In the space of exactly a month – from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, to the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia on July 28th – Europe had gone from peaceful prosperity to a conflict zone that would bring down four empires and cost more than 15 million lives.
It would also lead to sow the seeds for a Second World War and in turn give rise to the Cold War. But what caused this war, who was to blame? Let us go through the significant figures of the time and ascertain there position.
When Franz Ferdinand, his nephew and heir was murdered, Emperor Franz Joseph I decided that military action was required. It was not until July 23rd that Serbia was presented with a harsh ultimatum, the Emperor demanded the denunciation of separatist activities, the banning of publications and organisations hostile to Austria-Hungary and co-operation with Habsburg officials in suppressing subversion and a judicial inquiry.
Serbia agreed to almost all the demands. The only key issue was that the joint Austro-Serbian judicial inquiry would have to be subject to Serbia’s laws. The Austrians rejected the ultimatum and on July 28th began mobilising their troops in the Balkans.
Emperor Franz Joseph and his Vienna Government had reason to believe that Serbia was being complicit, and this in part was a justified belief.
More than two-fifths of Bosnia’s population was ethnic Serb, many of whom yearned for independence and union with a Greater Serbia. Some of the secret organisations dedicated to achieving that were based in Serbia proper, including the Black Hand, a group led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the Serbian military intelligence chief who had trained Gavrilo Princip and his fellow assassins.
An even more powerful reason was because many in the Austrian government and military felt the time was opportune. Unless Serbia’s intrigues were stopped, they felt their polyglot Empire – made up of 11 ethnic groups – was in danger of disintegration.
They feared a pan-Slav movement spearheaded by Serbia (and backed by Russia), and were determined, in the words of Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold, to “tear away with a strong hand the net in which its enemy seeks to entangle it”. Yet Franz Joseph was only prepared to risk a war with Serbia and Russia because he knew he had the full support of his fellow monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
Just a week after the assassinations, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II responded to Emperor Franz Joseph’s assertion that Serbia needed to be eliminated “as a political factor”.
Wilhelm II assured the Austrian envoy, Count von Hoyos, that his country had Germany’s backing to “march into Serbia”, even if war with Russia resulted. A day later, the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, repeated this guarantee.
In many ways, Germany had the most to lose from a general war. “In the previous round of wars,” noted a leading historian of the period, “it had humbled Austria and France and expanded its territory: its economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe.”
But after the forced retirement in 1890 of the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the young Kaiser Wilhelm II became the dominant force in German politics, exerting great influence over diplomacy and in military and naval matters. It had been he who authorised the world policy in the 1890’s of conducting an naval arms race against Britain, something that Germany could not win, this only pushed a resentful Britain into the arms of its former enemies France and Russia.
But Austria was its only “dependable” great-power ally. And Germany feared that a huge increase in Russian military expenditure would jeopardise its secret strategy of avoiding a war on two fronts by first defeating the French army before dealing with the less sophisticated Russians. As a result, Germany’s political and military leaders became convinced that the sooner a European war began the better.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
There was no treaty stating that Russia had to come to Serbia’s aid and it didn’t have any economical stake in the region, however it did have a strategic interest there – notably the passage of its trade through the straits of Constantinople.
Responding to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belated attempt to mediate, the Tsar replied on July 29: “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation in Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure brought upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.” The Tsar was referring to troop mobilisation: the calling up of reservists to increase the size of the European standing army by three to four times.
Germany’s plan to defeat France before turning on Russia depended upon the latter not getting too much of a head start. If they allowed that, they risked defeat in the east before they had victory in the west.
The Kaiser’s warnings simply convinced the Tsar, his third cousin, that German and Austrian policy was one and the same. He believed that Austria had secretly mobilised against Russia (it had not) and that full mobilisation against Austria and Germany was now necessary. The relevant telegrams were dispatched from St Petersburg at 6pm on July 30. The German’s reaction on July 31 was predictable. Having ordered an intensification of its own military preparations, it sent the Russian government an ultimatum to cancel its mobilisation within 12 hours or face the consequences. Russia refused and on August 1, the same day it and Austria-Hungary began their own mobilisations, Germany declared war.
Raymond Ponicaré, President of France
Poincare had made it clear to the Tsar that France would back Russia’s support of Serbia even at the risk of war with Germany. Following a summit meeting in Russia between the two nations a statement was made confirming that the two governments were “in entire agreement in their views on the various problems which concern for peace and the balance of power in Europe has laid before the powers, especially in the Balkans”.
This crucial backing by Poincaré was what gave the Russians the confidence to stand firm behind Serbia. When this, in turn, resulted in a Russo-German war, there was no possibility that France would stand aloof (as Germany had requested on July 31).
Poincaré was convinced that if France wanted to remain a great power, the preservation of the Triple Entente (with Russia and Britain) “was a more important objective in French foreign policy than the avoidance of war”. Not least because he feared that the loss of Russia as an ally would make France extremely vulnerable to German aggression.
France duly rejected Germany’s ultimatum and began its own mobilisation – though the army was ordered to keep 10km back from the Franco-Belgian border. Germany declared war on France on August 3.
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary
Traditionally Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary has been portrayed as a peacemaker. On July 29th he told the German Ambassador Prince Lichnowsky that “mediation was an urgent necessity if those concerned did not wish to have things become a European catastrophe”.
Yet the message was mixed. On the one hand, he warned Lichnowsky that Britain might be forced to take precipitate action if Germany and France were drawn into the war; on the other, he said Britain had no legal obligations to its French & Russian partners. The Kaiser, encouraged by this mixed message made a clumsy attempt to ensure Britain’s neutrality by offering to guarantee both France’s and Belgium’s territorial integrity in Europe – but not the former’s colonies nor the latter’s neutrality.
This Grey would not agree with. His counter offer, made without any authorisation from the Cabinet, was not just for Britain to stay neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France, but to vouch for French neutrality as well. The French would not have agreed with this however because of their agreement with the Russians.
Grey withdrew the offer, and from this point on Germany’s leaders must have known that Britain would not stand by from a European war. On August 3rd Grey told the House of Commons that the Belgian government had just been given an ultimatum by Germany to “facilitate the passage of German troops” through its territory or face the consequences.
The only option left for Grey and HM’s Government was to resist German aggression and at 11pm on August 4th Britain declared war on Germany. Another far more pressing reason for joining the fight was to prevent Germany from dominating the continent. HM’s Government also feared for the security of the British Empire and trade within it, if it failed to support France and Germany then its only option would have been an alliance with Germany.
So, who was to blame?
Blame tends to be mainly on the Kaiser and his chief military advisers and towards the Austo-Hungarians. In fact none of the major powers worked as hard as it could have done to prevent war, but the decision taken by Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany, to declare war and attack Serbia was the moment a general conflict became probable.
It was believed that if the Entente powers chose to fight, they would be defeated, and if they did not, their alliance would collapse. It was believed to be a win-win situation..