How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

It's the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist — an event that escalated into unprecedented global conflict known today as World War I. Most historians say Germany led the charge into war, but seven other powers deserve a share in the blame.

Top image: A cartoon map of Europe, clearly drawn from the perspective of the Central Powers who saw themselves as being ganged-up on.

After the war, and as the Treaty of Versailles made so painfully clear, Germany and Austria-Hungary were held primarily responsible for starting the four-year conflict, one that resulted in the deaths of some 37 million people. It's an assessment that has changed very little since that time, and for good reason. But other major players were involved as well, each of them contributing to the start of the Great War — and escalating it into a global crisis — in their own way.

Serbia: Nationalism and Dreams Of Ethnic Unification

By 1914, Serbia had firmly established itself as a major player in the Balkans. But it had a problem: Austria-Hungary. The two-state nation to the north had recently annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, establishing a foothold in the Balkans; it was feared that the old empire was planning to set up a three-way mega state, an Austro-Hungary Balkan league. What's more, pan-Slavic sentiments and dreams of unification were starting to percolate in many slavic regions (including Russia), making Austria-Hungary's incursion all the more distasteful. Taken together, these perceptions drove the the creation of a proto-fascist secret military society called the Black Hand, one that had ties to the Serbian government and Young Bosnia — the terrorist group responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

The assassination of the Archduke (Smithsonian)

Outraged, Austria-Hungary pointed the finger directly at Serbia, presenting a threatening ultimatum a few weeks later. Serbia's reaction to the ultimatum was both confusing and even a bit conciliatory, but its government refused to address a crucial demand, that of allowing an external investigation into the assassination. Serbian politicians, like Nikola Pašić, had prior knowledge about the plot, so they were looking to protect their asses. What's more, despite the harsh demands of the ultimatum, Serbia rushed to war before all diplomatic channels were exhausted. At the same time, Serbia exploited the tensions between its slavic Russian ally and Austria-Hungary. In the end, Serbia gave Austria-Hungary all the excuses it needed to launch its invasion.

Austria-Hungary: Containment and Credibility

Indeed, it was Austria-Hungary and not Germany who initiated the crisis that ultimately led to war. But its bellicose reaction to the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was understandable (the equivalent today would be like having a major politician — like a John Kerry — killed by a terrorist group) ; Vienna was intent on containing Serbia and maintaining credibility in the region. In the words of Foreign Minister Berchtold, it was time for "A final and fundamental reckoning with Serbia." Their king, Franz Joseph, reluctantly agreed.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

Ironically, and in a war that's often blamed on the rampant nationalism of the time, Austria-Hungary was a fascinating political experiment, a poly-state featuring two nations, two systems, but one monarch (a kind of precursor to the European Union, though clearly backward in that it was still a monarchy). In 1914, Austria-Hungary was threatened by nationalism, both outside the empire and within. What's more, it had lost faith in the 'Concert of Europe,' a geopolitical arrangement that maintained peace for decades. (image: Franz Joseph, Hapsburger)

On July 23, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with a largely impossible ultimatum, one many historians believe was deliberately designed to fail. And in fact, Austria-Hungary's ambassador to Serbia, Baron Giesl von Gieslingen, had packed his bags before presenting the note to Serbian officials. What's more, the ultimatum came as a complete to surprise to Serbia, who received no prior complaints from Vienna about its failure to investigate the assassination, and also to Russia, who accused Austria-Hungary of "setting fire to Europe".

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

No doubt, Austria-Hungary had committed itself to a third Balkan war (the previous two being in 1912 and 1913). Irresponsibly, it paid short shrift to diplomacy. It was confident in doing so because Germany had recently signed the so-called "blank cheque" wherein it pledged its support to Austria-Hungary in the event that Russia should come to the rescue of Serbia.

