The First World War (Part 3: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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