Causes of World War I

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European diplomatic alignments shortly before 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 origins of World War I remain controversial and debated questions. The war began in the Balkans in late July 1914 and ended in November 1918, leaving 17 million dead and 20 million wounded.

A long-term analysis of its origins seeks to explain why two rival sets of powers – Germany and Austro-Hungary on the one hand, and Russia, France, Serbia and Great Britain on the other – had come into conflict by 1914. It examines 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 were 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]

A short-term analysis focuses on why the conflicting sets of powers went to war when they did. The immediate causes lay in decisions made by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, on 28 June 1914. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist from the group Young Bosnia, which was supported by the Black Hand, 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 actors. This is compounded by changing historical arguments over time, particularly the delayed availability of classified historical archives, and differing geographic zeitgeist then prevailing. 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 1887–1914

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 Austro-Hungary on the one hand and Russia, France, Serbia and Great Britain on the other.

German re-alignment to Austro-Hungary and Russian re-alignment to France 1887-1892

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 favour of the Dual Alliance (1879) between Germany and Austro-Hungary. In response Russia secured the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892, which was to last until 1917.

French Foreign Policy Towards Germany - Driven by Revanchism

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, over four decades before. Germany had won decisively and established a powerful Empire, while France went 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. French defeat in the war had sparked political instability, culminating in a revolution and the formation of the French Third Republic.

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. A Franco-German colonial entente that was made in 1884 in protest of an Anglo-Portuguese agreement in West Africa proved short-lived after a pro-imperialist government under Jules Ferry in France fell in 1885.

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 thus felt insecure next to its more powerful neighbor.

British alignment towards France and Russia 1898-1907 - The Triple Entente

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.[6]

Others, 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.[7] 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".[8] 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.".[9] 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".[10]

The so-called 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."[11]

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 Entente

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".[12]

Bosnian Crisis 1908 - Relations between Russia & Serbia and Austria-Hungary Worsen

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 control of the Ottoman Sultan in 1908, Austria-Hungary had administered the provinces since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when the great powers of Europe awarded the Dual Monarchy 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.

Second Moroccan Crisis 1911 - The Entente holds again

The Agadir Crisis (also called the Second Moroccan Crisis or the Panthersprung) 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.

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 in World War I.

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.

Italo-Turkish War- Ottomans Abandoned, 1911-12

The Italo-Turkish or Turco-Italian War (Turkish: Trablusgarp Savaşı, "Tripolitanian War"; also known in Italy as Guerra di Libia, "Libyan War") was fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Italy from September 29, 1911, to October 18, 1912. As a result of this conflict, 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." [13]

Balkan Wars 1912-13 - Serbian and Russian Power Grows

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. An international conference was held in London in 1912–1913 where it was 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.[76]

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.[77] 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".[78]

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.[79]

The conflicts demonstrated that a localized war in the Balkans could alter the balance of power without provoking general war and reinforced the attitude in the Austrian government. This attitude had been developing since the Bosnian annexation crisis that ultimatums were the only effective means of influencing Serbia and that Russia would not back its refusal with force. They also dealt catastrophic damage to the Habsburg economy.[citation needed]

Franco-Russian Alliance changes – The Balkan Inception Scenario 1911-1913

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 mobilise in tandem, placing Germany under the threat of 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 Russian 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 may 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 Austro-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 Balkans wars themselves in 1912-13, the French view changed. France now accepted the importance of the Balkans to Russia. Moreover, France clearly stated if, that as a result of a conflict in the Balkans that war breaks out between Austria and Serbia, that 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 in to 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".[14]

Anglo-German Détente 1912-14

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 and 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”.

