The Outbreak of World War One

The end of the Franco-Prussian War marked the birth of the German Empire in Europe. Germany, under the leadership of Bismarck, had been transformed from the weakest European power to the strongest. At the same time, France was defeated and embittered over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine; Russia together with Austria Hungary in the East was volatile. Had Bismarck had territorial ambitions as did Napoleon and later Hitler, it is likely that great European coalitions in opposition to German expansion would have arisen even sooner than they did; however Bismarck continuously commented that Germany was "satisfied," had no territorial ambitions, and wanted nothing more than peace.

Bismarck was wise enough to see that other European powers were not so satisfied, particularly France. He knew that he must keep France diplomatically isolated and keep the powers on his eastern front mollified. The situation was aggravated because the Ottoman Empire, the "sick old man of Europe" was on the verge of collapse. Russia and Austria-Hungary had conflicting interests in that area, and if war broke out, Germany would be sure to become entangled.

Bismarck’s first step to preserve the delicate balance in Europe was the Three Emperors’ League of 1873. Under its terms, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany all allied together against "radical movements." Later, in the Berlin Congress of 1878, Bismarck obtained the right for Austria to "occupy and administer" Bosnia and Herzegovina. This served to counterbalance Russian gains in Ottoman territory in a recent war, but infuriated Russian nationalists. So, Bismarck next signed a defensive military alliance with Austria against Russia. Italy joined the alliance in 1882 because of tensions with France, thus giving birth to the Triple Alliance. Ever the superb diplomat, Bismarck played the fears of Austria and Russia off against each other and signed secret alliances with each against the other. This was known as the Alliance of the Three Emperors which promised cooperation of the three in any further division of Ottoman territory. They also promised to remain neutral should any one of the three become involved in a war with any fourth party other than the Ottoman Empire which they were carving up between themselves.

At the same time, Bismarck worked to keep Britain and France neutralized. He encouraged France to pursue its interests in Africa (which kept it isolated in Europe) and when Russia would not renew the Alliance of the Three Emperors because of new problems in the Balkans, Bismarck substituted a Russian German Reinsurance Treaty by which both states promised neutrality if the other was attacked. Bismarck was a master at diplomacy, and managed to keep the delicate house of cards which was Europe in tact. However he was fired by Wilhelm II who did not like Bismarck’s pact with Russia, and himself refused to renew the Russian-German Reinsurance Treaty, even though Russia was willing to do so. This gave France an opportunity to step in and court Russia, which it did by offering loans and weapons as well as friendship. In 1894, France and Russia became military allies with the understanding that the alliance would remain in effect as long as the rival Triple Alliance was in effect. Wilhelm’s actions had left Europe divided into two camps.

In the meantime, Great Britain, which had enjoyed a period of "splendid isolation" from European affairs with no permanent alliances, became a player. Because of its worldwide empire, Britain often was at odds with Russia; at the same time, it often quarreled with Germany. Wilhelm II was a master at tactless public statements, and Britain found Germany’s involvement in world affairs discomforting. Although many Germans and Britons felt a common bond as they were members of the racially superior Anglo-Saxon race, a bitter rivalry between the two powers soon emerged for several reasons:

The situation had become such that there was discussion of a German, Austrian, French and Russian alliance against the British Empire, which many considered bloated. British leaders saw the threat, and began their own system of alliances. In 1902, Britain concluded a formal alliance with Japan and improved relations with the United States. In 1904, an Anglo-French Entente was signed which settled all colonial disputes between the two countries.

German leaders were unhappy with the Anglo-French alliance, and attempted to drive a wedge between the two countries. Germany bullied France and insisted in 1905 on an international conference to settle the issue of Morocco. Their bullying forced Britain and France closer together rather than separating them; the conference at Algeciras in 1906 left Germany isolated except for Austria-Hungary. Britain, France, Russia, and even the U.S. began to see Germany as a threat which might attempt to dominate all of Europe; the very thing Bismarck had protested he would never do. At the same time, German leaders grew paranoid, imagining sinister plots to "encircle" Germany and prevent it from becoming a world power. This situation was not helped when Russia agreed to settle its disputes with Britain from the Crimean War and signed the Anglo-Russian Agreement. Europe was divided into two hostile blocs, ready for a spark to ignite a tremendous explosion.

The Outbreak of War: The Balkan area, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Bosnia, etc. were one of the most volatile areas in Europe, primarily because of the plethora of nationalities in the region. By the Berlin Conference of 1878, Austria-Hungary had gained the right to "occupy and administer" Bosnia and Herzegovina; while Serbia and Romania were independent and a portion of Bulgaria was autonomous. Because Russia and Austria-Hungary did not trust each other and feared the other would dominate the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire still retained important holdings. Imperialistic pursuits had diverted attention from the Balkans but by 1903, Balkan nationalism was about to boil over. Serbia, although independent, was openly hostile to Austria-Hungary and looked to Russia for support, inasmuch as the Russian people were Slavic, as were the Serbs. To counter Serbian expansion and take advantage of Russia’s weakness, Austria formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1905. Serbia was outraged, but could do nothing. A series of Balkan wars broke out, and Austria intervened, forcing Serbia to surrender Albania. Tensions were great.

