Summary: Summer 1914

Painting of Franz Josef leaving Hofburg Palace in Vienna

"History had already poised its gigantic soldier's boot over the anthill."

Leon Trotsky reflecting on the summer of 1914

Well, I hope you haven't stopped by for some quick answers as to the cause of the First World War. There are no quick answers. The underlying causes are as complex as they are varied. I've tried to include a few of the more critical ones in order to give you an idea of the type of politics that set the stage for the summer of 1914.

Some significant events:

The Long Fuse
A look at some of the events that shaped turn-of-the-century European politics. From the unification of Germany under Bismarck to the verge of revolution in Russia and Great Britain - it was a time of great changes.

The Deadly Alliances
Over half a century of complex diplomatic and military alliances had split Europe into opposing camps. While some of these alliances were defensive and/or economic in nature, the more deadly variety ensured one country's mobilization for war would trigger another's - an early form of chain-reaction.

The Pig War
Economic blackmail is nothing new to the late twentieth century. The Pig War demonstrates this type of policy as used by Austria-Hungary against Serbia in an attempt to curb the growth of Serbia and the Pan-Serb movement. This event helped to sharpen the animosity between the two countries.

The Dreadnought Race
The launching of the British HMS Dreadnought sparks the great arms race with the industrial giant, Germany. Britain, a country dependent on an empire ruled from the sea, views this race as a fight for survival. Germany views it as her right to be on equal footing with the British.

The Morocco Crisis
German diplomacy (two words that, sometimes, didn't fit together well after Bismarck) backfires as the Germans attempt to break up the Anglo-Russian entente. The Kaiser's visit to Tangier is viewed as a provocation to war by the French.

The Daily Telegraph affair
The London newspaper publishes an "off the cuff" interview with Kaiser Wilhelm II that shocks the world. Was it an unfortunate mishap or the work of an unscrupulous Foreign Minister? The result is that the world starts to be concerned with German motives.

The Bosnian Crisis
Both Austria-Hungary and Russia attempt to exploit the demise of the Ottoman Empire - Austria-Hungary by annexation of the Serb populated provinces of Bosnia-Herzogovina and Russia by attempting to get use of the Dardanelles for her warships. These actions, and subsequent events, came close to provoking the war in 1908 instead of 1914.

War Plans
Each participant country had designed war plans that would guide the armies to war on fixed timetables. These plans, combined with the intricate alliances, are what allowed events in Sarajevo to explode from Balkan crisis to full world war so quickly.

Other contributing factors:

The 1914 concept of war
It is important to discern the meaning of the word war up to 1914 as opposed to after 1918. At this time, summer 1914, war would be defined by most as a quick and decisive action that would take a couple of months, at most, to complete. No one had anything in mind on the scale of World War I when they threatened with the term war in diplomatic circles. It would only be after this coming war that term would be associated with a protracted action that would drain countries of both human and economic resources on a horrible scale.

Mobilization, once started, cannot be stopped
This was a common belief to both military and political leaders, and even the general public. The timetables that moved the trains that moved the armies represented a machine that, once set in motion, could not be stopped. The implication of this belief is that mobilization became synonymous with a declaration of war - not a precursor to it.

The danger of large, standing armies
The major belligerents all had one thing in common: large, standing armies that were the result of conscription. Each country claimed its military was for defensive purposes only, a necessity borne out of the treaties and arms races of the day. Add to this the self propelling war plans and you get a blueprint for disaster. War had been narrowly averted on several occasions prior to 1914, it was simply a matter of time until a reason materialized, or was synthesized, and one of the armies was used.

The Brink:

The stage has been set. All that is needed now is something to spark the kindling.

    For a thorough examination of the causes of the First World War see:
  • Lafore, Laurence, The Long Fuse, New York, Lippincott, 1965
  • Massie, Robert K., Dreadnought, New York, Ballantine, 1991