Written by Tina Kong
To what extent does the past shape present time?
Looking back at World War I, it was to a significant extent; the war caused 9 million casualties, initiated a vacuum for new political ideologies such as fascism, and heavily altered the world map drawing new states upon the defeated Ottoman Empire.
To put this into perspective, the “Great War”, according to Historian Paul Ham from the Telegraph, “was entirely avoidable, and sowed the seeds for the slaughter of the 20th century.”
It was a war that “destroyed our civilization”, with its effects still resonating today on the geopolitical stage.
So, how did it all begin if this Great War had indeed been “entirely avoidable”?
Simply put, it was a pile of firewood ignited by a spark - the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was shot by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip during his visit to Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
The existing tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary rose to a new height after the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, which left Serbians in utter discontent.
Consequently, members of the Serbian military gave support to the Black Hand, a Bosnian Terrorist group, under the name of the Union of Death.
Although there was no proof that the Serbian government was involved in this movement, the Austro-Hungarian, with an underlying will to annihilate the South Slavs, decided to act on the opportunity.
Franz Ferdinand’s death gave rise to the July Crisis and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany signed the Blank Cheque, offering unconditional support to Austria-Hungary.
One reason behind this pledge of support by Germany was Germany’s attempt to break up the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) despite heavy contemplation.
In addition to this, Fritz Fischer, a German historian, published what came to be known as his Fischer Thesis in the 1960s, a view that was heavily rejected by conservative German historians. It suggested that Germany had planned the war all along, akin to Hitler and the Second World War.
What followed on 28 July was like an overstretched elastic band, as the relations between the two states snapped when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, to Germany’s great surprise. This was a gamble taken by Austria-Hungary as it hoped that this war would remain localized.
The Kaiser, who was on a cruise and was only aware of the terms of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, which included the removal of all officials hostile to Austria from the Serbian government, right before Austria-Hungary declared war.
According to the Kaiser, “every reason for war drops away” with the terms of the ultimatum.
Indeed, it is true that there would not have been the Great War if the Great Powers did not act, and perhaps the fighting between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would just eventually die out. No-one really wanted to start a war of this scope.
Austria-Hungary took the risk, knowing that there may be a chance that the Russians will act as Austria’s troops moved further East, threatening Russia’s Western border. And they did.
Initially a partial mobilization on 29th July, then a full mobilization along the Western frontier. A call from the Kaiser to the Tsar of Russia to withdraw his troops was rejected and Germany was left with no choice but to mobilize its own.
Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany aimed to avoid a two-front war by mobilizing in the direction of France and Belgium. However, was this the right move to get France involved?
Meanwhile, Britain unsuccessfully attempted to stay out of the war. The eyes of the world were watching Britain; if Britain entered the war, this would escalate into a global war.
Edward Grey, the foreign secretary of Britain, seemed to feel the same; Britain waited until the last moment to enter, but it was obliged to do so after Germany entered Belgium on 3 August 1914.
And just like that, as the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg had phrased it, “the iron dice must roll.”
So, who was to blame? Referring back to Fischer, it could be Germany and its hope that an expansionist war would increase its dominance.
On the contrary, some historians like Ferguson put the blame on Britain due to its lack of action in the early years and misinterpretation which ultimately led to its mobilization of troops.
Many also viewed the incompetent actions to resolve the July Crisis as the major cause of the war, blaming the group of nations involved in escalating what could have been a very small-scaled dispute.
Another point of view stresses the multipolarity at the time rather than a single nation; imperialism had led to increased competition for resources, territory, and exploitation.
References: 1) http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/teachers/lesson_plans/pdfs/unit8_8.pdf Why Nations Go to War, John G. Stoessinger 2) http://www.diercke.com/kartenansicht.xtp?artId=978-3-14-100790-9&seite=36&id=17469&kartennr=1 3) https://www.theweek.co.uk/59782/how-did-the-first-world-war-start 4) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/08/first-world-war-causes-deliberate-accident 5) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/firstworldwar