In July 1914 the Austrian-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian rebels. From this the Great War emerged. However royal assassinations were not uncommon so how did this local problem eventually involve all the Great Powers to the extent that they brought forth World War One? Diplomatic mismanagement of the situation deserves a lot of the blame but it is the long term rivalries and the tension they caused between the Powers that allowed the conflict to intensify so much, just as some of the Powers desired.
By 1914 Franco-German antagonism had existed for nearly half a century, dating back to the Franco-Prussian war where Germany emerged as the victor and took French territories. Originally the vengeful French was not considered a threat thanks to Bismarck’s idea of isolating France. However the new policy of Weltpoltik began to upset Germany’s potential allies and drove away her original ally, Russia by rejecting the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty in favour of an alliance with Austria-Hungary. This move sparked off the long-term tension between Russia and Germany which eventually led them to fighting a war against each other.
After losing her Central ally Russia was facing even more problems of her own. Since the decline of the Ottoman Empire Russia; Austria-Hungary and other smaller, local powers had been attempting to expand their empires. This meant that they were obviously coming into conflict with each other during the competition for territories. The tension caused was increased even more by Russian encouragement of Slav-nationalism since the growth of it was a threat to Austria-Hungary’s unstable empire. These problems established some of the long-term rivalries that existed amongst the Powers in 1914.
It shows us how long the tension created fifteen years early can still help dictate the actions of countries – it was the thoughts of revenge that helped persuade the French to go to war against Germany, along with other factors. While some tension was short-lived, though there was always hostility toward the opposing Power remaining, some tension was of a continuous nature. According to Fischer the arms race that created so much tension between the Powers was a ploy to distract the Germany population from the internal state problems and prevent the rise of socialism.
No matter the original purpose, the Kaiser’s desire for a strong navy meant he drove away his strongest potential ally, Britain, who became worried over the threat for her empire. Their intense competition for naval superiority destroyed any positive relations between the two powers and pushed Britain into allying with France. Coupled with the Dual Alliance between France and Russia, Germany had unwittingly encircled herself with enemies on two fronts. By 1914 Germany had isolated herself from all but one power, Austria- Hungary, thanks to her aggressive diplomacy.
German encirclement led to a more aggressive policy with her international partners, in an attempt to turn France and Russia into her subordinates. By supporting Morocco’s independence in 1905 she tried to weaken the Anglo-French Entente, however she failed and instead of weakening them she caused their alliance to become stronger, leaving herself bitter and ready to use her military strength instead of diplomacy. This is proven in the Bosnian Crisis in 1908 and then the second Moroccan Crisis in 1911.
There Germany again had to back down, keeling under the combined pressure of not only Britain and France but also Russia whom, after the Bosnian Crisis, was bitter toward Germany. This had encouraged Russia to form the Triple Entente with Britain and France in 1907, which caused even more mistrust and friction with Germany. She had only Austria-Hungary for a reliable ally, Italy being so disloyal. The tension built up during 1911 was great, and for awhile it seemed war was imminent between Germany and Britain – the British fleet was put on alert.
However the second Moroccan Crisis soon ended thanks to Britain’s negotiating in order to keep the balance of power in Europe stable. This ordeal left Germany with little gains and even angrier enemies. The Bosnian Crisis played a large part in increasing the tension between Russia, and Germany and Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary wanted to save her empire by annexing Serbia, a move which she knew could draw Russia into the conflict. However because Germany had said they would support her Austria-Hungary was prepared to act.
With Germany against her and Britain and France unprepared to help her, Russia knew she would have to back down. The result of the crisis was that Russo-German relations were destroyed and Russia began to rebuild her weakened armed forces to keep this humiliation from happening again. This situation was mismanaged by Germany because until then Russia was a not a physical threat. However because she began rebuilding her military she did, by 1914, pose a threat to Germany which was one of the reasons why Germany was eager for war.
In 1912 the Balkan Crisis began, not as a result of Germany’s aggressive behaviour, but due to smaller powers fighting amongst themselves. It did not become a greater conflict because aside from Britain, who played mediator, none of the Great Powers became involved. They were reluctant to fight for someone else’s selfish interests. However Serbia began to grow more powerful after this conflict, which caused increasing worry for Austria-Hungary. By 1913 Serbia posed a serious menace to Austria-Hungary’s shaky empire, which left Austria-Hungary considering the best way of rushing Serbia without involving Russia at full strength.
Considering these long-term rivalries the question that we ask is why did war not occur before 1914? It seemed imminent and desirable at other occasions, so why did it not happen? Simply because never in any of the above crises were all the Powers so involved that they wanted war, and saw it as the most opportune moment for it. The risks were not worth it – neither Moroccan Crises had really involved Russia and western powers kept out of the Bosnian Crisis. The Great Powers attempted to prevent war, aside from Austria-Hungary, by holding the London Conference.
However in 1914 each Great Power desired war – it was an prospect for getting what they wanted; France could have her long-stewed upon revenge, Germany could get rid of Russia before she became too powerful as well as breaking out of isolation, whilst Austria-Hungary could protect her empire by crushing Serbia. Even Britain who attempted to keep out of the conflict had a vested interest of getting rid of her naval rival and protect her colonies. Each country wanted revenge for something and July 1914 created the perfect opportunity for this to happen.
