“Thirty Years War” – Europeans wage “war of all against all”
End of European global hegemony
Collapse of empires – revolution
Communism & Fascism emerge
Economic consequences of the peace
Industrialized total war – end of progress
Restructuring of society
“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary
because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have broken at any
point during five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had
prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences
of the first clash end the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the
emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic
culture of the European continent, and left, when the guns at last fell silent four
years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no
explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference
to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life
and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the
– John Keegan, The First World War
nationalism (pan-Slavism)
alliance system
imperial rivalries
militarism & “arms race”
An analysis of these causes suggests war was
inevitable and out of the hands of human actors.
“Nothing is inevitable until it happens.”
- A.J.P. Taylor, British historian
pan-Slavic nationalism was one of the few causes that Russia’s
ruling classes supported (religious, cultural similarities) – Russia
was horribly disunited in the early 1900s
Since gaining independence from Ottomans (1886), Serbia
desired to unite the Slavic peoples in a “greater Slavia”
(Yugoslavia) – many Slavs lived inside the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. Russian support of these peoples were the real menace to
the Hapsburgs.
A series of crises and small wars rocked the Balkans in 1908, 1912
and 1913 – in each case, Russia backed down from supporting the
Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia in 1908 to prevent nationalist
uprisings on its borders.
“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like
men smoking in an arsenal…A single spark will set off an
explosion that will consume us all…I cannot tell you when
that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where…Some
damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”
-Otto von Bismarck, 1890s
“The Balkan crisis of 1914 proved fatal because two others
had gone before it, leaving feelings of exasperation in
Austria, desperation in Serbia, and humiliation in Russia.”
-- Palmer, Colton and Kramer
movements in
the Balkans
were a threat to
the stability of
both AustriaHungary and
the Ottoman
The collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans was viewed from Moscow as an
opportunity to expand south into the Mediterranean.
This “Eastern Question” had dominated European diplomacy since the Crimean
War – if not the Ottomans to rule, then who?
…What Greece had done in the Peloponnese in the 1820s, what
Belgium had done in Flanders in the 1830s, what Piedmont had done in
Italy in the 1850s and what Prussia had done in Germany in the 1860s –
that was what the Serbs wanted to do in the Balkans in the 1900s: to
extend their territory in the name of “South Slav” [Yugoslavia]
nationalism. The success or failure of small states to achieve
independence or enlargement always hinged, however, on the
constellation of great power politics.
– Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (1999).
Central Powers (Triple Alliance)
Italy? (had territorial grievances with A-H)
After 1870, Bismarck had always maintained a skillful policy of
avoiding encirclement by being in an alliance with at least 2 of
the continental powers, thus always isolating France.
After 1890,Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foreign policy (“place in the sun”),
support of Ottoman Empire (i.e. Berlin-Baghdad Railway), and
allowing Russian alliance to lapse, forced Germany to rely more
on their alliance with Austria-Hungary
Entente Cordiale (not an alliance)
France (mutual defense alliance with Russia)
Russia (industrial assistance and investment from France to
counter Germany)
Britain? (distrusted Russian ambitions in Mediterranean, but left
with no alternative?)
Entente Cordiale (not an alliance)
German foreign policy, empire-building after 1890 and creation of a
naval fleet was viewed in London with concern. This drew them into a
closer association with France (almost went to war in 1898 in Fashoda –
but found diplomatic solution. By 1904, France and Britain had an
understanding or “entente”). In 1907, France brokered the AngloRussian Accord.
Britain was feeling pressure of economic competition from Germany and
losing prestige, especially after their unpopular South African War
(Britain’s Iraq???). This sense of insecurity caused them to abandon
“splendid isolation” and become more involved in the continent.
After 1905 Revolution and humiliation against Japan, Russia relied
heavily on French capital and expertise to modernize, industrialize and
improve her armed forces (this was an alliance of polar opposites:
democracy and tsarism); France needed a strong ally on Germany’s
eastern border
This political cartoon shows
the German perspective of
the Anglo-French entente.
John Bull (Britain) is shown
being escorted away from a
possible friendship with
Germany by the prostitute
(France). The sword hidden
under the German’s cloak
suggests there will be future
consequences for this foolish
Britain viewed Germany as a threat to its global empire and
prestige as the leading economic power in Europe.
