Supplemental Episode 3:
Damned Are the Peacemakers
So it has finally happened. After fourteen episodes, counting our supplementals, the First World War has finally begun. But before we get into the nuts and bolts of the war itself, I would like to spend today’s episode on a final summary of what the hell just happened. In the space of just a few weeks, every major country in Europe has declared war on each other, and within just a month’s time more than a million people will have been killed. This, all because some kid bumped off a random prince in a backwater provincial city in the Balkans. How on earth could this have happened? What mistakes, miscalculations, and misunderstandings led to all of this? And perhaps most importantly: whose fault was it?
This last question, who was at fault for starting the First World War, is perhaps the most enduring and controversial question in the entire historiography of the war, and indeed of the twentieth century. This is no small matter. Tens of millions of people are going to be killed in this war, whole countries and ancient empires and dynasties are going to be destroyed, and a direct line can be traced to almost every great historical event of the last hundred years – everything from the Cold War, to the current conflicts in the Middle East, to of course the Second World War and the Holocaust – from the war that has just broken out between the Entente and the Central Powers. So although I am a bit hesitant to throw my hat into the ring of these incredibly contentious arguments, I believe I would be doing you all a disservice if we did not spend some time analyzing what I have come to call the Great Failure of the Twentieth Century.
First, let’s start with some basic facts. In 1914 the European continent was principally dominated by five quote-unquote “Great Powers”: Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. These “Great Powers” were, essentially, the same Great Powers that we started this series with back when we discussed the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The only major differences were that Prussia had unified the German states into the German Empire, and the Austrian Empire had been reconstituted as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, which ended so dramatically and so bloodily with the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, none of the leaders of any of these countries had any interest in going to war with one another for any reason, as the Napoleonic Wars had been so costly and so bloody that the thought of going to war again was simply intolerable. But within a couple of generations, the memory of the destruction and bloodshed of these wars had waned somewhat in the minds of the leaders of these countries.
The Revolutions of 1848 had then brought to the forefront political ideas that were all but unthinkable previously – democracy, national self-determination, equality before the law, and even economic equality i.e. socialism. And though these revolutions were all essentially squashed, they nonetheless deeply destabilized the absolutist foundations of the Great Powers. Soon enough, national wars of independence were being waged along with territorial wars of conquest – the Crimean War, the Second War of Italian Independence, the Austro-Prussian War, and finally the Franco-Prussian War. Though overshadowed by the far larger wars before and after them – namely the Napoleonic Wars on the one side and the First World War on the other – these were no small disputes. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were mobilized in each of these conflicts, threw themselves at one another in pitched battles of enormous scale, and the map of Europe was radically altered as a result of these conflicts.
Before 1848, Europe was (mostly) ruled by absolutist monarchies whose borders and legitimacy were based on divinely appointed rulers who claimed their thrones by means of dynastic inheritance. But after 1848, wars involving some (though never all at once) of the Great Powers created states based on radically different principals. France transformed into a Republic, Germany and Italy were unified on the basis of nationalism, and Austria was forced to grant equal status and autonomy to their Hungarian subjects. Only Britain and Russia, the two countries who were most untouched by the Revolutions of 1848, remained largely as they were; a parliamentary constitutional monarchy on the one hand, and an absolutist autocracy on the other. But they too were forced to change along with everyone else as time went on. Britain slowly became a more and more democratic country, until universal male suffrage was finally achieved in 1918, the same year that some women were granted the vote. Russia, meanwhile, underwent a massive revolution in 1905 that I wish we had the time to cover more (though if you want, you can check out Mike Duncan’s podcast Revolutions in which he just finished covering the 1905 Revolution). This revolution was one part democratic, one part nationalist, and one part socialist, and all three of these parts would combine to topple the Czarist monarchy in 1917 while the war in Europe still raged. So clearly, the countries of Europe were becoming more and more comfortable, as memories of the Napoleonic Wars became dimmer and dimmer, to launch massive total wars against one another based on the new principle of nationalism, all the while they became more democratic, and both domestic and international politics became a less gentlemanly and more raucous affair.
But that’s not the whole story, I think. Nationalism and democracy were highly destabilizing forces for the monarchies of Europe, yes, (to say nothing of the truly radical doctrines of socialism). And as has been proved time and time again by history, the prospect of war becomes less and less appalling to those in power the more time passes since the last big one. But, in our own time, Europe is mostly made up of nation-states whose borders are theoretically based on national self-determination, and essentially all of these states are democratic republics in one form or another. And beyond that, it has been 75 years since the last major war in Europe was fought (sort of not counting the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s which…fair enough). Memories of the Second World War have been fading from the collective consciousness for a while now, and yet the countries of Europe aren’t exactly about to declare war on each other. So clearly, something else was going on at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries that led to the standoff that ultimately spiraled into war in July of 1914. So what was it?
