Even one hundred years after the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ it is still very difficult to discuss the causes of this monsterous conflict objectively in Britain. There are two main reasons why I find a total lack of objectivity in addressing this subject, even amongst professional historians.
The first reason is hindsight. The outbreak of World War II and the rise of Nazi Germany colours deeply all events that passed before it. There is a strong instinct to look at 1914 anhistorically, as if we can blame the Nazis for the first war as well as the second. The Nazis did not exist in 1914, some may feel as I do, that World War I created the Nazis, but the Nazis could not have created World War I.
The second reason is the role played by our own country in this conflict. Britain had the option of remaining on the sidelines but opted to actively support France and Russia. Having committed the nation to supporting these powers there is, I have observed, a powerful self-serving tendency to white wash the roles of these powers in triggering the conflict in the first place. We can all join together and agree to put the blame solely on Germany’s shoulders, no need to examine our own actions.
The one event which set the powers in Europe on a collision course at the start of the twentieth century, was the humiliating and disasterous defeat of Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5. The Tsar had been set on eastward expansion into Manchuria and Korea, but the rise of Japan as a new major regional military power, which had its own designs on Korea, frustrated this expansion.
This traumatic event had two effects on Russian policy, firstly it tempted the Tsar to look westwards, to expand into central Europe as a ‘protector of the slavs’. This policy was encouraged and supported by France, seeking to weaken Germany by destabilising and seeking the break up of its only European ally Austria-Hungary. Thus France became a partner in the project. The means eventually turned out to be to develop Serbia as an aggressively expansionist regional military power in the Balkans.
The second effect of the Russo-Japanese war was to expose the weakness and incompetance of the Russian military. The response was to attempt a renovation and build up of the Russian military machine culminating in the “Great Programme”. This build up was to look very threatening to Germany.
Germany’s Parlous Strategic Position
There is a tendency in Britain to exaggerate the strength of Germany’s strategic position in 1914. It is true the German Empire had many strengths and advantages which were manifestly displayed during the course of the war, but Germany’s position was finely balanced strategically.
Firstly Germany lacked allies and was politically isolated by this time. Germany’s only important ally in Europe was Austria-Hungary which was being destabilised by the aggressive Serbian policy backed by France and Russia. There was a real danger that if Serbia was not curtailed Austria-Hungary would disintegrate completely along national lines.
Secondly at the outbreak of war Germany was greatly outnumbered in terms of size of military forces by France and Russia combined, not even counting Great Britain. It is a fallacy that Germany had any kind of numerical superiority or even parity in this respect.
Thirdly Germany was encircled. The theory of military strategy recognises the severe dangers in case of war of being encircled by enemies. In this case Germany’s aim was to strike west for a quick victory against France, then turn their full military strength eastwards against Russia. The logic for this was the slow pace of Russian mobilisiation for war which gave Germany a short widow of opportunity to win in the west. If this failed it seemed likely Germany would be crushed by the superior combined forces as if in a vice.
Fourthly Germany was an all but land locked country with a modern industrial economy which had a huge need for imports of all kinds of commodities and raw materials. Although Germany was well supplied with iron ore and coal, it lacked many other essentials for the industrial economy of the time. Even the ability of the country to feed itself was in question. In the event of a prolonged war it would be difficult for Germany to get the imports it needed. Thus naval power was of profound importance to Germany if attacked by its neighbours. In the event of Great Britain ‘ruler of the waves’ entering the war against them, Germany would seem doomed to defeat.
Germany in the event of the outbreak of war with Russia and France was a cornered animal. Like any cornered animal it had only one rational strategy to survive, to violently break out of its corner at the earliest opportunity, before the stranglehold of its enemies was fully developed, or face strangulation. It was this calculation which led to the famous Schlieffen Plan. The failure of the plan did ultimately lead to this outcome after four bloody years of stalemate.
The Schlieffen Plan was based on the theory of quick victory in the west, followed by a switch to the east. It’s most important feature was the need to ‘wheel’ through Belgium. Nothing else better illustrates how the needs of military strategy and political strategy can sometimes conflict completely.
Militarily it was essential to attack France by going around its heavily fortified eastern border. A direct attack on France’s fortified eastern border would have been costly folly, likely to damage the morale and reputation of the Reichswehr.
On the other hand the Schlieffen Plan was a political disaster, by requiring the violation of Belgian sovereignty it identified Germany as the villain internationally. Reports of atrocities against the Belgian people by German forces greatly amplified this effect, increasing Germany’s isolation and making it easier for those who wished Britain committed to war against Germany to keep the British establisment and public on side despite the heavy costs.
Germany attempted to solve the conflict between the military and the political demands of strategy by the deluded expedient of requesting Belgium for permission to traverse its territory. Despite Germany’s very real national security concerns, it was of course unrealistic to expect any such permission in the absence of a defence treaty with Belgium. Neither was this ploy likely to impress Germany’s critics.
“Nobody Wanted War”
The idea that nobody wanted war is a real insult to the intelligence. If nobody wanted war there would not have been a war. Of course few politicians or officials want to go on the record as saying they are in favour of war, especially if it turns out to be a disasterous defeat later. Political analysis requires we judge states and individuals by their actions not by their words, the difference between the two is the very stock in trade of diplomacy and politics.