July Crisis - The chain of events

  • 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 cheque"
  • July 20–23: French President Raymond Poincare 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 gave 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."[16]
  • July 24: Serbia seeks support from Russia and Russia advises Serbia not to accept the ultimatum.[17] 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 and partial mobilization begins of 1.1 million men.
  • 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: Serbia reservists accidentally violate Austro-Hungarian border at Temes-Kubin.[18]
  • 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: Russian general mobilisation is ordered
  • July 30: Russian general mobilization is cancelled by the Tsar then reordered.
  • 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 military preparations within twelve hours.
  • 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: French general mobilization is ordered, deployment Plan XVII chosen.
  • August 1: German general mobilization is ordered, deployment plan 'Aufmarsch II West' 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[19] entrenching the Ottoman–German Alliance.
  • August 3: Germany, after France declines (See Note) its demand to remain neutral,[20] 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, honouring 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 1914

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 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 is perceived by Austro-Hungary as an existential challenge to her and in her view provides a cassus belli with Serbia. Moreover, the Archduke, who had been a decisive voice for peace in the previous years is now removed from the discussions. The assassination triggers the July Crisis which turns from a global conflict into a European and then World War.

Austria edges towards War with Serbia

The assassination of the heir apparent to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 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.” [21]

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 where 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 and end the problems the duel monarchy had experienced with Serbia. Chief of Staff Conrad stated of Serbia: ”If you have a poisonous adder at your heel, you stamp on its head, you don’t wait for the bite.” [21]

There was also a feeling that the moral effects of military action would breath 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.[22] The principal voices for peace of in previous years included Franz Ferdinand himself. His removal not only provided the cassus 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 48 hourse to responds to ten demands. The Austrians hoped that the ultimatum would be rejected order to provide the pretext for war with a neighbour they considered to be impossibly turbulent.

Samuel R. Williamson 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.[23]

At this stage in the crisis the possibility of determined Russian support for Serbia, and its attendant risks, was never properly weighed up. The Austrian remained fixated or Serbia but did not decide on their precise objectives other than war.[21]

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.[24]

"Blank Cheque" - Germany supports Austro-Hungary

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 Austro-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”[25]

The thinking was as Austro-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.[26] 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, as an absolute monarchy, they did not believe that Russia 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.[27]

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 Austro-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 Austro-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 Austro-Hungary took”.[28]

Fermeté - France backs Russia

French President Raymond Poincare 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”.[29]

Russia Mobilises - The Crisis Escalates

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 Sazanov believed that war was inevitable and refused to acknowledge that Austro-Hungary had a right to counter meausres in the face of Serbian irredentism,. On the contrary, Sazanov 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 St Petersburg in a far better position to prevent unwanted intrusions on the Bosphorus” [30]

The policy was intended to be a mobilisation against Austro-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"[31] and "In taking these steps, [Russian Foreign Minister] Sazanov and his colleagues escalated the crisis and greatly increased the likelihood of a general European war. For one thing, Russian pre-mobilzation 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 administration…it sounded alarm bells in Austro-Hungary. Most importantly of all, these measures drastically raised the pressure on Germany, which had so far abstained from miitary preparations and was still counting on the localisation of the Austro-Serbian conflict".[32]

Serbia Rejects the Ultimatum, Austria Declares War on Serbia

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.

Serbia initially considered accepting all the terms of the ultimatum before news from Russia of pre mobilisation measures stiffened their resolve.[33]

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”.[34] In response to the rejection of the ultimatum, Austria broke off diplomatic relations on 25 July and declared war on 28 July.

Russia – General mobilisation is ordered

Russia ordered full mobilisation of its army on 29 July, The Tsar briefly countermanded this order, but it was re-confirmed on 30 July.

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"[35]

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
  • Sazanov’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 [36]

German Mobilisation and war with Russia and France

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 Schileffen Plan, relied upon Germany to mobilise speedily enough to first defeat France before turning to defeat the slower-moving Russians.

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 force the Germans to take counter–measures before mediation could begin to take effect" [37]

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.

Note: French Prime Minister René Viviani merely replied to the German ultimatum that, "France will act in accordance with her interests."[20] Had the French agreed to remain neutral, the German Ambassador was authorized to ask the French to temporarily surrender the Fortresses of Toul and Verdun as a guarantee of neutrality.

By November 1912, Russia, which had been humiliated because of its inability to support Serbia during the Bosnian crisis of 1908 or the First Balkan War, announced a major reconstruction of its military.