Well, if you’ll remember a few episodes back I suggested that a lot of the blame lies with Otto von Bismarck, and while I still maintain that position I think it requires a bit more clarification and context. Every single politician and diplomat at the beginning of the 20th century knew the life and career of Bismarck chapter and verse. And whether you loved him or hated him, and there were people on all sides of the love to hate spectrum, everyone knew with what wild success Bismarck had come to, rising from Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Prussia to Chancellor of a united German Empire, all in the space of less than a decade. And how had Bismarck come to this success? By lying to and manipulating virtually all of his partners into falling for cleverly laid traps, with each trap coming to fruition by means of a war. First, he tricked the Danes into declaring war on Prussia over the tiny province of Schleswig-Holstein of all things; then he tricked the Austrians into helping him crush the Danes, only to double-cross them and declare war on them as a way to kick them out of the German Confederation; then he got Prussia to annex most of the other German states into the “North German Confederation;” and finally he tricked Napoleon III of France into declaring war on Prussia so he could lead all the German states into a grand anti-French coalition, unifying them under the banner of a Prussian led German Empire, and for good measure twisted the knife in the French by annexing from them the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. In each of these gambles, Bismarck won, and there is a truly impressive cunning and political astuteness to each of these plans. And while clearly a bit of a warmonger, Bismarck was no bloodthirsty monster, the wars he launched were, as wars of this scale go, conducted with as good of behavior by his troops as possible (minus the incident with the Algerian soldiers in 1870 of course). I don’t want to imply that I think Bismarck was some proto-Hitler or something, and as I said in Episode 6: The Red Cape, I think that Germany would have been much, much better served if it had a Chancellor of Bismarck’s caliber before and during the First World War. Probably, with Bismarck or someone of his skill in charge during 1914, Germany would not have been sucked into a giant war at all, certainly not one with the deck so badly stacked against them. But the thing is, in doing all of these things Bismarck created a culture among European statesmen of cynical backstabbing that none of them ever played as well as he did. Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s there were dozens of plots of various scales and intents that were always carried out with secrecy and duplicity and trickery, and were all backed up with the threat of armed force. I didn’t go into many of these crises, but when you read about late 19th and early 20th century diplomacy in Europe, you will constantly see diplomats and political leaders sniping at each other and trying to undercut and undermine each other and hiding their true intentions from everyone else. The decade or so before the First World War is a decade of near constant and recurrent crises: The Fashoda Crisis, the First Moroccan Crisis, the Bosnian Annexation Crisis, the Second Moroccan Crisis, and finally the Balkan Crises of 1912-1914, the last of which was the July Crisis of 1914 which finally resulted in the general European War that statesmen had been predicting for more than a decade. Crisis Crisis Crisis, nothing but Crises over really tiny little issues.
So now I think we are starting to circle in on an answer here. The Revolutions of 1848 had allowed a flourishing of heretofore unimaginable ideas for political and military organization, soon after which Bismarck navigated these unstable waters by ruthlessly back-stabbing and then slitting the throats of everyone in his path, which led to a period in Europe of extreme uneasiness and distrust in terms of international politics. Old Prince Metternich had lived long enough to see the specter of revolution to Europe, but I don’t think even he could have imagined such an unstable situation in Europe so soon after he thought he had set right the ships of state.
And before we move on to some of the specifics of the alliance system and, ultimately, the July Crisis which ended finally in the World War people had been fearing, let’s talk a little bit about Metternich. It’s been a while since we talked about him, but as a quick refresher, Prince Klemens von Metternich was the long-time Foreign Minister and Chancellor of the Austrian Empire from 1809 to 1848. He, more than any other single man, created the map which 19th century Europeans would inherit by guiding and leading the debates during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which redrew the borders of Europe after the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Metternich’s political philosophy was grounded on two basic principles: 1) That the legitimate basis for government is a strong, absolute monarch who rules by divine right and not because of the sovereignty of a nation or a people. And 2) That the best way to preserve peace in Europe is for a stable balance of power among all the great powers, to quote myself a bit here, “checking one another’s ambition, and helping one another to quash revolution.”