Clearly there were people who did want war on all sides, it may just be that they did not get the war they expected. Most political and military leaders of the time had an outdated concept of war. Rapid changes in technology meant that a war between the major powers would be deep uncharted water in terms of tactics and strategy. Recent wars had been short and sharp and I have seen no evidence that any of the major beligerents forsaw the type of drawn out and massively costly conflict that they finally experienced.
The Serbs for their part, sought to expand their territory, power and influence and to bring about the disintegration of Austria-Hungary along national lines. I cannot understand how any historian who has pretensions of objectivity can exonnerate Serbia from all blame in the origins of the war considering Serbia’s military rampage through the Balkans and greedy land grabs. This policy not only brought about two bloody Balkan wars but threatened to destabilise Austria-Hungary, risking escalation to a conflict of the major powers.
Clearly Austria and Germany were both prepared to go to war with Serbia if it was the only way to contain or curtail Serbia’s campaign to redraw the political map of the region at Austria’s expense. However my contention is that Germany in July 1914 was signing up for a ‘limited war’ between Austria and Serbia, in which Germany would give unlimited aid to Austria, while Russia and France would support Serbia. They no doubt hoped for a negotiated peace after a test of strength, resulting in a chastened and weakened Serbia.
One view is that the worst offender in starting the war as we came to know it was Tsar Nicholas II. It was him who ordered a full general mobilisation rather than preparing for a limited war in Serbia. It was Nicholas II who opted for a full scale conflict with Germany. He no doubt overated his own rebuilt and expanded army, and felt overconfident because of the support of France.
France had many conservative, nationalist politicians and military hawks who sought the opportunity to cut Germany down to size. Before the disasterous defeat of 1870 by the Prussians, France was used to being the dominant continental power. The humiliation of 1870 meant that the power balance on the continent now disfavoured France. Nationalist politicians raked up demands for France’s honour to be upheld by recovering lost border territories such as Alsace and Lorraine. When push came to shove France did nothing to moderate Nicholas’s overconfidence.
Great Britain’s role was also self-serving, seeking an opportunity to swallow up the territories of the Turkish Empire, which they were later to secretly carve up with the French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. At the same time as this they were arming the Arab insurrection against the Turks on the typically hypocritical basis that Arabs should not have to live under foreign domination.
How Does the Assasination of One Man lead to a World War?
Everyone knows that the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered the July crisis which led to war, but how can the assasination of one mere individual, however royal, result in such an outcome?
The important thing to understand is that this assasination was sponsored by the Serbian state and was part of a long running political campaign to destabilise and break up Austria-Hungary. Contrary to a common view in Britain, the Austrian monarchical state had been actively attempting to find ways of balancing the conflicting demands and interests of different nationalities within their borders. It was a task made difficult by the attitude of the Hungarian state which had rested concessions from Austria such as the Ausgleich of 1867 which not only helped Hungarians achieve their national aspiriations, but also gave them a free hand to suppress national minorities within their own kingdom through a policy of assimilation and Magyarisation. The Archduke was particularly interested in addressing these problems and was a symbol of compromise with the national aspirations of ethnic minorities, especially the Croats. He was particularly interested in improving the position of slavs within the political system. If he had been successful he might have made the break up of Austria-Hungary less likely.
Evidence that the terrorist gang which carried out the attack was supported by a Serbian military officer called ‘Apis’ are well known. What is not well recognised in Britain is the importance of Apis in the Serbian state at the time. Contrary to what is taught in most British sixth forms Apis was not merely some middle ranking officer in the Sebian military, arguably he was one of the most powerful men in Serbia, an important member of the general staff, and chief of Serbian military intelligence at the time of the assassination. In many states, and I argue in the case of pre-war Serbia, it is difficult to identify the centre of power within the state. In many states the secretive military-security apparatus has more real power in the state than the civilian politicians. The failure of the Prime Minister’s order to arrest the the conspirators and halt the assassination attempt, suggests that the civilian politicians were not in full control of the security forces, or at least that there was a power struggle going on within the Serbian state.
Apis first came to prominence politically as the engineer of the bloody coup which overthrew the pro-Austrian Obrenovic dynasty in 1903 and ultimately replaced it with the anti-Austrian, pro-Russian Karadjordjevic dynasty. This was the beginning of a new policy in Serbia of military build up and outward aggressive military expansion all backed and armed by France and Russia. Apis was a leading architect of this policy which required the break up of Austria-Hungary. Serbia though a parliamentary democracy was also a state dominated by a secretive military security apparatus in which Apis was a leading figure, if not the leading figure.To the Austrian State and to the Germans this assassination was a sign that Serbia’s policy of state sponsored terrorism and destabilisation had gone too far and had to be urgently stopped before bloody ethnic conflict erupted within Austria-Hungary.
Its was only necessary for the Austrian and German governments to believe that the Serbian state was behind the assassination for them to act as they did. Furthermore arguing that it was only one part of the Serbian state, that most active in foreign military policy making that was responsible, and not the elected civilian politicians, would have been of little practical relevance in Austria and Germany deciding how they could prevent future campaigns of destabilisation against Austria-Hungary.