On November 29, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow told the Reichstag (the German parliament), that "If Austria is forced, for whatever reason, to fight for its position as a Great Power, then we must stand by her."[38] As a result, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey responded by warning Prince Karl Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, that if Germany offered Austria a "blank cheque" for war in the Balkans, then "the consequences of such a policy would be incalculable." To reinforce this point, R. B. Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, met with Prince Lichnowsky to offer an explicit warning that if Germany were to attack France, Britain would intervene in France's favour.[38]

With the recently announced Russian military reconstruction and certain British communications, the possibility of war was a leading topic at the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912 in Berlin, an informal meeting of some of Germany's top military leadership called on short notice by Kaiser Wilhelm II.[38] Attending the conference were the Kaiser, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz – the Naval State Secretary, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, the Chief of the German Imperial Naval Cabinet (Marinekabinett), General Helmuth von Moltke – the Army's Chief of Staff, Admiral August von Heeringen – the Chief of the Naval General Staff and General Moriz von Lyncker, the Chief of the German Imperial Military Cabinet.[38] The presence of the leaders of both the German Army and Navy at this War Council attests to its importance. However, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and General Josias von Heeringen, the Prussian Minister of War, were not invited.[39]

Wilhelm II called British balance of power principles "idiocy," but agreed that Haldane's statement was a "desirable clarification" of British policy.[38] His opinion was that Austria should attack Serbia that December, and if "Russia supports the Serbs, which she evidently does ... then war would be unavoidable for us, too," [38] and that would be better than going to war after Russia completed the massive modernization and expansion of their army that they had just begun. Moltke agreed. In his professional military opinion "a war is unavoidable and the sooner the better".[38] Moltke "wanted to launch an immediate attack".[40]

Both Wilhelm II and the Army leadership agreed that if a war were necessary it were best launched soon. Tirpitz, however, asked for a "postponement of the great fight for one and a half years"[38] because the Navy was not ready for a general war that included Britain as an opponent. He insisted that the completion of the construction of the U-boat base at Heligoland and the widening of the Kiel Canal were the Navy's prerequisites for war.[38] As the British historian John Röhl has commented, the date for completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal was the summer of 1914.[40] Though Moltke objected to the postponement of the war as unacceptable, Wilhelm sided with Tirpitz.[38] Moltke "agreed to a postponement only reluctantly."[40]

Historians more sympathetic to the government of Wilhelm II often reject the importance of this War Council as only showing the thinking and recommendations of those present, with no decisions taken. They often cite the passage from Admiral Müller's diary, which states: "That was the end of the conference. The result amounted to nothing."[40] Certainly the only decision taken was to do nothing.

Historians more sympathetic to the Entente, such as Röhl, sometimes rather ambitiously interpret these words of Admiral Müller (an advocate of launching a war soon) as saying that "nothing" was decided for 1912–13, but that war was decided on for the summer of 1914.[40] Röhl is on safer ground when he argues that even if this War Council did not reach a binding decision—which it clearly did not—it did nonetheless offer a clear view of their intentions,[40] or at least their thoughts, which were that if there was going to be a war, the German Army wanted it before the new Russian armaments program began to bear fruit.[40] Entente sympathetic historians such as Röhl see this conference, in which "The result amounted to nothing,"[40] as setting a clear deadline for a war to begin, namely the summer of 1914.[40]

With the November 1912 announcement of the Russian Great Military Programme, the leadership of the German Army began clamoring even more strongly for a "preventive war" against Russia.[38][41] Moltke declared that Germany could not win the arms race with France, Britain and Russia, which she herself had begun in 1911, because the financial structure of the German state, which gave the Reich government little power to tax, meant Germany would bankrupt herself in an arms race.[38] As such, Moltke from late 1912 onwards was the leading advocate for a general war, and the sooner the better.[38]

Throughout May and June 1914, Moltke engaged in an "almost ultimative" demand for a German "preventive war" against Russia in 1914.[40] The German Foreign Secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, reported on a discussion with Moltke at the end of May 1914:

"Moltke described to me his opinion of our military situation. The prospects of the future oppressed him heavily. In two or three years Russia would have completed her armaments. The military superiority of our enemies would then be so great that he did not know how he could overcome them. Today we would still be a match for them. In his opinion there was no alternative to making preventive war in order to defeat the enemy while we still had a chance of victory. The Chief of the General Staff therefore proposed that I should conduct a policy with the aim of provoking a war in the near future."[40]