But there were a few problems with this political philosophy of Metternich’s. First, and we haven’t really talked much about this, was that the French Revolution had unleashed upon Europe ideas that had never before been considered by anyone: popular sovereignty and democracy, equality before the law, national self-determination, in short – liberty, equality, and fraternity. Not only had these ideas rocked France, but when Napoleon Bonaparte took his Grande Armée out a-conquerin’ and laid the other monarchs of Europe prostrate at his feet, these ideas had been exported to the lands the French conquered. This is not to say that the people of Europe were uniformly thrilled to be conquered by France, they weren’t, but when the French left they left in their wake governmental organizations and political philosophies that did not just run counter to the principles of absolutism that previously ruled Europe, but these ideas were practically the polar opposite of that absolutism. Metternich thought that he could just roll back the clock to 1788 before the French Revolution had, in his eyes, wrecked everything, and set up a series of absolute monarchies, the borders of whose domains paid no attention to the nationalities of their subjects, and which ruled those subjects not by their consent, but by the grace of god. But this was, at best, wishful thinking on Metternich’s part, and in reality was pretty blindly foolish. True, the liberals and radicals of Europe were disheartened by the result of the Napoleonic Wars (and many before had been disheartened by Napoleon Bonaparte abandoning many of those principals in assuming imperial autocratic power), and no one wanted to get back to war with the bodies of the last generation-long war still being warm. But the ideas and promises and dreams of the French Revolution were not going anywhere.
The second problem with Metternich’s vision of a stable balance of power among divinely appointed monarchs was that whole balance of power thing. Metternich and indeed most European politicians of the age really bought into this idea of a balance of power, it was so taken for granted that the idea was basically abstracted beyond any practical realities. The problem with this though is that while no one power was now strong enough to humble all the others, which was the chief concern for these men who had just lived through the reign of Napoleon, but perhaps an even greater danger had been created. The European continent, which is not that large, was now shared by five superpowers, most of whom bordered with at least one and (in Prussia/Germany’s case) as many as three of the others. Five military powerhouses sharing a relatively small continent, all of them both hungrily eyeing one another’s territory and influence while simultaneously being terrified of being swallowed up in the next war. This was not a recipe for permanent peace. This was, as I said in our very first episode, a giant five-way Mexican standoff. Eventually, the tension would become unbearable and someone would snap and start shooting.
Now I don’t want to imply either that balance of power structures can never work, nor that one hegemonic power is the best and most stable way to preserve peace. Not only does domination by one hegemonic power often result in the oppression/subjugation of all other countries and peoples, but corruption or decline within the hegemon can be disastrous for all other surrounding peoples. We need look no further than the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to see the dangers in that path. All I mean is that Metternich and the other men at the Congress of Vienna had an opportunity in 1815 to establish a series of new, free countries, of once subject peoples having their own nations to rule, and the people of all nations given some level of participation in government. In my opinion, this would have created a much more stable, much less confrontational balance of power in Europe. But that’s just not what the rulers of Europe wanted. They wanted their subjects to return to their former docile quiescence. Imagine what Europe might have looked like had the leaders of the early 19th century tried to incorporate the new philosophies of political organization rather than try to stamp them out. Rather than five superpowers ruled by absolute monarchs perched atop thrones of bayonets, there might have been a constellation of representative states that granted national self-determination to the peoples of Europe. Not a continent of embittered subjects, but a continent of empowered citizens. Not a giant Mexican standoff, but a league of peace and harmony. Is this all starting to sound a little ridiculous? Ok, fair enough. But I still think it is worth pointing out that the statesmen of Europe in 1914 were all dealt a pretty bad and extremely difficult to play hand by their forebears. It would have taken statesmen of genius to maintain the delicate balance of power set up in the 19th century. But as the 20th century dawned, the Great Powers of Europe were controlled by a group of below average leaders, from the monarchs all the way down to the section chiefs of the Foreign Offices.
And that leads us nicely into finally analyzing a bit what specifically went wrong during the crisis that finally ended in world war, namely the July Crisis of 1914 we spent the last three or four episodes on. The first thing that we should all keep in mind about the crisis caused by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie is that no one, and I mean no one, thought that this murder would cause a great diplomatic crisis, let alone that history books would later report that this assassination was the cause of the First World War. Neither the Germans, nor the Russians, nor the French, nor especially the British were particularly concerned about some random prince and princess getting killed, even if they sympathized with the orphaned children, and even in Austria-Hungary the assassination hardly caused a ripple at first. Franz Ferdinand was never well liked by the leadership of the Austro-Hungarian government, and he did not really command any popularity among the mass of the people. He was barely mourned publicly, and even when he and his wife Sophie were laid to rest the government only saw fit to grant them a Third-Class state funeral.
