CAUSES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
It is difficult to analyse why the assassination in Sarajevo developed into a world war. Some blame Austria for being the first aggressor by declaring war on Serbia; some blame the Russians because they were the first to order full mobilization; some blame Germany for supporting Austria, and others blame the British for not making it clear that they would definitely support France. If the Germans had known this, so the argument goes, they would not have declared war on France, and the fighting could have been restricted to eastern Europe.
The point which is beyond dispute is that the quarrel between Austria-Hungary and Serbia sparked off the outbreak of war. The quarrel had become increasingly more explosive since 1908, and the Austrians seized on the assassination as the excuse for a preventive war with Serbia. They genuinely felt that if Serb and Slav nationalist ambitions for a state of Yugoslavia were achieved, it would cause the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; Serbia must be curbed.
The Austro-Serb quarrel explains the outbreak of the war, but not why it became a world war. Here are some of the reasons which have been suggested for the escalation of the war.
(a) The alliance system or ‘armed camps’ made war inevitable
The American diplomat and historian George Kennan believed that once the 1894 alliance had been signed between France and Russia, the fate of Europe was sealed. As suspicions mounted between the two opposing camps, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany got
themselves into situations which they could not escape from without suffering further humiliation; war seemed to be the only way for them to save face.
However, many historians think this explanation is not convincing; there had been many crises since 1904, and none of them had led to a major war. In fact, there was nothing binding about these alliances:
- When Russia was struggling in the war against Japan (1904-5), the French sent no help nor did they support Russia when she protested at the Austrian annexation of Bosnia;
- Austria took no interest in Germany’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent France from taking over Morocco (the Morocco and Agadir Crises, 1906 and 1911);
- Germany had restrained Austria from attacking Serbia during the Second Balkan War.
- Italy, though a member of the Triple Alliance, was on good terms with France and Britain, and entered the war against Germany in 1915.
No power actually declared war because of one of these treaties of alliance.
(b) Colonial rivalry in Africa and the Far East
Again, the argument that German disappointment with their imperial gains and resentment at the success of other powers helped cause the war is not convincing. Although there had certainly been disputes, they had always been settled without war. In early July 1914 Anglo-German relations were good: an agreement favourable to Germany had just been reached over a possible partition of Portuguese colonies in Africa. However, there was one side effect of colonial rivalry which did cause dangerous friction- this was naval rivalry.
(c) The naval race between Britain and Germany
The German government had been greatly influenced by the writings of an American,
Alfred Mahan, who believed that sea power was the key to the successful build-up of a great empire. It followed therefore that Germany needed a much larger navy capable of challenging the world’s greatest sea power – Britain.
Starting with Admiral Tirpitz’s Navy Law of 1897, the Germans made a determined effort to expand their navy. The rapid growth of the German fleet probably did not worry the British too much at first because they had an enormous lead. However, the introduction of the powerful British ‘Dreadnought‘ battleship in 1906 changed all this because it made all other battleships obsolete. This meant that the Germans could begin building ‘Dreadnoughts’ on equal terms with Britain.
The resulting naval race was the main bone of contention between the two right up to 1914. For many of the British, the new German navy could mean only one thing: Germany intended making war against Britain. However, early in 1913 the Germans had actually reduced naval spending in order to concentrate more on strengthening the army. As Winston Churchill correctly pointed out, in the spring and summer of 1914, naval rivalry had ceased to be a cause of friction, because ‘it was certain that we (Britain) could not be overtaken as far as capital ships were concerned’.
(d) Economic rivalry
It has been argued that the desire for economic mastery of the world caused German businessmen and capitalists to want war with Britain, which still owned about half the world’s tonnage of merchant ships in 1914.
Marxist historians like this theory because it puts the blame for the war on the capitalist system. But critics of the theory point out that Germany was already well on the way to economic victory; one leading German industrialist remarked in 1913: ‘Give us three or four more years of peace and Germany will be the unchallenged economic master of Europe.’ On this argument, the last thing Germany needed was a major war.
(e) Russia made war more likely by supporting Serbia
Russian backing probably made Serbia more reckless in her anti-Austrian policy than she might otherwise have been. Russia was the first to order a general mobilization, and it was this Russian mobilization which provoked Germany to mobilize. The Russians were worried about the situation in the Balkans, where both Bulgaria and Turkey were under German influence. This could enable Germany and Austria to control the Dardanelles, the outlet from the Black Sea. It was the main Russian trade route, and Russian trade could be strangled. Thus Russia felt threatened, and once Austria declared war on Serbia, saw it as a struggle for survival.
The Russians must also have felt that their prestige as leader of the Slavs would suffer if they failed to support Serbia. Possibly the government saw the war as a good idea to divert attention away from domestic problems, though they must also have been aware that involvement in a major war would be a dangerous gamble. Shortly before the outbreak of war, one of the Tsar’s ministers, Durnovo, warned that a long war would put a severe strain on the country and could lead to the collapse of the tsarist regime.
