Category Archives: 1900-1914

Discussions of prewar circumstances in the great powers.

Britain’s Response to the July Crisis, June-August 1914.

With the various alliances of Europe activated, and the continental great powers mobilising against each other, a general European war had become inevitable by the end of July 1914. It was not yet, however, a world war in the proper sense of the term. It became so on 4 August, when the British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, issued his government’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In doing so, Britain’s colonies and dominions around the world were compelled to take part. Britain’s international power, as such, was vast, as it could call upon the manpower of territories as far away as India, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Moreover, it could rely on the Empire’s ability to supply it with materiel in the form of foodstuffs and industrial goods. British mobilisation therefore meant global mobilisation, and with its formal declaration in August, the transformation of the July Crisis from a local squabble between a precocious Serbia and a wounded Austria-Hungary, into a conflict of cataclysmic proportions, was now complete.

But why did Britain become involved in continental affairs in the first place? Much ink — perhaps too much — has been spilt recently attempting to answer this question, especially as the United Kingdom has become self-reflective in the context of the centenary years of the war. Broadly speaking, there are three major reasons given to explain British involvement:

  1. Britain did so to fulfil its treaty obligations, either with France and Russia or, less sordidly, with Belgium.
  2. Britain was manoeuvred into war by its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did so either to extend waning British influence abroad, or else because he had been taken by surprise by events, and reacted in a knee-jerk fashion to an unfolding crisis of unprecedented proportions.
  3. Britain recognised a moral threat posed by an expansionist Germany, and reacted accordingly.

All of these trends have proponents — including some major names in the historical field — but none fully satisfies the question. Britain’s entrance into the war was a complicated and intricate process, at once necessary and the harbinger of senseless bloodshed.

Britain in 1914: Paradise Lost?

Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, 1902.

British industry was the basis for the island nation’s power abroad. (Source: Wikimedia.)

It is common to think of the period before the outbreak of war as a golden era, the halcyon days of the late Edwardian and early Georgian age. The Empire had expanded to its furthest reaches — truly one on which the sun never set — and the nation basked in the glow of post-Victorian prosperity. In many ways, Britain had never had it better. As a country whose power, both imperial and otherwise, rested on its commercial weight, Britain enjoyed an unchallenged role at the head of the global industrial economy. In 1900, Britain controlled some twenty percent of international trade and, even though the United States and Germany were growing industrial powers, they did not necessarily threaten British markets so much as complement them. An apocryphal story maintains that, in the lead-up to 1914, young British boys played with tin soldiers that were made in Germany. Even if this were true, the reverse was also the case; German textiles, for instance, never kept up with the vast industry centred around Manchester. British coal production remained at world-beating levels, and industries that existed due to the extensive imperial lines of communication, such as wool, coffee and rubber, remained virtual British monopolies. The British trade economy had also put aside its struggles of the years of 1885 to 1896, in which all European and American markets suffered from a depression; between 1895 and 1913, Britain’s export market grew from £226 million to £525 million (an increase of 132 percent), while its re-exports of goods in the same period increased by eighty-three percent, from £60 million to £110 million. These riches translated to impressive social improvements at home and, even if working and living conditions in the industrial centres remained  dirty and impoverished for many of the urban proletariat, at least those conditions had increased markedly in the century or more since the Industrial Revolution had transformed Britain into the world’s premier trader. In this globalised market, it was the British Empire that constructed its web of communication and transportation, it was the British Empire that presided over international trade, and it was the British Empire that benefitted from it.

There were, however, cracks that were beginning to appear in this impressive veneer. The first concerned Britain’s relative economic strength. Many scholars have pointed to the increasing importance of Germany on the world markets, and corresponding decline in British trade. Between 1900 and 1913, British trade continued to grow in absolute terms, but its global market share actually began to shrink; on the eve of war, Britain’s share of world trade remained a respectable (and certainly world-leading) seventeen percent, but this constituted a decline from the twenty percent it had enjoyed at the start of the century. The gap to its nearest continental competitor, Germany, had also decreased, as Germany had increased its market share from ten to thirteen percent. These numbers also demonstrate something more about the nature of the German trade economy. At the end of the global depression of the 1880s to 1890s, Germany’s total exports stood at £165 million — a far cry from Britain’s. Yet by 1913, those exports had increased by over 206 percent, to trail Britain’s performance by only £20 million. Britain also relied more on imports than Germany; by 1913, the total value of good imported by Britain from Germany amounted to £80.4 million — almost double the amount exported to Germany. In part this had been due to the countries’ respective responses to the economic crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. German business, more state-centric, had been redirected towards areas of innovation, in which profound advances and expansions were possible. Thus, by the dawn of the twentieth century, Germany had become a world leader in chemical production, as well as refined metals and machine manufacturing. The British response, on the other hand, had been to allow businesses to govern themselves. As a result, traditional British industries of strength, such as textiles and coal, managed to prosper and pick up the slack of failing businesses in sectors without their solid foundations. In this way, while both countries emerged from the depression in positions of relative strength, those strengths were to be found in different areas.

Germany’s increasing market share should not, however, be taken to be a threat to Britain in and of itself. The very nature of the two economies virtually ensured their cooperation. Germany continued to import Lancashire textiles. Britain was obliged to rely on German chemical manufacturing and fertiliser production. Indeed, some twelve percent of Britain’s total imports came from Germany, and nearly eight percent of its exports (and some eighteen percent of its re-exports) arrived in German ports. Germany’s increasing industrial and economic might did not mean that it hung a sword of Damocles over British economic wellbeing; rather, it allowed the German state and businesses greater purchasing power to take advantage of British goods. German industry also tended to rely on loans and guarantees from banks in the City of London (the German banking system having not yet grown to the prominence that it enjoys today; in 1913, the financial capital of Europe was London, not Frankfurt.) English financial institutions also provided insurance facilities for Germany. The vast majority of Germany’s merchant marine, for example, was underwritten by Lloyds of London. An observer of the time could probably have made the observation that there was more English capital bobbing in the harbour of the great port city of Hamburg in 1913 than there was in Southampton or Portsmouth. Germany’s economic growth therefore permitted greater British financial penetration of European markets; Germany’s greater buying power benefitted British industry in times of peace. War, however, would prove to be a different story.


The Great Famine.

The Irish Famine of the nineteenth century not only severely impacted the Irish native population, but also crippled Anglo-Irish relations. (Source: Wikimedia.)

While Britain’s economic power was not necessarily waning, but certainly beginning to change shape, its political and social stability was also facing some threats. In the early years of the twentieth century, one of the defining debates within British political circles was the question of Irish Home Rule. Ireland had become an increasing problem for Westminster, just as Westminster had become an increasing problem for the Irish. The historical relationship between England and Ireland was fraught. Ireland had been the British Empire’s first destination for transported prisoners, before it had had the ability to send them half a world away, to Australia and other penal settlements. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland in the seventeenth century resulted in widespread famine and disease as a direct consequence of the military operations; Frances Stewart argues that 600,000 of a total Irish population of 1.4 million were killed in the four years of English Parliamentarian conquests, and Tim Pat Coogan labels those conquests as part of a wider programme of genocide (though, it must be noted, both the statistics and the term ‘genocide’ are contested, and Irish insurgents committed atrocities — albeit on a smaller scale — just as the English did.) In the nineteenth century, the Act of Union dissolved local Irish parliamentary representation in favour of offering Irish members of parliament 103 seats in the House of Commons at Westminster. This constituted approximately fifteen percent of the total number of MPs in the Commons, meaning that Ireland — with approximately one quarter of the total population of the British Isles at the time — was woefully underrepresented at a political level. In the 1840s, an outbreak of potato blight decimated the staple Irish food crop, while merchants continued to export maize, grains and butter, and food supplies ordered and imported as emergency relief by the government of Sir Robert Peel proved inadequate, unpalatable and too expensive for the average Irish household. Peel’s successor, Lord Russell, responded to the failure of Peel’s well-intentioned aid programme by insisting that the market would be able to provide for the people without government intervention; this laissez-faire approach to an unfolding humanitarian crisis could hardly have been less effective. The resulting Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, consumed the lives of approximately one million Irish people, and directly resulted in the migration of at least a million more. The famine also severely impacted the relationship between Ireland and the rest of Britain. While at the time the Irish often refused to accept English charity, seeing this as a besmirching of their dignity, the fact that food was still being exported while Irish men, women and children were starving to death or otherwise dying of malnutrition-related diseases was seen by many to be representative of an attempt by London to kill off an ‘inconvenient’ population. This was reflected in the fact that the hardest hit populations were the poorer, more isolated communities, most of whom were Irish-speaking Irish Catholics. By contrast, English-speaking Irish Protestants, who were largely centred around the urban areas and larger towns, were relatively unscathed.

Again, there is no historical consensus on the culpability of the British government in the Great Hunger. A number of historians, particularly descendants of those who made up the Irish migrant diaspora during and immediately after the famine years, label the circumstances of the event a deliberate genocide, while others, such as Cormac Ó Gráda, point to the well-meaning but unsuccessful efforts of Peel’s government, as well as the sizeable charitable donations of, among others, Queen Victoria, as evidence for a conclusion of unintended negligence. What is beyond doubt is that the Great Hunger changed the complexion of Anglo-Irish relations forever. For one, it enflamed Irish nationalist sentiment against a British government that, they believed, had (at best) sacrificed them on the altar of commercial export surpluses, or (at worst) had used trade and economics as precision instruments to excise Irish Catholics from the British bodies social and politic, through an implicit policy of ethnic cleansing. It was in this context that the foundations were laid for what would ultimately become the Irish Republican Army. But the famine had a more insidious and less obvious consequence. It shifted the terms of the arguments related to Irish representation at Westminster. Irish nationalists had decried the dissolution of the Irish parliament because it had removed local governance from their hands, and the Irish representation in the Commons was hardly commensurate to their representation in the British population as a whole. But the famine’s massive demographic effects had changed the picture markedly. Where the Irish population had made up twenty-five percent of Britain’s total as of the Act of Union, a century later the combination of British population growth, coupled with the attrition of the Hunger and the resultant migration, now meant that Ireland made up a little less than ten percent of the whole. Ireland’s share in the Commons was now over-representative, and it was this fact that began to concern English political elites. Furthermore, the famine saw an explosion of Irish nationalist political institutions, including the Home Rule League (which eventually became the Irish Parliamentary Party.) This meant that, from about the 1870s onwards, British general elections consistently returned pro-Irish anti-Union MPs to the British parliament, whose major objectives were, in fact, to remove the influence of the Westminster parliament from Irish affairs, and to reimpose a local parliament. Over time, this would develop into a programme for full Irish independence, but for much of the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the aim of Irish nationalists was devolution.

Herbert Henry Asquith.

Herbert Henry Asquith, prime minister of Great Britain between 1908 and 1916. His Liberal government’s inability to pass the Budget in 1909 led to the formation of an uneasy alliance with Home Rule Irish MPs in 1910. (Source: Wikimedia.)

This led to a peculiar crisis of politics in the early twentieth century, as Britain’s grasp on Ireland began to fragment. Irish Catholics, generally on the side of the Home Rule proponents, consistently sent Home Rule nationalists to Westminster. Conservatives and other Unionists were joined by Irish Protestants, normally centred around the northern districts of Ulster, who did not want to see the united parliament and leadership weakened. However, as nationalists were represented disproportionately within the 103 Irish seats in the Commons, this led to a bizarre situation. This situation is typified by the election of Asquith in January 1910. Asquith’s Liberal Party, stung by the rejection of its Budget by the House of Lords the year before, was forced into an election in which it suffered the loss of 123 seats; most of these were picked up by Arthur Balfour and the Conservative Party, but neither party achieved the number of Commons seats necessary to govern in its own right. In order to maintain government, Asquith therefore negotiated with John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which had won seventy-one of Ireland’s 103 seats. In doing so, Asquith promised to push Irish Home Rule through the Commons and Lords, which he eventually attempted in 1912. Here, then, was the paradox of prewar British politics: in order to maintain power in Britain, the Liberals were forced to deal with nationalists within the Commons, whose aim was to introduce legislation that would make their place within the Commons void, as they would (presumably) return to an Irish home parliament (and thereby, equally presumably, take with them the determining majority of Asquith’s government.) As complex as this was, worse was to come; upon tendering the Third Irish Home Rule Bill to parliament in 1912, Asquith set into motion a chain of events that nearly resulted in civil war, as Ulster-based Unionists prepared violently to resist Irish rule, and the British Army based at Curragh threatened not to follow orders if it was, indeed, ordered to restrain the Ulstermen. The Ulster Volunteers themselves had multiplied to over 100,000 men, with over 50,000 rifles and machine guns, as well as cavalry, motorised corps, and (perhaps more importantly) luminaries within politics and society, and some two million signatories to their petition to remain trenchantly British in the face of what they saw as Catholic opportunism. It was this force, marching “beneath the largest Union Jack ever made”, and made up of people who saw themselves as patriotic Britons, with whom the British government prepared to go to war in the opening days of 1914. In the House of Commons, a young but increasingly recognisable government minister, Winston Churchill, warned the Ulster Volunteer Force (and, implicitly, the Tories sitting in opposition) that the government was ready to go to war against them if need be. The UVF’s response was to prepare to sabotage rail lines, communications, and other vital services, if and when Irish Home Rule became a reality.

Ulster Volunteers in 1914.

In 1914 there were real fears that the armed Ulster Volunteer Force might cause a civil war in the United Kingdom, if Home Rule were granted in Ireland. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In later years, historical hindsight on these events has been less than perfect. Two schools of thought pervade the literature. One — that prewar Britain was enjoying its golden age of peace and prosperity — has already been mentioned. Another is nearly the diametric opposite: Britain was on the edge of the abyss, and the Irish Question was the weight under which that cliff-face was crumbling. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Great War, this narrative suggests, Britain would have torn itself to pieces over the question of whether the halls of Irish power were to be found on the banks of the Thames or the Liffey. This is perhaps overstating the case; when civil war did eventuate, between 1919 and 1921, it was traumatic to be sure, but hardly cataclysmic, nor an existential crisis for the British state. Nevertheless, politically, Ireland preoccupied the Home Office and the prime minister. Given this preoccupation, Whitehall gave little attention to events on the continent until the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914.

Britain and Europe.

This did not mean, as some have suggested, that Britain ignored continental affairs. Events in Ireland came under the purview of the Home Office. Issues involving the army would certainly require the attention of the War Ministry. But British foreign diplomacy was the fiefdom of the Foreign Office and its head, the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

Historian Margaret MacMillan suggests that Britain entered the twentieth century assuming “that it could remain detached, as it had always preferred, from the continent.” But in any way that mattered, this “preference” was never realised. As we have seen, Britain was already tied to the continent — particularly Germany — in the sense of trade relationships. More than this, Britain had other relationships, and other concerns, which permeated throughout Europe. Thus, for all the British rhetoric of its “splendid isolationism”, the country was never removed from the affairs of its neighbours.

Russian depiction of the Triple Entente.

The Triple Entente was an unprecedented diplomatic understanding between France, Russia and Britain. It did not, however, guarantee alliance in wartime, and no one side agreed as to what it meant in a practical sense. (Source: Wikimedia.)

The first and most obvious of Britain’s ties was the Triple Entente. This was a diplomatic understanding linking Britain with France and Russia, and had been in place since 1907. Britain’s involvement in this agreement was not, however, a ringing endorsement of friendship between London, Paris and St. Petersburg. Indeed, all three countries had long histories of mutual antagonism. Britain and France had very nearly gone to war only a few years prior, during the Fashoda Incident. In 1904, Whitehall and the Quay d’Orsay had inked the Entente Cordiale, an historic agreement that delineated spheres of influence in the colonial world, with the aim of avoiding similar confrontations. The 1907 agreement was an extension both of this and an Anglo-Russian naval agreement. In each of these cases, British diplomats were reacting shrewdly to changing situations in Europe. Partially, the agreements were in direct response to German expansionism. Germany, however, was not Britain’s only concern. Fashoda had been a reminder of French adventurism in the colonial sphere. Meanwhile, the Russians had recently lost a war with the (in part British-backed) Japanese over the Korean Peninsula; during that war, Britain and Russia had nearly come to blows when the Russian Baltic Fleet, steaming around the world to engage the Japanese in the Pacific, left the Baltic and mistook a group of British trawlers for Japanese warships. The ensuing barrage was a lesson in Russian naval gunnery inefficiency — they did not hit a single vessel — but also in the teetering dangers of the relations between the great powers. As it was, cooler heads prevailed, but Britain’s subsequent closing of the Suez Canal to Russian traffic was probably one factor in the eventual sinking of the Russian fleet at the hands of the Japanese in the Tsushima Strait. Furthermore, a fundamental objective of Russian foreign policy remained the militarisation of the Black See and the securing of the Bosporous Straits — which ran through the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and into the Dardanelles — to Russian naval and commercial traffic. This objective had always concerned London, as expanded Russian influence in Asia Minor would put Russian soldiers in a prime position to launch a drive towards India — the jewel in the British imperial crown. It was largely the safeguarding of India that caused Britain to intervene against Russia in the Crimean War of the 1850s, when St. Petersburg went to war with the Ottoman Empire, and anxieties hardly abated after the joint Anglo-Franco-Ottoman victory in that conflict. The Foreign Office was therefore, quite justifiably, concerned by the timbre of Russian “diplomacy”; the 1907 agreement, and the subsequent confirmation of the tripartite entente, were means by which Whitehall could keep tabs on its continental sometimes-enemies.