But there were many people in the Austro-Hungarian government – chiefly Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold, Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, and Section Chief Alexander von Hoyos – who saw in the assassination in Sarajevo a golden opportunity to deal with what they saw as a mortal threat to the Empire. Namely, a Slavic nationalist coalition led by their neighbor Serbia uniting to incite revolution from within the empire and then invade it from without, thereafter parceling out her territory among themselves. Now the thing is, while I think this theory probably went a bit too far and inferred conclusions a bit too much from the facts available, it’s not like this was a totally unreasonable conclusion to reach. After all, that exact thing had just happened to the Ottoman Empire just a few years before, so the Slavic states of the Balkans uniting to pull off the same trick once more against the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not a totally absurd proposition. But rather than trying to open up a dialogue with Serbia – a real dialogue, not a blunt ultimatum that was designed to be rejected – or trying to appeal to the other great powers to help them guarantee Austria-Hungary’s territorial integrity, these men, all raised in the shadow of the great Bismarck, conspired to lay a trap for Serbia so they could pounce on and destroy her first. This is what I mean when I say that Bismarck created a culture of cynicism and treachery among diplomats and politicians. The first thing that occurred to these guys when they learned of the murder of their crown prince and princess was not, “how do we preserve peace and order,” but rather, “how can we exploit this?”
So first Hoyos, an arrogant and uncompromising man, young and of a fairly low office to be given such an important task, was sent to Berlin at the beginning of July on a special mission to secure German support for an Austro-Hungarian attack against Serbia. This is the first sign that we can see that the anti-Serb faction in the government of Vienna had no interest in forging a compromise with Serbia, nor were they too concerned with the specific facts of the assassination. The investigation into who was behind the assassination was still ongoing, firm evidence of Serbian culpability in the assassination had not yet been discovered, nor had the entire government (particularly the Hungarian leadership) officially agreed on a plan to punish Serbia. Despite this, the vociferously anti-Serb and belligerent Hoyos was sent to Berlin, and Foreign Minister Berchtold was fully aware that Hoyos would demand firm German support for an attack against Serbia that was, at this point, even though the Austro-Hungarian government had not yet come to a consensus about this. Hoyos and László Szőgyény, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Germany, then laid a one two punch on the German government, appealing first to the leadership of the German Foreign Office in the person of Arthur Zimmermann, and then more importantly to Kaiser Wilhelm. Szőgyény in particular cleverly played to Wilhelm’s insecurities and desire to portray himself as a strong military leader, as well as his firm belief in the value of monarchical solidarity with Austria-Hungary. And so the first step towards war was made when Wilhelm issued the famous “Blank Cheque” on July 5, an incredibly expansive promise that Germany would support her ally Austria-Hungary in a war with Serbia, even if this resulted in war with Russia and France.
In books about this topic, most everyone agrees that the issuance of the Blank Cheque begins what we call “the July Crisis.” But I’m personally not sure whether this is entirely accurate. With hindsight, of course, we can see that this incredibly reckless move by Kaiser Wilhelm (though it worth noting that this move was supported by his advisors like Bethmann-Hollweg and Zimmermann) really got the ball rolling towards war. But at the same time, it’s not like this move was public knowledge at the time, and more importantly this support for a war against Serbia was still at this point theoretical. For my money, the quote unquote “July Crisis” really begins a few days after the Blank Cheque was issued. This was during the Austro-Hungarian ministerial meetings from July 7 to July 9, when it was decided that an ultimatum would be issued to Serbia demanding an apology and restitution for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Again, none of this was made public knowledge (yet), but I think that it was here that the “July Crisis” truly begins, as from this point onward a chain of cause and effect can be seen that will ultimately result in world war.