The new French President Raymond Poincaré, who took office in 1913, was favourable to improving relations with Germany.[42] In January 1914 Poincaré became the first French President to dine at the German Embassy in Paris.[42] Poincaré was more interested in the idea of French expansion in the Middle East than a war of revenge to regain Alsace-Lorraine. Had the Reich been interested in improved relations with France before August 1914, the opportunity would have been available, but the leadership of the Reich lacked such interests, and preferred a policy of war to destroy France. Because of France's smaller economy and population, by 1913 French leaders had largely accepted that France by itself could never defeat Germany.[43]

In May 1914, Serbian politics were polarized between two factions, one headed by the Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, and the other by the radical nationalist chief of Military Intelligence, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, known by his codename Apis.[44] In that month, due to Colonel Dimitrigjevic's intrigues, King Peter dismissed Pašić's government.[44] The Russian Minister in Belgrade intervened to have Pašić's government restored.[44] Pašić, though he often talked tough in public, knew that Serbia was near-bankrupt and, having suffered heavy casualties in the Balkan Wars and in the suppression of a December 1913 Albanian revolt in Kosovo, needed peace.[44] Since Russia also favoured peace in the Balkans, from the Russian viewpoint it was desirable to keep Pašić in power.[44] It was in the midst of this political crisis that politically powerful members of the Serbian military armed and trained three Bosnian students as assassins and sent them into Austria-Hungary.[45]

Domestic political factors

German domestic politics

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.[46] Indeed, one German military leader said that a war was ‘desirable in order to escape from difficulties at home and abroad’ and a Prussian conservative leader even argued that ‘a war would strengthen patriarchal order’.[47] Russia was in the midst of a large-scale military build-up and reform that they intended to complete in 1916–1917.

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.[48]

French domestic politics

The situation in France was quite different from that in Germany; in France, war appeared to be a gamble. Forty years after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine a vast number of French were still angered by it, as well as by the humiliation of being compelled to pay a large reparation to Germany. The diplomatic alienation of France orchestrated by Germany prior to World War I caused further resentment in France. Nevertheless, the leaders of France recognized Germany's military advantage, as Germany had nearly twice the population and a better equipped army.[citation needed] At the same time, the episodes of the Tangier Crisis in 1905 and the Agadir Crisis in 1911 had given France an indication that war with Germany could come if Germany continued to oppose French colonial expansionism.

France was politically polarized; the left-wing socialists led by Jean Jaurès pushed for peace against nationalists on the right like Paul Déroulède who called for revenge against Germany. France in 1914 had never been so prosperous and influential in Europe since 1870, nor its military so strong and confident in its leaders, emboldened by its success in North Africa and the overall pacification of its vast colonial empire. The Entente Cordiale of 1904 with Britain held firm, and was supported by mutual interests abroad and strong economic ties. Russia had fled the triple crown alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary because of disagreements with Austria-Hungary over policy in the Balkans. Russia also hoped that large French investments in its industry and infrastructures coupled with an important military partnership would prove themselves profitable and durable.

The foreign ministry was filled with expert diplomats, but there was great turnover at the top. In the 18 months before the war there were six foreign ministers. The leadership was prepared to fight Germany and attempt to gain back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost in 1871. It is important to note however, that France could never have permitted itself to initiate a war with Germany, as its military pact with Britain was only purely defensive.[citation needed] The assumption that Germany would not violate neutral Belgium was a serious blunder in French planning.[49]


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.[50]

Britain especially with its vast worldwide British Empire was a main example, although it entered the war later than the other key players on the issue of Belgium. Britain also had an "informal empire" based on trade in neutral countries. It grew rich in part from its success in trade in foreign resources, markets, territories, and people, and Germany was jealous because its much smaller empire was much poorer. John Darwin argues the British Empire was distinguished by the adaptability of its builders. Darwin says, "The hallmark of British imperialism was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object." The British tried to avoid military action in favour of reliance on networks of local elites and businessmen who voluntarily collaborated and in turn gained authority (and military protection) from British recognition.[51] France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all hoped to emulate the British model, and the United States became a latecomer in 1898. In all countries the quest for national prestige strengthened imperial motives. Their frustrated ambitions, and British policies of strategic exclusion created tensions. Commercial interests contributed substantially to rivalries during the Scramble for Africa after 1880. Africa became the scene of sharpest conflict between certain French, German and British imperial interests.

