Who started WW One?

100 Years Later

We still haven’t seen a study of the outbreak of the First World War that answers the question “are we any the wiser, 100 years later, about the rights and wrongs of what happened?”

Equally neglected is the question “what did we learn (or what should we have learnt!) from what happened then, that is relevant today in avoiding and solving conflicts?”

No book, article, website, conference, video, TV programme, has significantly or adequately addressed these questions (as far as the present writer is aware).

David Owen touches on the second question in his recent book “The Hidden Perspective – The Military Conversations 1906-1914” [1]. He makes cabinet accountability and the possession of full and accurate information by all its members the central issue. He mentions the British Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war to draw attention to the continuing importance of such a concern!

He indicts Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, for keeping his cabinet colleagues including Asquith, the prime minister, in the dark about the Anglo-French staff talks that he thinks in the end obliged Britain mistakenly to go to war against Germany in August 1914, in effect, in defence of France.

Lord Owen’s assertion that the Anglo-French military and naval talks created an obligation for Britain to defend France is debateable. The official position was unambiguous; Britain retained its right to act as its interests demanded. And that was the attitude of the government during the Crisis. In the final days as war started between Russia and Germany, Grey told the French ambassador France would have to make its own decision.

Also, it is possible that Lord Owen is particularly hard on his predecessor. Research [11] shows Grey did brief the prime minister about the staff talks soon after he took office in 1908. Whether Grey and the prime minister then and later appropriately informed all their cabinet colleagues in a way Lord Owen would have approved is another matter.

Max Hastings [2] clearly identifies the pivotal issue of the July Crisis as the Austro-Hungarian decision, backed by Germany without qualification, to punish Serbia for being involved in the assassination of the Archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, by invading and breaking up the country.

This poses the question: how should we deal with rogue or failing states or those that harbour our enemies? It is a good reminder of the relevance of historical knowledge in helping us solve or avoid conflicts in the world today.

Hastings is also clear that Germany deserves the greatest share of the blame for the outbreak of the war. Should “Austria and its German guarantor … have been allowed to have their way at gunpoint in the Balkans, in Belgium and indeed across Europe?”

And, “Even if Germany is acquitted of pursuing a design for general European war in 1914, it still seems deserving of most blame, because it had power to prevent this and did not exercise it”.

He also thinks Britain had little choice “If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory”.

A mixed picture emerges from the recently published books. There seems to be a new school of “Australian Revisionism”.

Douglas Newton (University of Western Sydney) analyses “Britain’s Rush to War” [3] in the last week of the crisis, and accuses Asquith, Grey and Churchill of deviously bouncing the cabinet into taking decisions that led Britain into unwisely joining the war.

He illuminates the wide extent of the opposition in and out of parliament to Britain joining the war. The Liberal Foreign Affairs Group wrote to Asquith saying they would withdraw their support from the government if Britain went to war. They claimed nine tenths of the Liberal party supported the group’s stand.

Churchill’s initiatives in keeping the Royal Navy together on the 26 July after a long planned test mobilisation and ordering it to its war stations on the 28 July are two of the author’s important examples of steps taken without full cabinet approval. And these naval moves encouraged Russia in taking a hard line. The non-interventionists in the cabinet were the overwhelming majority up to the very last moment. Neutrality should have been given a chance!

His fellow Australian, Christopher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers” [4] deliberately steers clear of drawing up a charge sheet because it makes the assumption that “in conflictual interactions one protagonist must ultimately be right and the other wrong” and he concentrates on the decisions that brought war about and the reasoning and emotions behind them (though this does not mean excluding questions of responsibility entirely from the discussion).

The book’s title represents the authors opinion that the key players were blind to the horrors they were about to unleash. Some of the politicians and generals spoke of “Armageddon”, a “war of extermination” and the “extinction of civilisation”. “They knew it, but did they really feel it?”

Clark concludes “The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy, not a crime.”

Margaret McMillan [5] is almost in the same camp. She concentrates on tracing Europe’s path to 1914 and picking out the turning points when its options narrowed. She argues that some powers and their leaders were more culpable than others. Austria-Hungary’s determination to destroy Serbia, Germany’s decision to back it to the hilt, Russia’s early military moves, these all seem to bear the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of the war but she goes on to say “we may have to accept that there can never be a definitive answer because for every argument there is a strong counter”.

Gordon Martel [6] says “War was not inevitable. It was the choices that men made during those fateful days that plunged the world into a war. They did not walk in their sleep. They knew what they were doing. They were not stupid. …. Real people, actual flesh-and-blood human beings, were responsible for the tragedy of 1914 – not unseen, barely understood forces beyond their control”.

In addition to a compact narrative of the July Crisis Martel gives a very useful summary of the blame debate over the decades since the war. From the Versailles Treaty that ascribed all the blame to Germany, through the revisionist views that blamed everybody or nobody, the underlying causes, the system of secret alliances, militarism, nationalism, economic imperialism, the newspapers, Albertini’s analysis, the Fischer controversy and the primacy of domestic politics, to where we are today.

Thomas Otte, in a highly informative book for the historian and layman, “July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914” [7] also concentrates on human agency, the actions, misjudgements and mistakes of politicians, civil servants, diplomats, military leaders and monarchs.