So next we have to talk about the Entente, and more specifically, France and Russia. France, at this time, was led President Raymond Poincaré, a firm believer in presenting a strong and unified front against anything that he perceived as German aggression or ambition. He believed that the best way to prevent war with Germany was to make it crystal clear to the German government that France and her ally Russia were ready to make war on Germany at the slightest provocation. As he once said and as I quoted in episode 11, “whenever we have adopted a conciliatory approach to Germany she has abused it; on the other hand, on each occasion when we have shown firmness, she has yielded.” This, I think, is a trap that world leaders throughout history have often fallen into. On the one hand, yes, making it clear to your opponents that you are ready for instant war will likely make them hesitant to provoke you. Further, drawing a clear line in the sand gives your opponent a clear sign as to what actions will be tolerated and what will not. Britain, as we shall discuss more in a bit, made the opposite mistake in this regard. But on the other hand, while it is important for politicians to make clear what actions you will tolerate and which you will not, it is often easy to go too far, and I think that is exactly what Poincaré did. Never once during the July Crisis did he make an earnest attempt to open up a dialogue with the German government to see what sorts of concessions both sides could make to avert war. Rather, at every interval he simply thumped his chest and refused to compromise on any issue with the Germans. This, I think, probably has a lot to do with why by the end of the month Germany was making ridiculous demands upon France and would ultimately declare war on her. If your opponent has no interest in making peace, then its best to strike first yourself, right? Now this is not to imply that the war was solely the fault of French aggression. If there was ever a time in history when the phrase “it takes two to tango” was applicable, it is the July Crisis of 1914. But contrast this with the famous Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. During that crisis, where a potential world war similarly hung in the balance, the Kennedy administration I think did a remarkably good job of both presenting a strong front to the Soviet Union while also, and much more critically, opening up an honest dialogue with them to see what concessions the two sides could make. And while the Cuban Missile Crisis did come frighteningly close to ending in Armageddon, real Armageddon, both sides did make compromises with each other. And probably, the two sides recognized how much that crisis resembled the crisis of July 1914, and endeavored to not make the same mistakes again.
As for the Russians, the two primary players we met (not counting that ambassador to Serbia who died of a heart attack in the middle of a meeting) were Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and, of course, Czar Nicholas II. To focus first on the latter, and we haven’t talked to much about this, but Czar Nicholas’ reputation has changed drastically with numerous revisions over the years. On the one hand, we have someone like Winston Churchill, who wrote of Czar Nicholas, “He was neither a great captain nor a great prince. He was only a true, simple man of average ability, of merciful disposition, upheld in all his daily life by his faith in God.” Seems like a pretty decent guy, right? On the other hand, during Nicholas’ coronation in 1896, a mass panic had broken out resulting in more than a thousand people being trampled to death in a stampede, and just hours after this disaster Nicholas had attended a banquet to celebrate his coronation. For this affront he was saddled with the nickname “Bloody Nicholas.” These days, I would say that the prevailing historical consensus on Czar Nicholas is that, more than anything, he was in over his head. He ascended to the throne at the age of 26, was not well prepared to assume absolute power upon his ascension, and over time he displayed a lack of vision and ability to learn from his mistakes that, eventually, doomed the Czarist regime that had ruled Russia for centuries. I hope to explore more of these theories about Nicholas in future episodes. But as regards the July Crisis, we can see that for Nicholas, his relationship with his friend and cousin Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany made him somewhat blind to the fact that their two countries were edging towards armed conflicts. In a series of famous telegrams Czar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II, or as they referred to each other “Nicky” and “Willy,” bypassed formal diplomatic channels in an effort to find a solution to their differences. Though touching, this was a fruitless effort. The two simply could not compartmentalize their personal roles as Nicky and Willy from their public roles as Czar and Kaiser, and so they sought to appeal to personal friendship as the means to avert war rather than tangible concessions their respective countries could make to one another. While these notes between friends were being exchanged, the armies of Russia and Germany were mobilizing for war.
And that leads us perfectly into, arguably, the single biggest reason why the breakout of war unfolded in the way that it did. We didn’t really get too much into this, as during our episodes on the July Crisis I mostly focused our attention on the diplomatic side of things rather than logistical and military concerns. But one of the most important reasons why the Crisis so rapidly spun out of everyone’s control towards the end of July was the almost unstoppable inertia of mobilization.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 had taught a lot of military lessons. But one of the most important ones was the imperative that one must not allow your enemy to mobilize their army before you do, and that the best way to ensure victory was to be the first to complete mobilization. Not only was the French Army in 1870 significantly smaller than the Prussian Army, but it took the French much, much longer to muster their regulars and their reservists into uniform and get them to the front. This put the initiative for the war in the Prussians hands, allowing them to drive back the French at each battle, finally ending with the climactic showdown at Sedan, at which the Prussian Army was able to completely surround the French due not just to superior generalship, but due to the fact that the Prussians were able to bring twice as many soldiers to Sedan as the French.