Rivalries for not just colonies, but colonial trade and trade routes developed between the emerging economic powers and the incumbent great powers. Although still argued differently according to historical perspectives on the path to war, this rivalry was illustrated in the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which would have given German industry access[52] to Mesopotamia's suspected "rich oil fields, and [known] extensive asphalt deposits",[53] as well as German trade a southern port in the Persian Gulf. A history of this railroad describes the German interests in countering the British Empire at a global level, and Turkey's interest in countering their Russian rivals at a regional level.[54] As stated by a contemporary 'man on the ground' at the time, Jastrow wrote, "It was felt in England that if, as Napoleon is said to have remarked, Antwerp in the hands of a great continental power was a pistol leveled at the English coast, Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in the hands of Germany (or any other strong power) would be a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India." [55] On the other side, "Public opinion in Germany was feasting on visions of Cairo, Baghdad, and Tehran, and the possibility of evading the British blockade through outlets to the Indian Ocean."[56][57] Britain's initial strategic exclusion of others from northern access to a Persian Gulf port in the creation of Kuwait by treaty as a protected, subsidized client state showed political recognition of the importance of the issue.[58] On June 15, 1914, Britain and Germany signed an agreement on the issue of the Baghdad Railway, which Britain had earlier signed with Turkey, to open access to its use, to add British representation on the Board of the Railway, and restrict access by rail to the Persian Gulf.[59][60][61]

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

The Railway issue did not play a role in the failed July 1914 negotiations,[62] but remains as a concrete illustration of the underlying economic threat to Britain's dominance in colonial trade, and the rivalry of German industry.

Germany's leader Otto von Bismarck disliked the idea of an overseas empire, but pursued a colonial policy in response to domestic political demands. Bismarck supported French colonization in Africa because it diverted government attention and resources away from continental Europe and revanchism. After 1890 Bismarck's successor, Leo von Caprivi, was the last German Chancellor who was successful in calming Anglo-German tensions. After Caprivi left office in 1894, Germany's bellicose "New Course" in foreign affairs was controlled by Kaiser Wilhelm. Bombastic and impetuous, the Kaiser made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers, culminating in a disastrous Daily Telegraph interview that cost him most of his power inside the German government in 1908. Langer et al. (1968) emphasize the negative international consequences of Wilhelm's erratic personality:

He believed in force, and the 'survival of the fittest' in domestic as well as foreign politics... William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics... William's personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives, as had been the case with Bismarck, as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century.[63]

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.[64]

Social Darwinism

By the late 19th century a new school of thought, later known as Social Darwinism became popular among intellectuals and political leaders. It emphasized that competition was natural in a biological sense. In nature there was the 'survival of the fittest organism' and so too in political geography the fittest nation would win out. Nationalism made it a competition between peoples, nations or races rather than kings and elites.[65] 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.[66] 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.[67]

Web of alliances

"The Chain of Friendship", an American cartoon from 1914 erroneously 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.

A loose web of alliances around the European nations existed (many of them requiring participants to agree to collective defense if attacked):

This complex set of treaties binding various players in Europe together before the war sometimes is thought to have been misunderstood by contemporary political leaders. The traditionalist theory of "Entangling Alliances" has been shown to be mistaken. The Triple Entente between Russia, France and the United Kingdom did not in fact force any of those powers to mobilize because it was not a military treaty.

Moreover, as 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".[68]

Mobilization by a relatively minor player would not have had a cascading effect that could rapidly run out of control, involving every country. The crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia could have been localised.

Arms race

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.[69][70]

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.[71]

One of the aims of the First Hague Conference of 1899, held at the suggestion of Emperor 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.[72]

Anglo–German naval race

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.[73][74]

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: Ferguson 1999, p. 85)

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."[75] 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.[76]

Though the Germans abandoned the naval race, as such, before the war broke out, it had been one of the chief factors in Britain's decision to join the Triple Entente and therefore important in the formation of the alliance system as a whole.