Russia: A Show of Force Turns to Tragedy

Russia's role in fanning the flames of war has been grossly understated over the years. Like Serbia, it was caught-up in the pan-Slavism of the time. And in fact, its rulers saw themselves as the protectors of the Slavs. But it had some proving to do; the country had gone through some recent humiliations, such as its defeat to Japan in 1904, the loss of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the 1905 revolution, in which the monarchy had to concede some control to parliament, or duma. By 1914, its resuscitated military — the largest in Europe — was eager to prove itself.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

Russia reacted to the July 23 ultimatum by going into action. The country believed that if it showed enough toughness, perhaps Austria-Hungary would hold back. But as historian G. J. Meyer points out, "It was at this point that the Balkan crisis became an European one." When Austria-Hungary declared full military mobilization against Serbia on July 25, Russia announced a partial-mobilization of its own. But soon after, it went into full-on mobilization — an act that most certainly caught the attention of its arch-rival, Germany. During this unique era, there was virtually no time available for military planners to distinguish between a mobilization of warning and a mobilization of intent. The other side had to assume the worst.

Tragically, Russia's mobilization was completely useless and unnecessary. Not only was Russia never directly threatened by the Balkan Crisis, it could have achieved its ends through alternative channels. But even here Russia failed; its diplomatic lines of communication with Germany were clouded, deliberately deceitful, and unhelpful in resolving the terrible crisis at hand. Instead, its actions set the German war machine into motion.

Germany: Combative, Self-Assured — Ambitious

While Austria-Hungary sought a local and contained war in the Balkans, it was Germany's entry into the conflict that caused the larger European war. It's for this reason that Germany deserves much of the responsibility for escalating the war to a global scale.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

Popular German Postcard, 1914

By 1914, Germany, which had only recently emerged as a nation, was like a belligerent teenager fueled with ambition. The country, still euphoric from its crushing defeat of France in 1870-71, saw itself as being able to compete with the other great powers of Europe, such as Britain and France. It also had colonial ambitions. It didn't help that the German military was dominated by the Junker class — hawkish Prussians who often perceived war as a completely legitimate means to an end.

Germany was unwavering in its support of Austria-Hungary during the July Crisis. So much so, in fact, that the Entente powers (the triple alliance of France, Britain, and Russia) accused Germany of egging Vienna on to war as a way to to further its own ambitions. Hence the "blank cheque."

German planners believed that Russia wasn't ready for war and that it would take them an inordinate time to mobilize. They also felt that Russia would likely stay out of a war for fear of a repeat of 1904-05 and that it could not risk another revolution. Additionally, Germany didn't feel that the Entente would work together to protect the Balkans, and that the alliance would be disrupted. Fueling the impetus behind war was the belief in a so-called preventive war; Russia's steady growth scared the hell out of Germany. Its army was projected to be three times the size of Germany's by 1917. Now was the time to act.

With all this in mind, Germany rushed to Austria-Hungary's support. But it's not like they weren't warned. On July 29, Britain's Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey told the German ambassador that if the Austro-Serb war were to get out of hand, "it would not be practicable" for Britain "to stand aside," adding that "it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen."

Working upon layers of assumptions and a hefty dose of wishful thinking, German leadership saw the world as they wanted to see it, and not as it truly was. Its military planners knew that full mobilization would equate to a declaration of war — the consequences of which could scarcely be imagined.

Britain: Maintaining the Status-Quo At All Costs

Make no mistake, Britain could have cared less about Serbia in 1914. It was embroiled in a violent crisis involving Irish Home Rule at the time. Moreover, Brits were decidedly anti-Serbian. As late as July 31, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith said that the Serbs deserved "a thorough trashing."

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

But British leadership eventually woke to the situation. They made a number of diplomatic maneuvers, including an attempt to reactivate the Concert of Europe by calling a peace conference. But they bungled this process, sending the request to Berlin and not Vienna under the belief that Germany was the key player. By the time Austria-Hungary heard of it, they were already at war with Serbia. (image: Kitchener recruitment ad, wikimedia commons)

Earlier, Grey had come to the conclusion that the greatest threat to British security was German dominance in Europe. He felt that if war were to break out between Austria-Hungary and Russia, and then a war between Germany and France, Britain would have to side with France. Britain was agitated by the growth of Germany's navy, resulting in the marine arms race that preceded the Great War. Indeed, Britain was not too happy with German colonial ambitions in Africa and beyond.