Yet mobilization of one’s army into fighting shape and getting it to the front was a herculean task that required an incredible amount of coordination, and even if everything was done perfectly, this task took weeks at the best of times and months at the worst. There is a great line that sums this up in what is easily the best book on the beginning of the First World War, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, which is going to be the most important source in the next few episodes. Just describing the German Army, which was probably the most efficient and well-trained in the world, Tuchman wrote:
“Once the mobilization button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting two million men began turning automatically. Reservists went to their designated depots, were issued uniforms, equipment, and arms, formed into companies and companies into battalions, were joined by cavalry, cyclists, artillery, medical units, cook wagons, blacksmith wagons, even postal wagons, moved according to prepared railway timetables to concentration points near the frontier where they would be formed into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into armies ready to advance and fight. One army corps alone – out of the total of 40 in the German forces – required 170 railway cars for officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped into 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge at a given time.”
Tuchman brilliantly encapsulates in this paragraph two critical points. First, is just how complex and intricate it was at this time to organize and deploy one’s army to the front. Second though, is how the incredible momentum of this process could take on a life of its own. Once begun, it was almost impossible to stop mobilization, because what if you needed to remobilize? Starting this process up and carrying it out was challenging enough, now imagine cancelling it and telling everyone to go home halfway through, only to restart the whole process all over again was a nightmare that all the military and political leaders of all the countries in Europe wanted to avoid at all costs.
But this led to a terrible and decisive dynamic. Once Austria-Hungary mobilized to crush Serbia, Russia began mobilization to counter this move. But if Russia mobilized its forces, that meant that Germany had to mobilize to make sure they were not caught flat-footed if war broke out with Russia. But that meant that the French had to mobilize to avoid the same dilemma vis a vis Germany. The only major power not caught in this dynamic was Great Britain, who as we shall explore in more detail next week, did not have the same kind of large conscript army that required a cumbersome mobilization process to bring their army to bear. Nevertheless, the momentum of mobilization, once begun, soon became an end unto itself. Preventing a potential war became far less important than making sure you were prepared for that potential war.
On top of the fact that the inertia of mobilization was nearly impossible to stop in general was the particular situation of Germany. Next week, we will go into more detail on the famous Schlieffen Plan, ie the German war plan for how they would deal with their terrible dilemma of fighting a potential two-front war against France to the west and Russia to the east. But in general, the plan was based on a few key assumptions:
In a one on one fight, Germany would be able to defeat either France or Russia, but fighting the two of them together would be nearly impossible.
France would be able to mobilize its army far quicker than Russia, as France was territorially smaller, had a smaller population, and had a more developed infrastructure.
German forces would be able to defeat the French if they launched an invasion on the Franco-German border, but as that border was well defended with huge forts and millions of men, Germany would not be able to defeat France before Russia could mobilize its army. So therefore…
The only way Germany could defeat France in time to send its army east to fight the Russians was if Germany invaded France along the Franco-Belgian border, which was for obvious reasons far less well defended.
Again, we’ll go into more details next week on how exactly the Schlieffen Plan was meant to work on a tactical and strategic level. But in terms of politics and diplomacy, this meant that once Russia started to fully mobilize (as they did on July 30) the window for Germany to find a peaceful solution to the Crisis shrank to virtually impossible levels. The Russians could not be allowed any head start on mobilization, which is the principal reason that the Germans issued an ultimatum to Russia, the premise of which was not to demand Russia not attack Austria-Hungary, but rather that they must cease their mobilization at once. When the Russians refused this ultimatum, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914.