Russian interests in Balkans and Ottoman Empire

The main Russian goals included strengthening its role as the protector of Eastern Christians in the Balkans (such as the Serbians).[77] 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.[78]

Technical and military factors

Over by Christmas

When the war began both sides believed, and publicly stated, that the war would end soon. The Kaiser told his troops that they would be "... home before the leaves have fallen from the trees", and one German officer said he expected to be in Paris by Sedantag, about six weeks away. Germany only stockpiled enough potassium nitrate for gunpowder for six months;[79] without the just-developed Haber process, Germany might have collapsed by 1916.[80] Russian officers similarly expected to be in Berlin in six weeks, and those who suggested that the war would last for six months were considered pessimists. Von Moltke and his French counterpart Joseph Joffre were among the few who expected a long war, but neither formally adjusted his nation's military plans accordingly. The new British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was the only leading official on either side to both expect a long war ("three years" or longer, he told an amazed colleague) and acted accordingly, immediately building an army of millions of soldiers who would fight for years.[79]

Some authors such as Niall Ferguson argue that the belief in a swift war has been greatly exaggerated since the war.[48] He argues that the military planners, especially in Germany, were aware of the potential for a long war, as shown by the Willy–Nicky telegraphic correspondence between the emperors of Russia and Germany. He also argues that most informed people considered a swift war unlikely. However, it was in the belligerent governments' interests to convince their populaces, through skillful propaganda, that the war would be brief. Such a message encouraged men to join the offensive, made the war seem less serious, and promoted general high spirits.

Primacy of the offensive and war by timetable

Military theorists of the time generally held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. This theory encouraged all belligerents to strike first to gain the advantage. This attitude shortened the window for diplomacy. Most planners wanted to begin mobilization as quickly as possible to avoid being caught on the defensive.

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.[81] However, in practice these timetables were not always decisive. The Tsar ordered general mobilization canceled on July 29 despite his chief of staff's objections that this was impossible.[82] A similar cancellation was made in Germany by the Kaiser on August 1 over the same objections,[83] although in theory Germany should have been the country most firmly bound by its mobilization schedule. Barbara Tuchman offers another explanation in the Guns of August—that the nations involved were concerned about falling behind their adversaries in mobilization. According to Tuchman, war pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour's head start. Appalled on the brink, the chiefs of state ultimately responsible for their country's fate attempted to back away, but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.[84]

Schlieffen Plan

Map of Aufmarsch I West (Schlieffen Plan) offensive operation and French Plan XVII offensive operation

Germany, in contrast to Austria-Hungary, had by 1905 no real territorial goals within Europe but Germany's military-strategic situation was poor as Austria-Hungary was a weak ally and France and Russia grew closer. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary were able to increase spending upon their armed forces, due to deadlock in their countries' legislatures. This meant that Germany's strategic situation worsened as both France and Russia continually increased their military spending throughout this period. Accordingly, the improvement of the Franco-Russian forces is not considered to be part of an 'arms race'.

The German General Staff under Count & General Alfred von Schlieffen devised three deployment plans and operational-guides for war. Two addressed the case of a war with a Franco-Russian alliance and reconciled a defensive strategy with counter-offensive operations. Aufmarsch II West favoured a counter-offensive against the French offensive before moving to deal with the Russian and Aufmarsch I Ost favoured defeating the Russian offensive before moving to deal with the French. The greater density of railway-infrastructure in the west meant that Schlieffen favoured Aufmarsch II West as it would allow a greater force to be deployed there and thus a greater victory to be won over the French attackers.[85]

The third plan, Aufmarsch I West or 'The Schlieffen Plan', detailed an offensive operation. This plan catered for an isolated Franco-German war in which Italy and Austria-Hungary would side with Germany but Russia would remain neutral. This deployment plan was made with an offensive operation through the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium in mind, with Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces being expected to defend Germany during this operation. Ideally the French Army would stand fast against the German army and have a large part of its force enveloped and forced to surrender. If the French retreated then the German army could pursue and breach France's 'second defensive area', reducing its defensive value.[86]