The agreements, therefore, served a dual purpose. On the one hand, they allowed Britain to keep an eye on competitive imperial powers by binding itself to them in loose agreement. On the other hand, they sent a message to Germany, warning against its own brand of imperial adventurism. Yet the Triple Entente was and remains a misconstrued agreement. Grey was not, as MacMillan suggests, attempting to keep Britain disengaged from the continent. Far from it; the agreements in and of themselves implied expanded British influence in European affairs, and ensured that Europe would continue to be a preoccupation of the Foreign Office. This was in keeping with British policy since at least 1815; throughout the nineteenth century, Britain had been insistent on maintaining a European balance of power that did not favour any one great power (except, where possible, Britain itself.) On occasion, it had even intervened. This was hardly isolationism, and the agreements of the 1900s were continuations of longstanding policies. But there is a tendency in the historiography to look upon the agreements as binding alliances. Certainly, even at the time the French believed them to be; at the point at which war was declared between Germany and France, Paris fully expected Britain to come to its aid. Yet it did not, because fundamentally the entente was an undertaking to discuss and consult, but certainly not to defend or act on behalf of. Indeed, nothing in Britain’s various agreements bound it to any course of action. Rather, they afforded it with a vast degree of diplomatic wiggle room.

The nature of the entente has been pointed to as an example of Grey’s vacillation, his wilful vagueness; it is argued by Sean McMeekin and others that this contributed to the unstable diplomatic atmosphere of the July Crisis, as Germany and others could not predict Britain’s probable course of action, should general war break out. The French appear to have been confused. The Germans certainly were; at various points, the Kaiser and his retinue believed that Britain might remain neutral, or enter the war on Germany’s side. At other times, the army seems to have been resigned to the fact that Britain would be an enemy. Yet this reading of Grey is unfair to the erstwhile diplomat. As Britain’s longest-serving foreign secretary, Grey was hardly a novice and, while the entente may not have been a binding alliance, it did send a diplomatic message that Britain believed that it was capable of dealing and coming to understandings with Paris and St. Petersburg. Whitehall may not have had complete confidence in France or Russia, and may very well have used the entente as a means to keep a watchful eye on their more dangerous tendencies. But it clearly believed that it could exert some sort of influence over them. For better or worse, then, and to varying degrees of efficacy, Britain had publicly declared that its immediate diplomatic future was intertwined with, though not dictated by, the Republic of France and the Russian Empire. In any event, the entente also geographically bracketed Europe. It thus sent another clear message: Britain was still concerned with keeping the European balance of power in stasis. A power that threatened that balance was therefore unlikely to be viewed favourably by Grey and his Foreign Office colleagues.

Treaty of London, 1839.

In spite of what Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser believed, the British viewed the Treaty of London as far more than simply a “scrap of paper.” (Source: Wikimedia.)

Even if the terms of the entente engendered some confusion and ambiguity, the same could not be said for one of Britain’s cornerstone continental treaties. In 1839, the Treaty of London guaranteed the independence of the neutral Kingdom of Belgium. Among the signatories had been Viscount Palmerston, representing Great Britain, and Bernhard von Bülow, representing the then-German Confederation. Upon the German unification of 1871, the responsibility of the Confederation transferred to the new German Empire. The treaty was still in effect in 1914. Therefore, as all sides prepared for war, the signatories were legally obliged to respect Belgian neutrality and territorial integrity — a position the British had continuously reaffirmed. The French had understood this; before the war, Joffre had drawn up his plans for war with Germany, which involved a drive through Belgium. His political masters, however, had recognised that this would impinge on Belgian neutrality, would anger Britain, and therefore — at best — would cause the British to ignore their entente with the French, and — at worst — go to war against France in order to defend the legal agreement to safeguard Belgium. As a result, Joffre was forced to revise his plans, forsaking the military advantage that would be enjoyed by the push through Belgium in favour of the diplomatic necessity of keeping the British on side. The German General Staff, however, prepared their own plans — the infamous Schlieffen Plan — arguing for the primacy of military expediency. The advantage of going through Belgium would cancel out the dangers of angering the British. This view was accepted by both the army (which seems to have believed that war with Britain was inevitable, regardless which route it took into France) and the politicians; the chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, famously declared that he could not believe that Britain would go to war with Germany over a “scrap of paper.”

The July Crisis.

All of these issues were at play in the British political arena as the July Crisis unfolded. Indeed, so much commanded the attention of British diplomats and politicians that many historians have suggested that the British were taken almost completely by surprise when the crisis escalated towards the end of the month. These historians generally reject the importance of the Treaty of London, thereby essentially agreeing with Bethmann-Hollweg’s “scrap of paper” thesis. At the same time, they argue that Whitehall was so preoccupied with the question of Irish Home Rule (specifically, whether the issue might lead to bloodshed, and whether it would fatally undermine the Asquith government) that it was blindsided by events on the continent that it did not care to observe until it was too late. At that point, Britain either close to align with France and Russia out of its commitment to the Triple Entente, or else did so because it believed it would benefit most from allying with France and Russia. The first suggests misguided and slavish devotion to an alliance system. The second, historians such as Niall Ferguson and John Charmley suggest, was a kind of perfidy; Britain, they argue, had no reason to enter the war, and its act of doing so constituted a betrayal of the interests of the British people in favour of the interests of the people’s political masters.

HMS Agincourt.

The HMS Agincourt was originally earmarked for the Ottoman Navy, but was repossessed and pressed into Royal Navy service when war was declared in 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

In fact, Britain had every reason to be concerned by circumstances on the continent. Indeed, its interests were so intricately tied with European affairs that the Empire could hardly have considered not becoming involved once the Balkan crisis became a general European one. Britain’s commercial interests were closely tied to Germany’s but they were also tied to just about every power. Russian modernisation in industry — particularly railways — had been accomplished preponderantly through French finance, but British money was also heavily invested in this. The British had also seen the Balkans as a key area of commercial development. British trade also found its way readily into French ports. British money and expertise had been pouring into the Ottoman Empire, where the navy had made use of the British admiral, Limpus, in order to assist its modernisation. The Ottoman Navy had even ordered two British Dreadnought-type battleships — the Sultan Osman I and the Resadiye — and had paid for them. In the event, they would never be delivered; upon the outbreak of war in August, the Admiralty would repossess the ships for British use (rechristened as the HMS Agincourt and the HMS Erin, respectively.) This action alone demonstrates that wherever the war might touch, British interests were very much at stake. Before the war, one report suggested that Lloyds of London was so heavily invested in the insurance of the German mercantile fleet that, even if Britain went to war with Germany and sank that fleet, Lloyds would most likely fulfil its obligations to the Germans. So, far from being isolated from any potential conflict, it was in fact all but inevitable that Britain might be drawn in if a widespread conflict eventuated.

But on whose side? To some extent, this question was answered by the existence of the entente. Britain had declared its stake in Europe — albeit extremely loosely — on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. But other, more immediate events in Europe soon served to weigh more heavily on Whitehall. At the outset, there was certainly little to suggest that Britain had decided on its course of action. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Britain seemed — like much of Europe — to believe that there was no reason why the outrage would become anything other than a localised squabble. The Foreign Office and its German counterpart had already been planning a meeting between the Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Sir William Tyrrell, and the German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, as early as April (i.e. before the barest hint of a crisis.) In July, those plans were still expected to go ahead, though their objectives had changed; now, Tyrrell and Jagow would be using the opportunity to plan a sober and calculated united response to the Austro-Serbian dramas. Grey fully supported Tyrrell’s initiative here, but events conspired against the two diplomats. The nature of these events perhaps hint at the fact that neither Whitehall nor Wilhelmstraße recognised the pressing dangers; the original plan was to meet on 8 July near Düsseldorf, but Jagow only returned to Berlin from his honeymoon on 6 July, and was therefore exhausted, while Tyrrell, suffering from stress and seasonal illness, chose this time to take a leave of absence, from which he would not return until 20 July. Yet neither man outright cancelled their undertakings and, from the Tyrrell family correspondence, it appears that plans were made to reconvene in Germany sometime in September 1914. Of course, by that stage, such a meeting would be impossible; in the midst of the July Crisis, however, neither the Foreign Office nor the Auswärtiges Amt saw any reason to believe that their diplomatic relations would cease within a period of weeks or even days.

4 August 1914

German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on 4 August 1914. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Yet, unbeknownst to the envoys, behind the scenes the actions of various men were making a diplomatic resolution to the crisis impossible. Britain’s devotion to the concept of the balance of power meant that it was extremely likely to intervene if and when Germany and Russia chose to intervene in the Austro-Serbian emergency. Simply put: were either side to gain a position of dominance on the continent, but Britain were to stay out of the conflict, Britain would, in turn, face an untenable position, in which that side would dominate European markets and be able to freeze out British investments. Furthermore, any victorious side not supported by Britain would be unlikely to look upon it kindly. Furthermore, while the entente made it more likely that Britain would side with France and Russia, this was hardly a foregone conclusion. The question persisted as to which side would threaten British interests the most in its potential victory. This question appeared to be answered on 1 August. On this day, the German government put into motion its war plans. Its first objective was to secure passage for its armies through Belgium, into France. In order to do so, it sent an ultimatum to the Belgium government in Brussels, demanding free passage for German troops through Flanders. This was, of course, not something that Belgium could countenance, since it would not only abrogate its terms of neutrality (in assisting, through inaction, the mobilisation of one hostile power against another), but would also prove to be a dangerous precedent. What, after all, was to stop the Germans from staying? Indeed, German plans called for using Belgian lodgings to accommodate troops, and Belgian roads and railways to transport them. Effectively, the Belgians would be surrendering their sovereignty to the Germans, with no guarantee that that situation would be temporary. On 3 August, then, Belgium refused the German terms, while Britain reaffirmed its commitment to Belgian neutrality and sovereignty. For Germany, however, the entire wartime strategy rested on the ability to knock out the French as quickly as possible, and a cornerstone of that strategy was the army’s passage through Belgium. Therefore, the next day, the Germans crossed the border into Belgium, breaking the Treaty of London and invading a neutral power whose protection had been specifically guaranteed by Great Britain.

It would be naïve, however, to assume that Britain would put itself on the line purely for the sake of Belgium. Rather, Britain was alarmed by what the invasion of Belgium represented, rather than the invasion itself. Germany had demanded that Britain remain neutral in the coming war. But Belgium had done so, and had been rewarded with invasion. Germany had therefore not only torn up the “scrap of paper”, but it had also shown itself to be no respecter of international law, nor treaties to which it had been a signatory. It was this that was the last determining factor; if Britain did remain neutral, and the Germans did succeed in beating the French and the Russians, what guarantee did Britain have that, now possessing Channel ports and dominating the continental balance of power, Germany would not turn on the island nation? Other historians have shown that France and Russia were hardly dependable partners, but Germany, precocious and strident, was becoming increasingly dangerous to a Britain that prized European stability above all else. To the British Foreign Office, the invasion of Belgium was a betrayal of all the hard work and diplomacy that had built such a strong Anglo-German relationship. To the government as a whole, Belgium might as well have been a stand-in for Britain, a timely warning against inaction, and a reminder that Britain could expect the same treatment should Germany win. In short, by 4 August, as German troops swarmed over the eastern border and headed towards Liège, Whitehall only had one decision to make. By invading “brave little Belgium”, Germany had committed the very last act in a string of events that brought Britain and its empire into the war.


Britain’s entry into the war brought about its irremediable escalation. That escalation, however, has been the subject of intense debate in the century since it occurred. In the myriad academic and popular histories that have been written in those years (and especially as the centenary came about), writers have attempted to answer questions of war guilt, agency, and whether or not certain powers should have become involved. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, which was one of the first (and one of the best-selling) of the “centenary books”, reminded us that the origins of the war were to be found in the Balkans, in the post-assassination scrap between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Yet the event that turned this into a world war (ostensibly, at least) was not the firing of two shots by a Bosnian-Serb activist, resulting in the deaths of the Austrian heir to the throne and his Czech wife, in Sarajevo on 28 June. Rather, the immediate stimulus for the global conflagration occurred 37 days later, and approximately 1,500 kilometres northwest of Sarajevo, when German soldiers entered Belgium and therefore incited the British Empire to action. To the British, Belgium represented the last straw in a series of calculations that made their entry into the war a logical result of evenhanded diplomacy. It did not do so for “humanitarian” or “altruistic” reasons. That is to say, Britain acted in order to defend its interests, first and foremost. This was not a stupid policy or a hoodwink orchestrated by Grey or anyone else. This was also not a British government that was so preoccupied with Ireland that it responded in a panic to an unobserved European crisis; Britain may have been taken by surprise, but no more so than any other European government. Nor did Britain go to war because German economic interests threatened its own. In fact, German economic strength benefitted Britain, as long as Europe remained balanced. Certainly, Britain feared a Europe dominated by Germany, but it would also have feared a Europe dominated by France or Russia. After the war, Jagow would blame “this damned system of alliances” for causing the escalation of the war, yet this was not necessarily the case in the example of Britain. Its ties with France and Russia made it more amenable to these powers, but that relationship did not necessitate war. 

1914 recruits.

August 1914: British volunteers swarm to recruitment offices. (Source: Wikimedia.)

Though the Germans never intended to compel Britain to war, their insistence on the Belgian phase of the Schlieffen Plan was a disastrous misstep that could hardly go unanswered by Whitehall. In part this was due to the fact that Wilhelmstraße became tied to military necessity. But it was also due to the fact that the Germans failed to read the warning signs emanating from the Foreign Office. Some historians have criticised Grey and Asquith for being deliberately obtuse and lulling the Germans into a false sense of security. On the contrary, the British government had followed a consistent line, and Belgian territorial integrity represented the very final line in the sand: this far, and no further. On 4 August 1914, the Germans crossed that line, and on the same day the British responded.

Further Reading.

  • Bostridge, Mark. The Fateful Year: England 1914. London: Viking, 2014.
  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Allen Lane, 2012.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War. London: Allen Lane, 1998.
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London: Profile, 2013.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London: Icon, 2013.
  • Mantel, Gordon. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Marwick, Arthur. Britain in the Century of Total War: War, Peace and Social Change 1900-1967. London: Pelican, 1970.
  • Otte, T.G. July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Pennell, Catriona. A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-18. Oxford: Polity Press, 1986.


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The July Crisis

How could the death of one man cause the death of millions? Since the end of the First World War, this question has preoccupied many historians and students of history. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of the Habsburg Monarchy, and heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, threw European diplomacy into chaos, and just one month later the continent would be embroiled in war. The concept seems counterintuitive; the murder of this man by a Bosnian fanatic in a state visit to Sarajevo should not have led to total war involving France, Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and eventually the Ottoman Empire and the United States. As a result, many point to the complex system of alliances that existed within Europe at the time, with the argument being that “the guns went off by themselves” — that is, Europe was so precariously balanced, with the default for any crisis being to resort to armed alliances, that any disturbance would lead inevitably to war. To others, this crisis was merely an excuse, a disingenuous casus bellum for a war long planned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most historians of this line — notably Fritz Fischer, while more recently Max Hastings has taken the same argument — argue that the guilty party was Germany, whose belligerence equated to none other than a “grasp for world power”, an attempt to dominate the globe. Others have seen the shadows of conspiracy elsewhere; a key example is Sean McMeekin, who sees the Russians as being primarily accountable for what followed. Yet we should not dismiss the importance of the event itself. Before Franz Ferdinand was murdered, war seemed to be an unlikely possibility. After he was murdered, Europe drifted closer and closer to battle. In order to understand this, we should look at the events of the so-called “July Crisis”, the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war.

Serbia and Austria-Hungary.

Nikola Pasic

Nikola Pasic, Serbian prime minister.

It should come as no surprise that the two protagonists in the Balkans on the day of the assassination responded in very different ways to the outrage. In Serbia, from whence the material and logistical support for the Young Bosnia activists had come, officialdom and public sentiment stood in stark contrast to one another. We will recall that the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pasic, was a pragmatic, deeply cautious leader, keenly aware of the perpetual animosity between his state and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the weeks leading up to the assassination, Pasic almost certainly became aware of the fact that an attempt would be made on Franz Ferdinand’s life. His response to this had been to (belatedly) seal Serbia’s borders, and provide a series of veiled warnings to Austrian diplomats. Beyond this, he had shown little energy in attempting to head off the outrage, though this is unsurprising; Pasic’s position in government was never entirely secure, and to have tipped off the Austrians would have earned the ire of the Ujedinjenje ili smrt!   (“Black Hand”) irredentist organisation, led by the Serbian intelligence head, Dragutin Dimitrijevic, codenamed “Apis.” Pasic was hardly in a position to oppose Apis and escape with his career (or, perhaps, even his life.) In any case, it is by no means certain that Pasic possessed anything more than general hearsay and rumours, and it is extremely unlikely that he or his government as a whole was in any way complicit in the planning. None of Pasic’s cautious measures dissuaded the archduke from his visit to the Bosnian provincial capital, nor in any way made the job of the Princip cell more difficult. When Princip was arrested by Austro-Hungarian police, immediately after he had shot the archduke, he made many attempts to shoulder the sole responsibility, denying that his fellow terrorists were involved, and insisting that the planning, weaponry, and so on, had been sourced only by him. But there was plenty to cast suspicious Austrian eyes in the direction of Belgrade. Princip clearly belonged to Young Bosnia; that much was certain. Young Bosnia was known to have ties with two radical Serbian pan-nationalist groups — the aforementioned Ujedinjenje ili smrt!, and the less violent but parochially Greater Serbian Narodna Odbrana. Both were suspected of having ties with Serbian officialdom. And, while Belgrade had immediately sent its condolences to Vienna, it could not stop or hide the public outpouring of support for the assassins. The coffeehouses of Belgrade resounded with fiery songs and speeches; the celebrations for St. Vitus’ Day in Kosovo became merged with ecstatic acclamations of approval for the killing of a hated Austrian; within a day of the assassination, but before Vienna had recovered from the shock to be able to accuse Serbia of complicity, Pasic and several of his ministers were already warning Austria not to exploit the “regrettable event” in order to settle historic scores with Serbia. Serbia’s attempts to defuse the situation only served to make it look complicit, and the general sympathy for Young Bosnia made it look enthusiastically so. And then there was the matter of the assassins’ weapons, which had been procured by Apis from the Serbian Army’s own arsenal at Kragujevac. These factors, coupled with the jubilation in the Serbian streets, left few Austrian officials in any doubt. The same day that the Serbian press and ministers began denying responsibility, the Austrian delegation in Belgrade reported to Vienna that, though the Serbian government could not yet be directly linked to the plot, “they are surely indirectly guilty.” Such a verdict, it would seem, would have incited the Serbian irredentists of the coffee scene only because it did not afford them full and total responsibility; even as the government attempted to distance itself from the killing, Serbian society saw itself as being linked intimately to Princip and his fellow assassins, be that in spirit or through more material ties. And that, to the Serbian public, was not a matter of horror or shame but of pride.