Fearing encirclement, Germany twice attempted to break up
France and Britain’s relationship by threatening French imperial
ambitions in North Africa (Morocco , 1905 and 1911). In the
Second Moroccan Crisis (1911) Germany used “gun boat
diplomacy” to gain territorial concessions in the Congo from
Russia had fought a series of wars since 1870s against the
Ottomans and had carved out territories from the “sick man of
Europe”, and supported the cause of Serbia nationalism for
strategic reasons – it would help them gain influence in the
Balkans and gain access to the Mediterranean.
Austria-Hungary was in survival mode, and Serbian nationalism
and terrorist organizations inside the empire threatened its
existence, but were not powerful enough without Russian support
to seriously disrupt the empire. Russia was not prepared, nor
willing to fight over the Balkans in 1908 (Bosnia) or 1912-13
(Balkan Wars) – so Serbian ambitions were unsuccessful.
To thwart its rivals, and gain more
influence in the Balkans and
Middle East, Germany financed a
railway in the Ottoman Empire and
increasing lent its military
expertise and capital to the Turks.
One of the more dramatic forms of
the rivalry was a German plan for a
Berlin to Baghdad railway, a
counter to the British scheme of the
Cape to Cairo line.
The German plan involved
pushing Russian influence out of
the Balkans, cutting Russia off from
the Mediterranean by control of
the Dardenelles, and in opening
up a way for Germany to expand
towards the Persian Gulf and India.
Britain and France were competitors in Africa until 1898, when
after nearly starting a war (Fashoda Incident), compromised and
found a diplomatic solution – Britain gained East Africa, France
gained North and Equatorial Africa. Neither could afford war in
1898; both were increasingly concerned with German power and
agreed to carve up Africa to the exclusion of Germany.
Britain and Russia also had conflicting imperialist aims in the
Middle East (Dardanelles, Iran), but France mediated between
the two, wanting to create strong allies against Germany.
By 1914, imperialistic rivalries resulted in heightened tensions,
distrust, and stronger reliance on allies. It also encouraged states
to invest heavily in arms, and contributed to the sense of
impending doom, that war would come sooner or later.
Historians claim that the expectation of war and fervent militarism
among the citizens of the Great Powers made general war more
By 1914, Europe was two heavily armed power blocs. Most states
had adopted compulsory military service and had millions of
trained reservists.
“gun boat diplomacy” and the exercising of military power was a
legitimate means of solving international disputes in the 19th
century. Why should it be different now?
Some revisionist historians (i.e. Ferguson, 1998) have
convincingly argued that militarist attitudes were not the norm by
1914, and that military spending and support for war was not the
norm. Britain was woefully unprepared for war when it came, and
Germany’s military spending had decreased substantially.
Anglo-German Naval Arms Race - Germany had tried, but
could not maintain, to build a navy to rival Britain. According to
American military strategist, Mahan, naval supremacy was the
key to global domination throughout history.
Germany’s attempt to build a massive fleet was viewed as an act
of aggression in London, but by 1907-08, Germany had
abandoned these plans – the army was more vital to its survival,
and the build up of battleships too expensive.
It is far fetched to claim the Anglo-German arms race as a
significant cause of the war, but it did indicate Britain’s sense of
insecurity and likely help to push her closer into the FrancoRussian entente (especially since the 1905 Russo-Japanese War
had temporarily eliminated Russia as a naval rival in the
By 1914, many of Europe’s military leaders were convinced that
war was inevitable – a sense of pessimism prevailed.
Given the existing tensions, all states had developed detailed war
plans that relied on precise timing and railway schedules to gain
the advantage of speedy mobilization (this is what won the
Franco-Prussian War, 1870).
Germany, maintaining a policy of trying to keep the largest army
in Europe, was by 1914 struggling to keep pace with Russian
build up and advantages in manpower.
Germany’s high command were worried that within a few years
Russia would have finished military upgrades, would be more
industrialized and would have completed its railways into the
western frontier – Germany would be doomed, according to
Germany’s military strategists.
Geographically “encircled” by France and Russia, Germany
feared being cut to pieces fighting a two-front war. The Schlieffen
Plan was to remedy this situation by attacking and defeating
France first, because Russia would take longer to mobilize, then
putting troops on trains to meet the Russians. This had two
important consequences:
Schlieffen required Germany to break the 1839 Treaty of
London guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality. France’s
northern borders were undefended.
