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European diplomatic alignments shortly before the war. Note: Germany and the Ottoman Empire only formed an alliance shortly following the outbreak of the war.
Map of the world with the participants in World War I in 1917. Allies are in green, the Central Powers in orange and neutral countries in grey.

The causes of World War I remain controversial and debated questions. World War I began in the Balkans in late July 1914 and ended in November 1918, leaving 17 million dead and 20 million wounded.

Scholars looking at the long-term seek to explain why two rival sets of powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Russia, France, and Great Britain on the other – had come into conflict by 1914. They look at such factors as political, territorial and economic conflicts, militarism, a complex web of alliances and alignments, imperialism, the growth of nationalism, and the power vacuum created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Other important long-term or structural factors that are often studied include unresolved territorial disputes, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe,[1][2] convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, and military planning.[3]

Scholars doing short-term analysis focused on summer 1914 ask if the conflict could have been stopped, or whether it was out of control. The immediate causes lay in decisions made by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914. This crisis was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian Serb who had been supported by a nationalist organization in Serbia.[4] The crisis escalated as the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia came to involve Russia, Germany, France, and ultimately Belgium and Great Britain. Other factors that came into play during the diplomatic crisis that preceded the war included misperceptions of intent (e.g., the German belief that Britain would remain neutral), fatalism that war was inevitable, and the speed of the crisis, which was exacerbated by delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications.

The crisis followed a series of diplomatic clashes among the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decades before 1914 that had left tensions high. In turn these public clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867.[5]

Consensus on the origins of the war remains elusive since historians disagree on key factors, and place differing emphasis on a variety of factors. This is compounded by changing historical arguments over time, particularly the delayed availability of classified historical archives. The deepest distinction among historians is between those who focus on the actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary as key and those who focus on a wider group of actors. Secondary fault lines exist between those who believe that Germany deliberately planned a European war, those who believe that the war was ultimately unplanned but still caused principally by Germany and Austria-Hungary taking risks, and those who believe that either all or some of the other powers, namely Russia, France, Serbia and Great Britain, played a more significant role in causing the war than has been traditionally suggested.


Polarization of Europe, 1887–1914Edit

To understand the long term origins of the war in 1914 it is essential to understand how the powers formed into two competing sets sharing common aims and enemies. These two sets became, by August 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand and Russia, France, Serbia and Great Britain on the other.

German re-alignment to Austria-Hungary and Russian re-alignment to France, 1887–1892Edit

In 1887 German and Russian alignment was secured by means of a secret Reinsurance Treaty arranged by Otto von Bismarck. However, in 1890 the treaty was allowed to lapse in favor of the Dual Alliance (1879) between Germany and Austria-Hungary. In response Russia secured the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892, which was to last until 1917.

French revanchist foreign policy towards GermanyEdit

French Emperor Napoleon III (left) as prisoner of Bismarck (right) in the Franco-Prussian War

Some of the distant origins of World War I can be seen in the results and consequences of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71 and the concurrent Unification of Germany. Germany had won decisively and established a powerful Empire, while France fell into chaos and military decline for years. A legacy of animosity grew between France and Germany following the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The annexation caused widespread resentment in France, giving rise to the desire for revenge, known as revanchism. French sentiments wanted to avenge military and territorial losses and the displacement of France as the pre-eminent continental military power.[6] Bismarck was wary of French desire for revenge; he achieved peace by isolating France and balancing the ambitions of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. During his later years he tried to placate the French by encouraging their overseas expansion. However, anti-German sentiment remained.[7]

France eventually recovered from its defeat, paid its war indemnity, and rebuilt its military strength again. But it was smaller than Germany in terms of population and industry, and thus felt insecure next to its more powerful neighbor.[8]

British alignment towards France and Russia, 1898–1907: The Triple EntenteEdit

After Bismarck's removal in 1890, French efforts to isolate Germany became successful. With the formation of the Triple Entente, Germany began to feel encircled.[9] Foreign minister Delcassé, especially, went to great pains to woo Russia and Great Britain. Key markers were the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, the 1904 Entente Cordiale with Great Britain, and finally the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 which became the Triple Entente. This formal alliance with Russia, and informal alignment with Britain, against Germany and Austria eventually led Russia and Britain to enter World War I as France's Allies.[10][11]

Britain abandoned the policy of holding aloof from the continental powers, so called "Splendid Isolation", in the 1900s after being isolated during the Boer War. Britain concluded agreements, limited to colonial affairs, with her two major colonial rivals, the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. Some historians see Britain's alignment as principally a reaction to an assertive German foreign policy and the buildup of its navy from 1898 which led to the Anglo-German naval arms race.[12][13] Other scholars, most notably Niall Ferguson, argue that Britain chose France and Russia over Germany because Germany was too weak an ally to provide an effective counterbalance to the other powers and could not provide Britain with the imperial security achieved by the entente agreements.[14] In the words of British diplomat Arthur Nicolson it was "far more disadvantageous to us to have an unfriendly France and Russia than an unfriendly Germany".[15] Ferguson argues that the British Government rejected German alliance overtures "not because Germany began to pose a threat to Britain, but, on the contrary because they realized she did not pose a threat".[16] The impact of the Triple Entente was therefore twofold, to improve British relations with France and her ally Russia and to demote the importance to Britain of good relations with Germany. It was "not that antagonism toward Germany caused its isolation, but rather that the new system itself channeled and intensified hostility towards the German Empire".[17]

The Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia is often compared to the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria–Hungary and Italy, but historians caution against the comparison. The Entente, in contrast to the Triple Alliance or the Franco-Russian Alliance, was not an alliance of mutual defence and Britain therefore felt free to make her own foreign policy decisions in 1914. As British Foreign Office Official Eyre Crowe minuted: "The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content."[18]

A series of diplomatic incidents between 1905 and 1914 heightened tensions between the Great Powers and reinforced the existing alignments, beginning with the First Moroccan Crisis.

First Moroccan Crisis, 1905–06: Strengthening the EntenteEdit

The First Moroccan Crisis (also known as the Tangier Crisis) was an international crisis between March 1905 and May 1906 over the status of Morocco. The crisis worsened German relations with both France and the United Kingdom, and helped ensure the success of the new Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. In the words of historian Christopher Clark "The Anglo-French Entente was strengthened rather than weakened by the German challenge to France in Morocco".[19]

Bosnian Crisis, 1908: Worsening relations of Russia and Serbia with Austria-HungaryEdit

In 1908 Austria-Hungary announced its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dual provinces in the Balkan region of Europe formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Though Bosnia and Herzegovina were still nominally under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire in 1908, Austria-Hungary had administered the provinces since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when the great powers of Europe awarded it the right to occupy the two provinces, with the legal title to remain with Turkey. The announcement in October 1908 of Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina upset the fragile balance of power in the Balkans, enraging Serbia and pan-Slavic nationalists throughout Europe. Though weakened Russia was forced to submit, to its humiliation, its foreign office still viewed Austria-Hungary’s actions as overly aggressive and threatening. Russia's response was to encourage pro-Russian, anti-Austrian sentiment in Serbia and other Balkan provinces, provoking Austrian fears of Slavic expansionism in the region.[20]

Agadir crisis in Morocco, 1911Edit

French troops in Morocco, 1912

Imperial rivalries pushed France, Germany and Britain to compete for control of Morocco, leading to a short-lived war scare in 1911. In the end France established a protectorate over Morocco that increased European tensions. The Agadir Crisis was the international tension sparked by the deployment of a substantial force of French troops in the interior of Morocco in April 1911. Germany reacted by sending the gunboat SMS Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir on 1 July 1911. The main result was deeper suspicion between London and Berlin, and closer military ties between London and Paris.[21][22]

