asked for German assistance, as he believed that the Russians would come in to support the Serbs this time. The German government, however, urged Austrian restraint.
The Serbs, Greeks, and, ultimately, Turkey (which had joined in the fight in an attempt to redress some of its losses from the previous year's fighting) defeated Bulgaria. At the Treaty of Bucharest signed in August 1913, Bulgaria lost nearly all the lands it had won in the first war to Greence and Serbia. The war also had far-reaching consequences for Europe. Although a general war between the European powers had again been prevents, the essential causes of tension were exacerbated:
- Serbia was again successful. This fact encouraged the already strong nationalist feeling within Serbia.
- Serbia had doubled in size as a result of the two Balkan wars.
- Serbia had proved itself militarily, and had an army of 200,000 men.
- Serbia's victories were diplomatic success for Russia, and encouraged Russia to stand by its ally.
- Austria-Hungary was now convinced that it needed to crush Serbia.
- By association, the outcome of the two wars was a diplomatic defeat for Germany, which now drew ever closer to Austria-Hungary.
The international situation by 1913
The crises of 1905-13 had seen a marked deterioration in international relations. There was increasing division between the two alliance systems and an increase in the general armaments race that already existed between Germany and Britain. Nationalist fervour (see below) was rising in European countries. Each crisis had passed without a major European war, but every subsequent crisis exacerbated the tension and madea future conflict more likely. War was by no means inevitable at this stage, though. Clearly, if there was to be another crisis, careful handling of the situation by the Great Powers would be vital.
Other developments, 1900-13
Alongside the international crises, other developments were occuring in European countries. These developments were fed and encouraged by the actual events that has been previously discussed.
The will to make war
Literature, the press, and education did much to prepare the public of Europe for war by portraying it as something that would be short and heroic. Nationalism had also become a more aggressive force in many of the major states, and this trend was encouraged by the popular press, which exaggerated international incidents to inflame public opinion, and by the right-wing pressure grups such as the Pan-German League and Action Française.
...the reactions of ordinary people in the crisis of 1914 were the result of the history they had learnt at school, the stories about the national past which they had been told as children and an instinctive sense of loyalty and solidarity which their neighbours and workmates. In each country, children were taught the duties of patriotism and the glory of past national achievements... In each country children were being taught to take pride in their historical tradition and to respect what were regarded as characteristic national virtues ... [The] reactions in 1914 ... and the patriotic language with which the war was greeted reflected the sentiments of a national tradition absorbed over many years.—From James Joll, The Origins of the First World War, 1992.
The arms race and militarism
The naval arms race was actually part of a more general arms race. Between 1870 and 1914, military spending by the European powers increased by 300 per cent. The increase in the European population made it possible to have large standing armies, and conscription was introduced in all continental countries after 1871. In addition, there was a massive increase in armaments. Although there were some attempts to stop the arms build-up – for instance, at the conference at The Hague in 1899 and 1907 – no limts on arms production were agreed upon, although some agreements were made on restricting war practises.
Every European power made detailed plans regarding what to do should war break out. One of the most important effects of the alliance systems is that they reduced the flexibility of the Great Powers' response to crisis, and this issue can be seen most clearly in the German war plan. This plan was drawn up by German field marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen and was intended to deal with the implications of the Triple Entente and the difficulty of fighting a two-front war. Knowing that it would take Russia six weeks to mobilise, Schlieffen worked out a plan that would involved crushing France first. He calculated that Germany could invade France through Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg (thereby bypassing the French defences along the German–French border) and then move down to encircle Paris. With Paris captured, troops could be moved swiftly to meet the Russian troops along the Eastern Front.
In 1911, Schlieffen's successor, Helmuth von Moltke, modified the plan by reducing the amount of neutral territory that Germany would pass through and by changing the deployment of troops. However, it still remained inflexible, and contained miscalculations regarding the impact of marching through Beglium, the amount of time Russia would take to mobilise, and Britain's effectiveness in coming to the aid of France.