Had the Serbian public been privy to the manoeuvres in the Austrian court, it would perhaps have been more restrained in its reaction. For Vienna was shocked, certainly, but it was by no means paralysed or prostrate. Franz Ferdinand had been an unpopular figure; irascible, aloof, and reform-minded, he had built his political career on bucking the stifling conventions of the Habsburg court. He had not been the heir to the throne before the death of Franz Josef’s only son, Rudolf, in a bizarre (presumed) murder-suicide in 1889. Thereafter, the archduke had demonstrated a rebellious streak. His marriage to Countess Sophie Chotek was only approved by the emperor on condition that it were morganatic — that is, Sophie was not to adopt any of her husband’s titles, and would often not be permitted to attend state functions at which Franz Ferdinand would be representing the monarchy. His ideas for the transformation of the Empire into a federation affording more rights to its many minorities alarmed the status quo, and there was little in his character that endeared him to the public in general, much less his political opponents in the court. For all that, though, he was still a Habsburg and, more importantly, the next in line to the throne. Franz Josef, his uncle, was 83 and in poor health, and both the line of succession and the emperor’s spirit had already been broken by Rudolf’s strange death a quarter of a century earlier. Upon being informed of the murder of his nephew, Franz Josef reportedly broke down in severe distress — not at the loss of his relative, with whom he had often clashed politically and personally, but at the belief that God had taken a terrible vengeance on Austria.

Conrad von Hötzendorf

Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of staff to Franz Josef.

Franz Josef’s response to the killing reflected that of the country at large. While Franz Ferdinand had been disliked, he was still the anointed heir to the Empire. An attack on him was therefore an attack on the Empire itself. Franz Josef’s chief of staff and head of the army, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, informed only that the arrested assassin was a “Bosnian of Serbian nationality”, rashly concluded that the assassination was a “declaration of war by Serbia on Austria-Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, Conrad’s official telegram to the Chancellery read simply “War. War. War.”

It is here that we see the colossal blunder on the part of Apis and his Bosnian lackeys. Pasic may have been denying Serbian involvement — and, indeed, on 7 July Pasic sent an official denial to Vienna — but it was clear that there was some manner of Serbian collusion, official or otherwise. The nature of the assassination was that of an existential threat to the Empire, which would likely result in an energetic response. Worse, the target of the assassination was the very man who had so often in the past counselled against war with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was not liked by his uncle, but he did have a penchant for swaying him against the belligerent tendencies of his chief of staff, Conrad, whose force of character he had been able to match. Now, Franz Ferdinand was dead, removing from the Habsburg court the retarding power against war. The archduke’s old ally, Berchtold, was passive and could easily be overwhelmed by personality. Franz Josef was not necessarily for war, but he relied on the counsel of his inner circle. This left Conrad, the archetypal hawk, who had called for war with Serbia more than twenty-five times since 1908. Conrad himself was prone to fatalistic bouts of depression, and under no illusions about what his course of action must be, and what the outcome would entail. Writing to his beloved mistress, Gina, Conrad claimed: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously.” Even while the diplomats scrambled to make sense of what had happened, then, arguably the most powerful remaining influence in the Habsburg Monarchy had already decided where the responsibility lay, and what the course of action must be.

Russia’s Position.

Of course, Conrad von Hötzendorf could not simply declare war, though he was quite correct in most regards; Austria could not afford not to act in the event of its heir to the throne being assassinated, but the resulting struggle could well be hopeless. After all, Serbia had powerful friends. Russia, Austria-Hungary’s major antagonist, had responded quickly to events in Sarajevo. Most governments — even that of Serbia — had sent condolences to Vienna, lamenting the death of Franz Ferdinand, but St. Petersburg had not. Embassies throughout Europe lowered their flags to half-mast in respect to the grief of Austria; Russia’s were the exception to the rule. In Belgrade itself, the Russian minister to Serbia, Nikolai Hartwig, immediately assumed that the assassin was a Serb, but claimed that the murder was a good thing, since “the Austrian dynasty is an exhausted race.” At one point, it was even suspected that the Russians may have had an active hand in the assassination itself, since Vienna was quickly convinced of the Serbian government’s complicity, but Franz Josef believed that Belgrade was secretly controlled behind the scenes by none other than Hartwig. Russia’s approval of a shipment of 120,000 rifles for the Serbian Army, just two days after the assassination, seemed to confirm its position in defence of Serbia. The Russian Army was a formidable force (though, as the Triple Entente powers would all discover to their discomfort from August 1914 onwards, the “Russian Steamroller” was little more than an optimistic myth.) And yet here was the problem confronting Conrad, Franz Josef, and Berchtold. If Serbia was to be punished for its transgressions — and there could be little doubt, as the facts became more and more clear, that at least some elements in Serbian officialdom had been involved — then that punishment would almost certainly amount to war. Against Serbia, Austria-Hungary would likely prevail. But Russia had positioned itself as the protector of Serbia, and Russia was a different matter altogether. Austria was unlikely to be capable of beating Russia; Conrad suggested that he might prevail if he were able to take the Russians by surprise, as the Japanese had a decade earlier. However, several tens of thousands of Austrian troops, who would be vital for any campaign against Russia, had been sent on summer leave, and while these men could be recalled, the logistics of doing so would definitely tip Conrad’s hand and permit the Russians to mobilise to meet the threat. Yet war and only war would satisfy Austrian honour. At this point, it was left to Vienna to turn to its own powerful patron.

Germany’s Promises.

SMS Panther

The German warship Panther, which later became the focal point of the 1911 Second Moroccan Crisis (also called the Agadir Crisis or Panther Crisis.)

Germany presents a curious problem in the story of the July Crisis. Austro-Hungarian belligerence, Serbian impertinence, and even Russia’s aggressive attitude are all, to some extent, understandable. But it was the involvement of Germany that tipped the scales in the Balkans from that of an admittedly alarming regional conflict into an ever-escalating blundering towards general European war. In 1914 Germany was the most mercurial and unpredictable of the European great powers, having either instigated or been involved in a number of crises in the first decade of the century. In 1905, Germany had threatened war with France over the issue of Moroccan independence and the establishment of German commercial interests in North Africa. Germany’s building of a powerful fleet of battleships and battlecruisers, from 1898 to 1912, had incensed British policymakers, who saw this as a threat to the dominance of the Royal Navy at sea. German investments in the Ottoman Empire had led to the planning and start of construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, a mammoth transportation initiative that, when complete, would allow the movement of German troops into Asia Minor and towards French and British interests in Asia and the Subcontinent; in particular, the British feared that this could threaten both Egypt and India. Germany’s industrial output easily outstripped most of its potential opponents, and its army, based on Prussian lines, was regarded as a model of efficiency. Finally, while Franz Ferdinand was unpopular with most, he had forged a firm friendship with Germany’s Kaiser, the moody and temperamental Wilhelm II. His murder came as a shock to Wilhelm, and it was to be expected that the German leader would seek to assist his Austrian allies in avenging his friend’s death. Therefore, if Germany were to become involved in the unfolding crisis, its role was unlikely to be a calming one.

This, however, is not necessarily fair to the Germans, and we can certainly not ascribe Germany’s actions to come as irrational, or based on vengeance. In many ways, Germany was a victim of its own success. Its rise to power on the Continent was unprecedented, and Berlin had struggled to come to terms with its newfound importance. Many of the problems dated back to the German unification in 1871, which had occurred in part as a result of the defeat of France by combined German armies. Thereafter, the first German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had managed a complex and convoluted system of alliances designed to keep France isolated; at the same time, French policymakers had vowed revenge on the Germans. Even as late as 1914, official French policy called for the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, by force if necessary. Germany may have been able to deal with French aggression as long as Bismarck’s strategy of isolation had continued to work, but in 1890 Bismarck was dismissed, and Wilhelm II, refusing to renegotiate the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, inadvertently drove St. Petersburg into the waiting arms of Paris. Worse, after the turn of the century, Britain increasingly sided with the French on issues of European diplomacy. The two Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 was ambiguous affairs, and (certainly in the latter case) it could well be argued that the Germans were correct to threaten intervention to head off French attempts to upset the balance of power. But the manner in which the Germans attempted to intervene — in 1911, by sending a warship, the Panther, to Agadir — frightened Whitehall, which was already wary of the Germans since the navy had launched its vast building initiative. For their part, the Germans appear to have been confused by Britain’s apparent unfriendliness.

However, as the July Crisis began to unfold, Germany’s main concern was not Britain but Russia. Neither power was directly involved in the Sarajevo outrage, but Russia’s immediate guarantee of Serbian integrity suggested that it might attempt to take advantage of the situation and further its own interests in the Balkans. Given Russia’s alliance with France, it was not inconceivable that Germany’s most intractable enemy might benefit as well, which was an intolerable state of affairs. More immediately, the diplomats in Berlin recognised that the crisis posed a severe threat to the post-Bismarckian order. After Bismarck’s dismissal, Germany had failed to diplomatically isolate France and in the process it had not only shed allies but had found itself in an unclear diplomatic position with other powers. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was nominally an ally, but this relationship was hardly exclusive; at the same time as German private enterprise was attempting to develop the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, significant French financial interests were also pouring into Turkey, and while the Ottoman Army had entered into a modernisation program led by a German, General Otto Liman von Sanders, the Ottoman Navy had begun similar reorganisation under the auspices of the British Admiral Limpus. Constantinople’s position, then, was ambiguous at best. Italy, also tied to Germany by treaty, was hardly an impressive power, and would prove itself to be unreliable. Having once counted on Britain for support (or, at least, neutrality), Germany now found Whitehall to be inscrutable. This left just Austria-Hungary as Germany’s only dependable ally, and while Austria-Hungary was certainly no longer the impressive empire it once was, its friendship was still better than standing alone. In the current diplomatic climate, with Germany surrounded by France and Russia, both of whom enjoyed good relations with one another, Germany could not afford to alienate its one ally. Thus, when Austria-Hungary entered its hour of need, and sent diplomats to approach Wilhelm and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, there could be little doubt that Berlin would, at least, be well-disposed towards whatever Vienna required.

Alexander von Hoyos

Count Alexander von Hoyos, the Austrian diplomat sent to Berlin to secure the “blank cheque.”

As it turned out, Vienna required a great deal. It had not been difficult for Conrad to convince Franz Josef of the need for vigorous action to be taken against Serbia; if Berchtold objected, it is unlikely he did so with any force, and his later actions suggest that he was quickly convinced by Conrad’s war case. On 4 July, Berchtold sent his chef de cabinet, Count Alexander von Hoyos, to Berlin, to meet with the German Undersecretary of State Arthur Zimmermann. The next day, Hoyos discussed Austria’s response with Zimmermann, while the Austrian minister to Germany, Count Ladislaus von Szögeny-Marich, lunched with the Kaiser to discuss the same. On 6 July, both Austrian diplomats met with Bethmann-Hollweg, who confirmed what had been suggested during the earlier meetings: the German Army stood ready, and the German officials were willing to guarantee the Habsburg Empire, affording it backing in whatever circumstances eventuated. This undertaking became known as the “blank cheque”, and what it amounted to was this: if Austria-Hungary chose to go to war with Serbia, and Russia chose to defend Serbia, Germany would go to war on behalf of Austria-Hungary.

The “Blank Cheque.”

Why did Germany issue this guarantee? Certainly, it presented something of a risk. Russia’s army was massive, comprising 1.4 million men in peacetime, with a potential strength of over five million once general mobilisation orders were given. If Germany went to war with Russia, then it could also expect that France would, in turn, declare war on Germany, owing to its standing alliance with Russia. The cornerstone of German policy, besides isolating France, had always been to avoid a two-front war, yet this would be the realisation of Germany’s worst fears — a war against two powerful foes in both the east and the west. And, while Germany clearly felt that it had both a moral and — more importantly — a practical obligation to support its ally, we must remember that Germany, not Austria-Hungary, was the powerbroker in this dual alliance. An open guarantee would encourage Austria-Hungary to take any action, however dangerous; Germany, though, had the strength behind it to instead encourage Austria-Hungary to restrain itself.

Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann, Undersecretary of State for the German Empire.

Germany’s position was more or less one of confusion, naïveté, and — perhaps — opportunism. Indeed, but for the apparent agreement between the Kaiser, Zimmermann, and Bethmann-Hollweg, opinion within the halls of power in Germany was mixed. In principle, most agreed that Austria-Hungary had some sort of right to intervene against Serbia, and most agreed that Germany should support its friend. But what would this mean? As the crisis had begun, it had been the German ambassador to Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, who had assumed the de facto role of Franz Ferdinand, counselling Franz Josef to exercise restraint in his dealings with Pasic. Tschirschky attempted to head off Conrad’s talk of war. But Tschirschky had taken this position without instructions from Berlin, and was harshly criticised for doing so by his own leader, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm himself, though, did not seem to grasp the gravity of the situation; after his lunch with Szögeny-Marich, he had left Potsdam for his usual seasonal yachting trip to Scandinavia. To say the least, that the leader of Germany would depart on a pleasure sail while his government provided Austria-Hungary with permission to declare a war which might involve Russia and France is bizarre. On the other hand, the “blank cheque” insisted only that Germany would back Austria in its actions against Serbia. Russia was not even mentioned in the official communique; elsewhere, it seems that German officials were divided as to whether this support would involve Germany in any actions against Russia. Zimmermann, in his meeting with Hoyos, felt that there was “a ninety percent likelihood of a European war.” That evening, though, Wilhelm II and his military cabinet agreed that the Russians would likely not interfere. After all, the assassins were nothing more than common criminals and if the Serbian government had conspired with them — as Hoyos assured Zimmermann it had — then it was also to be considered criminal. The Russians might plump and rattle their sabres, but surely they would not get themselves involved in so grubby an affair, especially not when they had now been warned by the Germans to keep away.

Yet, even if Zimmermann was correct, and German support would lead to all-out European war, there were some within the German hierarchy who saw this as the most desirous outcome. Having lost the Russian alliance in 1890, many — particularly within the General Staff of the army — had concluded that Germany would inevitably be involved in a war with Russia and France. That time had nearly come in 1905 and 1911, when the Germans had clashed with the French over Morocco. Just two months earlier, the quartermaster general of the German Army, Georg von Waldersee, had reported to his political superiors that Germany’s neighbours could only be considered enemies; worse, they were growing stronger with every passing year, and when they felt that the time was right, they would simultaneously launch an attack on Germany’s borders. Perhaps Waldersee could have been dismissed as hysterical, but France’s deep animosity was well known, and Russia had a penchant for imperial opportunism. To Waldersee and his colleagues, if war was inevitable then Germany had to be proactive. It could not wait until it was attacked because that would be far too late, since France and Russia would attack when it best suited them. Therefore, Germany must act preemptively, taking the initiative while circumstances favoured it and not its potential enemies. In 1914, Waldersee noted, Germany still had an upper hand, and while the advantage was dwindling, it was still an advantage.

The Kaiser did not offer the “blank cheque” as a direct means of provoking a European war. But the potential benefits of a war — or, rather, a war in the immediate future, rather than one later, dictated by France and Russia — must have weighed on his mind. Moreover, though Wilhelm evidently believed that a German-backed Austria-Hungary would not provoke the Russians, the fact that Germany had offered assurances (even without naming Russia in those assurances) sparked dangerous thinking within the General Staff. For Germany was now embarking upon a foreign policy that could lead it directly into conflict with Russia. Since Russia was allied to France, it was likely that this conflict would involve France. Therefore, German military planners began preparing for war, not against Russia (for which they had no plan), but against France (for which they did.)

Austria’s Ultimatum.

Based on the positive reports from Hoyos and Szögeny-Marich, the Habsburg court made its preparations. There was no doubt among the government ministers that Serbia would be dealt with militarily, though by now talk had turned from avenging Franz Ferdinand to removing a conspicuous thorn in the Empire’s side. However, perhaps in an attempt to avoid Russian conflict, or to mollify the Hungarian prime minister, Istvan Tisza, who had argued strongly for negotiations with Pasic, it was decided that Serbia would first be presented with a set of demands. Officially, were Serbia to agree to the demands in this ultimatum, it could avoid an Austrian declaration of war. However, the tone of the ultimatum is clear from the meetings in which it was drafted; Conrad von Hötzendorf, despite not being a government minister, took a key role in its wording, and Berchtold, by now fully convinced of the righteousness of the cause, argued belligerently for harsh terms. Austria-Hungary would demand that Serbia dissolve all nationalist organisations, especially the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana. Members of these organisations would be dismissed from the Serbian Army and state apparatus (and, indeed, a proviso in the final version insisted that any official Austria-Hungary objected to would be dismissed immediately.) The Serbian government was to abandon its goals of forming a “Greater Serbia.” More to the point, since the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand had riddled the Serbian state, Serbian authorities could not be trusted to root out the guilty parties. As a result, a special commission of Austro-Hungarian police was to be set up in Belgrade, with jurisdiction to arrest any conspirators. Serbia would also accept that Austria-Hungary had the right to enter Serbian territory at any point in time to deal with any perceived security threats. On 23 July, the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade delivered the ultimatum to the Serbian government; Serbia had just 48 hours to comply, or it would be war.