Rather than scaring Britain into turning toward Germany, increased fear and hostility drew Britain closer to France. British backing of France during the crisis reinforced the Entente between the two countries (and with Russia as well), increasing Anglo-German estrangement, deepening the divisions which would culminate 1914.[23] In terms of internal British jousting, the crisis was part of a five-year struggle inside the British cabinet between Radical isolationists and Liberal Party imperialist interventionists. The interventionists sought to use the Triple Entente to contain German expansion. The Radicals obtained an agreement for official cabinet approval of all initiatives that might lead to war. However the interventionists were joined by the two leading Radicals, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Lloyd's famous "Mansion House speech" of 21 July 1911 angered the Germans and encouraged the French. By 1914 the interventionists and Radicals had agreed to share responsibility for decisions culminating in the declaration of war, and so the decision was almost unanimous.[24]

Significantly for the events of August 1914, the crisis led British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and France to make a secret naval agreement where the Royal Navy promised to protect the northern coast of France from German attack, while France concentrated her fleet in the western Mediterranean and agreed to protect British interests there. France was thus able to guard her communications with her North African colonies, and Britain to concentrate more force in home waters to oppose the German High Seas Fleet. The Cabinet was not informed of this agreement until August 1914. Meanwhile, the episode strengthened the hand of Admiral Tirpitz who was calling for a greatly increased Navy, and obtained it in 1912.[25]

Italo-Turkish War: Abandonment of the Ottomans, 1911–12Edit

In the Italo-Turkish War or Turco-Italian War Italy defeated the Ottoman Empire in North Africa in 1911-12.[26] Italy easily captured the important coastal cities but its army failed to advance far into the interior. Italy captured the Ottoman Tripolitania Vilayet (province), of which the most notable sub-provinces (sanjaks) were Fezzan, Cyrenaica, and Tripoli itself. These territories together formed what became known as Italian Libya. The main significance for the First World War was that this war made it clear that no Great Power appeared to wish to support the Ottoman Empire any longer and this paved the way for the Balkan Wars. Christopher Clark stated: "Italy launched a war of conquest on an African province of the Ottoman Empire, triggering a chain of opportunistic assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. The system of geographical balances that had enabled local conflicts to be contained was swept away." [27]

Balkan Wars, 1912–13: Growth of Serbian and Russian powerEdit

The Balkan Wars were two conflicts that took place in the Balkan Peninsula in south-eastern Europe in 1912 and 1913. Four Balkan states defeated the Ottoman Empire in the first war; one of the four, Bulgaria, was defeated in the second war. The Ottoman Empire lost nearly all of its holdings in Europe. Austria-Hungary, although not a combatant, was weakened as a much-enlarged Serbia pushed for union of the South Slavic peoples.

The Balkan Wars in 1912–1913 increased international tension between the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. It also led to a strengthening of Serbia and a weakening of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, who might otherwise have kept Serbia under control, thus disrupting the balance of power in Europe in favor of Russia.

Russia initially agreed to avoid territorial changes, but later in 1912 supported Serbia's demand for an Albanian port. The London Conference of 1912–13 agreed to create an independent Albania; however both Serbia and Montenegro refused to comply. After an Austrian, and then an international, naval demonstration in early 1912 and Russia's withdrawal of support, Serbia backed down. Montenegro was not as compliant and on May 2, the Austrian council of ministers met and decided to give Montenegro a last chance to comply and, if it would not, then to resort to military action. However, seeing the Austrian military preparations, the Montenegrins requested the ultimatum be delayed and complied.[28]

The Serbian government, having failed to get Albania, now demanded that the other spoils of the First Balkan War be reapportioned, and Russia failed to pressure Serbia to back down. Serbia and Greece allied against Bulgaria, which responded with a preemptive strike against their forces, beginning the Second Balkan War.[29] The Bulgarian army crumbled quickly when Turkey and Romania joined the war.

The Balkan Wars strained the German/Austro-Hungarian alliance. The attitude of the German government to Austrian requests of support against Serbia was initially both divided and inconsistent. After the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912, it was clear that Germany was not ready to support Austria-Hungary in a war against Serbia and her likely allies.

In addition, German diplomacy before, during, and after the Second Balkan War was pro-Greek and pro-Romanian and in opposition to Austria-Hungary's increasingly pro-Bulgarian views. The result was tremendous damage to Austro-German relations. Austrian foreign minister Leopold von Berchtold remarked to German ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky in July 1913 that "Austria-Hungary might as well belong 'to the other grouping' for all the good Berlin had been".[30]

In September 1913, it was learned that Serbia was moving into Albania and Russia was doing nothing to restrain it, while the Serbian government would not guarantee to respect Albania's territorial integrity and suggested there would be some frontier modifications. In October 1913, the council of ministers decided to send Serbia a warning followed by an ultimatum: that Germany and Italy be notified of some action and asked for support, and that spies be sent to report if there was an actual withdrawal. Serbia responded to the warning with defiance and the Ultimatum was dispatched on October 17 and received the following day. It demanded that Serbia evacuate Albanian territory within eight days. Serbia complied, and the Kaiser made a congratulatory visit to Vienna to try to fix some of the damage done earlier in the year.[31]

By this time, Russia had mostly recovered from its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and the calculations of Germany and Austria were driven by a fear that Russia would eventually become too strong to be challenged. Their conclusion was that any war with Russia had to occur within the next few years in order to have any chance of success.[32]

Franco-Russian Alliance changes: The Balkan inception scenario, 1911–1913Edit

The original Franco-Russian alliance was formed to protect both France and Russia from a German attack. In the event of such an attack both states would mobilize in tandem, placing Germany under the threat of a two-front war. However, there were limits placed on the alliance so that it was essentially defensive in character.

Throughout the 1890s and the 1900s the French and the Russians made clear the limits of the alliance did not extend to provocations caused by the others' adventurous foreign policy. For example, Russia warned France that the alliance would not operate if the French provoked the Germans in North Africa. Equally, the French insisted to the Russians that they should not use the alliance to provoke Austria-Hungary or Germany in the Balkans, and that France did not recognise in the Balkans a vital strategic interest for France or for Russia.

In the last 18 to 24 months before the outbreak of the war, this changed. At the end of 1911 and particularly during the Balkan wars themselves in 1912–13, the French view changed. France now accepted the importance of the Balkans to Russia. Moreover, France clearly stated that if, as a result of a conflict in the Balkans, war were to break out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, France would stand by Russia. Thus the Franco-Russian alliance changed in character, and by a consequence of that Serbia became a security salient for Russia and France. As they bought into the future scenario of a war of Balkan inception, regardless of who started such a war, the alliance would respond nonetheless. It would view this conflict as a casus foederis: as a trigger for the alliance. Christopher Clark described this change as "a very important development in the pre-war system which made the events of 1914 possible".[33]

The Liman von Sanders "Affair" 1913-14Edit

This was a crisis caused by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople, and the subsequent Russian objections. The “Liman von Sanders Affair,” began on November 10, 1913, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, instructed the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Sverbeev, to tell the Germans that the von Sanders mission, would be regarded by Russia as an “openly hostile act.” In addition to threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits, the mission raised the possibility of a German-led Turkish assault on Russia’s Black Sea ports and imperilled Russian plans for expansion in eastern Anatolia.

Liman's appointment brought a storm of protest from Russia, who suspected German designs on the Ottoman capital. A compromise arrangement was subsequently agreed whereby Liman was appointed to the rather less senior (and less influential) position of Inspector General in January 1914.[34]

Anglo-German détente, 1912–14Edit

Historians caution that, taken together, the preceding crisis should not be seen as an argument that a European war was inevitable in 1914.

