Historical story

Seeing blind into the war

June 28, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His death meant a fuse in a European powder keg. Within a little over a month, a devastating world war would break out. How could it come to this? Part II of a diptych about how the First World War started.

After the assassination of heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, almost the entire administrative elite of Austria-Hungary was eager to go to war to make it clear to Serbia, the small neighboring country that they suspected of being involved in the assassination, that there was something to be done with the Empire. was not to be mocked. Doing nothing, or only responding diplomatically, would further erode the credibility of the empire. Military retaliation, at least a limited one, was inevitable. But whether it would become a European war depended, among other things, on the German reaction. Did support come from Berlin or not?

The German Emperor was about to take part in a boat race in Kiel when he heard the news of the murder. He immediately returned to Berlin "to keep the peace in Europe." The Russians immediately accused the Austrians of falsely accusing Serbia, purely to justify a military invasion. The British and French did not realize the significance of the killings at first. And that while the Russian ambassador had long made it clear to his British counterpart in Vienna that Russia was forced to take up arms in the event of military action against Serbia. "A Serbian war would mean a European war."

'Blank check'

It wasn't that far yet, but war was getting closer. Even before the Austrian envoy arrived in Berlin on 5 July, Wilhelm II had already shown his understanding of the Austrian request for help. The day after, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg declared that Germany would stand behind its Austrian ally whatever action Austria took. This "blank check" would later become the main reason for blaming Germany for the entire war. Without German support, the war would probably never have broken out.

Berlin expected that Russia would not risk a European war by responding militarily. It was simply not considered ready for war with mighty Germany. On the other hand, the German military top thought that war was indeed inevitable in the long run. In that case, rather now than in a few years, when the French and Russian army reforms were completed. Germany did not want a major European conflict and did not expect it, at least the Australian historian Christopher Clarke states in his recent book Sleepwalkers. .

But the Emperor was clearly prepared to take a war risk, even urging swift action by Vienna "while the memory of the murder was still fresh." With the German guarantee in his pocket, the Austrian envoy left for Vienna again. The Austrians began to prepare for their war in complete secrecy. French President Raymond Poincaré would pay a state visit to Russian Tsar Nicholas II and threats of war would only increase the chance of a Russian-French intervention. But the plans leaked out so that both leaders could discuss the situation in peace while Poincaré was in St. Petersburg from July 20 to 23.

Deterrent effect

The mood of war was particularly good for the French president. Both heads of state assured each other that they would support each other militarily in the event of war with Austria-Hungary and Germany. Together they could bring Germany into a two-front war, a scenario the German leaders feared. Poincaré's assessment of the Russian army's clout was rather optimistic, partly because the Russian military top long hid its actual weakness from the diplomatic world. As soon as the mighty Great Britain joined in, they were assured of a quick victory; finally a French revenge for the lost war of 1870.

All European countries, with the exception of Great Britain, were at least willing to take the risk of war. And all of them relied almost blindly on the deterrent effect of their alliance. With Germany's "blank check" in mind, Austria-Hungary was now determined to take out Serbia militarily. Russia would certainly respond to that and a war-ready France was prepared to support its ally militarily.

A very limited Russian response to Austria-Hungary might have prevented escalation. Perhaps the Russians attempted this, as Russia announced a "partial mobilization" of the army on July 26, directed only against Austria-Hungary and not against its ally Germany. In addition, Saint Petersburg once again asked the Serbs to show restraint in responding to Austrian attacks.

But the diplomatic thinking of 1914 was dominated by the existence of power blocs and alliances. Mobilization against one country did not fit in well. Everywhere in the vast Russian Empire, the troops were also on the move. Germany and Austria did not see the difference with a 'general mobilization'. After the Russian mobilization, Serbia would no longer bow to Austrian demands. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Too proud

The next day, Russia decided to fully mobilize. In response, Germany also mobilized and declared war on Russia and France. Was it preventable? Until a few times at the beginning of the twentieth century an alliance between great powers Great Britain and Germany was very close. Such an alliance was even obvious given the ongoing British colonial conflicts with Russia in Asia. In the face of an Anglo-German alliance, Russia had given up on mobilizing its army. But time and again, both superpowers were too proud to accept the other's terms.

Perhaps the militarily very strong Germany could indeed have won the war quickly, provided Great Britain had stayed out of it. On the other hand, timely British mediation might have calmed the conflict. If Britain had expressed its support for France and Russia, Germany and Austria might not have dared to go to war at all. But British public opinion in 1914 was very anti-war. Until a few days before Edward Gray showed up at his London window, he clearly refused to take a stand. On July 30, Gray's proposal to support the French allies was rejected in the Council of Ministers. It wasn't until Gray threatened to resign if the voters didn't resign that the British mood turned and London plunged into the war.