Perhaps the blame lies more with the Austrians: although they must have hoped for Russian neutrality, they ought to have realized how difficult it would be for Russia to stay neutral in the circumstances.
(f) German backing for Austria was crucially important
It is significant that Germany restrained the Austrians from declaring war on Serbia in 1913, but in 1914 encouraged them to go ahead. The Kaiser sent them a telegram urging them to attack Serbia and promising German help without any conditions attached. This was like giving the Austrians a blank cheque to do whatever they wanted.
The important question is: Why did German policy towards Austria-Hungary change? Several different interpretations have been put forward by the historians:
- After the war, when the Germans had been defeated, the Versailles Treaty imposed a harsh peace settlement on Germany. The victorious powers felt the need to justify this by putting all the blame for the war on Germany. After a few years, opinion began to move away from laying sole blame on Germany and accepted that other powers should take some of the blame. Then in 1967 a German historian, Fritz Fischer, caused a sensation when he suggested that Germany should, after all, take most of the blame, because they risked a major war by sending the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria-Hungary. He claimed that Germany deliberately planned for, and provoked war with Russia, Britain and France in order to make Germany the dominant power in the world, both economically and politically, and also as a way of dealing with domestic tensions. In the elections of 1912, the German Socialist Party (SPD) won over a third of the seats in the Reichstag (lower house of parliament), making it the largest single party. Then in January 1914, the Reichstag passed a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, but he remained in office because the Kaiser had the final say. Obviously a major clash was on the way between the Reichstag, which wanted more power, and the Kaiser and Chancellor, who were determined to resist change. A victorious war seemed a good way of keeping people’s minds off the political problems; it would enable the government to suppress the SPD and keep power in the hands of the Kaiser and aristocracy. Fischer based his theory partly on evidence from the diary of Admiral von Muller, who wrote about a ‘war council’ held on 8 December 1912; at this meeting, Moltke (Chief of the German General Staff) said: ‘I believe war is unavoidable; war the sooner the better.’Fischer’s claims made him unpopular with West German historians, and another German, H. W. Koch, dismissed his theory, pointing out that nothing came of the ‘war council’. However, historians in Communist East Germany supported Fischer because his theory laid the blame on capitalists and the capitalist system, which they opposed.
- Other historians emphasize the time factor involved: the Germans wanted war not only because they felt encircled, but because they felt that the net was closing in on them. They were threatened by superior British naval power and by the massive Russian military expansion. German army expansion was being hampered by opposition from the Reichstag which refused to sanction the necessary tax increases. On the other hand the Russians had been helped by huge loans from the French government. Von Jagow, who was German Foreign Minister at the outbreak of war, reported comments made earlier in 1914 in which Moltke stated that there was no alternative for the Germans but to make ‘preventive’ war in order to defeat their enemies before they became too powerful. The German generals had decided that a ‘preventive’ war, a war for survival, was necessary, and that it must take place before the end of 1914. They believed that if they waited longer than that, Russia would be too strong.
- Some historians reject both points 1 and 2 and suggest that Germany did not want major war at all; the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg believed that if they took a strong line in support of Austria, that would frighten the Russians into remaining neutral – a tragic miscalculation, if true.
(g) The mobilization plans of the great powers
Gerhard Ritter, a leading German historian, believed that the German plan for mobilization, known as the Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by Count von Schlieffen in 1905-6, was extremely risky and inflexible and deserved to be seen as the start of disaster both for Germany and Europe. It gave the impression that Germany was being ruled by a band of unscrupulous militarists.
A. J.P. Taylor argued that these plans, based on precise railway timetables for the rapid movement of troops, accelerated the tempo of events and reduced almost to nil the time available for negotiation.
The Schlieffen Plan assumed that France would automatically join Russia; the bulk of German forces were to be sent by train to the Belgian frontier, and through Belgium to attack France, which would be knocked out in six weeks. German forces would then be switched rapidly across Europe to face Russia, whose mobilization was expected to be slow. Once Moltke knew that Russia had ordered a general mobilization, he demanded immediate German mobilization so that the plan could be put into operation as soon as possible. However, Russian mobilization did not necessarily mean war- their troops could be halted at the frontiers; unfortunately the Schlieffen Plan, which depended on the rapid capture of Liege in Belgium, involved the first aggressive act outside the Balkans, when German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium on 4 August, thus violating Belgian neutrality.
Almost at the last minute the Kaiser and Bethmann tried to avoid war and urged the Austrians to negotiate with Serbia (30 July). Wilhelm suggested a partial mobilization against Russia only, instead of the full plan; he hoped that Britain would remain neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France. But Moltke, nervous of being left at the post by the Russians and French, insisted on the full Schlieffen Plan; he said there was no time to change all the railway timetables to send the troop trains to Russia instead of to Belgium. It looks as though the generals had taken over control of affairs from the politicians. It also suggests that a British announcement on 31 July of her intention to support France would have made no difference to Germany: it was the Schlieffen Plan or nothing, even though Germany at that point had no specific quarrel with France.