Significantly, the Anglo-German Naval Race was over by 1912. In April 1913, Britain and Germany signed an agreement over the African territories of the Portuguese empire which was expected to collapse imminently. Moreover, the Russians were threatening British interests in Persia and India to the extent that in 1914, there were signs that the British were cooling in their relations with Russia and that an understanding with Germany might be useful. The British were "deeply annoyed by St Petersburg's failure to observe the terms of the agreement struck in 1907 and began to feel an arrangement of some kind with Germany might serve as a useful corrective."[15]

British Diplomat Arthur Nicolson wrote in May 1914, “Since I have been at the Foreign Office I have not seen such calm waters.”[35]

July Crisis: The chain of eventsEdit

  • June 28, 1914: Serbian irredentists assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • June 30: Austrian Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold and Emperor Franz Josef agree that the "policy of patience" with Serbia was at an end and a firm line must be taken.
  • July 5: Austrian Diplomat Alexander, Count of Hoyos visits Berlin to ascertain German attitudes.
  • July 6: Germany provides unconditional support to Austria-Hungary – the so-called "blank check".
  • July 20–23: French President Raymond Poincaré, on state visit to the Tsar at St Petersburg, urges intransigent opposition to any Austrian measure against Serbia.
  • July 23: Austria-Hungary, following their own secret enquiry, sends an ultimatum to Serbia, containing their demands, and gives only forty-eight hours to comply.
  • July 24: Sir Edward Grey, speaking for the British government, asks that Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain, "who had no direct interests in Serbia, should act together for the sake of peace simultaneously."[36]
  • July 24: Serbia seeks support from Russia and Russia advises Serbia not to accept the ultimatum.[37] Germany officially declares support for Austria's position.
  • July 24 Russian Council of Ministers agrees secret partial mobilisation of the Russian Army and Navy.
  • July 25: Tsar approves Council of Ministers decision and Russia begins partial mobilization of 1.1 million men against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.[38]
  • July 25: Serbia responds to Austro-Hungarian démarche with less than full acceptance and asks that the Hague Tribunal arbitrate. Austria-Hungary breaks diplomatic relations with Serbia. Serbia mobilizes its army.
  • July 26: Serbian reservists accidentally violate Austro-Hungarian border at Temes-Kubin.[39]
  • July 26: A meeting is organised to take place between ambassadors from Great Britain, Germany, Italy and France to discuss the crisis. Germany declines the invitation.
  • July 28: Austria-Hungary, having failed to accept Serbia's response of the 25th, declares war on Serbia. Austro-Hungarian mobilisation against Serbia begins.
  • July 29: Sir Edward Grey appeals to Germany to intervene to maintain peace.
  • July 29: The British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, is informed by the German Chancellor that Germany is contemplating war with France, and furthermore, wishes to send its army through Belgium. He tries to secure Britain's neutrality in such an action.
  • July 29: In the morning Russian general mobilisation against Austria and Germany is ordered; in the evening[40] the Tsar chooses for partial mobilization after a flurry of telegrams with Kaiser Wilhelm.[41]
  • July 30: Russian general mobilization is reordered by the Tsar on instigation by Sergei Sazonov.
  • July 31: Austrian general mobilization is ordered.
  • July 31: Germany enters a period preparatory to war.
  • July 31: Germany sends an ultimatum to Russia, demanding that they halt general mobilization within twelve hours, but Russia refuses.
  • July 31: Both France and Germany are asked by Britain to declare their support for the ongoing neutrality of Belgium. France agrees to this. Germany does not respond.
  • July 31: Germany asks France whether it would stay neutral in case of a war Germany vs. Russia.
  • August 1: German general mobilization is ordered, deployment plan 'Aufmarsch II West' chosen.
  • August 1: French general mobilization is ordered, deployment Plan XVII chosen.
  • August 1: Germany declares war against Russia.
  • August 1: The Tsar responds to the king's telegram, stating, "I would gladly have accepted your proposals had not the German ambassador this afternoon presented a note to my Government declaring war."
  • August 2: Germany and the Ottoman Empire sign a secret treaty[42] entrenching the Ottoman–German Alliance.
  • August 3: Germany, after France declines (See Note) its demand to remain neutral,[43] declares war on France. Germany states to Belgium that she would "treat her as an enemy" if she did not allow free passage of German troops across her lands.
  • August 4: Germany implements offensive operation inspired by Schlieffen Plan.
  • August 4 (midnight): Having failed to receive notice from Germany assuring the neutrality of Belgium, Britain declares war on Germany.
  • August 6: Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.
  • August 23: Japan, honoring the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, declares war on Germany.
  • August 25: Japan declares war on Austria-Hungary.

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian irredentists, 28 June 1914Edit

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead, by two gun shots[44] in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six assassins (five Serbs and one Bosniak) coordinated by Danilo Ilić, a Bosnian Serb and a member of the Black Hand secret society.

The assassination is significant because it was perceived by Austria-Hungary as an existential challenge to her and in her view provided a casus belli with Serbia. The Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was aged 84, so the assassination of his heir, so soon before he was likely to hand over the crown, was seen as a direct challenge to Austrian polity. Many ministers in Austria, especially Berchtold, argue this act must be avenged. [45]Moreover, the Archduke, who had been a decisive voice for peace in the previous years, had now been removed from the discussions. The assassination triggered the July Crisis, which turned a local conflict into a European, and then a worldwide, war.

Austria edges towards war with SerbiaEdit

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, sent deep shockwaves through Austrian elites, and the murder has been described as a "9/11 effect, a terrorist event charged with historic meaning, transforming the political chemistry in Vienna.” [46]

Although they were not personally close, the Emperor Franz Joseph was profoundly shocked and upset. It quickly emerged that three leading members of the assassination squad had spent long periods of time in Belgrade, had only recently crossed the border from Serbia, and were carrying weapons and bombs of Serbian manufacture. They were secretly sponsored by the Black Hand, whose objectives included the liberation of all Bosnian Slavs from Austrian rule, and masterminded by the Head of Serbian Military intelligence, Apis.

Two days after the assassination, Foreign Minister Berchtold and the Emperor agreed that the “policy of patience” with Serbia was at an end. Austria feared that if she displayed weakness, their neighbours to the South and East would be emboldened, whereas war with Serbia would put to an end the problems the dual monarchy had experienced with Serbia. Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf stated of Serbia: ”If you have a poisonous adder at your heel, you stamp on its head, you don’t wait for the bite.” [46]

There was also a feeling that the moral effects of military action would breathe new life into the exhausted structures of the Habsburg monarchy, restoring it to the vigour and virility of an imagined past, and that Serbia must be dealt with before it became too powerful to defeat militarily.[47] The principal voices for peace in previous years included Franz Ferdinand himself. His removal not only provided the casus belli but removed one of the most prominent doves from policymaking.

Since taking on Serbia involved the risk of war with Russia, Vienna sought the views of Berlin. The Germans provided their unconditional support for war with Serbia, the so-called "Blank Cheque.” Buoyed up by German support the Austrians began drawing up an ultimatum, giving the Serbs forty-eight hours to respond to ten demands. The Austrians hoped that the ultimatum would be rejected in order to provide the pretext for war with a neighbour they considered to be impossibly turbulent.

Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. has emphasized the role of Austria-Hungary in starting the war. Convinced Serbian nationalism and Russian Balkan ambitions were disintegrating the Empire, Austria-Hungary hoped for a limited war against Serbia and that strong German support would force Russia to keep out of the war and weaken its Balkan prestige.[48]

At this stage in the crisis the possibility of determined Russian support for Serbia, and its attendant risks, was never properly weighed up. The Austrians remained fixated on Serbia but did not decide on their precise objectives other than war.[46]

Nevertheless, having decided upon war with German support, Austria was slow to act publicly, and did not deliver the ultimatum until July 23, some three weeks after the assassinations on 28 June. Thus Austria lost the reflex sympathies attendant to the Sarajevo murders and gave the further impression to the Entente powers that Austria was merely using the assassinations as a pretext for aggression.[49]

"Blank Cheque" — Germany supports Austria-Hungary, 6 JulyEdit

On July 6 Germany provided its unconditional support to its ally Austria-Hungary in its quarrel with Serbia – the so-called "blank cheque”. In response to a request for support, Vienna was told the Kaiser's position was that, if Austria-Hungary "recognised the necessity of taking military measures against Serbia he would deplore our not taking advantage of the present moment which is so favourable to us...we might in this case, as in all others, rely upon German support”[50][51]

The thinking was as Austria-Hungary was Germany’s only ally, if its prestige was not restored then its position in the Balkans might be irreparably damaged, encouraging further irredentism by Serbia and Romania.[52] A quick war against Serbia would not only eliminate her, but also probably lead to further diplomatic gains vis a vis Bulgaria and Romania. A Serbian defeat would also be a defeat for Russia and reduce her influence in the Balkans.

The benefits were clear but there were risks, namely that Russia would intervene and this would lead to a continental war. However, this was thought even more unlikely since the Russians had not yet finished their French-funded rearmament programme scheduled for completion in 1917. Moreover, they did not believe that Russia, as an absolute monarchy, would support regicides, and more broadly “the mood across Europe was so anti-Serbian that even Russia would not intervene.” Personal factors also weighed heavily and the German Kaiser was close to the murdered Franz Ferdinand and was affected by his death, to the extent that German counsels of restraint vis a vis Serbia in 1913 changed to an aggressive stance.[53]

On the other hand, the military thought that if Russia did intervene then St Petersburg clearly desired war and now would be a better time to fight, when Germany had a guaranteed ally in Austria-Hungary, Russia was not ready and Europe was sympathetic to them. On balance, at this point in the crisis, the Germans anticipated that their support would mean the war would be a localised affair between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. This would be particularly true if Austria moved quickly, "while the other European powers were still disgusted over the assassinations and therefore likely to be sympathetic to any action Austria-Hungary took”.[54]

Fermeté — France backs Russia, 20–23 JulyEdit

French President Raymond Poincaré arrived in St. Petersburg for a state visit on 20 July and departed on 23 July. Due to the breaking of the Austrian codes, Russia and France were aware of the impending Austrian ultimatum and their meetings were centrally concerned with the crisis unfolding in central Europe.

The French and the Russians agreed their alliance extended to supporting Serbia against Austria, confirming the already established policy behind the Balkan inception scenario. As Christopher Clark notes "Poincare had come to preach the gospel of firmness and his words had fallen on ready ears. Firmness in this context meant an intransigent opposition to any Austrian measure against Serbia. At no point do the sources suggest that Poincare or his Russian interlocutors gave any thought whatsoever to what measures Austria-Hungary might legitimately be entitled to take in the aftermath of the assassinations".[55]

On 21 July, the Russian Foreign Minister warned the German ambassador to Russia that "Russia would not be able to tolerate Austria-Hungary's using threatening language to Serbia or taking military measures." The leaders in Berlin discounted this threat of war. German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow noted “there is certain to be some blustering in St. Petersburg.” German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg told his assistant that Britain and France did not realize that Germany would go to war if Russia mobilized. He thought London saw a German "bluff" and was responding with a "counterbluff."[56] Political scientist James Fearon argues from this episode that the Germans believed Russia were expressing greater verbal support for Serbia than they would actually provide, in order to pressure Germany and Austria-Hungary to accept some Russian demands in negotiation. Meanwhile, Berlin was downplaying its actual strong support for Vienna so as to not appear the aggressor, for that would alienate German socialists.[57]

Austria-Hungary presents ultimatum to Serbia, 23 JulyEdit

On 23 July, Austria-Hungary, following their own enquiry into the assassinations, sends an ultimatum to Serbia, containing their demands, giving forty-eight hours to comply.

Russia mobilises — The Crisis escalates, 24–25 JulyEdit

On 24–25 July the Russian Council of Ministers met, and in response to the crisis and despite the fact that she had no alliance with Serbia, agreed to a secret partial mobilisation of over one million men of the Russian Army and the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets. It is worth stressing, since this is a cause of some confusion in general narratives of the war, that this was done prior to the Serbian rejection of the ultimatum, the Austrian declaration of war on 28 July or any military measures taken by Germany. As a diplomatic move this had limited value since the Russians did not make this mobilisation public until 28 July.

The arguments used to support this move in the Council of Ministers were:

  • The crisis was being used as a pretext by the Germans to increase their power
  • Acceptance of the ultimatum would mean that Serbia would become a protectorate of Austria
  • Russia had backed down in the past – for example in the Liman von Sanders affair and the Bosnian Crisis – and this had encouraged the Germans rather than appeased them
  • Russian arms had recovered sufficiently since the disasters of 1904–06

In addition Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov believed that war was inevitable and refused to acknowledge that Austria-Hungary had a right to counter measures in the face of Serbian irredentism. On the contrary, Sazonov had aligned himself with the irredentism, and expected the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Crucially, the French had provided their clear support for their Russian allies for a robust response in their recent state visit just days before. Also in the background was Russian anxiety of the future of the Turkish straits – "where Russian control of the Balkans would place Saint Petersburg in a far better position to prevent unwanted intrusions on the Bosphorus” [58]

The policy was intended to be a mobilisation against Austria-Hungary only. However, due to Russian incompetence, the Russians realised by 29 July that partial mobilisation was not militarily possible, and as it would interfere with general mobilisation, only full mobilisation could prevent the entire operation being botched. The Russians therefore moved to full mobilisation on 30 July.

Christopher Clark stated "It would be difficult to overstate the historical importance of the meetings of 24 and 25 July"[59] and "In taking these steps, [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazonov and his colleagues escalated the crisis and greatly increased the likelihood of a general European war. For one thing, Russian pre-mobilization altered the political chemistry in Serbia, making it unthinkable that the Belgrade government, which had originally given serious consideration to accepting the ultimatum, would back down in the face of Austrian pressure. It heightened the domestic pressure on the Russian sounded alarm bells in Austria-Hungary. Most importantly of all, these measures drastically raised the pressure on Germany, which had so far abstained from military preparations and was still counting on the localisation of the Austro-Serbian conflict."[60]

Serbia rejects the ultimatum, Austria declares war on Serbia 25–28 JulyEdit

Serbia initially considered accepting all the terms of the Austrian ultimatum before news from Russia of pre mobilisation measures stiffened their resolve.[61]

The Serbs drafted their reply to the ultimatum in such a way as to give the impression of making significant concessions but, as Christopher Clark states "In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points”.[62] In response to the rejection of the ultimatum, Austria immediately broke off diplomatic relations on 25 July and declared war on 28 July.

Russia — general mobilisation is ordered, 29–30 JulyEdit

On July 29, 1914, the Tsar ordered full mobilization, then changed his mind after receiving a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm. Partial mobilization was ordered instead. The next day, the Tsar's foreign minister, Sergey Sazonov once more persuaded Nicholas of the need for general mobilization, and the order was issued that day, July 30

Christopher Clark states: "The Russian general mobilisation was one of the most momentous decisions of the July crisis. This was the first of the general mobilisations. It came at the moment when the German government had not yet even declared the State of Impending War"[63]

Why did Russia do this?