All the powers had interest in the outcome of the war, although Germany, it seemed had the most. Not only did she want to become free of enemies all around her, she also wanted to, in the process, gain control over South-east Europe, and turn France and Russia into second rate powers. Russia had similar interests – she too wanted more authority in South-East Europe, and to weaken Germany’s only ally, Austria-Hungary. Germany’s self-interests seem to be another reason why war happened, since had she tried to slow Austria-Hungary down, she would have been successful.
However because Germany wanted so much, and was so fearful of what the alliance between the other Powers could mean for her eventually she was ready to go to war. If the Balkan Crisis of 1914 had not been so badly mismanaged perhaps war would have been delayed until the next great crisis. As it were, however, the series of mismanagements were so great that war did happen as a result. The largest mismanagement of the crisis was the delay of the ultimatum to Serbia from Austria-Hungary concerning the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. They had been waiting for a confirmation of Germany’s support against Serbia and most likely Russia.
However if the Austria-Hungarian government had acted immediately they may have been able to keep Russia out of the conflict anyway. This is not to say it was only Austria-Hungary who should be blamed for that delay – Serbia originally accepted the ultimatum for the most part, but then rejected it after being given advice from Russia and France. Had Russia and her ally not interfered in the proceedings perhaps Austria-Hungary may have been satisfied with the reply to their demand and the conflict would have remained local. It was the mismanagement of Russia and Serbia, as well as Austria-Hungary that pushed the dispute into a European war.
There was also the fact that Germany knew that their support for Austria-Hungary would help cause the conflict to escalate into an international crisis, which according to Fischer was what they wanted. Their sending of the ‘Blank Cheque’ and their meddling of the conference that Britain proposed in an attempt to calm the conflict seems to prove this theory. Fischer believed that Germany wanted war thus meaning that 1914 was premeditated rather than mismanaged. He draws evidence from the 1912 Germany War Council where the Kaiser spoke of his worry of Russia’s growing military power and his desire to expand Germany’s empire.
In this meeting it is said that it was desired that Germany should launch an expansionist war when it was favourable which they decided it was in 1914. Germany had become worried about the strength of the Russian armed forces and, according to Fischer, believed that war should happen sooner rather than later, if it had to happen, as that would keep the Russian military from growing even stronger and more of a threat. In 1914 Germany believed, as she had before, that Russia would not stand up to both Austria-Hungary and Germany to support Serbia.
It was here that she began to mismanage the current conflict by underestimating how far the opposing Powers would go against them. Russia knew that they had to support Serbia unless they wished to lose their influence in the Balkans. France had promised to support Russia, which may have influenced Russia’s decision to fully support Serbia. Without the French help Russia may not have thought the risk of war was worth it. France had joined the war not only because of the Dual Alliance but also because Germany had demanded that she demobilise otherwise which she found insulting.
Her reaction to the demand proved that the historical animosity the French held for the Germans was still there, and finally they were prepared to do something about it. Germany was still confident that she would be able to fight both France and Russia, with Austria-Hungary’s help, thanks to her famous Schleffien war plan. However the problem with all Powers war plans was that they were inflexible. The Schleffien plan relied on the fact that the German troops would be able to attack France and defeat her within the time frame that it took Russia to fully mobilise.
This meant that the Germans had to defeat French troops within six weeks and return to the German – Russian borders. Austrian-Hungarian soldiers were relied on to keep the Russian troops under control. However the French ‘Plan 17′ influenced the Schleffien Plan badly as the French commanders planned to attack from the eastern borders which they shared with Germany. This meant it would be difficult for the Germans to fight quickly and effectively if they had to march through land guarded by enemy troops.
However because the French military camps were mainly situated on the eastern borders the Germans decided to go through Belgium and then from the north. This mismanaged piece of diplomacy was what gave Britain the excuse to join the war. Originally she had attempted to stay out of the conflict, trying to calm the other Powers. However the Cabinet began to realise that not only did the public want war, but also that if they did not fight now they would have to eventually and very possibly by themselves, against a much stronger Germany.
There was already a great deal of long-term, continuous tension between Germany and Britain thanks to the naval race and the effect it had had on the countries’ economies. The British wanted to get revenge on the Germans for threatening their waters and colonies. Their treaty to protect Belgium’s neutrality gave them the perfect excuse to join the war and do just this. This decision means that if Germany had not gone through Belgium then possibly Britain would not have joined the war. This shows us another aspect of mismanaged diplomacy by Germany.
Russia’s decision to fully mobilise her troops was possibly the greatest error or mismanaged situation within the conflict. She had originally begun to mobilise against only Austria-Hungary, but the problem was that her camps were all along both the Austria-Hungarian borders as well as the German borders. However Germany needed to be prepared for battle before Russian troops were for the Schleffien plan to work, so therefore any mobilisation by Russia, both partial or full, was considered a threat and made any negotiations redundant.
Her failure to realise what her actions would do meant that finally the Great War began and would last for four years. Overall we can see that the Balkan Crisis was badly mismanaged, growing from a local war into an international crisis, thanks to the meddling and diplomatic negligence of Russia, Austria-Hungary and most of all Germany. However since Bismarck’s downfall in the late nineteenth century and Germany’s new policy of international interference the division amongst the European powers was so great.
Added to Germany’s aggressive diplomacy was the self-interest of each Great Power involving the desire for supremacy in Europe and revenge on their enemy for whatever long-term action had done what they felt was an injustice to them. The alliances they had built to protect them from conflict ended up helping cause the war rather than keep it at bay. The long term rivalries, alliances and tension meant that by 1914 came round each power felt rewards were worth the risk of fighting. The short-term causes acted as catalysts for the long-term causes, allowing the build up of tension explode, and world war one to begin.