All other countries had war plans as well:
- France's Plan 17 involved a high-speed mobilisation of the majority of its forces and a swift attack to capture Alsace and Lorraine before crossing the Rhine into Germany.
- Russia had a plan to attack Austria-Hungary and Germany.
- Austria-Hungary had two plans – Plan R and Plan B. The plans differed in the amount of troops allocated to fighting Russia and Serbia.
The immediate causes of the war: July Crisis (1914)
The first few months of 1914 were a relatively calm period between the European states. There was even optimism that should another conflict erupt in the Balkans this would, for a third time in as many years, be contained locally. The event that broke the calm was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, on the 28th of June 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was on an official visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, with his wife when a 19-year-old terrorist shot them both at point blank range. The assassin was Gavrilo Princip. He had been working with a small group of terrorists, armed by the Serbian Black Hand movement. Their aim in the assassination is not entirely clear, but their objective was the unification of all Slavs from the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a Greater Serbia. The Archduke was clearly symbolic of the Austro-Hungarian regime. It was unclear to what degree the Serbian government was involved with the group – the head of the Black Hand was a colonel in the Serbian General Staff.
The Austrian govenrment saw its change to crush Serbia, but initially hesitated. They knew that an attack on Serbia would bring in the Russians, so they needed assurances from their ally Germany that they would support them. On the 5th of July 1914, the Kaiser and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, issued Austria a 'blank cheque'. The blank cheque was the German guarantee of unconditional support. Thus, the Germans were not exercising their power to restrain Austria-Hungary, as they had the previous year.
Had the Austro-Hungarian response, and its bombardment of Sarajava, been immediate, it might have averted the escalation of events that followed. Despite the blank cheque, however, their response to the crisis took nearly a whole month to manifest itself. Berchtold wanted an ultimatum sent to the Serb government, but he also intended that the demands of the ultimatum be so severe that the Serb sovereign government could never agree to them. The drawing up of the ultimatum took until mid-July, and this delay meant they could no longer present their response as shock reaction to the assassination; rather, they would appear far more calculating.
Then there was a further delay. The French President was in Russia until the 23rd of July and the Austriands did not want the Russians to be able to liase directly with their ally France concerning the demands. So finally, on the 23rd of July, the ultimatum was sent, and a response from Serbia was required within 48 hours.
The Russians were shocked when they reviewed the terms on the 24th of July. Yet the Serb response was conciliatory, and most European powers thought that this might end the crisis. Such was not to be the case. Although the Kaiser suggested that the Serb response removed the 'cause for war', the Austro-Hungarians claimed it was too late to change their minds – they declared war on Serbia and bombarded Belgrade.
The Russians, determined to take a firm stance this time in the Balkans, ordered general mobilisation on the 30th of July. Thus, the Third Balkan War begun – Serbia and Russia against Austria-Hungary. Germany then declared war on Russia and began mobilisation on the 1st of August. Due to the demands of the Schlieffen Plan, Germany sent an ultimatum to France demanding guarantees of French neutrality. When France responded by declaring that they would follow their 'own interests', Germany declared war on France on the 3rd of August.
Germany's plan to take out France swiftly meant that its forces were to march through Belgium to avoid France's heavily fortified border defenses. Britain, choosing to uphold an old trearty agreement with Belgium from 1839, threatened to defend Belgium if Germany did not respect its neutrality. When there was no response for Germany, Britain declared war on the 4th of August 1914.
The European powers, with their vast empires, were at war. The Great war had begun.
What was the contribution of each of the European Powers during the July Crisis to the outbreak of war?
The Kaiser had encouraged the Austro-Hungarians to seize the opportunity to attack Serbia in the 5th of July blank cheque. However, Germany may have been predicting another Balkans war, not the spread of war generally across Europe. Even as late as the 18th of July 1914, many in Germany's government believed that a united front of Germany and Austria-Hungary, together with a swift response, would keep the Russians from involving themselves. The Kaiser went off on a cruise, and on his return declared that the Serb response to the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum removed the rationale for a war.