In truth, the Austrians never intended that Serbia would accede to their demands. It was inconceivable that any country, especially one so jealously and vociferously defensive of its sovereignty as Serbia, could accept terms that would impinge on, and even completely negate, that sovereignty. To accept would be giving the Habsburgs control over Serbian state and military appointments and foreign policy, not to mention the establishment of law and order. But, by proffering the ultimatum, Vienna hoped to give itself a legal basis for its planned invasion. We offered them a solution, Austria could claim, but they left us no alternative. Perhaps this would dissuade the Russians.

The Russians, however, had already made their position clear. Tsar Nicholas II had already been sent word of the gist of the Austrian ultimatum as early as 16 July, as a result of leaks from both Austrian and German foreign ministry officials. His diplomats, in turn, had passed on the general terms to Pasic by 19 July — half a week before they were presented by the Austrians. It cannot be coincidence that, in consultation with Russian officials, Pasic’s circular to his government ministers on receiving the leaked ultimatum was to insist that Serbia would vigorously defend its independence; clearly, St. Petersburg had counselled Belgrade in its response. When the finalised copy of the terms was presented, though, not even this foreknowledge could prevent the Serbian ministries from dissolving into panic. The ministry of war promised to fight, and ordered the general mobilisation of the army, but the army was in no condition to go to war. Russia had been supportive in theory, but on 23 July it could offer nothing more than vague assurances that it found the terms “disgusting” — hardly reassuring when Serbia faced annihilation. Pasic desperately appealed to the other European capitals, without success; the French went so far as to suggest that Serbia should give in. Thus, in spite of the proud resolution of the military figures in Pasic’s government, the Serbian officials set about drafting a reply that would accept nearly all of Vienna’s demands. There would be only two exceptions: Pasic argued that Serbia simply could not permit perpetual Austrian intervention on Serbian soil, nor an Austrian police investigation to arrest Serbian citizens. To accede to these, he argued, would effectively mean dissolving Serbia’s autonomy completely. He was, perhaps, buoyed in his resolve to reject these terms by a belated reassurance from St. Petersburg, just hours before the deadline for the Serbian response, that Russia would stand by Serbia in the event of Austrian aggression. Thus, Pasic presented the Austrian ambassador with a conciliatory response that baulked on two points and two points only. But the instructions from Berchtold were clear: all or nothing. With Pasic’s response in hand, Austrian Ambassador Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen burned the embassy cipher book, and boarded a train for Vienna. In the capital, Conrad, Berchtold and Franz Josef made the final preparations for their declaration of war. This, they delivered on 28 July.

 Final Chances.

Russian Army, 1914

The Russian Army’s general mobilisation began German plans to do likewise.

“So after all!” Franz Josef responded to the news of 25 July, but the drama was not yet over. Vienna’s rejection of Pasic’s response set into motion a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. But their patrons still had room to manoeuvre to avoid a larger conflagration. In many ways, though, their path had been set in stone just as much as Austria-Hungary’s and Serbia’s had. On the same day, Nicholas II secretly finalised orders for the full mobilisation of the Russian Army. There is significant evidence, however, to suggest that a covert mobilisation had begun well before this, perhaps as early as the beginning of the month. Germany was watching closely. On 26 July, German attaches around the Russian Empire sent a flurry of reports indicating that military manoeuvres had been cancelled, soldiers on leave had been recalled, and many military districts were now on high alert. On 31 July, having received proof of Russia’s full mobilisation, Germany’s High Command responded in kind, declaring an “Imminent Danger of War”, and calling up the army for immediate service. In doing so, however, Germany’s diplomats made a fateful error. The General Staff had long presumed that the Franco-Russian Alliance was a binding, general treaty. In fact, it was defensive in character, requiring one party to respond in force only in the defence of the other. Were Russia to mobilise and go to war with Austria-Hungary, as it seemed intent on doing, Paris would have no binding reason to intervene. But France had begun taking precautionary measures on 28 July, cancelling leave and recalling troops from Morocco and Algeria. This was all the convincing German war planners needed to throw into motion their plans for the much-feared two-front war; believing that the Russians would take months to mobilise, and unaware that mobilisation had likely begun much earlier in the month, the Germans calculated that a knockout blow against the comparatively weaker French in the west, forcing Paris to surrender, would allow 1.7 million German troops in the west to swing eastwards within a few weeks, and thus face the Russians before they had a chance to fully mobilise. In misinterpreting the Franco-Russian Alliance, then, the Germans saw any move by the French — even the quite reasonable measure of recalling troops from leave, when other European states looked set to go to war — as a prelude to the likely simultaneous strike on Germany by both Russia and France. In doing so, and preparing accordingly, German war planners turned a localised eastern war into one that would extend to the western coast of Europe. How this would be accomplished, and the route it would take, would determine whether the last great power of Europe — Great Britain — chose to abandon its policy of splendid isolation, and enter the conflict. What, in this case, is most pertinent is that, on 3 August, Germany declared war on France, and the next day German armies swept into neutral Belgium, en route to French territory.


Amidst all of the parochial myth-making and damnation of the First World War, it is clear that placing blame, while perhaps cathartic, may well be a futile exercise. Certainly, Germany bears much of the responsibility; one cannot imagine, despite Conrad von Hötzendorf’s protestations, that Austria-Hungary would have risked annihilation at the hands of the Russian Empire without assurances that it would be protected by its more powerful, western neighbour. Even in giving its assurances, Germany could well have offered provisos, rather than a free hand that Austria so recklessly abused. On the other hand, the Germans, stung by prior events and eager to safeguard its only reliable friend in Europe, could be forgiven for assuming that their threat of armed intervention would be enough to warn off the Russians. At the same time, the confusion within Berlin’s circles of officialdom was palpable, and at times it seems as though German foreign policy was determined by bumbling amateurs at Wilhelmstraße.

Nor can we necessarily blame Austria-Hungary. It had taken its first steps out of shock but, having been faced with an existential crisis for which it held Serbia responsible, it could hardly back down and risk diminishing forever its power on the international stage. This was an empire in decline, but not yet moribund; the diplomats’ choices would shape the future of the Empire, and indeed determine whether, as Franz Josef feared, the assassination was part of heavenly damnation, or whether it would in fact offer a reprieve.

It is extremely unlikely that the Serbian government was culpable in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (though certainly some elements within Serbian diplomatic and military circles were), but this became largely moot as the crisis developed, and Austria-Hungary saw its opportunity to defeat its precocious bugbear once and for all. Belgrade’s terrified appeal for help was more than understandable. It is possible that, had Serbia’s Russian ally chosen to intervene in diplomatic circles, and attempt to force a negotiated compromise, the crisis may have passed. But Russia chose to mobilise — and in any event the same charge can be levelled at Germany, for failing to rein in Austria-Hungary. As for the French, having for much of July ignored the unfolding crisis, they suddenly became, quite unwittingly, both a pawn and a catalyst; the Russians expected the French to back them, and the Germans, also expecting this, read into every French manoeuvre an ulterior motive. At no point in the July Crisis was war inevitable, yet there was also a sense of inexorable logic to the outcome. The guns, perhaps, did not go off by themselves, but rather were triggered by blindfolded diplomats, reading and misreading circumstances, and suffering from both wilful and inadvertent communication breakdowns. One can almost imagine those same diplomats, not knowing the horrors to come, breathing a sigh of relief once war was declared: at last, there was no more ambiguity.

One last player, however, had not yet entered the field. Great Britain remained neutral as the other powers went to war, and while it had a series of mutual understandings with France and Russia, it had maintained its isolation from continental affairs for most of the last century. Its foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had not seen the crisis as anything other than a provincial Balkan sideshow. British interests were not threatened directly by any of the belligerents. Yet within days Britain would take a side, and plunge itself into war. Why it did this is the subject of the next post in this series.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. The War that Ended Peace. London. Profile. 2013.
  • McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Origins of the First World War. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2011.
  • McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. London. Icon. 2013.
  • Stevenson, David. 1914-1918. The History of the First World War. London. Allen Lane. 2004.

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The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand, 28 June 1914

Perhaps it is too pithy to say that one man – or the death of one man – began the cataclysm that resulted in the deaths of millions. In many ways, however, it is an accurate statement. We have seen that the Europe of the early twentieth century was a seething mass of tension, animosity, and alliances, and that direct conflict was highly likely. We should not fall into the trap, however, of suggesting that what eventuated from all of this – the First World War – was in any way inevitable. Indeed, if it were, it is surprising that war had not broken out sooner. Instead, the spark that led to mass mobilisations was indeed the death of one man, and the people who engineered his murder never had any intention of beginning a Europe-wide general war. How this happened will be discussed in this series of posts. This particular post, however, will focus on the planning for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, and the execution of that plot. Later posts will consider the responses of the various states of Europe, and why this murder became the casus bellum for what would be termed the “war to end all wars.”


English: Greater Serbian aspirations before th...

The Kingdom of Serbia aspired to unite all the Balkan Slavic people under a new, “Greater Serbia.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since revolting against Ottoman rule in 1835, the Kingdom of Serbia had been a vocal champion of Slavic independence in the Balkans. Throughout the latter nineteenth century, as Ottoman influence in the region receded, Serbia continually positioned itself as a young but important powerbroker, and its continued friendship with Russia guaranteed its border security. Slowly but surely, other countries – Bulgaria, Rumania, Montenegro – managed to extricate themselves from under the Turkish yoke. Serbia’s relationship with these neighbours, however, was strained at best. As one of the first Balkan Slavic countries to gain independence, it had seen itself as the magister of the region. This was viewed with discomfort by the other Balkan states, which had only just gained their hard-won independence, and were not about to see it fettered away by aligning themselves to Belgrade’s vision of a “Greater Serbia.” For Serbia, the hoped-for regional dominance was further compromised by rampant illiteracy and a primitive agrarian-based economy that left the kingdom well behind other European powers. Serbia strove for grandeur but lacked the regional support or the domestic wherewithal to accomplish it.

Now-public domain seal of Serbian Black Hand o...

The seal of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Unification or Death!), better known as the Black Hand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sat uncomfortably with both pan-Slavic and Serbian nationalists, who saw the state not only fail to take its supposedly rightful position at the head of the Balkans, but also squander and woefully mismanage relations with fellow Balkan states. Consequently, as official Serbian policymakers faltered, other semiofficial or disavowed organisations emerged to promote Serbia’s role in a pan-Slavic future. In September 1901, a cabal of army officers led by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic (codenamed “Apis”) formed Ujedinjenje ili smrt! (Unification or Death!), a semi-secret organisation committed to the liberation of Slavic territories from empires that still held land in the Balkans, and the unification of these territories, and those that had already gained independence, under the Serbian banner, to form a large Serbian state. This first aim put the group, commonly known as the Black Hand, firmly in conflict with both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had eagerly stepped in when Ottoman influence in the region began to wane. In particular, the Black Hand interested itself in the affairs of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were occupied by Austria-Hungary as stipulated in the Treaty of Berlin, and officially annexed in 1908. To this end, the Black Hand provided its support, both material and moral, to a small Bosnian nationalist organisation known as Young Bosnia. Young Bosnia’s small membership was mostly made up of radical university students, seeking Bosnia’s independence from Austria-Hungary. This, of course, immediately drew the nascent group to the attention of Apis, who saw it as a possible means of striking at Austria-Hungary and fulfilling part of the Black Hand’s charter, while not necessarily opening Serbia to censure.

Aleksandar_Obrenovic, King of Serbia

King Alexander and Queen Draga: Serbian royal family, overthrown and exterminated by the Black Hand, led by Apis.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of the Black Hand, and its less adventurous but still vehemently nationalist counterpart, Narodna Odbrana, was only possible as long as Serbian political power remained weak. Without government or legal oversight, these groups were able to infiltrate themselves into the ultranationalist cabals of the country, and extend their influence further into other Balkan territories, such as Bosnia. Part of the reason this was possible was the ever-present fear among government figures that the ultranationalists would turn on them. Certainly, there was precedent for this. Apis had formed Black Hand as a conspiracy, not against Austria-Hungary, but against the Serbian royal family, who he and his colleagues saw as weak, vacillating, and unwilling to truly challenge Serbia’s foes. In 1903, Black Hand operatives stormed the Old Palace in Belgrade and, having tricked King Alexander and Queen Draga out of hiding, viciously and brutally murdered the pair, throwing their dismembered bodies out the window of their bedchamber, and on to a pile of horse manure outside. The coup also claimed the lives of the prime minister, and the minister of war, as well as the queen’s two brothers, and the king’s aide-de-camp. The rebels placed a new dynasty on the throne, in the person of King Peter Karadordevic. Remarkably, though, the response among Serbian society, and especially in Belgrade, where the brutal assassinations had occurred, was muted by indifference. King Peter never forgot this, and from the moment he took to the throne he assumed a largely ceremonial role, choosing to surrender real power to the cabal.

This lesson was also learned by the Serbian statesman Nikola Pasic, a mainstay in the Skupstina, who had previously served – and would in the future serve – on many occasions as prime minister. Pasic was deeply intelligent, fiercely loyal to his country, and intensely popular. He was also cripplingly indecisive, and keenly aware that the rise of Black Hand and other, similar organisations had, by definition, created a conflict of loyalties for the Serbian Army in particular. On the one hand, Pasic and the government had to weigh up Serbia’s role as a power in Europe, including maintaining cordial relations with its neighbours. On the other hand, the Black Hand demanded Serbia’s expansion and elevation of its power. The former was the prudent option. The latter, however, appealed to the ambitious army officer corps. It is no coincidence that the Black Hand had been formed by a close-knit group of officers. Matters were not improved by Austria-Hungary’s actions; in 1906, for instance, Vienna, aiming to squeeze Serbia economically, closed its borders to Serbian pork – the very foundation of the Serbian export economy. Belgrade’s response was to seek new means of exporting pork, which ultimately came to fruition when France signed a favourable import treaty with Serbia, but this was a long process, and the army increasingly agitated for a military counterstrike against the Habsburg Empire. This pressure only increased after Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908.

At the centre of Serbia’s power structure, therefore, a strange and dangerous duality had formed. On the one hand, the legitimate government institutions, often led by the sober Pasic, tried to use diplomatic leverage to solve its foreign policy problems, which were chiefly caused by its troubled relationship with Austria-Hungary. On the other hand, Serbian ultranationalist organisations called for more punitive policies, and demanded the expansion of Serbia into a regional powerhouse. This could only come at the expense of Austria-Hungary; thus, for all intents and purposes, groups like the Black Hand and Narodna Odbrana were agitating for war with the Habsburg Empire. In order for this to be successful, these groups banked on Russian support, believing that the paternalistic relationship between Russia and Serbia would oblige St. Petersburg to arm its Balkan ally and provide a brotherhood in arms against Austria. Coupled with the impression that Austria-Hungary was falling into an irreversible decline, this sentiment resonated with many in the army, to the extent that it is fair to say that a large proportion of the Serbian Army was either sympathetic to or directly influenced by either Narodna Odbrana or Ujedinjenje ili smrt! To an astute politician like Pasic, it was clear that, even though he was popular within the civilian electorate, this would mean little if he were to antagonise the Black Hand, which could very well engineer his downfall or murder. As a result, even though the Black Hand was technically illegal, the Pasic administrations tended to turn a blind eye to its operations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Battleground by Proxy.

"Distribution of Races in Austria–Hungary...

The Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1911. Bosnia and Herzegovina are the southernmost provinces. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”, Otto von Bismarck had once warned; if he had survived to 1908 he would no doubt have predicted that the flashpoint would be Bosnia. Here, the difficulties of Austro-Serbian relations came into sharp relief. Austria-Hungary had been promised the right to annex the former Ottoman provinces at the Congress of Berlin, and had it been permitted to do so then, in 1878, it would perhaps have been countenanced by Belgrade. But circumstances had changed by 1908. Austria’s seemingly irresistible decline had taken hold, its animosity towards Serbia shown by its actions in the so-called “Pig War”, when it had forbidden the export of Serbian pork through its borders, and the formal annexation of these ethnically Slavic provinces rankled the pan-Slavic radicals of Narodna Odbrana and Black Hand. Matters were not helped by the insistence of the Hungarian ministries that Bosnia and Herzegovina be formally attached to Hungary, not Austria; Hungary’s circumspection in extending equal rights to non-Hungarian ethnicities was well-known among pan-Slavists. Even Archduke Franz Ferdinand recognised the dangers of this, in both a domestic and an international sense; writing to the head of the Military Chancellery, Alexander von Brosch-Aarenau, the heir to the throne noted:

If the annexation has to be realised, I give my assent under only one condition, that both provinces should join the Empire and the crownlands. If Hungary demands that these provinces belong to St. Stephen’s Crown [i.e. Hungary] – and this will happen – we should not yield under any conditions, even if it means evading the annexation and leaving things as they are.

Central to the Hungarian opposition to Bosnia and Herzegovina being joined with Austria (rather than Hungary) was the fact that this would strengthen Slavic influence in Austria. This, however, was precisely what Franz Ferdinand wanted. As has been previously noted, the archduke believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire required reform at a fundamental level; central to this was his notion of extending electoral franchises to all the major minorities, including Slavs.

