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The Causes and War Aims of World War One

Part 2


The Trigger: Assassination

In 1914, Europe had been on the brink of war for several years. The trigger was provided on June 28th 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia on a trip designed to irritate Serbia. A loose supporter of the ‘Black Hand’, a Serbian nationalist group, was able to assassinate the Archduke after a comedy of errors. Ferdinand wasn’t popular in Austria – he had ‘only’ married a noble, not a royal - but they decided it was the perfect excuse to threaten Serbia. They planned to use an extremely one sided set of demands to provoke a war – Serbia was never meant to actually agree to the demands – and fight to end Serbian independence, thus strengthening the Austrian position in the Balkans.

Austria expected the war with Serbia, but in case of war with Russia they checked with Germany beforehand if it would support them. Germany replied yes, giving Austria a ‘blank check’. The Kaiser and other civilian leaders believed swift action by Austria would seem like the result of emotion and the other Great Powers would stay out, but Austria prevaricated, eventually sending their note too late for it to look like anger. Serbia accepted all but a few clauses of the ultimatum, but not all, and Russia was willing to go to war to defend them. Austria-Hungary had not deterred Russia by involving Germany, and Russia had not deterred Austria-Hungary by risking the Germans: bluffs on both sides were called. Now the balance of power in Germany shifted to the military leaders, who finally had what they had been coveting for several years: Austria-Hungary, which had seemed loathe to support Germany in a war, was about to embark on a war in which Germany could take the initiative and turn into the much greater war it desired, while crucially retaining Austrian aid, vital for the Schlieffen Plan.

What followed was the five major nations of Europe – Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side, France, Russian and Britain on the other – all pointing to their treaties and alliances in order to enter into the war many in each nation had wanted. The diplomats increasingly found themselves side-lined and unable to stop events as the military took over. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia to see if they could win a war before Russia arrived, and Russia, who pondered just attacking Austria-Hungary, mobilised against both them and Germany, knowing this meant Germany would attack France. This let Germany claim victim status and mobilise, but because their plans called for a quick war to knock Russia’s ally France out before Russian troops arrived, they declared war on France, who declared war in response. Britain hesitated and then joined, using Germany’s invasion of Belgium to mobilise the support of the doubters in Britain. Italy, who had an agreement with Germany, refused to do anything.

Many of these decisions where increasingly taken by the military, who gained ever more control of events, even from national leaders who sometimes got left behind: it took a while for the Tsar to be talked round by pro-war military, and the Kaiser wavered as the military carried on. At one point the Kaiser instructed Austria to cease trying to attack Serbia, but people in Germany’s military and government first ignored him, and then convinced him it was too late for anything but peace. Military ‘advice’ dominated over diplomatic. Many felt helpless, others elated.

There were people who tried to prevent the war at this late stage, but many others were infected with jingoism and pushed on. Britain, who had the least explicit obligations, felt a moral duty to defend France, wished to put down German imperialism, and technically had a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s safety. Thanks to the empires of these key belligerents, and thanks to other nations entering the conflict, the war soon involved much of the globe. Few expected the conflict to last more than a few months, and the public was generally excited. It would last until 1918, and kill millions. Some of those who expected a long war were Moltke, the head of the German army, and Kitchener, a key figure in the British establishment.

War Aims: Why each Nation went to War

Each nation’s government had slightly different reasons for going, and these are explained below:

Germany: A Place in the Sun and Inevitability
Many members of the German military and government were convinced that a war with Russia was inevitable given their competing interests in the land between them and the Balkans. But they had also concluded, not without justification, that Russia was militarily much weaker now than it would be should it continue to industrialize and modernize its army. France was also increasing its military capacity – a law making conscription last three years was passed against opposition – and Germany had managed to get stuck in a naval race with Britain. To many influential Germans, their nation was surrounded and stuck in an arms race it would lose if allowed to continue. The conclusion was that this inevitable war must be fought sooner, when it could be won, than later.

War would also enable Germany to dominate more of Europe and expand the core of the German Empire east and west. But Germany wanted more. The German Empire was relatively young and lacked a key element that the other major empires – Britain, France, Russia – had: colonial land. Britain owned large parts of the world, France owned a lot too, and Russia had expanded deep into Asia. Other less powerful powers owned colonial land, and Germany coveted these extra resources and power. This craving for colonial land became known as them wanting ‘A Place in the Sun’. The German government thought that a successful victory would allow them to gain some of their rivals’ land. Germany was also determined to keep Austria-Hungary alive as a viable ally to their south, and support them in a war if necessary.

Russia: Slavic Land and Government Survival
Russia believed that the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were collapsing, and that there would be a reckoning over who would occupy their territory. To many Russia, this reckoning would be largely in the Balkans between a pan-Slavic alliance, ideally dominated by (if not entirely controlled by) Russia, against a pan-German Empire. Many in the Russian court, in the ranks of the military officer class, in the central government, in the press and even among the educated, felt Russia should enter and win this clash. Indeed, Russia was afraid that if they didn’t act in decisive support of the Slavs, as they has failed to do in the Balkan Wars, that Serbia would take the Slavic initiative and destabilise Russia. In addition, Russia had lusted over Constantinople and the Dardanelles for centuries, as half of Russia’s foreign trade travelled through this narrow region controlled by the Ottomans. War and victory would bring greater trade security.

Tsar Nicholas II was cautious, and a faction at court advised him against war, believing the nation would implode and revolution would follow. But equally, the Tsar was being advised by people who believed that if Russia didn’t go to war in 1914, it would be a sign of weakness which would lead to a fatal undermining of the imperial government, leading to revolution or invasion.

France: Revenge and Re-conquest
France felt it had been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 – 71, in which Paris had been besieged and the French Emperor had been forced to personally surrender with his army. France was burning to restore its reputation and, crucially, gain back the rich industrial land of Alsace and Lorraine which Germany had won off her. Indeed, the French plan for war with Germany, Plan XVII, focused on gaining this land above everything else.

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