Nevertheless, Germany was risking drawing the powers into a general war. What was the motive?
- It had to support its ally, Austria-Hungary.
- It had to prevent itself and Austria-Hungary being crushed by the entente powers.
- Russia's military modernisations were increasing the country's potential for mobilisation, and this could undermine the Schlieffen Plan.
- German generals, e.g. von Moltke, believed that it was a favourable time for Germany to go to war with its enemies.
- War would provide a good distraction, and unifying effect, to overcome rising domestic problems in Germany.
- War could improve the popularity of the Kaiser.
Once the Russians ordered mobilisation, the Schlieffen Plan meant that Germany would have to draw in the French.
...it seems very unlikely that the Russians positively desired a major war. Mobilisation for them meant preparation for a possible war. The Germans, however, interpreted mobilisation as the virtual equivalent to a declaration of war, and Germany's Schlieffen Plan meant that the German army would have to attack and defeat France before moving eastwards to combat Russian forces.—Robert Pearce and John Lowe, Rivalry and Accord: International Relations, 1870–1914, 2001.
Thus Germany's responsibility for the beginning of the war was:
- Urging Austria-Hungary on with the 'blank cheque'.
- Declaring war on Russia on the 1st of August.
- Violating Belgian neutrality.
- Invading France.
- Bringing Britain into the conflict.
It is clear that Austria-Hungary was determined to respond to the Sarajevo incident, seeing it as an opportunity to 'eliminate Serbia as a political factor in the Balkans.'
The contribution of Austria-Hungary to the outbreak of the war was that it:
- Exaggerated the potential threat of Serbai and was determined to makr war.
- Delayed responding to the assassination, which contributed to the development of the July Crisis.
- Declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July, only five days after the delivery of the ultimatum (which in any case had a time limit of only 48 hours).
- Refused to halt its military actions though negotiations with Russia were scheduled for the 30th of July.
The Russian Foreign Minister saw in the ultimatum to Serbia a 'European War.' Sergei Sazonov was determined to take a firm stand, as he believed that the Germans had seen weakness in Russia's previous responses to the Balkan crises. Although the Tsar was in favour of partial mobilisation, his generals ordered general mobilisation on the 30th of July.
The contribution of Russia to the beginning og the war was that it:
- Did not try to restrain Serb nationalism, even though it was likely to lead to instability in the Balkans.
- Supported Serbia, which deepened the conflict and possibly caused Serbia to reject the ultimatum.
- Mobilised, thus triggering a general European war.
France's government was hesitant about getting involved in a war, and, after the ignominious defeat of 1871, it did not want to provoke a general war. France's ally Russia mobilised without consulting the French, and then the Germans declared war on France on the 3rd of August. France had not decided to go to war; it was swept into it.
The responsibility of France was that it gave Russia assurances of support before the July Crisis.
Britain was divided over whether to fight Germany or not. The Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, wanted to, and there has been criticism of his and Britain's ambiguous position in the July Crisis. Some historians, such as Luigi Albertini, argue that Britain should have never made it clear to Germany that it would stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with the French, and this might have deterred the Germans from pursuing the Schlieffen Plan. Yet Grey himself did not have a mandate to make his position clear, due to the mixed opinions of parliament.
The violation of the neutrality of Belgium led to some popular demands for the war with Germany, and gave the British government grunds, based on the treaty of 1839, to declare war. The responsibility of Britain for the start of the war was it should have made its position cleared during the July Crisis.
John Lowe also makes the following points:
...the most serious charge against Britain, however, is that her naval talks with Russia in 1914 convinced the German chancellor that the ring of encirclement around her was now complete. Grey's false denial of these secret talks also destroyed his credibility as a mediator in German eyes in the July Crisis.—Robert Pearce and John Lowe, Rivalry and Accord: International Relations, 1870–1914, 2001.