Aufmarsch I West became increasingly impractical as it became clear that an isolated Franco-German war was impossible. With Russia and Britain expected to participate, Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops could not be used to defend Germany as per the plan. East Prussia and the north-German coastline would be undefended as the German army would be deployed west of the Rhine; Aufmarsch I West was retired shortly after Schlieffen did in 1905. Schlieffen's successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, did not think that a defensive strategy suited German strategic needs. He decided that the offensive operation of Aufmarsch I West could be applied to the plan Aufmarsch II West, even though no Italian or Austro-Hungarian help would be forthcoming and at least a fifth of the German army would have to be deployed elsewhere to defend against British raids and a Russian offensive against East Prussia. Holmes is of the opinion that this force was too weak to breach the French 'second fortified area', meaning that if the French Army chose to retreat rather than stand its ground then the entire operation would fail to appreciably improve Germany's strategic situation (as per Schlieffen's goals for such an operation, albeit following on from the Aufmarsch I West deployment).[87]

The significance of German war planning is that despite having alternatives, Moltke chose to launch an offensive that he should have known could not achieve its nominal objectives.[88] Tuchman has noted that Moltke was one of the few senior military figures to consider a long war and despite the failure of the offensive, German forces did manage to occupy economically important Franco-Belgian territory.[79] Most of the deployments and operations available to him, including Aufmarsch II Ost which was of his own devising, were defensive and could decisively alter the strategic balance in German power through the destruction of Franco-Russian forces. Moltke's choice was particularly dangerous given that the main French deployment plan, Plan XVII, was designed to counter the Schlieffen Plan. Plan XVII deployed the bulk of the French Army on the Franco-Belgian border, for an offensive operation through southern Belgium into Germany. If successful, this would have trapped the German army in northern Belgium. The adoption of Plan XVII in 1913 was combined with a diplomatic initiative to ensure that the Russians would launch an invasion of East Prussia to coincide with it. The first battles of the war were fought in Germany, southern Belgium and East Prussia.

British foreign policy

In explaining why Britain went to war with Germany, Paul Kennedy, in The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914, wrote that it was critical for war that Germany become economically more powerful than Britain but he played down the disputes over economic trade imperialism, the Baghdad Railway, confrontations in Eastern Europe, high-charged political rhetoric and domestic pressure-groups. Germany reliance time and again on sheer power, while Britain increasingly appealed to moral sensibilities, played a role, especially in seeing the invasion of Belgium as a necessary military tactic or a profound moral crime. The German invasion of Belgium was not important because the British decision had already been made and the British were more concerned with the fate of France.[89] Kennedy wrote that by far the main reason was London's fear that a repeat of 1870—when Prussia and the German states smashed France—would mean Germany would gain control the English Channel and north-west France. British policy makers insisted that would be a catastrophe for British security.[90]


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.[91]

See also


  1. Van Evera, Stephen. "The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War." (Summer 1984), p. 62.
  2. Fischer, Fritz. "War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914." trans. (1975), p. 69.
  3. Sagan, Scott D. 1914 Revisited: Allies, Offense, and Instability (1986)
  4. Henig (2002). The origins of the First World War. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-26205-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Lieven, D. C. B. (1983). Russia and the origins of the First World War. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-69608-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. The First World War by Hew Strachan, Simon & Schuster Ltd.
  7. The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson,Penguin.
  8. Quoted in Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" p.324 (Penguin, 2013)
  9. The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson,Penguin, 1999 edition, paperback, p53.
  10. Quoted in Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" p.159 (Penguin, 2013)
  11. Quoted in Coleraine K. A. Hamilton, "Great Britain and France, 1911–1914" p.324 in Hinsley, Francis Harry (ed.), British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey (Cambridge University Press, 1977) ISBN 0-521-21347-9, ISBN 978-0-521-21347-9
  12. Quoted in Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" p.157 (Penguin, 2013)
  13. Quoted in Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" p.242 (Penguin, 2013)
  14. Quoted Christopher Clark in Europe: Then and Now, Centre for Stratgic and International Studies lecture, published on 17 April 2014" 26-27mins
  15. Quoted in Christopher Clark, "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" p.324 (Penguin, 2013)
  16. H E Legge, How War Came About Between Great Britain and Germany
  17. Clive Ponting, Thirteen Days', Random House, 2002 Hardback, page 124'
  18. Albertini, Luigi. Origins of the War of 1914, Oxford University Press, London, 1953, Vol II pp 461–462, 465
  19. The Treaty of Alliance Between Germany and Turkey August 2, 1914
  20. 20.0 20.1 Taylor, A. J. P. (1954). The Struggle For Mastery in Europe 1848–1918. Oxford University Press. p. 524. ISBN 0-19-881270-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Month of Madness by Christopher Clark, BBC Radio Broadcast, 25 June 2014.
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Further reading