Franz Ferdinand was also aware of another danger lurking in the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The archduke differed in many respects from his uncle – indeed, in most matters of state they butted heads, and Franz Ferdinand’s concept of the United States of Great Austria would likely have horrified the old Franz Josef – but in two issues they were of one mind: they both believed in the need to safeguard Austria, and they both believed that Serbia posed an existential threat to their crown. Upon the annexation of the provinces, the archduke wrote to the Austrian foreign minister, Baron von Aehrenthal, congratulating him for “[showing] Europe once again that we are still a great power!” However, he continued, “the main thing is to keep the peace in Bosnia with an iron rod. Any attempt at a putsch or an infiltration by the [Serbs] from across the borders must be met with execution by shooting, hanging etc. We have to keep an especially tight rein on the Serbs […] and every emissary from Serbia must be thrown out forthwith.” The Serbian foreign minister, Milovan Milovanovic, responded in kind: “[O]ne thing I know for certain, I can feel it – that Bosnia and Herzegovina will not remain in Austria’s possession for long. […] I will put my life on it that Bosnia will be free by 1920. Who knows whether any of us will witness it…and who knows how it will all come about?”

Austro-Hungarian hegemony over Bosnia and Herzegovina had caused outrage, and nearly war, in Serbia. In Bosnia, for all Franz Ferdinand’s rhetoric of iron rods and discipline, the situation was not nearly so inflamed as Serbian rhetoric suggested. Little had changed for the peasantry, who were the overwhelming majority of the population, nor for the small but growing bourgeoisie. However, Austrian involvement had brought about an education revolution, and universities had opened their doors to a wider range of students. Much like the undergraduates of Russia, who would be introduced to Marxist theory, Bosnian youths entering university were soon seduced by the allure of nationalist theories, and by the late 1900s there was a growing network of Narodna Odbrana cells within urban Bosnia, with which these radicalised students could make contact. One of these students was named Gavrilo Princip.

Plan and Action.

That Princip’s organisation, Young Bosnia, turned to assassination as a tool of political change is not surprising at all. In 1910, one of their number, Bogdan Zerajic, had attempted to murder the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia, Varesanin, by unloading the magazine of a revolver at him. Zerajic missed with every shot, save the one he reserved for his own temple; nevertheless, he quickly became a martyr to the cause. Varesanin’s eventual replacement, Oskar Potiorek, was similarly a logical target, and there is no doubt that the young radicals who made up Young Bosnia plotted his assassination as well. Yet the assassination, when it came, was not directed against Potiorek, but against Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne himself.

Franz Ferd[inand] of Austria and wife; Countes...

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Why Franz Ferdinand was targeted for killing is difficult to say. Young Bosnia may have been enthusiastic, but it was hardly a competent or overly ambitious terrorist group, and choosing to kill the heir to the throne would entail problems far beyond those encountered even in attempting to kill the governor. Franz Ferdinand’s security was likely to be very tight, compared to Varesanin’s. Moreover, Franz Ferdinand was a far more important personage than Varesanin, or Potiorek. His ascension to the throne was only a matter of time, given the advanced years of Franz Josef; his death would therefore attract a much greater Austrian response. Such dangerous, weighty plans were unlikely to originate in Sarajevo, amongst the handful of gun-toting university students.

Across the border in Serbia, however, it was a different story. Bosnia had very little to gain from the death of Franz Ferdinand. Serbia – or, rather, the Serbian state – could hardly countenance such a plan either; if Serbs were found to have been responsible, it would surely mean war, and Pasic and his political allies had tried hard to avoid such a disastrous eventuality for years. But amongst the Serbian nationalists, and particularly amongst the members and sympathisers of the Black Hand, Franz Ferdinand’s upcoming visit to Sarajevo was too tempting an opportunity. The Black Hand stood for the liberation of Slavic territory from under Austro-Hungarian influence, and unification of all the Slavic states under Serbia’s wing. The second necessitated the first, yet this presupposed that the Balkan areas of the Empire would want to secede from Vienna’s leadership. Franz Ferdinand, however, was dynamic, progressive, and reform-minded. His plan for a European United States would extend unprecedented rights to the Slavic people of the Empire. To the proponents of Greater Serbia, the prospect was a nightmare; if they could not entice their fellow Slavs away from Habsburg control, how could they possibly succeed in their ultimate goal? Apis – by now, head of Serbian Intelligence as well as the (supposedly illegal) Ujedinjenje ili smrt! – would no doubt have been aware that, with Franz Ferdinand disposed of, his ambitions to reform the Empire would also die, since the remaining triumvirate – the ailing Franz Josef, the fiercely parochial Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, and the mercurial army chief Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf – were all staunchly reactionary traditionalists. Were the reforms to die, so too would the threat to the attractiveness of pan-Slavism.

Deutsch: Dragutin Dimitrijević Српски / Srpski...

Some – including Apis’ biographer, David MacKenzie – suggest another, more pressing motive. Apis may have had delusions of expanding Serbia’s role in the region at the expense of Austria-Hungary, but he was still a Serbian Army officer. Serbia had just fought the two Balkan Wars and, while the country had enjoyed significant victories, the army was by now in terrible disarray, battered and exhausted by years of fighting. If Serbia were compelled now to go to war, it would surely be a catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. According to MacKenzie, Apis may have believed that Franz Ferdinand (who had, during the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shown no love for the Serbs) was pressing for preemptive war against Serbia. As evidence for this, it had been Franz Ferdinand who had placed Conrad von Hötzendorf at the head of the army, and Hötzendorf was notorious for advocating war against Serbia. Between New Years Day 1913 and New Years Day 1914, for example, Hötzendorf had officially recommended to the Kaiser that Austria-Hungary invade Serbia on no fewer than twenty-five occasions. It is worth noting that, by this point, Hötzendorf had fallen out of favour with Franz Ferdinand, and his insistence on war was so frequent that he was routinely ignored at court. Nonetheless, his previous relationship with the archduke, and his dogmatic approach to the Serbian question, may have led Apis and the Black Hand to the conclusion that Franz Ferdinand would himself soon be pushing for an Austro-Serbian war. Killing him, therefore, might derail or at least delay the Austrian war party, and since Serbia was in such a deplorable state of military readiness, this could prove to be Belgrade’s last, desperate chance.

If MacKenzie is right, and Apis was driven by a fear of Franz Ferdinand declaring war, then Apis woefully miscalculated. Though his rhetoric against the Serbs often took a hard line, the archduke was frequently the voice of reason at the Austrian court, counselling his uncle away from the obstreperous cries for war that emanated from the bellicose Hötzendorf. Indeed, one must wonder how murdering Franz Ferdinand could possibly relieve the threat of war, since Hötzendorf, the most hawkish of Franz Josef’s courtiers, would remain in his role as chief of staff and head of the army. If anything, if Serbia were fingered as the culprit for the assassination attempt, Apis would have all but assured war.

Be this as it may, Apis went ahead with his plan. In order to carry it out, he turned his attention to the ties between the Serbian nationalist organisations, such as Naredna Odbrana and his own Black Hand, and the Young Bosnian group. The plot was to involve only Bosnians, in an effort to obfuscate the role that Serbia played in it. Apis’ planning was quite meticulous; weapons would be shuttled over the border to Bosnia by trusted border guards, illiterate peasants would provide the assassins transport without realising precisely what they were doing. He even procured the services of a second cell of assassins, led by Bosnian Danilo Ilic, with the express aim of misdirecting authorities. Ilic’s cell was made up of loyal Young Bosnians with a proven track record of failure and incompetence; Apis hoped that they would be captured, and since they knew nothing of the true plot, they could hardly betray Apis and the Black Hand as being complicit.

Even in planning, however, we see severe flaws. The assassins to be sent on this mission – Nedeljko Cabrinovic, Trifko Grabez, and Gavrilo Princip – were all Bosnians, but they had all recently spent time in Belgrade. Indeed, at his later trial, Princip would accidentally let slip that Grabez’s more radical views only developed “after he came to Belgrade.” Their handler, Milan Ciganovic, was chosen for being a Bosnian, but he too could easily be traced back to Serbia, since he was not only a member of the Black Hand, but also a worker on the Serbian state railway. Moreover, the weaponry they were provided – revolvers and bombs – had all been procured from the Kragujevac Arsenal, which supplied the Serbian Army. In short, much as Apis wanted to have the finger of blame pointed at local Bosnians, he could not entirely hide the Princip cell’s links to Belgrade. Thus, if Princip and his coconspirators were caught, there was a high probability that the trail might lead Austro-Hungarian authorities back to Serbia.

Regardless of these flaws, the plan went ahead. Princip and his cohort were smuggled across the border. They planned to bomb Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade as it passed them on the Emperor Bridge in Sarajevo – precisely where Bogdan Zerajic had taken his own life, having failed to kill Governor Varesanin.

Serbian Officialdom and the Plot.

The plot to kill Franz Ferdinand involved extraordinary resources and conspiracies. In order for it to succeed, Apis required the complicity of Serbian Army guards. He required the ability to remove weapons from a government arsenal, without raising alarms. He required that known Young Bosnia activists be trained, paid, and prepared for action, all in Serbia. He also extensively used his own, official intelligence network, in order to garner information about the archduke’s visit to Sarajevo. In short, he used resources that were only available to him through official channels.

English: Serbian politician and Primer Ministe...

So, how much can we see the hand of the Serbian government in this plot? At first glance, the conspiracy appears totally out of character for Pasic and his cabinet, who strove to keep Serbia at peace. Through diplomatic links, Pasic could not expect anything but war if Franz Ferdinand were killed and Serbia found complicit, given the known character of Hötzendorf and his retinue. Pasic had time and again shown himself to be a cautious politician, unwilling to take risky, decisive action. Certainly, given all the factors we have mentioned, this particular plan went well beyond “risky”, towards the realm of suicidal insanity.

Yet we cannot entirely absolve Pasic of knowledge. Indeed, we know he knew something. Pasic warned the Serbian cabinet, at least a month before the murder, that a plot was afoot “to go to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand.” Nor did Pasic think the attack would take place using feather dusters and hope. Throughout May and June 1914, he received reports of weapons being smuggled over the border to Bosnia. The reports had so troubled Pasic that he had ordered the borders closed and the border guards investigated, but this happened more than a fortnight after the first worrying reports had been received, and was therefore a useless measure if the prime minister wished to stop the assassination attempt.

So, the arithmetic confronting Pasic was thus: a plot to kill the heir to the throne of Serbia’s greatest enemy was in the offing. Weapons had been smuggled across the border. Were Franz Ferdinand to be killed, the consequences would be dire. Clearly, Pasic’s only option was to warn Vienna and Sarajevo.

Or was it? For while Serbian complicity in the death of Franz Ferdinand would be catastrophic, for Belgrade to attempt to stop the assassination might have other, more immediate consequences. The Black Hand, it should be remembered, had significant support from that vital powerbroker, the military. Its leader was the head of military intelligence. The preparation for the Princip cell’s mission had only been possible through army complicity. By inference, then, if Black Hand wanted Franz Ferdinand dead, then the army wanted Franz Ferdinand dead. Past experience had shown that the title of prime minister would not be enough to save a politician who strayed into disfavour with the army; one need only recall the horrific bloodbath from Apis’ coup in 1903 to realise the precarious position Pasic would have put himself in, had he betrayed Black Hand’s plot to the Austrians.  And then there was the matter of the Austrians themselves. If Pasic were to warn them, he would have been admitting to a Serbian plot to kill the heir to the throne. In essence, he would be providing Vienna with just what Hötzendorf had wanted for so long: a reason for war.

Therefore, in spite of the danger, Pasic reverted to type. He did nothing, perhaps hoping against hope that the plot would fail, and Serbia’s link to it would not be discovered.


Latin bridge (prev. Princip bridge) in Sarajev...

The Latin Bridge, in Sarajevo, was the site of the ultimately successful assassination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 28 June 1914, Sarajevo was bedecked in patriotic imperial bunting, and the streets lined with crowds, to witness the six-vehicle motorcade that carried in its midst Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. As the cars drove along Appel Quay, one of the men in the crowd moved forward, bomb in hand. Nedeljko Cabrinovic hurled the explosive device at the cars but, though it hit Franz Ferdinand’s vehicle, it bounced off the bodywork and exploded underneath the car trailing behind, wounding its passengers as well as several bystanders. Cabrinovic’s next act – an attempt at suicide, to avoid capture – was about as successful as his attempt to kill the archduke. Swallowing cyanide, he threw himself into the Miljaka River. However, the river was only a few centimetres deep, precluding drowning, and the dose of cyanide had degraded, and was so weak that it merely caused him to vomit. While Cabrinovic was pulled from the river and set upon by the enraged crowd, the motorcade sped away, precluding Princip and the remaining conspirators (including Ilic’s cell) from taking action themselves.

Upon arriving at the town hall, the furious and shaken archduke remonstrated with the hapless major of Sarajevo, but soon calmed down. It was then that, in an act of humanity, Franz Ferdinand sealed his own fate. He declared that he would not continue with the official portion of his visit to the Bosnian capital. Instead, he wished to visit the people who had been wounded in the attempt on his life, and pay his respects at the local hospital. Thus resolved, he, Sophie, and Governor Potiorek returned to their car, heading back down towards Appel Quay.

Gavrilo Princip, meanwhile, had slinked away from the site of the botched assassination attempt. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he intended to rid himself of his weapons and go into hiding. But, as he debated with himself, a car pulled directly in front of him. Franz Ferdinand’s driver, unfamiliar with Sarajevo, had taken a wrong turn and, upon being corrected by Potiorek, attempted to reverse. The confusion left the car stationary for approximately twenty seconds, and it gave Princip the opportunity to draw his revolver, aim at the archduke, and fire. Franz Ferdinand was hit first, but when Princip aimed for Potiorek, he misfired, striking the duchess instead.

The bullet that hit Franz Ferdinand passed through his jugular vein, causing extensive bleeding that could not be staunched. The one intended for Governor Potiorek had passed through Sophie’s side, and though it was not immediately recognised that she had indeed been shot, Sophie was the first to die. As befitting two people in love (as Franz Ferdinand and Sophie certainly were – a rarity for royal couplings at this time), their last thoughts were of each other. Sophie, upon seeing the blood dribbling from the corners of her beloved husband’s mouth, managed to cry out in despair: “My God! What has happened to you?”, before she collapsed to the floor of the car. The archduke, in shock and rapidly losing blood, pleaded with his wife not to die, and to “live for my children”, before he, too, succumbed to his wounds.

English: Soldiers arrest Gavrila Prinzip, assa...

Gavrilo Princip, suffering from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning, is arrested by Austro-Hungarian police after killing Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife were dead, killed by an assassin with a revolver. This alone would have made the shocking event a cause celebre. But the story did not end on the streets of Sarajevo. Authorities reacted quickly; Gavrilo Princip, attempting suicide by cyanide, discovered that his capsule, like Cabrinovic’s, had oxidised, and he was arrested, in excruciating pain but without the comfort of death. With the conspirators in captivity, Pasic’s worst fears were realised. The Austro-Hungarian government immediately suspected Serbian involvement, and with Princip in its hands it had proof. How it would use this proof, and how it would react to the Sarajevo outrage, is the subject of the next post in this series.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.
  • Dedijer, Vladimir. The Road to Sarajevo. London. MacGibbon & Kee. 1967.
  • Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804-2011. New York. Penguin. 2012.
  • MacKenzie, David. Apis: The Congenial Conspirator. The Life of Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijevic. New York. Columbia University Press. 1989.
  • MacKenzie, David. The “Black Hand” on Trial. Salonika, 1917. New York. Columbia University Press. 1995.


Filed under 1900-1914

Prewar Years: Russian Empire

A 1912 map of the Russian Empire by Shokalsky,...

The Russian Empire in 1912. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For much of Europe, Russia, far to the east, was a great unknown, and certainly a state possessing major contradictions. Russia’s vast resources – both material and human – had often made it a figure of envy and fear, and many of the diplomatic struggles of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were focused on either currying favour with St. Petersburg, or else avoiding the prospect of war. Russia was the most populous state in Europe, with access to some of the most extensive deposits of oil, coal, metals, and gemstones anywhere on the globe. In the event of war, many spoke with a mixture of admiration and worry about a “Russian steamroller”, a massive army of countless strong, warlike, semi-barbaric young men, who would sweep away everything in their path. This picture was offset, however, by the realities of Russia when viewed in the harsh light of day. Russia was vast, it was true, and it had an enormous population, but that vastness had not given it a decisive advantage in many of the conflicts in which it was involved in the nineteenth century. Moreover, for all that was available to it, Russia was riven with backwardness and inefficiency, both economically and politically. The political system rested uneasily on a difficult, teetering foundation that, while not in immediate danger of collapse, was by no means stable. Also, festering under the surface was horrific social discord and a profound contrast – arguably greater than in any other country – between those who governed and those who were governed. Coupled with the government’s penchant for adventurism, and the state’s deep interests in regions and issues that might bring it into conflict with its neighbours, this meant that the great behemoth in the east of Europe was not a source of surety but of insecurity and uncertainty.

In 1913, the House of Romanov celebrated its tercentenary at the head of the Russian Empire. For three hundred years, it had been a member of this dynasty who had ruled over the vast swathes of territory that stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, and all the hundreds of millions of people who lived within those borders. The pageantry of the occasion, however, belied the deep-seated concerns surrounding the leadership of the latest emperor in the bloodline, Tsar Nicholas II. Nicholas, like his forebears, was an absolute monarch and autocrat. He believed in direct rule, and that the person of the tsar was anointed by God to lead the Empire. In this, he was quite unique among the European leaders. His cousin George V, king of Great Britain, was merely a figurehead, presiding in a mostly ceremonial fashion over a parliamentary form of government. Nicholas’ other cousin, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, was more central to his nation’s policy-making, but even then he was hardly a monarch without democratic checks and balances, and such was also the case in the Dual Monarchy. Even the Ottoman Empire, so widely derided as a relic of Oriental feudalism (with all the misguided European bigotry that view entailed), had begun dabbling with democracy; a cornerstone of the Young Turk revolt, after all, was a desire to wrest power from the autocratic and incompetent sphere of the sultan, and open it to the pashas and to representatives of the citizenship, elected through limited franchise. On the ascension of Nicholas to the Russian throne in 1894, however, the concept of representative democracy was foreign, dangerous, unthinkable. Nearly twenty years later, as he celebrated his family’s three hundredth jubilee, some circumstances had changed, but the attitude had not.

