The Roots of War

The man with The Plan: Alfred von Schlieffen

In United States history, we know December 7, 1941, as the “date that will live in infamy,” due to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the context of world history, however, the most infamous date in history is June 28, 1914. This date marked the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, the heir to the Austrian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, by a South Slav nationalist. This event would set in motion the cataclysmic occurrences of the first great clash of empires and nations.

The root causes of the Great War run much deeper than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, however. There are several causes which must be examined in order to fully understand the scope of June 28 and the tidal wave it set in motion. One of these causes rested in the already fragile relationship which existed between Austria-Hungary and the neighboring country of Serbia. After suffering centuries of oppressive rule under the Ottoman Turks as well as the Habsburgs in Austria, Serbia had formally gained independence in the previous century but still suffered from antagonistic relations with these two neighbors. During the First and Second Balkan Wars, Serbia grew exponentially, both in land and population, and Austria-Hungary saw it as a threat to Austrian influence in the region, particularly among the South Slavic peoples in the Balkans who viewed Serbia favorably. Conrad von Hotzendorf, who was the Austrian Chief of Staff at the time, wrote to Franz Ferdinand of the danger of Serbia saying that the “The loss of territory and prestige involved in Serbia’s ascendancy ‘would relegate the Monarchy to the status of a small power.’”[1]

This tension had also been exacerbated by Austria-Hungary’s annexation of the Balkan countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Given the vast number of Slavic people in these countries, this action angered the Serbs and contributed to the ever widening rift. Leadership in Austria was eager to bring the confrontation to a head, illustrated best by von Hotzendorf, who recommended war with Serbia no less than 25 times in 1913 alone.”[2] Von Hotzendorf and others in the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw dominance in the Balkans as a way to reassert their waning influence in the region, while Serbia saw only another oppressor attempting to divide and conquer Slavic people. As author G.J. Meyer put it; “By the summer of 1914 the Balkans were a region in which nobody was satisfied and everyone found reason to be angry and afraid.”[3]

Franz Ferdinand’s decision to attend the Habsburg army’s summer maneuvers in Bosnia was an ill-fated one. As the nephew and heir to the throne, his presence was particularly egregious to the Serbians, already sore over the annexation of Bosnia, and the 28th of June is Vidovdan, which marked one of the worst defeats in Serbian military history to the Ottoman Turks. As the emblem of another foreign oppressive regime, Franz Ferdinand’s presence rankled. Members of a Serbian nationalist terrorist organization, the Black Hand, plotted the assassination. The Black Hand was deeply intertwined with the Serbian government; their head, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, was also the head of Serbian intelligence. So when one of the members of the Black Hand, Gavrilo Princip, was able to successfully carry out the execution, it was the final straw for Austria-Hungary.

The subsequent events exposed the other roots of what would become the First World War. For years, it had been understood that Europe was in a great arms race. Military technology had exploded in the decades preceding 1914, with each nation trying to gain an advantage over the other. Germany, in particular, had attempted to build up not only its army, but to challenge British supremacy over the high seas. It had become so bad that in 1908, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, had met with the German ambassador at the time in an attempt to negotiate a curtailment of fleet building, given the rapidly expanding costs to both nations. Kaiser Wilhelm, in notations on the dispatch sent by his ambassador, showed true hostility to this idea, writing “we shall never be dictated to as to how our armament should be constituted.”[4] Needless to say, there had been no sign of curtailment in armament production on any front.

Europe at this time was also entangled with complex alliances between all the great powers. Russia, itself home to many Slavic peoples, saw itself as the natural protector of Slavs in the Balkans, and it was to them Serbia looked for aid. Germany had alliances with Italy and Austria-Hungary, and Austria dared not make any military moves without receiving assurance of German support. Germany, faced with the constant fear of encirclement, had to worry not only about the Russians on their eastern border, but about France, who had an alliance with Russia, which lay on Germany’s western border. Great Britain had no hard ties to anyone, but had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. This posed a particular problem for Germany, whose primary war plan in the eventuality of an all-out conflict required them to march through Belgium to strike at France.

The problematic nature of these alliances was revealed in July of 1914, because once war was declared, it set in motion a long train of events from which each country had to guess how the others would react. It was this that drove Austria-Hungary to first ask Germany for their assistance should aggression against Serbia lead to war with Russia. Historian John Keegan writes of this complex string of alliances “it was the calculation of presumed military response, of how it was guessed one military precaution would follow from another, that drove Austria to seek comfort in the Triple Alliance from the outset …”[5]

Once war had been declared, the war plans drawn up by each nation were such that they required a strict adherence to timetables, and this made the possibility of de-mobilization remote. Germany, in particular, had a war plan that had been drawn up from previous decades, by a general named Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen had been the architect of the invasion of Belgium, and his plan required a swift deployment through Belgium in order to quickly beat France and then turn their attention to Russia in the east, who would take longer to mobilize. Once Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, however, the Russians began to mobilize more quickly than expected, and this forced the German’s hand. Amongst some diplomats, there was hope that the matter could still be sorted out. Keegan writes, “”There was briefly, the circulation of a feeling that the crisis, like those of 1909 and 1913, might be talked out.  The weakness of that hope was the ignorance and misunderstanding among politicians and diplomats of how the mechanism of abstract war plans, once instigated, would operate.”[6]  Germany set its plan in motion and there was no going back.

There were many other underlying reasons for the Great War; ineffective leadership, regional instability, and the militaristic and philosophical thinking of the day also played a role.  All of these things led to the perfect storm, and Gavrilo Princip was the match that ignited it.

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[1] Gilbert, Martin.  The First World War: A Complete History.  (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1994), pg 6.

[2] Meyer, G.J. A World Undone.  (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006), pg 19.

[3] Ibid, pg. 24

[4] Massie, Robert K.  Dreadnought.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991) pg. 698

[5] Keegan, John.  The First World War.  (New York: Vintage Books, 1998)  pg. 52

[6] Ibid, pg. 58-59