  • Cohen, Warren I. American Revisionists: The Lessons of Intervention in World War One (1967) OCLC 466464
  • D'Agostino, Anthony. "The Revisionist Tradition in European Diplomatic History," Journal of the Historical Society, (Spring 2004) 4#2 pp: 255–287 doi:10.1111/j.1529-921X.2004.00098.x
  • Gillette, Aaron. "Why Did They Fight the Great War? A Multi-Level Class Analysis of the Causes of the First World War," History Teacher, (2006) 40#1 pp 45–58 in JSTOR
  • Hewitson, Mark. Germany and the causes of the First World War (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)
  • Iriye, Akira. "The Historiographic Impact of the Great War." Diplomatic History (Sept. 2014) 38#4 online
  • Jones, Heather. "As the Centenary Approaches: The Regeneration of First World War Historiography," Historical Journal (2013) 56#4 pp: pp 857–878 doi:10.1017/S0018246X13000216
  • Keiger, J. F. V. "The Fischer Controversy, the War Origins Debate and France: A Non-History." Journal of Contemporary History (2013) 48#2 pp 363–375. DOI: 10.1177/0022009412472715
  • Kramer, Alan. "Recent Historiography of the First World War-Part I." Journal of Modern European History (2014) 12#1 pp: 5-27. online; "Recent Historiography of the First World War (Part II)." ibid. (2014) 12#2 pp: 155-174. online
  • Marczewski, Jerzy. "German Historiography and the Problem of Germany's Responsibility for World War I," Polish Western Affairs, (1977) 12#2 pp 289–309
  • Mombauer, Annika. "The First World War: Inevitable, Avoidable, Improbable Or Desirable? Recent Interpretations On War Guilt and the War's Origins," German History, (2007) 25#1 pp 78–95, online
  • Mulligan, William. "The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War." English Historical Review (2014) 129#538 pp: 639-666 online
  • Nugent, Christine. "The Fischer Controversy: Historiographical Revolution or Just Another Historians' Quarrel?," Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians, (April 2008), Vol. 16, pp 77–114
  • Ritter, Gerhard "Anti-Fischer: A New War-Guilt Thesis?" pages 135–142 from The Outbreak of World War One: Causes and Responsibilities, edited by Holger Herwig, 1997; originally published 1962
  • Schroeder, Paul W. (2000) Embedded Counterfactuals and World War I as an Unavoidable War (PDF file)
  • Seipp, Adam R. "Beyond the 'Seminal Catastrophe': Re-imagining the First World War," Journal of Contemporary History, October 2006, Vol. 41 Issue 4, pp 757–766 in JSTOR
  • Showalter, Dennis. "The Great War and Its Historiography," Historian, Winter 2006, Vol. 68 Issue 4, pp 713–721 online
  • Smith, Leonard V. "The 'Culture De Guerre' and French Historiography of the Great War of 1914–1918," History Compass, (November 2007) 5#6 pp 1967–1979 online
  • Strachan, Hew. "The origins of the First World War." International Affairs (2014) 90#2 pp: 429-439. online
  • Waite, Robert G. "The dangerous and menacing war psychology of hatred and myth". American Historians and the Outbreak of the First World War 1914. An Overview." Berliner Gesellschaft für Faschismus und Weltkriegsforschung (2014): 1-15.
  • Williamson, Jr., Samuel R. and Ernest R. May. "An Identity of Opinion: Historians and July 1914," Journal of Modern History, June 2007, Vol. 79 Issue 2, pp 335–387 in JSTOR comprehensive historiography

Primary sources

External links