And this leads us, finally, to the British role in all of this. As we know for most of July, 1914, the British public and government were distracted from the Crisis unfolding on the continent by domestic affairs over in Ireland. The proposed Home Rule bill for Ireland was so controversial in Northern Ireland in the region around Ulster that armed militias of local Northern Irish protestants and a not insignificant number of British Army officers had formed promising an armed rebellion against the British government if the Home Rule bill passed. But when the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia was issued on July 23, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey finally took notice. He and German Ambassador to London Prince Lichnowsky got together to come up with a plan for a summit of all the Great Powers where the controversy between Austria-Hungary and Serbia could be worked out peacefully. As I mentioned last week, in this I think we can see Grey channeling his inner Metternich, who similarly had believed that regular summits among the Great Powers was the best way to preserve peace and order in Europe. But time, sentiment, and history had long since moved away from the old Concert of Europe that Metternich had devised way back in 1815. Pretty much everyone (except for Grey and the British) believed that such a summit would only make it more difficult for them to prepare for the looming war that many in Europe had believed was inevitable for a long time. The Germans wanted to crush the French and the Russians so as to eliminate the threat their mutual alliance posed to Germany, while at the same time maintaining their crucial alliance with Austria-Hungary. The French wanted revenge for their humiliating defeat back in 1871 and to reclaim the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The Russians wanted to maintain their hegemony over the Balkans. And the Austro-Hungarians wanted to nip in the bud Serbian claims on their southern Slavic provinces. In each of these cases nobody really believed that a great summit would solve their problems. Once the Austro-Hungarians began their assault on Serbia, the deadly inertia towards general war was nearly impossible to stop. Austria-Hungary attacking Serbia threatened Russian hegemony in the Balkans, so they needed to prepare to stop this attack. Germany needed to protect their ally Austria-Hungary from this Russian threat. France needed to assist their ally Russia in a war with Germany, which would conveniently give them an opportunity to avenge their defeat in 1871. But the Germans also saw this as an opportunity to finally end once and for all the Franco-Russian threat to Germany’s position in Central Europe. Really, any one of these dynamics could have caused the others to spur into motion. Ultimately, it was the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia that did so.
But as we can see, from the British perspective, they really had nothing to gain and quite a lot to lose from getting into this war. Of all the Great Powers Britain was really the only one who was stable and secure in their position vis a vis the other Powers. Sure, they had their issues in Ireland to contend with, and a potential war on the continent would disrupt everyone’s trade and business, but these were relatively small problems compared to the existential threats (or at least perceived existential threats) to the other Great Powers. But that finally leads us to the one potentially existential threat that the British did face, and a last mistake made during the July Crisis that was the icing on a cake of really big mistakes.
For the last several hundred years, the primary foreign policy imperative of Great Britain in terms of Europe was to keep the port cities on the English Channel and the North Sea out of the hands of a hostile power, as those ports would be the easiest place to launch an invasion of the British Isles from. Specifically, this meant protecting the neutrality of the Low Countries, that is Belgium and the Netherlands. For most of the last few centuries the hostile power Britain wanted to protect against was France, and indeed a big part of the reason Britain had first gotten into the Napoleonic Wars was to prevent Napoleon and his French Empire from seizing those ports. And where was the climactic battle of Waterloo fought? In the modern country of Belgium, just a dozen or two kilometers south of the Belgian capital of Brussels. But though protecting against French aggression had been Britain’s key priority for centuries, over the course of the 19th century Britain and France had been slowly warming up to one another, culminating with the signing of the Entente pact with France and Russia in 1907. After the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of the German Empire in 1871, it was no longer France but Germany who the British government most feared taking the Channel ports. Yet British fears about a hostile power attacking the Low Countries, whether that hostile power be France or Germany, were soothed somewhat by one of the most important treaties in European history. The 1839 representatives of, among others, France, Britain, the Netherlands, and most importantly Prussia, got together and signed what was called the Treaty of London, which formally recognized the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Belgium and declared that, quote, “Belgium…shall form an independent and perpetually neutral State.” In short, all the signatories of the treaty, including Prussia, would guarantee that in any future wars among European powers that Belgium would be neutral and her sovereignty and territory would not be violated, and that if anyone did violate Belgium’s neutrality the other signatories would defend Belgium with armed force. When Germany was unified in 1871, all treaties signed by the Kingdom of Prussia were assumed by the new German Empire, and so in 1914 Germany was bound by a 75-year-old treaty to respect Belgium’s neutrality and independence. Yet on August 3 of that year, Germany declared war on and immediately thereafter invaded the Kingdom of Belgium to as part of their strategy to defeat France.
Now throughout the previous few weeks British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had been doing his level best to prevent a war breaking out by playing a double game with the French and the Germans. To the French he made it clear that he could not guarantee that the British would join in the war to defend France, which would hopefully make them think twice about provoking Germany. Meanwhile to the Germans he strongly implied that Britain would get into the war on the French side if the Germans pushed things too far. But there were two key mistakes to this strategy. First of all, it made the diplomatic scene which was already incredibly complicated yet more confused. These mixed signals by the British made it really hard for anyone to tell what the British would do should it really come down to a war. Second though, was that Sir Edward Grey never once drew a firm line in the sand over what Britain would go to war over. When the Germans declared war on Belgium on August 3 they had not yet received any formal warnings not to do this. So when the next day the British sent an ultimatum to Germany to pull out of Belgium at once it was already too late. There was basically no way the Germans were just going to retreat from Belgium with their tail between their legs due to this threat from Britain, but it is possible that they might not have attacked Belgium at all had Grey and the British government made it clear before the attack on Belgium that this was a red line for Britain. Did this cause the war in Europe to break out? No, no it did not. The war was already a reality. But did it all but guarantee that the British would be forced into the war by not making their position clear beforehand? Yes, yes it did. And that meant that rather than the war being brutal but short, the war was going to be brutal and very, very long. Had Britain stayed out of this war it is likely that the Germans would have won relatively quickly, as we shall explore in more detail in the next few weeks. But during the opening campaigns of the war the British Army and Navy played a crucial role in halting initial German attacks, which would lead to the stalemate along the western front that would last for almost four years.