Britain entered the war when Germany invaded neutral Belgium. But given that "neutral" Belgium essentially treated all surrounding nations as potential enemies, British concern for Belgian neutrality was in actuality a concern of self-interest and a reluctance to see it fall — and its vital ports — to Germany. Britain's entry into the war had dramatic downstream implications, both in terms of its outcome and reach (including its future engagements with the Ottoman Empire).

Britain entered the war to prevent German hegemony in Europe. It was not a pointless aim, as many claim, but one designed to maintain Britain's very privileged status-quo.

France: Distracted and Encouraging

France, in all fairness, doesn't really deserve much blame. And in fact, the Triple Entente was seen by the French as a way to stabilize Europe. That said, its alliance with Britain was meant as a way to keep Germany in check, particularly its imperialistic ambitions in Africa.

Like Britain, France was distracted during the July Crisis. The civilian population was riveted by a sensationalistic trial in which the wife of the former radical Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux was accused of shooting the editor of Le Figaro, who had published the love letters exchanged by herself and her husband.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

(wikimedia commons)

Also, during some of the most serious days of the crisis, France's President Raymond Poincaré was at sea, where no one was able to get a hold of him.

But as war loomed, Maurice Paléologue, France's ambassador in Russia, began manipulating Russia's foreign minister Sergei Sazonov towards action against Austria-Hungary. Which as we know now was a strategy that backfired terribly, eventually resulting a German invasion. France mobilized on August 1; three days later, Germany began its moves towards Belgium.

The Ottoman Empire: Seizing the Opportunity

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

The Ottoman Empire, what is now Turkey, did not take part in the July Crisis. This "Sick Man of Europe" joined the war on October 29, 1914. Its entry significantly expanded the scope of the conflict, introducing entirely new theatres into the war (including the Dardanelles, North Africa, and the Middle East). (image: Enver Pasha (wikimedia commons))

Turkey became involved under German pressure, but also owing to War Minister Enver Pasha's opportunism. After three months of conflict he assumed that Germany was going to win. Pasha figured that the spoils of war would be a good way to avoid the imminent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire — a rather short-sighted and risky strategy as it turned out. But war was also a way to deal with Russia, a country that threatened its interests in the Turkish Straits.

Italy: Sacred Egoism

Italy also contributed to the widening of the war (as did Romania, Bulgaria, and others). Technically speaking, Italy was allied with the Central Powers before the war. But when war broke out, its government declared its neutrality and began negotiating with both sides — a policy its Foreign Minister described as "sacred egoism."

The Triple Entente made a more generous offer than the Central Powers, promising Trentino, South Tirol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria, and northern Dalmatia. The Italians accepted this offer in the secret Treaty of London during April 1915 and joined the war against Austria-Hungary a month later, hoping for major territorial gains. Italy's entrance into the war opened up a primary new theatre along its northern border with Austria-Hungary.

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Final Thoughts About the American Entry Into the War

The United States did their best to stay out of the Great War, finally joining the conflagration in 1917. Prior to that, most Americans sneered at the conflict, arguing that it was the product of antiquated and barbaric European values.

How Each Of The Great Powers Helped Start the First World War

(wikimedia commons)

But U.S. "neutrality" on the matter only went so far. American businesses boomed during the war, and it wasn't until Germany's declaration of total submarine warfare — and the tremendous loss of merchant shipping — that the United States finally declared that enough was enough; the U.S. decided to become a global power and to spread its idealistic moralism around Europe and beyond.

Sources: G. J Meyer's A World Undone | Matthias Strohn's World War I Companion | Hew Strachan's The First World War | Ian Beckett's The Making Of The First World War

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