Responsibility for causing World War I was placed on the Central Powers by the Versailles settlement in 1919. In the war guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany (Article 231), Germany had to accept responsibility as one of the aggressors. While the Treaty of Versailles was being drawn up by the victorious powers, the German Foreign Office was already preparing documents from their archives attempting to prove that all belligerent states were to blame. To this end, between 1922 and 1927 the Germans produced 40 volumes of documents backing up this claim.
Other governments felt the need to respond by producing their own volumes of archives. Britain published 11 volumes between 1926 and 1938, France its own version of events in 1936, Austria produced 8 volumes in 1930, and the Soviet Union brought out justificatory publications in 1931 and 1934. Germany's argument gained international sympathy in the 1920s and 1930s. There was a growing sentiment that the war had been caused by the failure of international relations rather than the specific actions of one country. Lloyd George, writing in his memoirs in the 1930s, explained that 'the national slithered over the bring into the boiling cauldron of war.'
S.B. Fay and H.E. Barnes were two American historians who, to some extent, supported the revisions arguments put forward by Germany regarding the causes of World War I. Barnes argued in his 1927 book, The Genesis of War, that Serbia, France, and Russia were directly responsible for causing the war, that Austro-Hungarian responsibility was far less, and that least responsible were Germany and Britain. He supported this view by arguing that the Franco-Russian alliance became offensive frm 1912, and their joint plans intended to manipulate any crisis in the Balkans to provoke a European war. Both countries decided that Serbia would be central to their war plans and early in 1914 officers in the Serbian General Staff plotted the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The Russians and the French motives for starting a European war were to attain their key objectives: the seizure of the Dardanelles Straits and the return of Alsace-Lorraine, which could be only realised through war.
An Italian historian, Luigi Albertini, wrote a thorough and coherent response to the revisionst argument in the 1940s. Albertini's argument focused on the responsibility of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the immediate term: Austria for the ultimatum to Serbia, and Germany for its 'naiverty' in demanding a localised war. Overall, Germany was, in his view, fundamentally to blame, as it was clear that Britain could not have remained neutral in a war on the continent.
In 1961, historian Fritz Fischer published Germany's Aims in the First World War; this was later translated into English. Fischer's argument focused reponsibility back on Germany. He discovered a document called the 'September Programme' written by the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg. This memorandum, which was dated 9th of September 1914 (after the war had started), set out Germany's aims for domination of Europe. Fischer claimed that the document proved that the ruling elite had always had expansionist aims and that a war would allow them to fulfil these. War would calso consolidate their power at home and deal with the threat of socialism. Fischer went on to argue in another book that the War Council of 1912 proved that Germany planned to launch a continental war in 1914. At this War Council, von Moltke had commented that 'in my opinion war is inevitable and the sooner the better.'
Fischer's argument is persuasive, as he links longer-term policies from 1897 to short-term and immediate actions taken in the July Crisis. In short, he is able to explain war began.
Given the tenseness of the world situation in 1914 – a condition for which Germany's world policy, which had already led to three dangerous crises [those of 1905, 1908, and 1911], was in no small measure responsible – any limited or local war in Europe directly involving one great power must inevitably carried with it the imminent danger of a general war. As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and, in her confidence in her military superiority, deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of a general war in 1914.—Fritz Fischer, Germany's Aims in the First World War, 1967.
Fischer's arguments have been criticised in the following ways:
- Fischer argues 'backwards' from the German 'September war aims.' There is limited evidence to prove Germany had specific expansionist aims prior to September 1914.
- The December War Council is also limited evidence; its importance is debatable as the imperial Chancellor was not present.
- Fischer holds the domestic crisis in Germany as central to why war was triggered in 1914. However, Bethmann-Hollweg dismissed war as a solution to the rise of socialism.
- It could be argued that German policy lacked coherency in the decade before 1914.
- Fischer focuses too much on Germany; this priority leads to an emphasis on German actions and he neglects the role played by other powers.