The plan necessitated Germany to involve France in a
continental war in any conflict involving Russia, thus
making a wider war more likely in a local conflict involving
the Balkans.
Germany’s Schlieffen
Plan was designed to
outflank France’s army and
capture Paris in a short
number of weeks, but
required an impossible
rate of speed to move men
and materials.
Germany was not unique in
having planned for war. All
the Great Powers had
similar plans, such as
France’s Plan XVII which
planned an attack to
reclaim Alsace-Lorraine.
“Secret plans determined that any crisis not settled by sensible
diplomacy would, in the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914,
lead to a general war. Sensible diplomacy had settled crises before,
notably during the powers’ quarrels over position in Africa and in the
disquiet raised by the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Such crises, however, had
touched matters of national interest only, not matters of national honour
or prestige…”
-John Keegan, The First World War
“During the final period before the outbreak of general war, one
appalling fact becomes terrifyingly clear: the unrelenting rigidity of
military schedules and timetables on all sides. All these had been
worked out in minute detail years before, in case war should come.”
– A. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go to War, p. 14)
Historians generally recognize that some long-term
developments played a role in the outbreak of war in 1914:
Franco-Prussian War (1870-1914); “the German
Collapse of Ottoman Empire & Balkan independence
movements; “the Eastern Question”
Russo-Japanese War and 1905 Revolution
Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia (1908)
Balkan Wars (1912-13)
Those who argue convincingly that Germany was most responsible for
the conditions that created a general war point out a recklessness and
aggression that was apparent long before 1914:
Moroccan Crises (1905, 1911)
Naval arms race and military build up
Seeking “a place in the sun” – empire building in Asia and
Ambitions in the Middle East was a threat to Suez (i.e. BerlinBaghdad railway)
Provided Krupp artillery guns to Boers and Afrikaners in Boer
War; Kaiser’s public support for Britain’s enemies in the war
“..it must be granted that [Germany’s] policies had for some years been rather
peremptory, arrogant, devious and obstinate.”
- Palmer, Colton, Kramer, A History of the Modern World
Some historians point out that all European states faced potential
home-grown problems by 1914, that made the gamble of war
(“rolling the iron dice”) seem like a attractive solution:
Rise in political power of socialists in Reichstag;
demands for greater democratization and powersharing was feared by traditional elites and
Successful war would unify the people behind the Reich
Very multi-ethnic population. Successful war against
Serbia and Russia would give them dominance in the
Balkans and end nationalist disturbances.
Tsar had recovered from 1905 by allowing a Duma
(parliament) but had been restricting its powers.
Increasingly relied on middle class and working class
for industrialization, but did not want to share power or
reform government. In the last years before war, the
Duma’s powers were curtailed and the intelligentsia
was increasingly antagonistic against Tsardom.
Russian Empire contained hundreds of minorities and
were disunited. Attempts to “Russify” minorities had
Civil unrest and strikes had rocked Russia in the last
years before the war. Successful war would unify the
people behind the Tsar and avoid future revolution.
Had been rocked by military scandals, strikes and
labour unrest.
Industrial growth and population growth were stagnant
and faced a bleak future.
Support for socialist Labour Party growing amidst
declining economic growth.
“Troubles” in Ireland – terrorism, violence, revolt, and
threat of civil war
Had suffered some shocks to its prestige and was losing
ground to USA and Germany as the prime economic
power. German exports were challenging British
Overall, it seems very insufficient that internal reasons would
explain why Europe’s leaders gambled on war.
Without exception, every state’s population rallied to the call
of war and supported it when it came.
There was little danger of revolution anywhere except for
Russia, and that circumstance was made worse after the war
had begun.
Ultimately, what ever was going on inside these states, it was
the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, that lead their
leaders on the path to war.
War was by no means inevitable, human actors still made
decisions and miscalculations that led to war. Most of these
occurred between June 28 and August 4, 1914, otherwise known
as the “July Crisis”. Could you have avoided it?