So what are we to conclude from all of this? Or put more succinctly: who is at fault for starting the First World War? This is a confusing question with a lot of moving parts, as you all have not doubt already deduced. But for my money, there is no single person or country at fault, but rather the whole system of diplomacy and international politics in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. A culture of stubbornness and cynicism and backstabbing and brinkmanship plagued this generation of European statesmen, and it would have taken a group of men of real genius and foresight to make it all work without everything blowing up into a giant war. But first Berchtold, Hoyos, and Hötzendorf of the Austro-Hungarian government wanted to use the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as an excuse to conquer Serbia knowing full well that Russia would object. They then secured German support for this move in the persons of Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg on the condition that the attack be carried out as swiftly as possible while global public opinion still sympathized with the Austro-Hungarian imperial family. Except the German government failed to realize that though they wanted this attack carried out as quickly as possible, they had no real way to compel Austria-Hungary to do so and no matter when they did so the Germans would be all but forced to stand behind their ally. So then the government of Vienna waited for three weeks to send an insulting ultimatum to Serbia all without coordinating this move with their own military, who informed the political leadership that they were nowhere near ready to actually attack Serbia. Meanwhile the French and Russian governments, specifically President Poincaré on the one side and Foreign Minister Sazonov on the other, decided that whatever Austria-Hungary and Germany did regarding Serbia that they would respond with bellicosity and threats, which they perceived as solidarity and resolve. Then when the ultimatum to Serbia was sent and Austria-Hungary subsequently declared war on them, Russia began to mobilize their forces, which freaked out the Germans who felt they had to respond in kind. Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas then started sending their famous “Willy and Nicky” telegrams to each other, but rather than offer tangible political and military concessions they simply appealed to their personal friendship. At the same time Poincaré and the French government did not ever try to open up a real dialogue with the Germans, assuming that war was all but inevitable at this point even though it really didn’t have to be, especially since France had no real dog in the fight between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Throughout this period Sir Edward Grey and the British government never once drew a hard line in the sand to Germany over Belgium’s neutrality, but at the same time it is worth pointing out the German government under Bethmann-Hollweg did not really go out of their way to ask. All in all I think we are forced to conclude that this was just not Europe’s greatest generation in terms of political leadership, and so burdened by a cumbersome and confrontational system of international politics, these men watched helplessly as a minor diplomatic incident between two countries in the Balkans spun out of anyone’s control until Europe was engulfed in the first general war seen in almost a hundred years.
So now, I hope, we have a firmer grasp of what really went wrong in the Summer of 1914. Not a conspiracy to launch a world war nor a noble defense of international principles, but rather a series of mistakes and miscalculations that no one was in control of but that everyone was party to. Seeing this, I think we can perhaps understand a bit better and have more sympathy for the idea for something like a League of Nations proposed by Woodrow Wilson, or the United Natinos we have today. Not to imply that the United Nations is perfect or anything, but man, would it have been great if something like that existed in 1914. We can only wonder I suppose. Anyway, before we close today I’d like to give a quick shoutout to the newest patron of the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast, William, so thank you William for your efforts in supporting the show. Next week, we will finally get into the opening campaigns of the Great War in Europe.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.
Gordon, Hal. The Fallen Monarch: Remembering Tsar Nicholas II. Highbrow Magazine, 2017. https://www.highbrowmagazine.com/7472-fallen-monarch-remembering-tsar-nicholas-ii
Manning, Scott. The Treaty of London, 1839: The Complete Text. https://scottmanning.com/content/treaty-of-london-1839/
Schlieffen, Alfred von. The Schlieffen Plan. German History in Documents and Images. http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=796
The British Library. Nicholas II of Russia. https://www.bl.uk/people/nicholas-ii-of-russia