Since Fischer's thesis on German guilt, historians have continued to debate the degree of German responsibility. Conservative German historians such as Gerhard Ritter rejected Fischer's view in the 1960s, although Immanuel Geiss defended Fischer by publishing a book of German documents undermining the arguments of the revisionists in the 1920s. However, the majority of historians around the world now agree that Germany played a pivotal role in the events that led to war through their policy of Weltpolitik and their role in the July Crisis, though this was not necessarily as part of any set 'plan' as Fischer had argued. 'It has been widely asserted that German policy held the key to the situation in the summer of 1914 and that it was the German desire to profit diplomatically and militarily from the crisis which widened the crisis from an Eastern European one to a continental and world war' (Ruth Henig, The Origins of the First World War, 1993).
Other historians have stressed different issues in explaining the outbreak of war, however.
Military historian John Keegan focuses on the events of the July Crisis. He suggests that although there were long-term and short-term tensions in Europe, war was in fact not inevitable. in fact, war was unlikely due to the interdependence and cooperation necessary for the European economy, plus royal, intellectual, and religious links between the nations.
The key to Keegan's theory is the lack of communication during the July Crisis. He highlights the fact that the kaiser had 50 people advising him – mostly independent and jealous of one another: 'The Kaiser ... in the crisis of 1914 ... found that he did not understand the machinery he was supposed to control, panicked and let a piece of paper determine events.' Keegan suggests that had Austria-Hungary acted immediately, the war might have been limited to a local affair. It was Austria-Hungary's reluctance to act alone, and its alliance with Germany, that led to the escalation.
No country used the communications available at the time, such as radio. Information was arriving fitfully, and was always 'incomplete.' The crisis that followed the expiration of the ultimatum to Serbia was not one that the European powers had expected and the key problem was that each nation had failed to communicate its aims during the crisis:
- Austria-Hungary had wanted to punish Serbia, but lacked the courage to act alone. They did not want a general European war.
- Germany had wanted a diplomatic success that would leave its Austro-Hungarian ally stronger in European eyes. It did not want a general European war.
- Russia did not want a general European war, but had not calculated that support for Serbia would edge the danger of a war closer.
- France had no mobilised, but was increasingly worried that Germany would mobilise against it.
- Britain only awoke to the real danger of the crisis on Saturday the 25th of July, and still hoped on Thursday the 30th of July, that Russia would tolerate the punishment of Serbia. It would not, however, leave France in danger.
None of the European powers had communicated their objectives clearly in the July Crisis. Therefore, for Keegan it was the events of the 31st of July that were the turning point. The news of RUssia's general mobilisation and the German ultimatum to Russia and France made the issue one of peace or war. The Great Powers could step back frm the brink, but a widrawal would not be compatible with the status of each as a Great Power. The Serbs, a cause of the crisis in the first place, had been forgotten.
Joll attempts to link impersonal factors – factors beyond the specifc control or influence of an individual leader, regime, or government – to personal or man-made forces. He suggests an atomosphere of intense tension was created by impersonal forces in the long and short terms, and personal decisions made in the July Crisis led to war. Joll explains the outbreak of war in terms of the decisions taken by the political leaders in 1914, but argues that these decisions were shaped by the impersonal factors, which meant that the leaders had only limited options open to them in the final days of the crisis.
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Marxist historians have focused on the role of capitalism and imperialism as the key causes of World War I, but a limitation with focusing on impersonal factors is that they do not seem to explain why the war broke out when it did. Joll's argument links the impersonal factors to the personal decision-making taking place during the July Crisis, and thus, apparently, overcomes this problem.
In The Pity of War (2006)', Naill Ferguson suggests that Germany was moving away from a militaristic outlook prior to World War I, and highlights the increasing influence of the Social Democrat Poarty there. The Germany Social Democrat Party was founded as a socialist party, with a radical agenda for Germany. By 1912, they had gained the most votes in the Reichstag and their influence increasingly alarmed the Kaiser's regime. Ferguson sees Britain as heavilty implicated in the causes of war, particularly Sir Edward Grey. Britain misinterpreteded German ambitions and decided to act on impede German expansionism. Ferguson does not see war as inevitable in 1913, despite the forces of militarism, imperialism, and secret diplomacy.