  • In response to the Austrian declaration of war on 28 July.
  • The previously ordered partial mobilisation was incompatible with a future general mobilisation
  • Sazonov’s conviction that Austrian intransigence was Germany’s policy, and therefore given that Germany was driving Austria, there was no longer any point in mobilising against Austria only
  • France reiterated her support for Russia, and there was significant cause to think that Britain would also support Russia [64]

German mobilisation and war with Russia and France, 1–3 AugustEdit

On 28 July, Germany learned through its spy network that Russia had implemented partial mobilisation and its "Period Preparatory to War". The Germans assumed that Russia had, after all, decided upon war and that her mobilisation put Germany in danger. This was doubly so because German war plans, the so-called Schlieffen Plan, relied upon Germany to mobilise speedily enough to defeat France first (by attacking largely through neutral Belgium) before turning to defeat the slower-moving Russians.

Christopher Clarke states: "German efforts at mediation – which suggested that Austria should “Halt in Belgrade” and use the occupation of the Serbian capital to ensure its terms were met – were rendered futile by the speed of Russian preparations, which threatened to force the Germans to take counter–measures before mediation could begin to take effect" [65]

Thus, in response to Russian mobilisation, Germany ordered the state of Imminent Danger of War (SIDW) on 31 July, and when the Russian government refused to rescind its mobilisation order, Germany mobilised and declared war on Russia on 1 August. Given the Franco-Russian alliance, countermeasures by France were, correctly, assumed to be inevitable and Germany therefore declared war on France on 3 August 1914.

Britain declares war on Germany, 4 August 1914Edit

Following the German invasion of neutral Belgium, Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany on 2 August that she must withdraw or face war. The Germans did not comply and Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914.

Britain's reasons for declaring war were complex. The ostensible reason given was that Britain was required to safeguard Belgium's neutrality under the Treaty of London 1839. The German invasion of Belgium was, therefore, the casus belli and, importantly, legitimized and galvanized popular support for the war.

Strategic risk posed by German control of the Belgian and ultimately French coast was considered unacceptable. German guarantees of post-war behavior were cast into doubt by her blasé treatment of Belgian neutrality. However, the Treaty of London of 1839 had not committed Britain on her own to safeguard Belgium's neutrality. Moreover, naval war planning demonstrated that Britain herself would have violated Belgian neutrality by blockading her ports (to prevent imported goods passing to Germany) in the event of war with Germany.

Rather Britain's relationship with her Entente partners, both France and Russia, were equally significant factors. Edward Grey argued that the secret naval agreements with France (although they had not been approved by the Cabinet) created a moral obligation vis a vis Britain and France.[66]

What is more, in the event that Britain abandoned its Entente friends, it was feared that if Germany won the war, or the Entente won without British support, then, either way, Britain would be left without any friends. This would have left both Britain and her Empire vulnerable to attack.[66]

British Foreign office mandarin Eyre Crowe stated:

"Should the war come, and England stand aside, one of two things must happen. (a) Either Germany and Austria win, crush France and humiliate Russia. What will be the position of a friendless England? (b) Or France and Russia win. What would be their attitude towards England? What about India and the Mediterranean?" [66]

Domestically, the Liberal Cabinet was split and in the event that war was not declared the Government would fall as Prime Minister Asquith, Edward Grey and Winston Churchill made it clear they would resign. In that event, the existing Liberal Cabinet would lose their jobs. Since it was likely the pro-war Conservatives would be elected to power this would lead to a slightly belated British entry into the war in any event, so wavering Cabinet ministers were also likely motivated by the desire to avoid senselessly splitting their party and sacrificing their jobs.[67]

Domestic political factorsEdit

German domestic politicsEdit

Left-wing parties, especially the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), made large gains in the 1912 German election. German government at the time was still dominated by the Prussian Junkers who feared the rise of these left-wing parties. Fritz Fischer famously argued that they deliberately sought an external war to distract the population and whip up patriotic support for the government.[68] Indeed, one German military leader Moritz von Lynker, the chief of the military cabinet, favored war in 1909 because it was "desirable in order to escape from difficulties at home and abroad."[69] Conservative Party leader Ernst von Heydebrand und der Lasa suggested that "a war would strengthen patriarchal order".[70]

Other authors argue that German conservatives were ambivalent about a war, worrying that losing a war would have disastrous consequences, and even a successful war might alienate the population if it were lengthy or difficult.[14]

The drivers of Austro-Hungarian policyEdit

The argument that Austro-Hungary was a moribund political entity, whose disappearance was only a matter of time, was deployed by hostile contemporaries to suggest that the empire's efforts to defend its integrity during the last years before the war were in some sense illegitimate.[71]

Clark states: "Evaluating the prospects of the Austo-Hungarian empire on the eve of the first world war confronts us in an acute way with the problem of temporal perspective....The collapse of the empire amid war and defeat in 1918 impressed itself upon the retrospective view of the Habsburg lands, overshadowing the scene with auguries of imminent and ineluctable decline."[72]

It is true that in Austro-Hungary, the political scene of the last decades before the war were increasingly dominated by the struggle for national rights among the empire's eleven official nationalities – German, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians. Yet before 1914, radical nationalists seeking full separation from the empire were still in a small minority and the roots of Austro-Hungary’s political turbulence went less deep than appearances suggested.

In fact, during the pre-war decade the Habsburg lands passed through a phase of strong economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity. Most inhabitants of the empire associated the Habsburg state with the benefits of orderly government, public education, welfare, sanitation, the rule of law, and the maintenance of a sophisticated infrastructure.

Christopher Clark states: "Prosperous and relatively well administered, the empire, like its elderly sovereign, exhibited a curious stability amid turmoil. Crises came and went without appearing to threaten the existence of the system as such. The situation was always, as the Viennese journalist Karl Kraus quipped, ‘desperate but not serious’."[73]

The drivers of Serbian PolicyEdit

The principal drivers of Serbian policy were to consolidate the Russian-backed expansion of Serbia during the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and achieve dreams of a Greater Serbia, which included “unification” of lands with large ethnic Serb populations inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Bosnia [74]

Overlaying this was a culture of extreme nationalism, and a cult of assassination, derived from the slaying of the Ottoman Sultan as the heroic epilogue to the otherwise disastrous Battle of Kosovo on 28 June 1389. Clark states: “The Greater Serbian vision was not just a question of government policy, however, or even of propaganda. It was woven deeply into the culture and identity of the Serbs”.[74]

Serbian policy was complicated by the fact that the main actors in 1914 were both the official Serb government led by Nikola Pašić and the “Black Hand” terrorists led by the Head of Serb Military Intelligence, known as Apis. The Black Hand believed that a Greater Serbia would be achieved by provoking a war with Austro-Hungary through an act of terror which, with Russian backing, would be won.

The official government position was to focus on consolidating the gains made during the Balkan war, and avoid any further conflict, since recent wars had somewhat exhausted the Serb state. Nevertheless, the official policy was muted by the political necessity of simultaneously and clandestinely supporting dreams of a Greater Serb state in the long-term.[75] The Serb government found it impossible to put and end to the machinations of the Black Hand for fear it would itself be overthrown. Clark states: “Serbian authorities were partly unwilling and partly unable to suppress the irredentist activity that had given rise to the assassinations in the first place” [76]

Russia, for its part, tended to support Serbian as a fellow Slav state and considered Serbia her “client”. Russia also encouraged Serbia to focus its irredentism against Austro-Hungary because it would discourage conflict between Serbia and Bulgaria (another prospective Russian ally) in Macedonia.


The impact of Colonial rivalry and aggression on Europe in 1914Edit

Imperial rivalry, and the consequences of the search for imperial security or for imperial expansion, had important consequences for the origins of the First World War.