He is the only recent author to produce new information; the discovery that Grey’s private secretary was planning in the month before the July Crisis to have secret talks in Germany with Jagow, the German foreign minister, as part of an effort to improve Anglo-German relations.

If you haven’t got the time or stamina to read Luigi Albertini’s 3-volume, 2000 page masterpiece, “The Origins of the War of 1914” [8], published in English in 1952, Otte’s book (524 pages) is a good alternative. Like Albertini he is not only a mine of information but also has forthright views though he saves these for the conclusions at the end of the book.

“… a catastrophic failure of strategic leadership … Bethmann and Jagow were also found wanting in terms of basic statecraft, most of which flowed from their abdication of an independent policy.

No-one at Berlin willed war; there was no criminal intent; and Bethmann and the Kaiser were not simply forerunners of Hitler and his movement. But their miscalculations and their reckless blunders brought about this war more than anything else. There is a recklessness that borders on the criminal. Theirs comes very close to it.”

The word “dysfunctional” comes to mind.

At the far end of the revisionist scale the blame for the outbreak of the war lies with Russia with its eye on the Turkish Straits supported by France mindful of Alsace-Lorraine.

In a chapter entitled “July 1914 revisited and revised – The erosion of the German paradigm”, [9] the distinguished American historian Samuel Williamson Jr claims “recent research shows a more culpable Serbia, a more aggressive Franco-Russian alliance, a more desperate Austria-Hungary, a more assertive Russian foreign policy, a more ineffective Britain in its efforts to contain the crisis…”.

He then states “Under no circumstances were Paris and St. Petersburg prepared to allow any chastisement of Belgrade” and “… the two governments would support Serbia in all circumstances, would allow no chastisement of Serbia, and were prepared to go to war if necessary”.

This contradicts various accounts of Russia and France advising the Serbs to accept as much of the original Austro-Hungarian ultimatum as possible. It can be argued the Serbs went to the most reasonable lengths possible in meeting the demands of the ultimatum. The Kaiser even thought the Serb response was a way forward until he was overtaken by events and Germany’s military plans.

Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, told the German ambassador “it was possible to give Serbia a well-merited lesson while respecting her sovereign rights”.

And Gordon Martel in his book says “On almost every day of the July crisis a solution seemed to be at hand. Anything short of crushing Serbia’s independence appeared to be acceptable to Russia, France, and Britain”.

Underlying Williamson’s revisionist view is the belief that Austria-Hungary was justified in taking extreme measures because (a) Serbia was the source of propaganda for the separation of Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its unification with Serbia, and this is what motivated the assassins, and (b) the plot to assassinate the Archduke was initiated and controlled by the Black Hand, a Serb secret society, including many Serbian army officers and officials, dedicated to the creation of a Greater Serbia. The Serbian government was as good as responsible for the plot.

Tim Butcher [10] tells a different story. In a well researched book following the journey the young assassins took from their homes, to Belgrade, and finally to Sarajevo, he reveals how they lived and what motivated them. He even unearths the school reports of Gavrilo Princip, the nineteen year old who fired the fatal shots. The assassins obtained their bombs and guns from a member of the Black Hand but the plot was conceived and planned by Bosnians, especially Princip, and implemented by them, all discontented citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bosnia like much of South East Europe had once been part of the Ottoman Empire until it was annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908.

“Princip was not a Serbian nationalist but a Slav nationalist, committed to liberating all locals, known as South Slavs, whether they were Croats, Muslims, Slovenes or Serbs, then under the control of a foreign occupier, Austria”. One of the assassins was a Muslim.

Alan Paton is the content editor of the website www.whostartedwwone.com The central feature of the website is a Timeline covering over 500 events, decisions, statements, meetings, and actions, involving 50 or so politicians, military leaders, and diplomats, in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Serbia, Russia, Britain, France and Belgium from the 29th June to the 4th August 1914, and the outbreak of World War One “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century”.

Books Referenced

[1] Owen, David; The Hidden Perspective: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914 – Haus Publishing, 2014

[2] Hastings, Max; Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 – William Collins, 2013

[3] Newton, Douglas; The Darkest Days – The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War in 1914 – Verso Books, 2014

[4] Clark, Christopher; The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 – Allen Lane, 2012

[5] MacMillan, Margaret; The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War – Profile Books, 2013

[6] Martel, Gordon; The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 – Oxford University Press, 2014

[7] Otte, Thomas; July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914 – Cambridge University Press, 2014

[8] Albertini, Luigi; Origins Of The War Of 1914 (3 Volume set) – Enigma Books, Oxford University Press, 1952

[9] Williamson, Jr., Samuel R; July 1914 Revisited and Revised – The Erosion of the German Paradigm in The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics, and Decision-Making by Jack S. Levy (Editor), John A. Vasquez (Editor) – Cambridge University Press, 2014

An earlier version of Samuel Williamson’s chapter this time entitled July 1914 Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm is available on video at the Woodrow Wilson Center website and YouTube.

[10] Butcher, Tim; The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War – Chatto & Windus, 2014

[11] Coogan, John W; Coogan, Peter F; The British Cabinet and the Anglo-French Staff Talks, 1905-1914: Who Knew What and When Did He Know It – Journal of British Studies, January 1985, Cambridge University Press