The cause of one of most devastating and brutal wars the world has ever seen can be simply blamed on the cold-blooded assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand by Gabrilo Prinzip on the 28th June 1914. The ensuing ‘July crisis’ plunged Europe and the rest of the world into a bloody and all-encompassing conflict that lasted for five years. However this view neglects the complex reality of the international and domestic situation that preceded the assassination.
The alliance system intricately crafted by Bismarck, militarism, primacy of domestic policies, the economy, mood of 1914 and as the title suggests imperial rivalry, all ontributed to encouraging the European nations to enter into this conflict. Though the central importance of each as these events in relation to the other is entirely dependant on one’s own interpretation, therefore making it difficult for historians to accurately to place one cause above another The short term flame that ignited the underlying bonfire of tension and mistrust occurred in Sarajevo.
The assassination of the Arch duke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg monarchy had prolific consequences for the future of Europe. The severe tensions between Austro-Hungary and Serbia which ad been simmering since the arrival to power of a nationalistic pan-Serbian dynasty in Serbia, were brought to the fore. Austria feared an internal uprising among its minority groups, encouraged by this new pan-Slav state.
It threatened to upset the delicate ‘balanced state of mutual dissatisfaction’1 between their ethnic groups that had ensured Austro-Hungary’s survival. Austro-Hungary officials therefore sought measures to counteract Serbia’s growing power, aggrandised by their success in the Balkan wars of 1912-1913. However their options were limited by the fragility of their internal ethnic composition and any ttempt to annexe Serbia would increase its Serbian population and further serve to destabilise its domestic situation.
Thus it desired Serbia as a meek satellite state which it believed it could achieve with German support, whereas Serbia hoped for the support of Russia who was also seeking to pacify their own Slav minority group by assuming the role of protectorate of other Slav nations. As a response to the assassination, Austro-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia which has been described as ‘the most formidable document ever seen addressed by one state to another that was independent’2.
Believing it so harsh as to serve a prelude to war, they hoped firm, decisive action with firm German support would localise the conflict and prevent Russian or other intervention3. This conflict was only a manifestation of the larger conflict between Germany and their main continental rivals, Russia and France. Though Germany was still the major continental power, they saw that there allies such as the Habsburg empire was in decline whereas Russia had began to modernise spurred on by the embarrassment of their defeat in the Russo Japanese war in 1904-5.
Therefore hey saw a shortening window of opportunity in which they would be in the ascendancy, so they were bolstered to be brash and willing to wage war. Under Bismarck, Germany had engineered a number of treaties to maintain their hegemony. Engineering treaties to ensure their main rivals remained separated and isolated. The British Empire’s attention was focused upon their colonies and as long as their naval remained superior to that of the other European sates, they were content to remain aloof and exist in pax Britannica.
Bismarck borrowed heavily from Machiavelli, in viewing treaties as a eans to an end and so conducted his diplomacy amorally. This meant that treaties remained for the large part secret diplomats became somewhat arrogant and detached to the reality of popular politics, believing theirs to be an ‘arcane profession which no outsider was qualified to understand and whose numbers must come from a particular caste or class’4. This may go some way to explaining why pre-WWI diplomacy ultimately failed, it was based on an elite alienated from mainstream politics and founded on a questionable and temporary value system.
These alliances inadvertently split Europe into two camps, this dictated ilitary planning as in the Schlieffen plan which imposed significant constraints on the actions and options of the political leaders5. The need to mobilise to complete these battle plans escalated tensions outside the hands of civilian officials, as such the structure of both internal planning and international relations facilitated a war rather then discouraging it. This also had the adverse effect of an arms race as both sides sought confidence in their state of security by rearming, unintentionally pushing Europe further to the brink.
The state also wished to ndoctrinate its population with the glory of war, particularly with the spread of pacifistic socialism. Despite the increasing growth of pacifism as an ideology albeit one not accepted by the majority particularly the elite, works such as ‘the Great Illusion’ were overpowered by the nationalist rhetoric of works like ‘the Hill’, inspired the next generation to die for their country. This was particularly strong in the warlike culture of the fatherland and also in France, still humbled from the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.
This development and spread of nationalism had a number of amifications for the changing landscape of Europe. It was also used as a political tool, influencing foreign policy in order to distract from internal problems. Multi- racial countries such as Austria-Hungary relied on their foreign policy as means to maintain internal stability and peace. 6 This counted for Italy too, who lacked the internal structure and economy to wage war. Whereas the economic pragmatism of Germany and is window of opportunity was pulling it towards an inevitable conflict with its competitors.
In younger, developing states such as Japan and Germany an aggressive foreign policy was used as a means to generate nationalism and unite the fractured forces within the nation. There was a wide spread belief that a successful and stable state had to be foundered on an overseas empire, coupled with the prestige these conquests brought they could distract social or economic problems at home through a wave of nationalism, this has always been the case as aptly demonstrated by Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands.
Many historians have tended to combine this imperialism with the economic as an explanation for the First World War. It is true that the needs of apitalism had to be fed by the raw materials of the third world and as such the race to carve up the new world brought the European states into conflict with each other across the globe. However as a significant cause for war it is a debatable issue. The growing interdependency of the European states discouraged destructive war by making states irrevocably dependant on each other.
Obviously there were a number of prominent industrialists, such as those in the arms industry who lobbied their governments for military action, but generally industrialists would discourage war as disruptive to business. Justifying the conflictive nature of capitalism is primarily a Marxist interpretation. Interpretation of the imperial causes has focused on the conflict between the established imperialist’s powers such as France and Britain and the new states of Germany.
The economic, prestige and Kipling’s concept of ‘the white mans burden’ engendered these imperialists’ motives. However this myth of empire was sometimes only a myth, the British’s colonies were becoming increasingly expensive to maintain and their imperial trade protectionism hindered her all round economic development. However they still remained central to British identity, the threat to this empire by the weltpolitik of Germany was a major factor in encouragaing Britain to act against their imperial rivals in 1914.
In terms of the relation between the entente, Britain was pragmatic in its attempts to conserve its empire. It ended rivalries with France in 1904 with the Entente Cordiale, compromise between the established colonisers to consolidate their territory in the face of German and Italian competition. 7 This built on the 1902 Anglo-Japanese agreement that kept Russian and Japanese ambitions in heck. The conflict between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe still existed on the European periphery, it still remained a less pressing issue then internal factors and the inherent failure of diplomacy.
It was the moral and nationalistic beliefs that imperialism instilled in countries rather than a tangible necessity to wage war that played a role in encouraging the European powers to go to war. However one must not underestimate the prevailing mood of 1914 that allowed ‘people of all classes to embrace the war not just out of a sense of duty, but with positive alacrity’8. The ideology of nationalism with its glorification of conquest and the need to defend one’s traditions were the source of the mood that embraced and actually welcomed war as a way to further their country’s ambitions and colonies.
Although it is very hard to accurately pin down and record public opinions across states and classes, it is true that war was generally seen as ‘a solution to a whole range of problems, political, social, international, to say nothing of war s apparently the only way of resisting a direct physical effect’9 This mood coupled with all these other inclusive factors saw Europe tumble into a war she could not comprehend the like of.
War can also be seen as inevitable, and the fact that it was seen this way by Bismarck a number of other statesmen had a profound effect on foreign policy and actions. The previous events that had almost plunged Europe into war such as the Agadir crisis and the somewhat inevitable French backlash from the Franco-Prussian war saw some leaders look to exploit this apparent inevitability for their own gratification. Though in final conclusion, one must accept that ‘self-interest is the most important factor influencing any decision to go to war’10.