Imperial rivalries between France, Great Britain, Russia and Germany played an important part in the creation of the Triple Entente and the relative isolation of Germany. Imperial opportunism, in the form of the Italian attack on Ottoman Libyan provinces, also encouraged the Balkan wars of 1912-13, which changed the balance of power in the Balkans to the detriment of Austro-Hungary.

Some historians, such as Margaret MacMillan, believe that Germany created its own diplomatic isolation in Europe in part through an aggressive and pointless imperial policy, known as Weltpolitik. Others, such as Clark, believe that German isolation was the unintended consequence of a détente between Great Britain, France and Russia. This détente was driven by Britain’s desire for imperial security in relation to France in North Africa and in relation to Russia in Persia and India.

Either way, this isolation is important for the causes of WW1 because it left Germany few options but to ally herself more strongly with Austro-Hungary, leading ultimately to unconditional support for Austria’s punitive war on Serbia during the July crisis of 1914.

German isolation: Consequence of Weltpolitik?Edit

Germany's Chancellor in the 1870s and 1880s Otto von Bismarck disliked the idea of an overseas empire. Rather Bismarck supported French colonization in Africa because it diverted government attention and resources away from continental Europe and revanchism post 1870. Germany's "New Course" in foreign affairs, termed "Weltpolitik" ("world policy”) was adopted in the 1890s after Bismarck's dismissal.

The aim of Weltpolitik was ostensibly to transform Germany into a global power through assertive diplomacy, the acquisition of overseas colonies, and the development of a large navy.

Some historians, notably MacMillan and Hew Strachan, believe that a consequence of the policy of Weltpolitik and the associated assertiveness was to isolate Germany.

Weltpolitik, particularly as expressed in Germany’s objections to France’s growing influence in Morocco in 1904 and 1907, also helped cement the Triple Entente. The Anglo-German Naval race also isolated Germany by reinforcing Britain’s preference for agreements with Germany’s continental rivals, France and Russia.

German isolation: Consequence of The Triple Entente?Edit

Historians, including Ferguson and Clark, believe that Germany’s isolation was the unintended consequences of the need for Britain to defend her Empire against threats from France and Russia. They also downplay the impact of Weltpolitik and the Anglo-German naval race, which ended in 1911.

Britain and France signed a series of agreement in 1904,which became known as the Entente Cordiale. The most important feature of the agreement was that it granted freedom of action to the UK in Egypt and to France in Morocco. Equally, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 is the common name used for the Convention between the United Kingdom and Russia relating to Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The convention brought shaky British–Russian relations to the forefront by solidifying boundaries that identified respective control in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.

The alignment between Great Britain, France and Russia became known as the Triple Entente. Therefore, the Triple Entente was not conceived as a counterweight to the Triple Alliance, but rather as a formula to secure imperial security between these three powers. The impact of the Triple Entente was therefore twofold, to improve British relations with France and her ally Russia and to demote the importance to Britain of good relations with Germany. Clark states it was "not that antagonism toward Germany caused its isolation, but rather that the new system itself channeled and intensified hostility towards the German Empire".

Imperial opportunism: Italy – OttomansEdit

The Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 was fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy in North Africa. The main significance for the First World War was that this war made it clear that no Great Power appeared to wish to support the Ottoman Empire any longer and this paved the way for the Balkan Wars.

Imperial opportunism France – North AfricaEdit

The status of Morocco had been guaranteed by international agreement, and when France attempted to greatly expand its influence there without the assent of all the other signatories Germany opposed it prompting the Moroccan Crises, the Tangier Crisis of 1905 and the Agadir Crisis of 1911. The intent of German policy was to drive a wedge between the British and French, but in both cases produced the opposite effect and Germany was isolated diplomatically, most notably lacking the support of Italy despite Italian membership in the Triple Alliance. The French protectorate over Morocco was established officially in 1912.

In 1914, however, the African scene was peaceful. The continent was almost fully divided up by the imperial powers (with only Liberia and Ethiopia still independent). There were no major disputes there pitting any two European powers against each other.[77]

Marxist intepretationEdit

Marxists typically attributed the start of the war to imperialism. "Imperialism," argued Lenin, "is the monopoly stage of capitalism." He thought the monopoly capitalists went to war to control markets and raw materials.

Social DarwinismEdit

Social Darwinism was a theory of human evolution loosely based on Darwinism that influenced most European intellectuals and strategic thinkers in the 1870-1914 era. These theories emphasized that struggle between nations and "races" was natural and that only the fittest nation deserved to survive.[78] It gave an impetus to German assertiveness as a world economic and military power, aimed at competing with France and Britain for world power. German colonial rule in Africa 1884-1914 was an expression of nationalism and moral superiority that was justified by constructing an image of the natives as "Other". This approach highlighted racist views of mankind. German colonization was characterized by the use of repressive violence in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. Germany's cultural-missionary project boasted that its colonial programs were humanitarian and educational endeavors. Furthermore, the wide acceptance among intellectuals of social Darwinism justified Germany's right to acquire colonial territories as a matter of the ‘survival of the fittest’, according to historian Michael Schubert.[79][80]

The model suggested an explanation of why some ethnic groups (called "races" at the time) had been so antagonistic for so long, such as Germans and Slavs. They were natural rivals, destined to clash. Senior German generals such as Helmuth von Moltke talked in apocalyptic terms about the need for Germans to fight for their existence as a people and culture. MacMillan states: "Reflecting the Social Darwinist theories of the era, many Germans saw Slavs, as especially Russia as the natural opponent of the Teutonic races".[81] Social Darwinism extended to Austria, where Conrad, Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff declared: "A people that lays down its weapons seals its fate." [81] In July 1914 the Austrian press described Serbia and the South Slavs in terns which owed much to Social Darwinism.[81]

War was seen as natural and a viable or even useful instrument of policy. "War was compared to a tonic for a sick patient or a life-saving operation to cut out diseased flesh".[81] Since war was natural for some leaders it was simply a question of timing, and it would be therefore better to have a war when the circumstances where most precipitous. “I consider a war inevitable", declared Moltke in 1912, "The sooner the better".[82]

Nationalism made war a competition between peoples, nations or races rather than kings and elites.[83] Social Darwinism carried a sense of inevitability to conflict and downplayed the use of diplomacy or international agreements to end warfare. It tended to glorify warfare, taking the initiative and the warrior male role.[84]

Social Darwinism played an important role across Europe, but J. Leslie has argued that it played a critical and immediate role in the strategic thinking of some important, hawkish members of the Austro-Hungarian government.[85] Social Darwinism therefore normalised war as an instrument of policy and justified its use.

Web of alliancesEdit

"The Chain of Friendship", an American editorial cartoon from depicting the supposed web of alliances, captioned, "If Austria attacks Serbia, Russia will fall upon Austria, Germany upon Russia, and France and England upon Germany." This dimension developed into the concept of Chain ganging.