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated together with his wife by Serbian revolutionaries in Bosnia during a state visit.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife were in Sarajevo for an official state visit. Serbia at this time was a province of Austria-Hungary. A Serbian independence movement known as the Black Hand had made plans to assassinate Ferdinand while in Sarajevo. Several assassins had been stationed at various points along his route.

One assassin threw a bomb at the car; but Franz deflected it with his arm. The bomb exploded and destroyed the car next behind his in the procession. He became very angry at this and asked the mayor "is this how you make your guests feel welcome?" On his way back from his meeting with the mayor, he told his driver to drive to the hospital so that he could visit those wounded in the bomb attack. This necessitated turning the car around in the middle of the road. One assassin, Gavrilo Princeps, aged nineteen, had already assumed he had missed his chance, and was on his way home; but the car stopped immediately in front of him. He ran out into the road, and shot Ferdinand and his wife at point blank range. Ferdinand was shot in the throat, his wife in the stomach. She died first; and his last words were, "Sophie, please don’t die, think of the children." Princeps, pursuant to plan, bit into a cyanide capsule and jumped into a canal to drown himself. Neither worked, and he went to prison, although he is normally considered a Serbian hero.

The Black Hand was secretly supported by the Serbian government, but there is no way the German government could have known this; however Austrian officials decided that Serbia must be severely punished, and on July 23, issued an unconditional ultimatum. Serbia had 48 hours to agree to cease all subversion in Austria and all anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia. An investigation of the assassination was to be led by a joint Austrian-Serbian commission. Serbia was evasive, so on July 28, Austria mobilized and declared war on Serbia. This was the Third Balkan War.

Austria would not have declared war were it not assured of the unconditional support of Germany. Wilhelm II and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, as much as gave Austria a blank check, and egged them, even though they had to have known that war between Austria and Russia would result, since Russia saw itself as defender of the southern Slavs. Bethmann-Hollweg had anticipated that Russia (and its ally France) would probably enter the war on behalf of Serbia, but gambled that Britain would not go to war to support "Russian aggression."

Sadly, the diplomatic situation was already out of control. Because of its vast size, Russia required a great deal of time to mobilize its troops. Nicholas II ordered a general mobilization on July 29, as Austrian guns bombarded Belgrade. Russia could not mobilize against Austria without also mobilizing against Germany, as the Russian general staff had determined that war, if at all, would be against both. The full mobilization was in effect a declaration of war. In Germany, the general staff had long concluded that any war must be a two front war against both France and Russia. A brilliant German strategist, Count Alfred von Schliefen, chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1906, had devised a plan for a two front war, the famous Schliefen Plan. The plan called for a lightning attack against France by marching through Belgium and capturing Paris, thus knocking France out of the war. With France neutralized, German troops would then turn east and attack Russia. The plan had been von Schliefen’s masterwork, which he had perfected over a period of years.

Germany sent an ultimatum to France, demanding to know France’s intentions. France replied evasively that it would protect its own interests, and the German response was a formal declaration of War on August 4, 1914. Prior to the formal declaration, the German chief of staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, "acting under a dictate of self-reservation" demanded that Belgium allow free passage for German troops. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by all concerned parties as early as 1839, and refused permission. Germany then attacked Belgium, using it as a thoroughfare to reach France on August 3, one day before the formal declaration of war. Great Britain, agitated at the violation of Belgian neutrality, declared war on Germany the following day. Britain, France, and Russia constituted the Triple Entente as of August, 1914. The Great War was underway.

Reflections on Origins of the War; Although Austria-Hungary’s motives may be somewhat understandable in that it started the Third Balkan War as an attempt to survive against nationalist ambitions in the Balkans, it was goaded into doing so by the actions of Germany, which turned a minor war into the Great War by its sledgehammer tactics against Belgium and France.

Historian John Pl McKay offers the following analysis of the causes of the war: "It has been argued by some historians that German leaders lost control of the international system after Bismarck’s resignation in 1890. They felt increasingly that Germany’s status as a world power was declining, while that of Britain, France, Russia, and the United States was growing. The members of the Triple Entente were not only checking Germany’s aspirations, they were strangling Germany’s only ally, Austria-Hungary. Germany’s aggression in 1914 reflected the failure of all European leaders, not just those in Germany, to incorporate Bismarck’s might empire permanently and peacefully into the international system."

Unquestionably, nationalism and nationalist ambitions were a crucial underlying condition of the War. It was at the heart of the Balkan wars, in Serbian attempts to overthrow Austrian control of Bosnia, and grandiose pan-German vs. pan-Slavic aspirations. The nationalist response of "my country, right or wrong," fomented arms buildup and weakened those who thought in international rather than nationalist terms. Socialists, who called for an international world view and believed the war was against capitalism at home rather than foreign forces abroad; as well as international bankers who feared the prospect of war, were overwhelmed by the outcry of nationalist sentiments. According to McKay, "In each country, people believed that their country had been wronged, and they rallied to defend it. Patriotic nationalism brought unity in the short run."