Nicholas is a truly divisive figure in Russian history – or, indeed, in any history. After his ignominious fall from power in 1917, and his awful fate in 1918, he has been both vilified and lauded; in recent times, he, his wife Alexandra, and his children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei, have been canonised by the Moscow synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other commentators have labeled him weak, indecisive, disastrously incompetent. There is more than a grain of truth to these charges, but we should perhaps have some sympathy for Nicholas, for many of the problems that were thrown into such sharp relief during his leadership were not of his own making, but were in fact inherited from an already moribund and struggling system.

English: Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexand...

Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicholas came into the role of tsar almost totally unprepared for it. His father, Tsar Alexander III, was an imperious, controlling personality, who had expected to rule for decades, but his unexpected death, at the young age of just 49, catapulted his 26 year old son on to the throne in 1894, with very little by way of formal political training. What tutelage he had received had been conducted almost entirely by Alexander’s old tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who had also assumed the role of Nicholas’ private tutor, in addition to his duties as ober-procurator of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church. As one might expect from these credentials, Pobedonostsev was deeply conservative in his views. He had been a key proponent of Alexander’s plan of “Russification” of the Empire – that is, the removal of ethnic elites and culture within the minority spheres of the Empire, replacing them with Russian administrators and programmes. No longer, for example, would Tartars or Don Cossacks be permitted to speak their own languages, for they would be illegalised and replaced with Russian (it must be remembered that, as of Nicholas’ crowning, just under 50% of the Empire was, in fact, ethnically Russian.) This policy would continue unabated under Nicholas. So, too, would the intrinsic and total belief in the divine right of the tsar. Pobedononstsev, as a deeply religious figure, was convinced that wickedness and corruption was at the very heart of human nature. This, he argued, was the fatal flaw of the many calls for democracy in Russia, for all the granting of political liberty would do would be to concentrate many people, full of wickedness, into positions in which they could manipulate the course of the country. This could only lead Russia to ruin. On the other hand, the tsar was second only to God. He was holy, he had been chosen by God to rule, and so it was not only prudent to continue direct and absolute rule, since this would avoid the concentration of sin, but it was vital, because to do otherwise would be to contravene the will of God.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907)

Konstantin Pobedonostsev. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that Nicholas was a devoutly religious man, and there is equally no doubt that he was heavily influenced by Pobedonostsev. Thus, even though he was nervous and hesitant about taking power, even himself recognising that he was not ready to do so, when he did he did it with the conviction that God was on his side, and the alternative – increasing liberalism and the expansion of democratic freedoms, as had been seen in Germany and Britain – was the path to disaster. Thus, for all his self-awareness, Nicholas was sure that there was simply no other option than his total rule. These two principles – the danger of advancing liberties and rights, and the necessity of his own personal command – were the only two significant lessons he had learnt by the time his father died, and they would become defining characteristics of his leadership.

The tsar’s demi-divinity was not merely a matter of faith for Nicholas or Konstantin Pobedonostsev. In fact, when Nicholas took power, there was a genuine and widespread love for the tsar, particularly among the peasantry, which made up significantly more than 80% of Russia’s huge population. Russia lagged far behind the western European states in terms of industrialisation, and thus the mainstay of the economy was farming. However, the Russian countryside was largely feudal, representative of what in the west was a long-gone era. Technically, there had been an emancipation of the serfs (i.e. peasants tied to the land), but in reality the countryside was the picture of serfdom.


In Russian villages, education was non-existent, alcoholism was rife, and domestic violence endemic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few peasants owned their own land, and instead worked the properties of wealthy landowners, who were generally members of the aristocracy and nobility. Life in villages was difficult, brutal, and often short. Medical care was virtually non-existent, as was education. For the vast majority of peasants, life was defined entirely by the family unit and the village; very few peasants, owing to their isolation, had even a concept of being Russian, or even were familiar with what Russia was. Illiteracy was a chronic condition, and life expectancy was low. Throughout all of this, resentment festered towards the landowner class, which profited from the toils of the peasants who worked but did not own the land. Crucially, however, this resentment and anger was not aimed at the person of the tsar. Much as Pobedonostsev believed in the infallibility of the tsar, so too did the peasantry; the tsar was the “Little Father”, with the “Big Father”, of course, being God in Heaven. The ills of the countryside, the peasants decided, were due only to the landowners and their lackeys, who were deceiving the tsar as to the true conditions of Russian agriculture. A common conception of the peasantry was that their lives would improve if only the tsar were aware of their trials and tribulations. Thus, no matter how bad conditions were, the tsar was genuinely beloved by the majority of his subjects. Certainly, there was a revolutionary movement – including a nascent but weak Marxist organisation, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP), which in 1903 split into two parties, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks – but these were limited to the much smaller bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. As far as the vast proportion of the population was concerned, their tsar was a benevolent leader, second only to God, and worthy of their devotion.

Circumstances were to change, however, in the first half of the first decade of the twentieth century. Part of the impetus for this came not from internal hardships, which were bad enough, but from the consequences that arose from a series of Russian foreign policy blunders that, in turn, caused problems at home.

A problem faced by Russia on the international stage was that, for all its vastness, it was often adversely affected by its own winter. This was particularly the case for the Russian Navy, which wanted for clear water ports that would be free of ice. This was already a problem in the west, since the key ports (Murmansk, Arkangel’sk, etc.) were subject to icing in winter, while Odessa and Sebastopol, by dint of Russia’s difficult diplomatic situation viz. Turkey, were not easy solutions to the issue. Problems were more acute on the Pacific coast, where Russia’s only deepwater port, Vladivostok, suffered the same icing conditions. On the other hand, the navy saw the occupation of Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou), on the Korean peninsula, as a workable solution, since it would be open all year. This, however, brought St. Petersburg into competition with Tokyo; the Japanese felt that their own interests in the region would be threatened by a Russian consolidation on the peninsula and, in a series of negotiations between 1903 and 1904, attempted to come to some form of agreement with their Russian counterparts. Both sides were intractable, though, and a series of failed negotiations finally led to the Japanese losing patience. On 8 February 1904, a Japanese fleet arrived off Port Arthur, damaging seven of the Russian Pacific Squadron contingent there, and blockading the port. Consequently, the Japanese besieged Port Arthur, and the Russians devoted their war effort to lifting that siege. Nicholas entered the war convinced that his forces would prevail, given the fact that Japan was a non-European power (none of which had ever overcome a European imperial power in war before), as well as his concerted belief both that God was on his side, and that the Japanese, as Asians, were inferior to the Russians. This confidence was misplaced. Within months, Russia had suffered tremendous defeats. On land, the army attempting to relieve Port Arthur was mauled by a Japanese force half its size at Liaoyang. At sea, the Pacific Squadron’s August 1904 attempt to break through the Japanese blockade was indecisive. Other actions, both on land and at sea, also ended in heavy defeats.

Retreat of the Russian Army after the Battle o...

The Russian Army retreats after being trounced by the Japanese at Mukden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In late February 1905, a large Russian army was decisively beaten, with nearly 90,000 casualties, near Mukden in Manchuria. In late May, a large Russian fleet arrived in the Pacific to challenge the Japanese and lift the siege of Port Arthur. The fleet had come from the Baltic Sea, and had taken six months to navigate through the Baltic, through the southern Atlantic, around the Horn of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into the Tsushima Straits. However, the long voyage had left the Russian fleet, made up of some 28 ships (including the four most modern battleships in the tsar’s navy), short on supplies and poorly maintained. During the night of 27-28 May, the newly arrived fleet was set upon by a Japanese task force that consisted mostly of small torpedo boats; the resulting battle left the entire Baltic Fleet either at the bottom of the Tsushima Straits, or else captured, and approximately 10,000 sailors killed or captured, while the Japanese lost just three torpedo boats and some 100 sailors. The battle, so phenomenally decisive, was considered by many to be the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar, and it crushed Russia’s naval power.

Russia’s war effort had unintended consequences. In the cities, the public had expected a short war with little privation, but as more and more troops were sent via the Trans-Siberian Railway to their deaths, the domestic economic situation began to worsen. Food from the countryside was shunted towards the faraway front, bypassing the cities, and particularly having a tremendous impact on the working class and urban poor, who already suffered horrendous working and living conditions. Consequently, on Sunday 22 January 1905, a demonstration of some 150,000 workers took to the streets of St. Petersburg, marching towards the Winter Palace. The demonstration was led by an Orthodox priest, Father Georgi Gapon, who worked closely with the workers in St. Petersburg. It would be incorrect to term the 22 January demonstrations a protest, since the workers carried placards praising the royal family, sang patriotic songs, and carried a petition which specifically stated their belief that the tsar could and would help them in their plight. As they approached the Winter Palace, however, they were met by a line of soldiers, with orders not to allow the demonstrators near the palace gates. As more and more workers crowded into the square before the palace, the troops opened fire.

Русский: Картина неизвестного художника "...

Father Gapon leads demonstrators to the Winter Palace on 22 January 1905. Most were singing patriotic songs, such as “God Save the Tsar.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The immediate importance of 22 January has, in some ways, been overstated in some histories. The number of casualties suffered is disputed – some sources place the numbers well in the many thousands – but it is unlikely that any more than 300 people died in the snow in front of the palace. But, regardless of the fact that the deaths were much lower than reported, these events – forever immortalised as “Bloody Sunday” – changed the very nature of the relationship between the governing autocracy and the people. Gapon, who had begun his petition by assuring the tsar that “the people believe in thee”, saw his faith in the Little Father shattered. Writing just hours after he had escaped the bloodshed outside the Winter Palace, Gapon attacked the “beast tsar and his jackal ministers.” Indeed, the response of the people as a whole to this ghastly massacre of innocents – for, regardless of the lower casualty figures, it must be remembered as such – reflected Gapon’s own urges to “tear up all portraits of the bloodsucking tsar and say to him: be thou damned with all thine august reptilian progeny!” For the people as a whole, the comforting fiction of the Little Father had been torn away. To them, it was clear now that the tsar did know of their terrible living conditions. Worse, he was not willing to help them, and in fact sought to beat them down further. The fact that the tsar was actually at his retreat at Tsarskoye Selo on the day, and not in residence at the Winter Palace, made little difference. All at once, the great resentments against the inadequacies of the regime bubbled to the surface and exploded in a torrent of violence and unrest. Riots erupted in the industrial centres of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Some 400,000 workers in St. Petersburg alone went on strike within weeks of Bloody Sunday. In the countryside, law and order ceased to exist; between January and October, the army was called in to quell peasant riots more than 2,700 times, and more than 3,000 manor houses belonging to landowners were burned and destroyed.

The regime’s response to this revolution was gradual, brutal, but ultimately – for the short term, at least – successful. The tsar made use of the army to put down rebellions in the provinces and on the streets. To that end, the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War was a top priority, and in September 1905 a peace treaty, generally unfavourable to the Russians but ending the hostilities, was signed in Portsmouth. This allowed troops, freshly demobilised in the east, to return to the home front to bolster the ranks combatting rioters. Moreover, while the revolts had begun as part of a mass movement, they lacked direction or unity. Workers in Petersburg, for example, rebelled for entirely different reasons to, and with no coordination with, peasants in Ukraine, or even workers in Moscow. This made the revolution vulnerable, and the language of revolution was soon co-opted by educated political reformers in the cities, who wished for liberal reform and saw no good as coming from unbridled rebellious violence. Thus, by October, the tsar had (reluctantly) put his name to the so-called October Manifesto, granting the formation of an advisory legislative parliament, or Duma. The chief powerbrokers of this new Duma would be politicians from two major political factions – the Octobrists, who saw the way forward for Russia as coming through precisely this form of parliamentary monarchy, and the Kadets (or Constitutional Democrats), who favoured further reforms (and – as far as some were concerned – the eventual creation of a republic). Crucially, in spite of the republican tendencies of some of the Kadets, these two parties were committed to reform within the system – that is, cooperating with the tsar. This took the sting out of the tail of the faltering revolution, which wound down by the end of the year. With the immediate danger now gone, but unable to renege on his promise for the creation of a Duma, Nicholas II introduced a new constitution, the “Fundamental Laws”, which clarified the powers of the Duma. Effectively, the Fundamental Laws emasculated the liberal parliament, relegating it to nothing more than a consultative body, over which the tsar retained supreme power. By and large, then, the regime had emerged from the crises of 1904 and 1905 relatively unscathed.

Or had it? Certainly, the tsar had been able to reassert his power, while at the same time providing the impression of liberal reform. But lasting damage had been done, both at home and abroad. At home, the image of the tsar as a devoted Little Father was forever destroyed by the horrors of Bloody Sunday and the year to follow. Like Father Gapon, workers and peasants alike now disabused themselves of the notion that the tsar was a benevolent, God-given leader, and began to see him as simply the highest man in the same system that had kept them poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and without any political representation. In the cities, this discontent manifested itself in the slow but steady growth of so-called “workers’ councils”, or Soviets, which acted as political action groups for disenfranchised proletarian workers. These would become extremely important in the future of Russia, and especially during the crisis year of 1917.

Speech from the Throne by Emperor Nicholas II ...

Nicholas II opens the first Duma in April 1906. In spite of the fanfare, the parliament had been largely neutered by the introduction of the Fundamental Laws. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concessions that the tsar had made, moreover, were merely a stopgap solution to a more significant problem that he failed to grasp. The Duma was a safety valve, its members committed reformists but (in general) loyal tsarists. Yet Nicholas, trained by Pobedonostsev to be suspicious of democracy, sought from day one to negate even the very limited power afforded the parliament. This had the potential to alienate even the tsar’s most trenchant supporters. This reaction against moderation can also be seen in the tsar’s dealings with his post-revolution prime minister, Peter Stolypin, whose raft of economic and social reforms had the potential to modernise Russia into a formidable, far more stable industrial power. Nicholas, however, frustrated Stolypin at nearly every turn, and most of the prime minister’s policies were stillborn. There is even some suggestion that Stolypin’s assassination in Kiev in September 1911 had, in fact, been committed by the Russian political police (the Okhrana), on the orders of the tsar himself. While this has never been proven, it is known that the investigation into the murder was halted on the official order of Nicholas. Perhaps, Nicholas saw Stolypin as a political threat, or simply a distraction from his divine right. If indeed there is any truth to the suggestion of Nicholas’ culpability in Stolypin’s murder, it is incontrovertible that the tsar thus denied himself the counsel of one of the most brilliant political minds of the era, whose reform programmes boded well for the future – providing they had the support they required.

Internationally, these years were damaging to Russia. It has been suggested – most recently, by Christopher Clark – that the French alliance with the Russians was designed so that the French could restrain what they saw as reckless Russian foreign adventurism. There may be some truth to this, but if so, it did not succeed. Russia’s war with Japan was misbegotten from the beginning, based more upon racist ideas and delusions of divinity than political expedience or military prowess. The damage wrought on the Russian fleet removed the tsar’s navy as an instrument of foreign policy. Even worse, while the tsar was grappling with both the Japanese and his own subjects, he was also busily antagonising other European powers. The Baltic Fleet, which departed on its ill-fated odyssey to Tsushima, had been projected to pass through the British-controlled Suez Canal. However, upon leaving the Baltic, the fleet’s spotters had mistaken British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats (which had, in the imaginations of these officers, somehow skirted around the world to do battle with them at this very moment), and had opened fire on the civilian craft. The incident nearly sparked war with Britain, and while this was narrowly averted, the passage through the Suez was denied, condemning the fleet to a far longer voyage (which may well have contributed to its total destruction.) Moreover, Russian paternalistic, pan-slavic policy in the Balkans had led it to offer constant encouragement to Serbia in its long-running war of nerves with Austria-Hungary. This, naturally, caused ill feeling in Vienna, and both Austria and Austria’s ally, Germany, increasingly saw Nicholas as a deliberate instigator for the deteriorating diplomatic conditions in the Balkans. As a result, Vienna frequently sought guarantees from Berlin that, were St. Petersburg to take precipitous action against Austria-Hungary, Germany would rush to Austria’s defence. This, and Russia’s growing reliance on French capital for rearmament in the face of the tremendous losses to the Japanese, severely increased the level of danger in the Balkan region.

English: Engagement official picture of Tsar N...

Tsar Nicholas II and his Tsaritsa, Alexandra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thus, when Nicholas and Alexandra celebrated the three hundredth Romanov jubilee, they did so presiding over a country that had nearly torn itself apart, only to paper over the cracks while hoping for the best. Underneath the thin coat of recovery, however, the state continued to decay. At the same time, while Russia had secured an alliance with the French, its foreign policy was confused, arrogant, and frequently dangerous. Not all of these problems were of Nicholas’ making. But it would have taken a quite extraordinarily astute leader to see the way clear to resolving Russia’s mounting issues, and Nicholas, in spite of the assiduous teaching of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, was neither extraordinary nor astute. His failings, and those of his country, would only be exacerbated during and after the July Crisis of 1914, and the seeds of his own, tragic fate in a dark cellar in Ekaterinburg in 1918 can be traced back to the very origins of his rule.


Filed under 1900-1914

Prewar Years: Austria-Hungary

English: The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary ...