General narratives of the war tend to emphasis the importance of Alliances in binding the major powers to act in the event of a crisis such as the July crisis. Historians such as Margaret MacMillan warn against the argument that alliances forced the great powers to act as they did during the July crisis. MacMillan states: "What we tend to think of as fixed alliances before the First World War were nothing of the sort. They were much more loose, much more porous, much more capable of change."[86]

The most important alliances in Europe required participants to agree to collective defense if attacked. Some of these represented formal alliances while the Triple Entente represented only a frame of mind. These included:

There are three notable exceptions which demonstrate that alliances did not in themselves force the great powers to act:

  • The "Entente Cordiale" between Britain and France in 1905 included a secret agreement which left the northern coast of France and the Channel to be defended by the British navy only, and the separate "entente" between Britain and Russia (1907) that formed the so-called Triple Entente. However, the Triple Entente between Russia, France and the United Kingdom did not in fact force the United Kingdom to mobilize because it was not a military treaty.
  • Moreover, general narratives of the war regularly misstate that Russia was allied to Serbia. Clive Ponting noted: "Russia had no treaty of alliance with Serbia and was under no obligation to support it diplomatically, let alone go to its defence".[87]
  • Italy, despite being part of the Triple Alliance did not enter the war in defence of its alliance partners

Arms raceEdit

By the 1870s or 1880s all the major powers were preparing for a large-scale war, although none expected one. Britain focused on building up its Royal Navy, already stronger than the next two navies combined. Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Russia, and some smaller countries, set up conscription systems whereby young men would serve from 1 to three years in the army, then spend the next 20 years or so in the reserves with annual summer training. Men from higher social statuses became officers. Each country devised a mobilisation system whereby the reserves could be called up quickly and sent to key points by rail. Every year the plans were updated and expanded in terms of complexity. Each country stockpiled arms and supplies for an army that ran into the millions. Germany in 1874 had a regular professional army of 420,000 with an additional 1.3 million reserves. By 1897 the regular army was 545,000 strong and the reserves 3.4 million. The French in 1897 had 3.4 million reservists, Austria 2.6 million, and Russia 4.0 million. The various national war plans had been perfected by 1914, albeit with Russia and Austria trailing in effectiveness. Recent wars (since 1865) had typically been short—a matter of months. All the war plans called for a decisive opening and assumed victory would come after a short war; no one planned for or was ready for the food and munitions needs of a long stalemate as actually happened in 1914–18.[88][89]

As David Stevenson has put it, "A self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness ... was an essential element in the conjuncture that led to disaster ... The armaments race ... was a necessary precondition for the outbreak of hostilities." David Herrmann goes further, arguing that the fear that "windows of opportunity for victorious wars" were closing, "the arms race did precipitate the First World War." If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1904 or even in 1911, Herrmann speculates, there might have been no war. It was "... the armaments race ... and the speculation about imminent or preventive wars" that made his death in 1914 the trigger for war.[90]

One of the aims of the First Hague Conference of 1899, held at the suggestion of Tsar Nicholas II, was to discuss disarmament. The Second Hague Conference was held in 1907. All the signatories except for Germany supported disarmament. Germany also did not want to agree to binding arbitration and mediation. The Kaiser was concerned that the United States would propose disarmament measures, which he opposed. All parties tried to revise international law to their own advantage.[91]

Anglo-German naval raceEdit

1909 cartoon in Puck shows (clockwise) US, Germany, Britain, France and Japan engaged in naval race in a "no limit" game.

Historians have debated the role of the German naval build-up as the principal cause of deteriorating Anglo-German relations. In any case Germany never came close to catching up with Britain.

Supported by Wilhelm II's enthusiasm for an expanded German navy, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz championed four Fleet Acts from 1898 to 1912, and, from 1902 to 1910, the Royal Navy embarked on its own massive expansion to keep ahead of the Germans. This competition came to focus on the revolutionary new ships based on the Dreadnought, which was launched in 1906, and which gave Britain a battleship that far outclassed any other in Europe.[92][93]

The naval strength of the powers in 1914
Country Personnel Large Naval Vessels
Russia 54,000 4 328,000
France 68,000 10 731,000
Britain 209,000 29 2,205,000
TOTAL 331,000 43 3,264,000
Germany 79,000 17 1,019,000
Austria-Hungary 16,000 4 249,000
TOTAL 95,000 21 1,268,000
(Source: [94])

The overwhelming British response proved to Germany that its efforts were unlikely to equal the Royal Navy. In 1900, the British had a 3.7:1 tonnage advantage over Germany; in 1910 the ratio was 2.3:1 and in 1914, 2.1:1. Ferguson argues that, "So decisive was the British victory in the naval arms race that it is hard to regard it as in any meaningful sense a cause of the First World War."[95] This ignores the fact that the Kaiserliche Marine had narrowed the gap by nearly half, and that the Royal Navy had long intended to be stronger than any two potential opponents; the United States Navy was in a period of growth, making the German gains very ominous.

In Britain in 1913, there was intense internal debate about new ships due to the growing influence of John Fisher's ideas and increasing financial constraints. In early-mid-1914 Germany adopted a policy of building submarines instead of new dreadnoughts and destroyers, effectively abandoning the race, but kept this new policy secret to delay other powers following suit.[96]

The Germans abandoned the naval race before the war broke out. The extent to which the naval race was one of the chief factors in Britain's decision to join the Triple Entente remains a key controversy. Historians such as Christopher Clark believe it was not significant, with Margaret Moran taking the opposite view.

Russian interests in Balkans and Ottoman EmpireEdit

The main Russian goals included strengthening its role as the protector of Eastern Christians in the Balkans (such as the Serbians).[97] Although Russia enjoyed a booming economy, growing population, and large armed forces, its strategic position was threatened by an expanding Turkish military trained by German experts using the latest technology. The start of the war renewed attention of old goals: expelling the Turks from Constantinople, extending Russian dominion into eastern Anatolia and Persian Azerbaijan, and annexing Galicia. These conquests would assure Russian predominance in the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean.[98]

Technical and military factorsEdit

The 'Short war illusion'Edit

Traditional narratives of the war suggested that when the war began both sides believed that the war would end quickly. Rhetorically speaking there was an expectation that the war would be “Over by Christmas” 1914. This is important for the origins of the conflict since it suggests that, given the expectation was that war would be short, the statesmen did not tend to take gravity of military action as seriously as they might have done.

However, modern historiography suggests a more nuanced approach. There is ample evidence to suggest that statesmen and military leaders thought the war would be lengthy, terrible and have profound political consequences.

While it is true all military leaders planned for a swift victory, many military and civilian leaders recognized that the war may be long and highly destructive. The principal German and French military leaders, including Moltke and Ludendorff and his French counterpart Joseph Joffre, expected a long war.[99] The British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener expected a long war: "three years" or longer, he told an amazed colleague.

Moltke hoped that a European war, if it broke out, would be resolved swiftly, but he also conceded that it might drag on for years, wreaking immeasurable ruin. Asquith wrote of the approach of ‘Armageddon’ and French and Russian generals spoke of a ‘war of extermination’ and the ‘end of civilization’. Foreign Secretary Grey famously stated just hours before Britain declared war: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Nevertheless, Clark concludes that "In the minds of many statesmen, the hope for a short war and the fear of a long one seemed to have cancelled each other out, holding at bay a fuller appreciation of the risks."[100]

Primacy of the offensive and war by timetableEdit

Military commanders of the time, including Moltke, Joffre and Conrad, held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. This theory encouraged all belligerents to devise war plans to strike first to gain the advantage. These war plans all included complex plans for mobilisation of the armed forces, either as a prelude to war or as a deterrent. In the case of the continental Great Powers the mobilisation plans included arming and transporting millions of men and their equipment, typically by rail and to strict schedules- hence the metaphor "War by Timetable".

These mobilisation plans shortened the window for diplomacy as military planners wanted to begin mobilization as quickly as possible to avoid being caught on the defensive. They also put pressure on policymakers to begin their own mobilisation once it was discovered that other nations had begun to mobilise.

Some historians assert that mobilization schedules were so rigid that once it was begun, they could not be cancelled without massive disruption of the country and military disorganization and so diplomatic overtures conducted after the mobilizations had begun were ignored.[101]

For example, Russia ordered partial mobilisation on 25 July. The policy was intended to be a mobilisation against Austria-Hungary only. However, due to a lack of pre-war planning for this type of partial mobilisation, the Russians realised by 29 July that partial mobilisation was not militarily possible, and as it would interfere with a general mobilisation, only full mobilisation could prevent the entire operation being botched. The Russians were therefore faced with only two options, to cancel mobilisation during a crisis or to move to full mobilisation, which they did on 30 July. This full mobilisation meant mobilising along both the Russian border with Austro-Hungary and the border with Germany.