“…the mere narration of successive crises does not explain why the chief
nations of Europe within a few days became locked in combat over the murder
of an imperial personage…”
-Palmer, Colton, Kramer, The
History of the Modern World
“…There seems to be no obvious connection between the murder committed
by a young man and the clash of armies of millions…”
J.A.S. Grenville
How did the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand create a
global war?
June 28, Sarajevo, Bosnia – Franz Ferdinand and his wife
 Gavrillo Princip, a Serb nationalist, supported an
encouraged by the Black Hand, a terrorist organization
hoping to cause a war that would free Slavs from the
Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who might have
found compromise and allowed nationalist autonomy within
the empire. This would potentially have frustrated Serb goals.
No direct link to official Serbian government involvement has
ever been proven, but the government of Prime Minister
Nikola Pasic and King Alexander were powerless against the
military leadership – Serbia’s civilian government did not
want war (having just fought in two Balkan Wars)
Austria-Hungary could not let Serbia go unpunished and retain
prestige as a “great power”. Meant to send a message to
Russia had backed down in previous Balkan crises and felt it
could not back down in this one.
Germany had mounting paranoia about the improvement of
Russia’s armies, and the dependability of their weak ally – leaders
feared war with Russia or France, not rising out of the AustroSerbian dispute, might not result in Austria-Hungary on
Germany’s side?
Germany seems to have gambled on one of two “ifs”:
 that France might not support Russia, and the Central Powers
would win a diplomatic victory (and Germany could win back
alliance with Russia);
 or, that if war was to come, then now is better than later.
July 23 – Vienna sends an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia was to allow
Austria-Hungary to investigate the assassination within Serbia’s
borders. The Austrian diplomat who delivered the ultimatum
made preparations to leave Belgrade as soon as possible,
indicating that Vienna never expected the ultimatum to be
July 25 – Serbia carefully worded a reply that accepted all the
demands except Austrian supervision, and then mobilized her
Kaiser Wilhelm II “was delighted” upon hearing acceptance of the
Serbians and falsely assumed, briefly, that “every cause for war
has vanished” – the Allied charge that he thirsted for war at this
moment, is not supported by historical evidence. (Historian David
Fromkin alleges that the Bethmann-Hollweg and the German high
command kept true intentions from the kaiser)
July 28 – instigated by German Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg,
and Austrian Chancellor Berchtold, Austria-Hungary declares
July 25-28 – British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, tried to
mediate a solution. The German government rejected Britain’s
July 29 – Austrian artillery bombards Belgrade.
July 30 - Bethman-Hollweg resists calls for mobilization and
encourages Austria to localize the war through dialogue with
Moscow. (This results in the “Willy-Nicky” telegrams.)
Russia now under pressure by military leaders, and France
(worried Russia is unprepared) to mobilize. France ensured
Russia of support somewhere between July 20-23)
July 31 – Russia began full mobilization after having started
“partial mobilization” on July 29; this however, was technically
impossible. French military leaders (Joffre) demand France
By July 30, German high command (von Moltke) panicked that
mobilization must begin and France must be defeated before
Russia could complete mobilization.
August 1 – Germany declared war on Russia. Britain still refused
to declare position to France.
August 3 – Germany declared war on France and invaded
August 4 – Britain declared war on Germany, supposedly in
defense of Belgian neutrality – “the slip of paper”
“What the coming of the war in 1914 reveals is how a loss of confidence
and fears for the future can be as dangerous to peace as the naked
spirit of aggression that was to be the cause of the Second World War a
quarter of a century later. A handful of European leaders in 1914
conceived national relationships crudely in terms of a struggle for
survival in competition for the world. For this millions would suffer and
- J.A.S. Grenville, A History of the World (2007)
The question of war guilt has been the focus of historical
controversy ever since the Paris Peace Conferences in 1919. Our
readings represent the two basic positions on the issue:
Palmer, Colton, Kramer, argue that the war was not Germany’s fault
and therefore the verdict at Versailles in 1919 was flawed:
“..it is not true that Germany started the war, as its enemies in 1914
popularly believed...” – Palmer, Colton, Kramer, A History of the
Modern World, p. 687.
J.A.S. Grenville takes the traditional view that Germany and her
allies were primarily responsible and therefore the verdict of
Versailles was a justifiable one:
“The responsibility for starting the conflict in July and August must rest
primarily on the shoulders of Germany and Austria-Hungary…” - J.A.S.