Austria-Hungary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the nations in Europe, arguably it was Austria-Hungary that was in the most confused geopolitical and social position. Considered one of the world’s preeminent powers until its inglorious defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866, Vienna had limped into the twentieth century riven with social unrest, economic inefficiency, and critical military and political weaknesses. Much like the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy was considered to be a dying power, an anachronism in a modern era. But looks can be deceptive, and Austria-Hungary actually began a programme of renewal and modernisation that promised the streamline the Empire and strengthen its position. Furthermore, while the emperor, Franz Josef, was a reactionary of the old authoritarian monarchical style, his heir apparent, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, was an avowed reformer who had significant, even revolutionary plans for safeguarding the future of his dynasty’s empire. A ramshackle empire it may have been, but Austria-Hungary was hardly in a state of imminent collapse. The tribulations it might face, though, were complex and dangerous; it is no coincidence that the trigger for the conflict that would erupt in 1914 was triggered by Austria-Hungary, and not by one of its supposedly more influential rivals.

In retrospect, Austria’s great-power status was always, to some extent, built upon illusion. The Austrian Army had been feted as one of the heroes of the war against Napoleon between 1801 and 1815, though the brunt of the fighting had been shouldered by Russia, Prussia, and Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century, Austria was viewed as the powerbroker in the German region, though when its supposed military prowess was tested, invariably it was found wanting. It has become convention to write of southern Germany as though those states were dependable allies for Vienna, but this was not always the case; throughout the 1830s, for instance, France seemed likely to go to war with Austria, and Baden and Württemberg, at least, had opened negotiations with Paris to allow its troops safe passage towards Austria. In 1848, the same revolutions that swept Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France also swept away the conservative leadership of Clemens von Metternich in Austria, and from then on Austria increasingly relied on its old, earned prestige, rather than actual power, in order to extend its will. The only reason Austria was not totally crushed in the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859 was that French forces were just as corrupt and incompetent as their Austrian opponents; victory in the Danish War of 1864 came largely because Denmark was tiny in comparison; war with Prussia in 1866 proved to be an unmitigated disaster. By 1867, the Austrian Kaiser, Franz Josef, admitted to the opening of parliament that the economy, exhausted by years of struggle, had stagnated, and Austria must henceforth remove itself from international affairs.

Coronation FOR KING AND QUEEN of HUNGARY of Em...

The crowning of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as king and queen of Hungary. A necessary part of the Ausgleich, the coronation meant that Franz Josef was emperor of Austria as well as Hungary’s monarch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was the pressures of these years that led to a dramatic reorganisation of the state. Previously, the Austrian Empire held sway over large tracts of territory, stretching through Germany, Italy, Hungary, and towards the Balkans. By the end of 1866, Germany had been torn from Vienna’s grasp, Italy was no longer in its sphere of influence, and Magyar nationalists in Hungary began to agitate for their own independent state. Magyar nationalism had, in fact, nearly achieved this goal in 1848, but the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally crushed by the army. In 1848, Austria had still been a great power; in 1867, that status was largely a fiction. In an effort to stem the tide, Austrian politicians (particularly the Saxon-born chancellor, Friedrich Ferdinand von Beust) found unlikely allies in the more moderate Hungarian particularists, who saw some benefits to Hungary remaining tied to Austria, but argued that domestic Hungarian issues should be divested to the purview of Hungarians. This led to the “Compromise” (Ausgleich), an agreement between Austria and Hungary that united the two portions of the empire as a semi-autonomous dual monarchy, with the Austrian Kaiser, Franz Josef, now acting as both the emperor of Austria and the king of Hungary. Hence, from 1867 until 1918, the Austrian Empire had become the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Ausgleich had been a political masterstroke that saved the empire from disintegration in its darkest hours of economic destitution and political fragility. However, as a compromise, it was merely intended as a stopgap solution until a better opportunity presented itself. This opportunity never came. As a result, the political situation in Austria-Hungary remained precarious. Hungary had gained significant ground with few checks or balances. This often meant that, though Austria – the more prosperous core of the state – might wish to assert itself in some manner on the world stage, it was often restrained by the less adventurous Hungarian diet. Moreover, while the Compromise committed Austria-Hungary to a recognition of the rights of ethnic minorities in the Empire, the Hungarian powerbrokers soon discovered that they cherished their newfound influence, and consequently were unwilling to dilute that influence by extending those selfsame rights to other ethnic groups. Because of this, a distinct segregation of rights occurred, whereby Austrian Germans and Magyars were afforded significant freedoms and power, but other ethnic groups, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, and various Slavic peoples, enjoyed barely any representation at all at a national political level. This lack of representation was instituted not merely by omission but also by design. In 1881, for example, the Croat Catholic bishop, Josip Strossmayer, announced his intention to petition for masses to be held in Slavic languages in Slavic-speaking districts of the Empire. This was opposed, not by the Vatican (which may well have opposed the idea based on the primacy of Latin in Catholic liturgy), but by the Hungarian Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza, who worried that the extension of religious rights to Slavs might encourage them to seek extended political and social rights as well. Moreover, Austria-Hungary’s administration and, later, annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was only made possible by the posting of a large military garrison willing to crush the resistance of the local population, who had, in the main, hoped that their liberation from the Ottoman Empire might have led to their integration into Serbia. Nationalist demonstrations were not uncommon in the frontier cities of the client states of the Empire, including Prague, Sarajevo, or Bratislava.

Elizabeth -- Murdered Empress of Austria  (LOC)

Kaiserin Elisabeth, or “Sisi” as she was familiarly known. Her murder in Geneva, at the hands of an Italian anarchist, shocked Europe, and crushed Franz Josef. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This rebellious character of the subject peoples also laid the Empire open to the danger of terrorism. The Empress Elisabeth had been murdered by an Italian anarchist in 1898, and threats against members of the royal family were not uncommon. Another difficulty of the multiethnic character of the Empire was one of pragmatism. In the main, the officers of the Austro-Hungarian Army were Austrian Germans, and German was the language of the officer corps. This was not so in the rank and file, which was a veritable melting pot of linguistic and national difference. Consequently, in times of war, it was to be expected that the soldiers being given orders by the officers would not, in fact, understand those orders, for the simple reason that they did not understand the language in which those orders were given.

It is often easy to overstate the problems facing Austria-Hungary as it entered the twentieth century. The bare facts are indeed a cause for some foreboding. There were, in fact, no fewer than twelve major ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary (and countless, less influential ones), and together, Austrian Germans and Magyars accounted for significantly less than fifty percent of the population. The majority (made up of a plethora of minorities), therefore, were largely denied rights that were extended to the minority. And, indeed, this often led to violence. Riots were not an everyday occurrence, but they were regular enough so as not to be extraordinary. But it is important to recognise that few of the nationalists agitated for separation from the Empire – and those who did were largely the radical revolutionaries who desired sweeping, profound change. For most, the Empire offered security and stability. Ruthenians in Galicia, for instance, were under no illusions that, if they were to carve out their own, independent state, it could survive financially, without the backing and support of the Empire. Nor could such small, new states protect themselves from the circling vultures of fledgling European countries looking to assert themselves, such as Italy (which had already fought and beaten the Ottoman Empire, and had cast a jealous eye on Austro-Hungarian possessions in Dalmatia), or Serbia (which aimed to unite the Slavic people under the banner of “Greater Serbia”, by force if necessary.) Even Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there was certainly some unrest, and which would become the point of crisis that would lead to war, enjoyed great improvement to the standard of living, the output of agriculture, and the emancipation of the peasantry from serfdom. Indeed, for all the criticism of the Dual Monarchy, its rule was not tremendously authoritarian or repressive, by the standards of the day.

What this meant to the Empire was that, even though it did have some problems, they were not necessarily fatal ones. Historians have often pointed to its unsure multiethnicity, to the poor economic conditions, or to the Empire’s military decline. David Lloyd George, who would become Britain’s prime minister in the latter phases of the First World War, called Austria-Hungary “that ramshackle realm”, and to some extent he was correct. But ‘ramshackle’ does not mean ‘doomed.’ For all its flaws, the Empire had some sense of communalism, even among the ethnic minorities who agitated for greater freedoms, and its economy, which had indeed stagnated in the late 1860s, had begun a slow but distinct recovery as of the first decade of the twentieth century. Moreover, for the fractious state of national politics, there may have been some respite on the horizon.

English: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria w...

Archduke Franz Ferdinand – heir to the Habsburg throne. A reformer at heart, Franz Ferdinand wished to extend rights to minorities in the Empire, and wanted to restrain Hötzendorf’s constant counsel of war. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Franz Josef was for many a beloved and capable emperor. But he was also old, increasingly out of touch with the changes occurring around him, and unwilling to rock the status quo, lest it cause considerable social and political problems in the last years of his reign. His reticence may also have been fueled by a deep moroseness. In 1889, his son, Crown Prince Rudolf, shot both himself and his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, at Rudolf’s hunting lodge at Mayerling. The murder-suicide apparently shattered Franz Josef, who then suffered the tragedy of the murder of his wife, Elisabeth, nine years later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Franz Josef was from then on a figure of melancholy, and this, as well as his advanced years, could account for his inertia as head of state. In any event, his constant deferral to Istvan Tisza, the Hungarian prime minister, continued the dominion of the Magyar elites over the minorities of Hungary, in spite of the law insisting otherwise. But Franz Josef would not live forever, and his heir – his nephew, Franz Ferdinand – was a very different man. Franz Ferdinand had thrown himself energetically into questions of domestic and foreign politics. He was aware of Austria-Hungary’s decline, and to that end he felt that the adventurism displayed, for example, by the head of the army, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, had to be restrained, and Austria-Hungary had to, somehow, come to agreements with even its most intractable foes. This would free up his plans for internal reform, which were nothing less than radical. Franz Ferdinand intended to dispose of the 1867 Ausgleich; in its place, he hoped to extend federative rights to further ethnic groups in the Empire, effectively elevating them to the same status as the Austrian Germans and the Magyars. His end goal – a fifteen-state “United States of Great Austria” – would be a political earthquake in central Europe. It would break the Hungarian stranglehold on Austro-Hungarian politics, and it would provide a political franchise for those minorities – including Bosnians, Croats, and Czechs – who had been the most vocally oppositional to the Habsburg leadership of the Empire. In short, Franz Ferdinand expected not to collapse the Empire, but to change its very nature to a representational democracy more in keeping with that of France than the limited franchise of the Ausgleich had ever allowed. While the project never came to fruition, as Franz Ferdinand was murdered before he could ascend to the throne, his programme was one of exciting and far-reaching reform, which could – perhaps – have safeguarded the foreseeable future of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Austro-Hungarian Field Artillery

Despite its long tradition, the Austro-Hungarian Army was in a moribund state by the twentieth century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing that would not have changed, though, was Austria’s increasing reliance on Germany. The Dual Monarchy’s military weakness was no secret, and faced with belligerent neighbours – especially Serbia, with its powerful Russian benefactor – Austria was largely dependent on Germany to provide assurances of its security. This was no doubt helped by the fact that Franz Ferdinand and Wilhelm II were close friends; thus, even had Franz Ferdinand been on the throne, and his “United States” created, we should expect that the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary and Germany would have remained as tied to one another as they were while Franz Josef ruled. Yet, in the final analysis, it was Austria-Hungary’s strained relations with Serbia and Russia, and Germany’s unquestioning support of a nation in mourning, champing at the bit for revenge, that would prove the terrible trigger for the Great War.

Austria-Hungary, then, is one of the more interesting case studies of prewar states. Deeply flawed, but with roads towards recovery, the Dual Monarchy stumbled its way towards redemption, all the while beset by internal and external emergencies. Eventually, though, it was one emergency – the assassination of the very man who promised salvation for the Empire – that would lead to its annihilation.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London. Allen Lane. 2012.

  • May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy 1867-1914. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1951.

  • Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. New York. Atlantic Monthly Press. 1994.

  • Stevenson, David. With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. London. Penguin. 2012.

  • Williamson, Samuel R. Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. New York. St. Martin’s Press. 1991.


Filed under 1900-1914

Prewar Years: Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

Map of Ottoman Empire (1900) in German

Map of Ottoman Empire (1900) in German (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the southeast of Europe, the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire was still – barely – keeping a toehold in the continent. The Sublime Porte had once extended its influence throughout much of the eastern territories – in the seventeenth century, for instance, Ottoman forces had penetrated so far into Christian Europe that they had besieged Vienna – but that considerable power in Europe was now long gone. Instead, the Empire had for a century been suffering a period of slow decline. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, not yet emperor of the French, had launched an “expedition” to Egypt and Syria, then Ottoman territories, with some 40,000 men, and though outnumbered and cut off from resupply and reinforcement, managed to remain there for a good three years. In particular, the French conquered Egypt, and this conquest was only ended by a combination of local revolts and British intervention; as a consequence of this, though Egypt remained nominally an Ottoman territory, in practice the administration of this vital area fell to the British. Strategically, this made sense for London, since a stronghold in the Levant would safeguard the land route to India. What this meant to the Ottoman Empire, though, was that it was now largely dependent on European – particularly British – support and charity.

Ottoman control over areas of North Africa and into the Balkan areas of southeastern Europe continued to weaken. In 1853, the Russians disputed Ottoman control of the Holy Lands of Palestine, and declared war. The resulting conflict would have devastated the Ottoman Empire, had an unlikely alliance of Britain and France not intervened, dragging the war out until 1856, when Russia finally sued for peace. As it was, the Russians had made impressive gains in the Balkans (reversed, once again, only due to expeditions by Anglo-French forces in support of the Turks), and had devastated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Sinop. Moreover, even though the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict, ostensibly tipped the balance of power firmly in the favour of the Ottoman Empire – all European powers, for instance, guaranteed the integrity of the Empire, and Russia was forbidden from militarising the Black Sea – in reality it created severe problems. Firstly, the war had demonstrated that the Empire was incapable of defending itself in the face of an opponent as powerful as Russia. Secondly, the demilitarisation of the Black Sea created a trigger between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. With no ability to station a large military force in the region, Russia felt itself to be at a severe disadvantage, and since much of Russia’s international trade revolved around commercial traffic passing into and out of the Black Sea, the ever-present worry in St. Petersburg was that, if it so felt the need or desire so to do, Turkey could close the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits to Russian traffic, thus strangling Russian trade. Thus, for the next several years, a key aim of Russian foreign policy was to abrogate the Treaty of Paris, and to establish some form of armed presence in the region. Russia’s hand was made all the stronger by Turkey’s willingness to allow warships from other states to enter the Straits. Finally, in 1870, Russia urged a changing of the treaty terms, choosing that moment to do so because of France’s preoccupation with its own war with Prussia/Germany. While this had no immediate consequence, the muted response from the western powers – and France’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Clauses, once Napoleon III was deposed and the Third Republic founded – demonstrated an unwillingness to defend the Ottoman Empire. When Russia once again went to war with Turkey, in 1877, neither London nor Paris jumped to Constantinople’s defence militarily, and it was only after Berlin applied diplomatic pressure to St. Petersburg that the total annihilation of the Ottoman Empire was avoided.

English: After the attack. Plevna, 1877-1878 П...

Siege of Plevna, 1877. In spite of its inherent weaknesses, the Ottoman Army managed to keep the Russians at bay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All these conflicts, and the state of decline, had crucial territorial, economic, and political ramifications. As the name suggests, the Ottoman Empire was an imperial power, with territories stretching beyond its core, Turkish holdings. These territories included Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; Greece, which had been an Ottoman imperial state, had won its independence in the 1820s. In all of these areas, a majority of local inhabitants were ruled by a minority of Ottoman elites, installed as foreign rulers. This caused tensions on both ethnic and religious levels. During the 1877 war with Russia, for instance, the Empire found to its discomfort that the Serbians, Bulgars and Montenegrins rose up against their Ottoman rulers, managing to grasp for independence while their imperial master was in the grip of this existential crisis. In Egypt, decades of economic mismanagement led to the bankruptcy of the Khedivate there; the consequences of this were, in the first place, an uprising led by Ahmed Urabi Pasha, an Egyptian colonel who sought to overthrow the Ottoman-placed khedive and replace him with more sober leadership, and in the second place, an invasion and occupation by Britain, ostensibly at the behest of the khedive himself, in order to defeat Urabi’s forces. Britain’s true intent was likely that it wished to avoid Urabi defaulting on the massive loans extended by British banks to Egypt (in 1880, for instance, the khedive personally took a loan for some £100 million). Moreover, British investments in Egyptian infrastructure and manufacturing meant that, by 1881, the British controller-general in Cairo, Sir Auckland Colvin, sent an advisory to Prime Minister Gladstone, insisting that only through total control of Egypt could Britain guarantee returns on its massive expenditure there.

Sick man of Europe

Punch‘s depiction of the “sick man of Europe.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1900, then, the Ottoman Empire was almost totally a spent force. Its European territory had been whittled away by war and revolution. Its North African territories, likewise, had been ceded to European powers without a fight. In 1853, Tsar Nicholas I had referred to the Empire – with which he was about to go to war – as a “sick man, a very sick man.” By the twentieth century, his words were certainly ringing true, and the Empire had acquired the unfortunate sobriquet as the “sick man of Europe”, preyed upon by would-be regional empires looking to expand their territories at Ottoman expense. Not only was the Empire weak internationally, but its modernisation was largely dependent, once more, on foreign capital. So, while Britain and France had their own heavy investments in the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s interests began to increase significantly after two German banks – Deutsche Bank, and the Württembergische Vereinsbank – formed a rail cartel in the Anatolian interior in 1888, with the intention of building a rail network; by 1903, the German government had become officially interested, and began planning in consultation with the Turkish government for what would eventually be called the Berlin-Baghdad Railway.

While the plan for the Berlin-Baghdad Railways was a boon for the flagging Ottoman economy, it also opened Constantinople to adverse attention from Britain, France, and Russia, since such a significant German presence in the Levant and Asia Minor could potentially threaten French territories in Africa, British trade routes to India, and Russian interests along the Black Sea shores. Moreover, the potential profits of the commercial aspects of the railway were almost entirely German; the Ottomans would have little to show for their concessions to Berlin.