For their part the German war plans, the so-called Schlieffen plan, assumed a two-front war against France and Russia. They were predicated on massing the bulk of the German army against France, and taking the offensive in the West, while a holding force held East Prussia. The plans were based on the assumption that France would mobilise significantly quicker than Russia. Hence German forces could be deployed in the West to defeat France before turning to face the slow-moving Russians in the East.

On 28 July, Germany learned through its spy network that Russia had implemented partial mobilisation and its "Period Preparatory to War". The Germans assumed that Russia had, after all, decided upon war and that her mobilisation put Germany in danger. This was doubly so because German war plans, the so-called Schlieffen Plan, relied upon Germany to mobilise speedily enough to defeat France first (by attacking largely through neutral Belgium) before turning to defeat the slower-moving Russians.

Christopher Clarke states: "German efforts at mediation – which suggested that Austria should “Halt in Belgrade” and use the occupation of the Serbian capital to ensure its terms were met – were rendered futile by the speed of Russian preparations, which threatened to force the Germans to take counter–measures before mediation could begin to take effect". .[63] Furthermore, Clarke states: "The Germans declared war on Russia before the Russians declared war on Germany. But by the time that happened, the Russian government had been moving troops and equipment to the German front for a week. The Russians were the first great power to issue an order of general mobilisation and the first Russo-German clash took place on German, not on Russian soil, following the Russian invasion of East Prussia. That doesn’t mean that the Russians should be ‘blamed’ for the outbreak of war. Rather it alerts us to the complexity of the events that brought war about and the limitations of any thesis that focuses on the culpability of one actor."[102]


Louis P. Bénézet's map of "Europe As It Should Be" (1918), depicting imagined nations based on ethnic and linguistic criteria. Bénézet's book The World War and What was Behind It (1918) blamed on German aggression combined with perceived threats to the traditional social order from radicals and ethnic nationalists.

During the period immediately following the end of hostilities, Anglo-American historians argued that Germany was solely responsible for the start of the war. However, academic work in the English-speaking world in the later 1920s and 1930s blamed participants more equally.

Since the 1960s, the tendency has been to reassert the guilt of Germany, although some historians continue to argue for collective responsibility.

Discussion over which country "started" the war, and who bears the blame, continues to this day.[103]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Van Evera, Stephen (Summer 1984). "The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War". International Security. 9 (1): 62. doi:10.2307/2538636. JSTOR 2538636. 
  2. ^ Fischer, Fritz (1975). War of illusions: German policies from 1911 to 1914. Chatto and Windus. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-3930-5480-4. 
  3. ^ Sagan, Scott D. (Fall 1986). "1914 Revisited: Allies, Offense, and Instability". International Security. 11 (2): 151–175. doi:10.2307/2538961. JSTOR 2538961. 
  4. ^ Henig, Ruth (2006). The Origins of the First World War. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-85200-0. 
  5. ^ Lieven, D. C. B. (1983). Russia and the Origins of the First World War. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-69611-5. 
  6. ^ Jean-Marie Mayeur, and Madeleine Rebirioux, The Third Republic from its Origins to the Great War, 1871–1914 (1988)
  7. ^ G.P. Gooch, Franco-german relations, 1871-1914 (1923).
  8. ^ Hewitson, Mark (2000). "Germany and France before the First World War: a reassessment of Wilhelmine foreign policy". English Historical Review. 115 (462): 570–606. doi:10.1093/ehr/115.462.570. 
  9. ^ Samuel R. Williamson Jr., "German Perceptions of the Triple Entente after 1911: Their Mounting Apprehensions Reconsidered" Foreign Policy Analysis 7#2 (2011): 205-214.
  10. ^ Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 (1954) pp 345, 403–26
  11. ^ G.P. Gooch, Before the war: studies in diplomacy (1936), chapter on Delcassé pp 87-186.
  12. ^ Strachan, Hew (2005). The First World War. 
  13. ^ J.A. Spender, Fifty years of Europe: a study in pre-war documents (1933) pp 212-21.
  14. ^ a b Ferguson (1999).
  15. ^ a b Clark (2013), p. 324.
  16. ^ Ferguson (1999), p. 53.
  17. ^ Clark (2013), p. 159.
  18. ^ Hamilton, K.A. (1977). "Great Britain and France, 1911–1914". In Hinsley, F.H. British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey. Cambridge University Press. p. 324. ISBN 978-0-521-21347-9. 
  19. ^ Clark (2013), p. 157.
  20. ^ J.A. Spender, Fifty years of Europe: a study in pre-war documents (1933) pp 297-312
  21. ^ MacMillan, The war that ended peace pp 438-65.
  22. ^ Falls, Nigel (2007). "The Panther at Agadir". History Today. 57 (1): 33–37. 
  23. ^ Sidney B. Fay, "The Origins of the World War" (2nd ed. 1930): 1:290-93.
  24. ^ Kaylani, Nabil M. (1975). "Liberal Politics and British-Foreign-Office 1906-1912-Overview". International Review of History and Political Science. 12 (3): 17–48. 
  25. ^ J.A. Spender, Fifty years of Europe: a study in pre-war documents (1933) pp 329-40.
  26. ^ William C. Askew, Europe and Italy's Acquisition of Libya, 1911–1912 (1942) online
  27. ^ Clark (2013), p. 242.
  28. ^ Williamson (1991), pp. 125–140.
  29. ^ Williamson (1991), pp. 143-145.
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Further readingEdit


Primary sourcesEdit

  • Collins, Ross F. World War I: Primary Documents on Events from 1914 to 1919 (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Dugdale, E.T.S. ed. German Diplomatic Documents 1871-1914 (4 vol 1928-31), in English translation. online
  • French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Documents (1914)
  • Gooch, G. P. Recent Revelations of European Diplomacy (1940); 475pp detailed summaries of memoirs from all the major belligerents
  • Gooch, G.P. and Harold Temperley, eds. British documents on the origins of the war, 1898-1914 (11 vol. ) online
    • v. i The end of British isolation—v.2. From the occupation of Kiao-Chau to the making of the Anglo-French entente Dec. 1897-Apr. 1904—V.3. The testing of the Entente, 1904-6 -- v.4. The Anglo-Russian rapprochment, 1903-7 -- v.5. The Near East, 1903-9 -- v.6. Anglo-German tension. Armaments and negotiation, 1907-12—v.7. The Agadir crisis—v.8. Arbitration, neutrality and security—v.9. The Balkan wars, pt.1-2 -- v.10,pt.1. The Near and Middle East on the eve of war. pt.2. The last years of peace—v.11. The outbreak of war V.3. The testing of the Entente, 1904-6 -- v.4. The Anglo-Russian rapprochment, 1903-7 -- v.5. The Near East, 1903-9 -- v.6. Anglo-German tension. Armaments and negotiation, 1907-12—v.7. The Agadir crisis—v.8. Arbitration, neutrality and security—v.9. The Balkan wars, pt.1-2 -- v.10,pt.1. The Near and Middle East on the eve of war. pt.2. The last years of peace—v.11. The outbreak of war.
    • Gooch, G. P. and Harold Temperley, eds. British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914 Volume XI, the Outbreak of War Foreign Office Documents (1926) online
  • Lowe, C.J. and M.L. Dockrill, eds. The Mirage of Power: The Documents of British Foreign Policy 1914-22 (vol 3, 1972), pp 423–759
  • Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and Military Documents (2013), 592pp;
  • Reichstag speeches [1]

External linksEdit