World War I Didn’t Need to Happen

A Historical Editorial

World War I image from Wikipedia

Exactly 100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria arrived in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo with his wife to inspect the Austrian troops stationed there. As their motorcade, protected by local police, approached a bridge, a bomb was thrown. A group of terrorists was trying to assassinate the Archduke, in the hopes that doing so would lead to the end to Austrian rule in Bosnia and its unification with Serbia as part of a proposed new country called “Yugoslavia”. The bomb succeeded in injuring about 20 people, but the Archduke wasn’t one of them.

With the bomb plot a failure, one of the terrorists, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, decided to go to a nearby deli. Meanwhile, the Archduke and his wife decided to go to the local hospital to visit the wounded. In a twist of fate, the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn, and passed right in front of Princip. Seizing the opportunity, Princip pulled his gun out and fired.

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand image by Achille Beltrame from Wikipedia

When I was in high school, I was taught that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the spark that began World War I – the largest-scale war that had ever been fought up to that date, involving dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica, with more than 68 million combined troops fighting each other and about 10 million people killed in action. Furthermore, the peace treaty that ended the war in 1919 was so unpopular, it led directly to World War II.

The worst part of it all, though, is that it didn’t have to be this way. There were many points on the path to World War I where the people in charge could have stopped and said, “Hey, isn’t this road we’re on kind of… dangerous?” Here are just a few.

The Tangled Web of Alliances

1914 Alliances image from Wikipedia

After defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck realized that the French were so humiliated that they might come after Germany seeking revenge. To prevent this, Bismarck worked tirelessly to forge alliances with the other major European powers, in order to make a French war of retaliation virtually impossible. To this end, Bismarck forged alliances with Italy and the massive Austro-Hungarian Empire, and worked hard to court Russia as well.

Then, in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne of Germany, and forced Bismarck to retire. Wilhelm II was not as diplomatically careful as Bismarck, and under his watch, relations with Russia deteriorated. Soon, Russia decided to instead ally itself with France, and the UK decided to take up friendly relations with those countries. For France, this sudden shift meant that a war with Germany was a much more viable option; they could count on the largest country in Europe and the most powerful navy in the world to back them up. All of Bismarck’s carefully planned work was torn apart and undone.

If Wilhelm II had either kept Bismarck around, or at least recognized what his chancellor was trying to accomplish and worked as diligently on the diplomatic front as Bismarck had, then Europe would not have been divided into two rival camps, treaty-bound to support each other in the event of a war. Instead, bungled diplomacy led to a situation where all it took was a single assassination to pull the two alliances into war with each other.

Were they really pulled into war against their will, though?

The Blame Game

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

The arrest of Gavrilo Princip by Austrian authorities

When the terrorists behind the assassination plot were arrested, the Austro-Hungarian government almost immediately blamed the government of Serbia for the attack. As Austria saw it, Serbia had come up with the plan, hired the assassins, and provided the weapons. While it was true that some high-ranking officers in Serbia’s military intelligence had supported the plot, scholars to this day are not sure if the Serbian government even knew about the plot, let alone if they supported it. It could very well have been that these high-ranking Serbian officers were acting on their own without orders; all of the officers who were implicated were also members of a secret conspiratorial society called “The Black Hand”.

It almost seems like the Austrian authorities were all too eager to blame Serbia. After all, in 1903 a military coup had overthrown Serbia’s pro-Austrian king and replaced him with a pro-Russian king. Since then, Serbia and Austria had clashed again and again and again, as Serbia’s dream of uniting the peoples of southeast Europe into their proposed “Yugoslavia” ran headlong into the Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled many of the territories Serbia wanted. To Austria, Serbia was a country that needed to be put in its place. Thus, they rushed to judgement because they were itching for an excuse to do just that.

Still, historian Luigi Albertini argued that Serbia could have done more to assure Austria that they were not behind the assassination. He wrote, “What Serbia ought to have done to prove her innocence and render it more difficult for Austria to hold her responsible for the crime was to open a judicial inquiry into the possible complicity of Serbian subjects and take the necessary measures in that event.”