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Young Turks in Constantinople, 1909. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These weaknesses soon proved too much for the internal political situation in Constantinople. In 1908, a group of secular political opponents to the authoritarian regime of the sultan, known as Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, also known as the “Young Turks”), launched a rebellion that drove them to power. Since 1839, the Empire had followed a programme of civil liberties known as the “Tanzimat Reforms.” These aimed to integrate non-Turkish subjects into the Empire through the extension of rights, thus creating a broadly supportive population. In practice, Tanzimat was rarely achieved, but the fact that the Empire had a public declaration of the granting of rights to non-Turkish non-Muslims was important. The Young Turks, however, advocated a “Turkification” of the Empire, and a racial homogenisation – in essence, jettisoning the liberal elements of Tanzimat. In particular, this brought the CUP into conflict with the large population of ethnic Armenian Christians in the east of the empire. This ethnic struggle had been an ongoing source of unrest for many decades; between 1894 and 1896, a series of ethnic cleansing massacres undertaken by the Ottoman Army had resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 Armenians, and had helped foster the growth of the Hunchak and Dashnak Armenian revolutionary organisations, which saw themselves naturally aligned to Russia and its client population of Armenians. The Young Turk Revolution was all too briefly a cause for optimism among the Armenian population, since it removed Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who had presided over the 1890s massacres. However, this optimism was soon shown to be misplaced. As we shall see, the fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War acted as a blueprint for some of the worst crimes of the later twentieth century, as well as being an act of profound barbarity in its own right.

The seizure of power of the CUP may have been greeted with some joy by Ottoman subjects who despaired at the weakening of their state, but it did not arrest the downward spiral. In September 1911, Italy, hoping to expand its influence in the Mediterranean, launched an invasion of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. Though costly, the campaign was a successful one for the Italians, and within a year they had captured all of what then became Libya, as well as the Dodecanese Islands. This humiliating defeat only encouraged the small Balkan countries, which formed the so-called Balkan League, and jointly declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 8 October 1912. Once more, the Ottomans were defeated militarily, in spite of a coup of army officers hoping to spark a more vigorous war effort. The Ottomans lost nearly every remaining scrap of territory in Europe to the volatile Balkan states of Bulgaria, Rumania, and Serbia; when, in June 1913, Bulgaria felt aggrieved at its lack of gains from its victorious campaign, and declared war on its own allies, the Empire was able to recover the province of Eastern Thrace.

Constantinople from the Sea

Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, and regarded as a jewel of civilisation – in spite of the state’s major weaknesses. (Photo credit: paukrus)

By 1914, none of the great powers was in a more parlous state than the Ottoman Empire. In the space of three years, it had suffered three wars, and had been bested by supposedly inferior states. Riven with ethnic tensions and largely bankrupt, Constantinople had to increasingly rely on aid from the other European powers. As a result, the task of modernising the Ottoman Army and Navy had to be left to foreigners. Most notably, the reorganisation of the Ottoman Navy fell under the auspices of Admiral Limpus of the Royal Navy, while the army became the responsibility of the German Lieutenant-General Otto Liman von Sanders, who arrived in 1913. Of these, the most influential, arguably, was Sanders, who worked closely with Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister for war and former military attaché to Berlin. Coupled with Berlin’s Baghdad Railway project, this indicated that Constantinople had begun gravitating towards Berlin’s sphere of influence.

Limping into the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire faced an interminable decline. Threatened not simply by fellow great powers, but even incapable of defending its territories from small, upstart, ambitious states, it also suffered from profound internal divisions, and a reliance on other states, particularly Germany. With the decline also came a political fatalism, though. Indeed, within the circle of pashas in Constantinople it was increasingly believed that, in order for the Empire to survive, it would soon be forced to assert itself drastically. It was not at all clear, however, where it would do so, or how.


Further reading

  • Ahmad, Feroz. The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1969.

  • Ahmad, Feroz. “War and Society under the Young Turks, 1908-18.” Review 11, 2 (Spring 1998): 265-286.

  • Geyikdagi, V. Necla. Foreign Investment in the Ottoman Empire: International Trade and Relations in the Late Nineteenth Century. London. Taurus. 2011.
  • Hanioglu, M. Sükrü. Preparation for a Revolution: The Young Turks, 1902-1908. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001.

  • Kansu, Aykut. The Revolution of 1908 in Turkey. Leiden. E.J. Brill. 1997.

  • Kent, Marian (ed.) The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire. London. Allen & Unwin. 1984.

  • McMeekin, Sean. The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2010.

  • McMurray, Jonathan S. Distant Ties: Germany, the Ottoman Empire and the Construction of the Baghdad Railway. Westport. Praeger. 2001.

  • Medlicott, William Norton. The Congress of Berlin and After: A Diplomatic History of Near-East Settlement, 1878-1880. London. Frank Cass. 1963.

  • Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

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Prewar Years: Germany

The newest and most precocious of the great powers was Germany. At the turn of the century, the country was not yet 30 years old, but in that time it had achieved a great deal. Germany was, however, insecure in its position as a great power, and sought to catch up to its rivals in Europe, in terms of military power, overseas holdings, and economic prowess – not to mention, world influence. This obsession with staking its own “place in the sun” would have serious consequences.

Benz Patented Motorwagon with Karl Benz and Be...

Karl Benz’s Motorwagen. The motor industry was a symbol of German industrial prowess at the turn of the century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By 1900, Germany’s was the fastest-growing industrial base in the world. The unification of Germany in 1871 had opened up all of the constituent states to a pooling of resources, which had had favourable consequences for most. The Kingdom of Württemberg, in the southwest, had been resource-poor and mostly agrarian before 1871. Afterwards, however, Württemberg became an industrial powerhouse, hosting the Benz automobile manufactories, the Esslingen Machine Factory (the single largest builder of locomotives in Germany), and other important firms. Elsewhere, the Krupp Steel Works in Essen were the world’s largest producer of artillery pieces. The same was true of many of the other states; the sum of this was that Germany had become highly modern and efficient in its manufacturing sectors. Germany also had one of the most concentrated and efficient rail networks in Europe, and had discovered through experience the great trade and military advantages this afforded. The German General Staff, which oversaw procurement and strategy for the German Army (Kaiserheer) and Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), was a highly professional organisation unlike any other in Europe. Within Germany, too, was a representational political system attached to a semi-constitutional democracy that, while subject to strong monarchical powers, was becoming robust and progressive.

English: Berlin, memorial to Otto von Bismarck...

The Reichstag, or parliament of Germany. In spite of Germany’s authoritarian reputation, democratic representation was a relatively strong force in the young German Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, or Social Democrats), campaigning on a ticket of workers’ rights and social justice, was the largest socialist party in the world, having been decriminalised at the beginning of the century. The SPD’s involvement in politics, though not popular with the national elites, aristocracy, and the Junker class of landed gentry, was tolerated, and as a result a wider proportion of the population was actively engaged in politics. With the rise in socialist reform and engagement came an isolation of the traditional, discriminatory parties. Antisemitic parties, which had sprung up on nationalist tickets in the early 1890s, were a spent force by 1900, and by 1914 had little or no representation in the Reichstag. Anti-discrimination laws were enacted by the Reichstag itself, and were constantly updated. In general – and in spite of the later interpretations of historians such as Volker Berghahn and Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who saw Germany’s involvement in the First World War as the desperate act of a government under siege at home – Germans were content with their governance and the direction of their society.

All this was meritorious. But Germany now lacked the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who had led the country to unification, and who had crafted Germany’s intricate foreign policy until his dismissal in 1890. His replacements were a succession of capable politicians – Leo von Caprivi, Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, Bernhard von Bülow, and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg – who nonetheless lacked the political acumen or ruthlessness of the Iron Chancellor. Worse, while Bismarck had often been given free reign over foreign and domestic policy by Germany’s first Kaiser, Wilhelm I, his successors were saddled with Wilhelm II, the first Kaiser’s nephew, who was less politically astute and more given to adventure and risk. Wilhelm’s interest in warships and colonies, moreover, neatly dovetailed with his retinue of Colonial Office officials and Naval Ministry admirals. However, it also fed the fears of both Britain and France; Britain worried about threats to its overseas empire, and thus to its global economic hegemony, and France, in perpetual fear of the Germans, became naturally concerned when its neighbour announced its intent to flex its imperial muscles and build a powerful fleet. In 1898, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz presented the Kaiser with a plan to expand the navy, with the ultimate goal being to build a fleet two-thirds the size of the Royal Navy. This would place Germany in an undisputed second place in terms of fleet power, vastly overshadowing France.

Furst Bismarck -- Germ.  (LOC)

The German battlecruiser SMS Fürst Bismarck was the Kaiserliche Marine‘s first heavy cruiser. Like most others, the Fürst Bismarck was rendered obsolete by the arrival of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Two issues of this fleet-building exercise alarmed London. Firstly, it was conceived of with specific reference to Britain. Tirpitz’s plan measured German power against British power, and the Admiralty in London inevitably came to the conclusion that this meant that the Germans wished for a fleet that could rival Britain’s. Indeed, even though Tirpitz conceded that Britain would still have the larger navy, it was presumed that the makeup of the Royal Navy would still be of a significant number of obsolescent ships, while the Kaiserliche Marine would be made up of only the newest and most advanced vessels. Secondly, while the Naval Ministry in Berlin insisted that their new ships were primarily built to safeguard the small but growing German overseas empire in Africa and the Pacific, a simple overview of the plans at the shipbuilding yards proved the lie in these assurances. The vessels coming off the slipways in Hamburg and Kiel lacked longterm crew dormitory accommodation, indicating that they were intended to be at sea only for short stints. Logically, this could only mean that the principal German battle fleet was being designed and built to fight in the North Sea, close to home ports, rather than in the faraway Pacific Ocean. And, if Germany expected to fight in the North Sea, its expected foes could only be the French Navy and the Royal Navy.

In response to these alarming developments, Britain began a massive shipbuilding effort of its own. Once the Dreadnought launched in 1906, the Germans were forced to revise their battleship designs, since British technology now outstripped anything the Kaiserliche Marine could field. Worse for the Germans, the British were so concerned by Berlin’s intentions that they revised their defensive plans in 1905; now, the Royal Navy had a concrete plan, if war were to eventuate between the two countries, to blockade German sea ports and thus starve the country of imports. In the event, the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race ended in 1912, with a resounding British victory. The Germans could not hope to build a fleet to rival Britain’s, simply because Britain would not permit it. Yet, by attempting so to do, Tirpitz and Wilhelm had challenged Britain on the very issue – sea power – upon which British power was based. Britain could not afford to ignore this. So, while Germany attempted to aggrandise itself in naval affairs, it served mostly to antagonise the most powerful naval force on the globe.

Baghdad Railway train, circa 1910

A German-built train on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, ca.1910. The railway was a symbol of German financial influence and Berlin’s friendship with Constantinople, but it largely came about because of German diplomatic failures and the loss of Russia as an ally. In any case, it never actually reached Berlin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another problem with the post-Bismarckian Germany was that the system of alliances that had been developed by Bismarck was permitted to lapse. In 1873, for example, Bismarck had formed the League of Three Emperors. This was a treaty between the German, Russian, and Austrian Empires, and served as, at the very least, a non-aggression pact. This league had dissolved in 1885, after Russia and Austria-Hungary found themselves with competing interests in the Balkans during the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Even so, Bismarck had been able to secure the partnership of Austria-Hungary with Germany (along with Italy), in the Triple Alliance of 1882, and in 1887 he crafted yet another alliance with Russia – the Reinsurance Treaty. Thus, Germany acted as a mediator; while Austria and Russia were no longer bound to each other by treaty, they were both tied to Germany, and Germany therefore had a prominent bloc of friendly states in Europe. In 1890, however, Wilhelm II refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty. One of the concessions to be made to Russia was that Russia would be given access and rights to the Dardanelles, and Wilhelm feared that this guarantee would anger the British. Therefore, he reneged. Ironically, this permitted France, Germany’s eternal enemy, to make the same guarantee to Russia, and form its own alliance with the eastern giant. To compensate, Wilhelm attempted to court the Ottoman Empire (Russia’s perennial foe in the south), and also tried to keep Italy in the Triple Alliance. Neither of these were commensurate to the loss of Russian patronage, though; Turkey, the “sick man of Europe”, had been in decline for decades, and was poised to lose all influence in the Balkans. It was riven with sectarian and ethnic conflicts. And, while Germany was able to gain some key concessions, such as the private funding of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway or the seconding of General Liman von Sanders to reorganise the Ottoman Army, these had consequences. Britain and France, it should be remembered, also had enormous financial interests in the Ottoman Empire, and Britain had taken charge of the Ottoman Navy’s modernisation, so the economic and military gains enjoyed by Germany were hardly exclusive. Worse, the appearance of German capital and soldiers in Turkey concerned Britain in particular, which worried about its own interests there. As far as Italy was concerned, it was neither a powerful state nor a reliable one, as Germany would find to its discomfort in 1914.

Thus, German foreign policy at the turn of the century left much to be desired. German attempts to gain economic or territorial ascendency concerned the French, who were already poorly disposed towards their neighbour. But Germany’s actions also caused alarm in Britain, and had the effect of further forcing Britain into the French camp, while Germany hoped that the British would, at the very least, remain a neutral force in Europe. Worse, Germany jettisoned its friendship with Russia in favour of relations with Russia’s enemy, the Ottoman Empire, which was hardly a decent substitute. Moreover, this breakdown of relations between Berlin and St. Petersburg left the way clear for Paris, which, concluding treaties with Russia, therefore maintained a bloc that surrounded Germany. So, while Wilhelm had intended to strengthen Germany’s hand, he had actually made his empire far more vulnerable, with enemies to both the east and west, and with only weak or unreliable allies on whom to count.

One of the most profound and far-reaching consequences of this was that Germany focused more and more on its relationship with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary was Germany’s only dependable ally on the continent, and as a result Berlin keenly felt the need to support its southern ally in any diplomatic squabble. In March 1912, Raymond Poincaré had noted to his Russian opposite number, Izvolsky, that a conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary “would constitute a casus foederis for the Austro-German alliance.” Later, as the July Crisis of 1914 devolved into war, Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg insisted that, if Germany had not backed Austria-Hungary in its ultimatum to Serbia (which he must surely have known might necessitate war with Russia), Germany’s inaction would have been an act of “self-castration.” Indeed, though Berlin often viewed Vienna as impulsive and impetuous in its dealings with other countries, such a profound feeling existed that Germany must support its single friend at any cost, that Wilhelm was compelled in July 1914 to issue a “Blank Cheque” to Austria, an assurance that, whatever Austria chose to do in its dealings with Serbia, Germany would guarantee its support and security. The ramifications of this action were to be catastrophic for Europe and the world.

English: Triangle of three emperors, Mysłowice...

Bismarck’s foreign policy aim had been to keep Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary united to isolate France diplomatically. However, Germany’s unwillingness to antagonise Britain led it to jettison Russia (Nicholas II pictured at left), leaving Wilhelm II (centre) with just Franz Josef (right) as a dependable European ally. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One final point should be made about Germany’s relations with other states during this period. Berlin has often been castigated in the historiography of the post-1918 (and, indeed, post-1945) world for provoking its rivals. To the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1960s, Germany’s actions in the intervening years between the beginning of the century and the outbreak of the war constituted nothing less than a “Griff nach der Weltmacht”, or a grasp at world supremacy. Instead, Germany’s actions during this time should perhaps be viewed as reactive, rather than provocative. In both 1905 and 1911, during the Moroccan Crises, Germany was arguably not at fault. Indeed, in both cases, it was France that had overstepped its mandate in North Africa, and certainly in 1911 France’s reaction to the arrival of the decrepit Panther was so hysterical as to be high farce. Germany’s continued, unequivocal support for Austria-Hungary was largely dictated by a necessity, since both France and Russia had concluded arguably hostile treaties of their own. Germany’s attempt to build a navy that might rival the British was, of course, its right, but the way it went about doing so caused such concern in London that it forced the British to gravitate towards the Franco-Russian Alliance. None of these were engineered in Berlin, but the key theme was one of naïveté. To force the French hand in Morocco on both occasions would have required British support, but Britain, as isolationist as it was, would hardly have threatened its cordial relations with France over such an obscure and irrelevant territory. Moreover, it seems likely that no one in Berlin recognised that the British would be threatened by Germany’s naval rearmament – and, certainly, once the Naval Arms Race had begun, neither power could easily back down. Finally, Germany’s inability to find a way to deal with the Russians opened the possibility of encirclement, which terrified German policymakers. Thus, as of 1914, Germany experienced a period of paralysing self-doubt, which was largely of its own making. And, when Austria faced a situation in which it required German support, the Germans were quick to provide it, perhaps without totally understanding that that support could spark off a general European war.


Further reading

  • Berghahn, Volker R. Imperial Germany 1871-1918. Economy, Society, Culture and Politics. New York. Berghahn. 2005.

  • Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. London. Penguin. 2007.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. German Colonialism: A Short History. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany 1866-1945. New York. Oxford University Press. 1978.

  • Eley, Geoff, and Retallack, James (eds.) Wilhelminism and its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930. New York. Berghahn. 2004.

  • Evans, Robert John Weston, and Standmann, Hartmut Pogge von (eds.) The Coming of the First World War. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1988.

  • Hagen, William W. German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

  • Mommsen, Wolfgang J. Imperial Germany 1867-1918: Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State. London. Arnold. 1997.

  • Steinberg, Jonathan. Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. New York. Macmillan. 1966.

  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871-1918. Leamington Spa. Berg. 1985.

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