Doubt was cast on this theory by an American military expert and historian, Terence Zuber, in his book Inventing the Schlieffen Plan (2002). Using documents from the former East German military archive, he argued that the Schlieffen Plan was only one of at least five alternatives being considered by the German high command in the years after 1900. One alternative dealt with the possibility of a Russian attack at the same time as a French invasion; in this case the Germans would transfer considerable forces by train to the east while holding the French at bay in the west. Schlieffen actually carried out a military exercise to test this plan towards the end of 1905. Zuber concluded that Schlieffen never committed himself to just one plan: he thought war in the west would begin with a French attack and never intended that the Germans should send all their forces into France to destroy the French army in one huge battle. It was only after the war that the Germans tried to blame their defeat on the rigidity and the constraints of the Schlieffen Plan, which had, in fact, never existed in the form they tried to make out.
(h) A ‘tragedy of miscalculation’
Another interpretation was put forward by Australian historian L. C. F. Turner. He suggested that the Germans may not have deliberately provoked war and that, in fact, war was not inevitable, and it should have been possible to reach agreement peacefully. The war was actually caused by a ‘tragedy of miscalculation’. Most of the leading rulers and politicians seemed to be incompetent and made bad mistakes:
- The Austrians miscalculated by thinking that Russia would not support Serbia.
- Germany made a crucial mistake by promising to support Austria with no conditions attached; therefore the Germans were certainly guilty, as were the Austrians, because they risked a major war.
- Politicians in Russia and Germany miscalculated by assuming that mobilization would not necessarily mean war.
- The generals, especially Moltke, miscalculated by sticking rigidly to their plans in the belief that this would bring a quick and decisive victory.
Nevertheless, probably a majority of historians, including many Germans, accept Fritz Fischer’s theory as the most convincing one: that the outbreak of war was deliberately provoked by Germany’s leaders. For example, in The Origins of World War, a collection of essays edited by Richard Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig (2002), the editors examine and reject most of the suggested causes of the war discussed above (alliance systems, mobilization plans, threat of socialism) and reach the conclusion that ultimate responsibility for the catastrophe probably rests with Germany. The Kaiser and his leading advisers and generals believed that time was running out for them as Russia’s vast armament plans neared completion. It was a war to ensure survival, rather than a war to secure world domination, and it had to take place before Germany’s position among the Great Powers deteriorated too far for the war to be won. Herwig argues that the German leaders gambled on a victorious war, even though they knew it was likely to last several years. As for world domination – that might well come later. In the words of Moltke, the Germans took this gamble in 1914 in order to fulfil ‘Germany’s preordained role in civilization’, which could ‘only be done by way of war’.
In 2007 a new collection of essays edited by Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson appeared. Entitled An Improbable War, the book focused on the single issue: the degree of probability and inevitability in the outbreak of the conflict. No consensus was reached, but there was a clear leaning towards the view that in the circumstances that existed in 1914, war was certainly not inevitable, though it was possible. Some of the contributors moved in new directions. For example, Samuel Williamson, a leading expert on the Habsburg Empire, believes that the government in Vienna had not taken a decision to attack Serbia before the assassinations at Sarajevo, because they had other political priorities. Thus the murders of Franz Ferdinand and his wife really did provide the decisive moment: without that there would have been no decision for war in Vienna and therefore no general conflict. Nor does he believe that German pressure and promises of support were important – the Austrian leaders made their own decisions.
Another contributor, John Rohl, was more traditional: he argues that the German leaders deliberately started the war and that Wilhelm II bears the main responsibility because of his duplicity and his recklessness.
It is also possible to argue that if Russia’s rearmament was indeed making the Germans so nervous, then Russia should bear at least equal responsibility for the outbreak of war. This is the conclusion reached in a new analysis by historian William Mulligan in his book The Origins of the First World War (2010). He argues that Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905 had fatal consequences for the peace of Europe. It sparked off a revolution in Russia which severely weakened the government, and it forced the Russians to focus their foreign policies towards the Balkans instead of in the direction of the Far East. This foreign policy had two main aims: the desire for peace and the necessity of winning back their lost prestige. Until 1911 the desire for peace was paramount. But in that year the Russian leading minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who favoured peace, was assassinated, and the government began to succumb to the growing jingoistic public opinion which demanded that action should be taken to increase Russian prestige. Consequently, following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, in February 1914 the Tsar promised to help the Serbs in the event of an attack by Austria-Hungary, and signed a naval agreement with Britain which, it was hoped, would help safeguard Russian access to the Mediterranean, if the Germans and Turks should ever try to block the Dardanelles.
Mulligan argues that these new policies had ‘a devastating impact on German foreign policy, bringing about an important shift in German thinking about the international system’. The naval agreement outraged the Germans, who saw it as a betrayal by the British; and the promise of backing for Serbia convinced the Germans that it was vital for them to support Austria–Hungary. Together with the vast Russian military expansion, all this was enough to galvanize the Germans into risking a war for survival, before Russia became any stronger.
Perhaps the most sensible conclusion is that Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary must both share the responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914.