Grenville, A History of the World, p. 59.
Which position is best supported by the evidence?
Key historians who argue that Germany was at fault:
A.J.P. Taylor, British historian
“war by timetable argument” – war plans, mobilization schedules, railroad
itineraries put events beyond the control of the diplomats in the final days of
the July Crisis
however, the war plans were necessary because of Germany’s reversal in
foreign policy after Bismarck’s retirement (1890) in which Germany became
increasingly aggressive and allowed alliances to lapse, leading to
David Fromkin (Europe’s Last Summer) argues that Germany
deliberately used the assassination as a cause to start a global war
The war was no accident. German military leadership were convinced that
by 1916-18, Germany would be too weak to win a war with France, England
and Russia – this was a war desired by Germany, especially von Molke.
also argues that in all countries, but particularly Germany and Austria
documents were widely destroyed and forged to distort the origins of the
Key historians who argue that Germany was at fault:
Fritz Fischer, German historian – the “Fischer controversy” is at the
centre of the Great War origins debate
link between domestic fears of the German power elite (capitalists &
Junkers) and the expansionist aims of the Reich
the Prussian elites wanted war since 1912 (the year of sweeping socialist
gains in the Reichstag) and manipulated the Austrians into using the Casus
Belli (lawful cause of war) created by the assassination of Archduke into
starting WWI
uses Bethmann-Hollweg’s plan (September Program, 1914) for annexations
and economic mastery of Europe (Mitteleuropa) to argue that Germany
planned the war to avoid democratization and gain hegemony over central
Europe – is this “bad history”?
continuity between the war aims of the Reich in 1914, and Hitler’s Nazis in
the 1930s, and therefore there was something inherently rotten about
Germany in the 20th century
Key historians who argue that “structural factors” are to blame:
Paul Kennedy, argues that Germany took the offensive against
legitimate and real threats.
James Joll argues that interlocking system of alliances was
responsible, but points to other pressures such as domestic problems.
George Kennan argues that the French-Russian alliance made war
inevitable – any Balkan quarrel would erupt in war
Arthur Stoessinger argues that ultimately it was the system of decision
making in all of the Great Power governments that caused the war – a
handful of arrogant, stubborn and careless leaders dragged millions
into war.
“Finally, one is struck with the overwhelming mediocrity of the people involved.
The character of each of the leaders, diplomats, or generals was badly flawed
by arrogance, stupidity, carelessness, or weakness. There was a pervasive
tendency to place the preservation of one’s ego before the preservation of the
- Stoessinger, Why Nations Go To War
Key historians who focus away from Germany:
Arno Mayer – equally distributes blame, but Austrians were
especially desperate for war.
advocates that all of Europe - not just Germany - was beset by domestic
disturbances; all conservative European statesmen consciously used popular
nationalism and edged closer to war to preserve their social systems from
political opposition parties
Samuel Williamson argues that Austria’s role has been overlooked.
The decision to wage war was ultimately Austria’s.
Barbara Tuchman argues that careless and belligerent Russian
mobilization turned a local crisis into global war.
Niall Ferguson refutes the notion that militarism, imperialism,
nationalism or the arms race made war inevitable – British policy in
the decade before 1914, but especially British diplomacy under Sir
Edward Grey created a global conflict from the local crisis.
“…Behind the ‘governments’ – the handful of men who made decisions in
Berlin,Vienna, Paris and St. Petersburg – stood populations willing to fight for
republic, king and emperor. Only a tiny minority dissented. For the largest
socialist party in Europe, the German, the war was accepted as being fought
against tsarist Russian aggression. The different nationalities of the Dual
Monarchy [Austria-Hungary] all fought for the Hapsburgs, the French socialists
fought as enthusiastically in the defence of their fatherland ruthlessly invaded
by the Germans…”
- J.A.S. Grenville, A History of the World
Explain why “the mere narration of successive crises does not
explain why the chief nations of Europe within a few days
became locked in combat over the murder of an imperial
personage”. Why did a world war break out in 1914?
In what ways, and with what results, was nationalism both a
unifying and destructive force in the nineteenth and early
twentieth century?
To what extent was Germany responsible for starting a
global war in 1914?
“The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
– Sir Edward Grey, August 4, 1914

Some Damned Foolish Thing in the Balkans