Instead, Serbia just denied everything and did nothing, confident that they had Russia’s support. Austria, meanwhile, got Germany’s support to send an ultimatum to Serbia. When Serbia wouldn’t comply with every single point on the ultimatum, war began.

Thus, the chain reaction started, as nations declared war on each other to support their allies, the inevitable result of two countries with powerful allies who just couldn’t back down from a fight.

Or was it inevitable?

The British Attempt at a Last-Minute Peace Deal

Five days before the outbreak of war, the United Kingdom offered to help negotiate a peace deal to avoid a Europe-wide conflagration. The leaders of the Great Powers of Europe weren’t stupid; they knew that this crisis between Austria and Serbia could drag them to war. The British proposed that the leaders of Austria, Serbia, Germany, Russia, Italy, France and the UK meet and try to find a peaceful, satisfactory solution.

While Russia got on board with this plan, Kaiser Wilhelm would have no part of it. He called the British plan “condescending”, scolded Austrian politicians for not being more aggressive towards Serbia and Russia, and cheered when he heard the news that the Serbian people were saddened by the precarious situation they now seemed to be stuck in. It was clear that Germany would not support the British peace plan, and by July 25, Russia backed out as well.

However, Russia still hadn’t given up on the goal of finding a peaceful settlement, and with French support, proposed instead for direct talks between Austria and Serbia. Germany countered that Russia should be the one negotiating with Austria, since they supposedly were Serbia’s main ally. What followed were three days of constant wrangling back and forth between the Great Powers. In the end, Austria finally declared war on July 28.

That’s when things get really interesting. Upon hearing the news, Kaiser Wilhelm suddenly had a change of heart. Having pushed Austria so hard to be as aggressive as possible against their adversary, now he wanted to slam on the brakes and get serious about peace. He tried to make a final peace offer, but he was sabotaged by some of the German diplomats and politicians in his service. They sent a message to the Austrians, lying to them and saying Kaiser Wilhelm fully supported their war; meanwhile, one of the top German generals warned the Kaiser that he faced being overthrown by his own army if he tried to stand in the way of war.

So, why was it that World War I broke out, in spite of all the many opportunities to put a stop to it? Scholars have been debating that question for the entire century since it began, but here is my take:

The “War is Good” Mentality

Charge of the Light Brigade image from the Daily Telegraph

This is where I am going out on a limb, but I think I have the evidence to back me up. When you read about the decisions that were made and debates that were held in the build-up to war, you find out that many of the decision-makers were actually pushing for war. They wanted to go to war. They were actively working to try to make a war happen as quickly as possible. Sure, there were other voices calling for peace, but in many cases, they were outvoted.

When we look back at the period before World War I with rose-tinted glasses, we like to imagine it as being peaceful and idyllic.

So sophisticated!

So sophisticated!

But it wasn’t. It was actually very violent. Italy and Germany were unified through the force of arms. Southeast Europe was turned into a battlefield on multiple occasions. The British, French, and others were going off to carve up the world among themselves, crushing the native peoples they encountered as they went.

War was glorified in the arts as the highest social ideal – the honor of the soldier and glory of the battlefield. A uniform and a gun were what turned a boy into a man. Many young European men used military service for their country’s overseas empire as a career booster when they got back home. When the Great War broke out in 1914, many young men volunteered enthusiastically, because they believed that the war would be a swift, glorious victory and a great adventure.

World War I image 2 from Wikipedia

One hundred years later, with recent headlines in the Ukraine and Iraq, it seems fitting to remember the biggest lesson of World War I: don’t rush headlong into something you don’t fully understand. You might not like what you get.

2 Responses to World War I Didn’t Need to Happen

  1. AuntLeesie says:

    Wow! That’s really interesting!

  2. Pingback: The Christmas Truce and the History of Christmas in Wartime | Cat Flag

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