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Column: How War Came

  • US Army 37-mm gun crew manning their weapon on September 26, 1918 during the World War I Meuse-Argonne (Maas-Argonne) Allied offensive, France. (AP Photo)

    US Army 37-mm gun crew manning their weapon on September 26, 1918 during the World War I Meuse-Argonne (Maas-Argonne) Allied offensive, France. (AP Photo)

  • British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in a 1914 photograph. (Library of Congress photograph)

    British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in a 1914 photograph. (Library of Congress photograph)

  • US Army 37-mm gun crew manning their weapon on September 26, 1918 during the World War I Meuse-Argonne (Maas-Argonne) Allied offensive, France. (AP Photo)
  • British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in a 1914 photograph. (Library of Congress photograph)

World War I broke out 100 years ago this summer. In late June, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old terrorist loosely associated with the Greater Serbia secret society “Black Hand,” assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in the Bosnian mountain town of Sarajevo. Scarcely five weeks later, the major European powers embarked upon the most destructive war in history. Before hostilities ended 52 months later, some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians had died. Another 20 million emerged wounded or horribly disfigured.

During the previous century, Europe had generated the industrial, agricultural and transportation revolutions that transformed the world. In 1914, Europe and its offshoots produced three-quarters of global manufacturing product. Four years later, that prosperity and the optimism it engendered had largely disappeared. Three great empires — Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey — had vaporized in the maelstrom. How could that happen?

The spark ignited among the atavistic blood-feuds of the Balkans. Belgrade, Serbia, lies only a few hours distant from Budapest, Hungary, and Vienna. By the 1880s, railroads had made the chief Balkan cities physically accessible. Yet the economic and ideological advances of 19th-century European civilization had scarcely touched the heart of the Balkans. The Viennese spoke of “darkest Serbia” as if it lay on some faraway continent. That the domestic conflicts of Balkan client states could lead to war among the continent’s great powers seemed at first glance implausible.

A Rough Neighborhood

Serbia had won autonomy from the declining Ottoman Empire in 1804. The Serbs, as chauvinistic in the 1830s as in the 1990s, sought to extend the area under their control. A prolonged regional crisis developed in the 1870s. The Islamic-run Ottoman Empire failed to modernize. Russia’s effort to create a large Bulgaria under its control and to attack Constantinople in order to reopen the Straits alarmed both Britain and Austria. In the end, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the “honest broker,” called a conference that cut Bulgaria down to size and recognized Serbia, Montenegro and Rumania as fully independent states. Austria obtained the right to control backward Bosnia-Herzegovina and to annex it when the time seemed propitious. In the meantime, it would garrison a corridor that prevented Serbia and Montenegro from getting together. Those arrangements kept a tenuous peace between Austria and Russia for two decades.

Still, the Balkans remained a rough neighborhood. In 1903 the same Black Hand, under the sinister Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic, murdered the reigning Serbian king in gruesome circumstances and brought to power a rival who would promote South Slav unity. As a precautionary measure, Austria found it prudent to exercise its option to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina despite the financial burden.

In 1912-13, a four-country Balkan League sought to eject the Ottoman Empire from Europe altogether, but the group fell out over division of the spoils. Germany did not intervene to support its Austrian ally because its military leaders informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that the Reich would only be ready to make war in another 18 months hence.

Accordingly, the imaginative British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, conjured up the artificial country of Albania to prevent Serbia from getting access to the sea. In time, Serbia would surely make another attempt to unify the South Slavs. Russia had not strongly supported its fellow Slavs in 1908 and 1913, yet given Pan-Slav sentiment in the Duma (parliament) it would prove difficult to avoid doing so again. Hence trouble awaited.

Starting a Local War

Not everyone initially grasped the implications of the archduke’s murder. The local United States consul considered it insufficiently important to send a telegram. Instead he posted an ordinary letter that arrived in Washington after war had begun. The archduke had favored transforming Austria-Hungary into a balanced entity where the Slavs would have rights equal to those of the German and Magyar ethnicities. Since Emperor Franz Joseph had sat on the throne for 66 years, the heir would soon have his chance. In fact, much democratization and devolution of power within the Dual Monarchy had already taken place. The Serbs correctly perceived that, if Slavs within the borders of Austria-Hungary obtained satisfaction, they might become resistant to Belgrade’s blandishments.

The authorities in Vienna were divided on how to respond. The chief of the general staff thought it high time to eliminate the Serbian threat by war. Yet Hungarian premier István Tisza opposed any measures that might bring more Slavs within the borders of the state. The Austrian foreign minister, Leopold Berchtold, had earlier vacillated on the Serbian question, but now inclined to believe that the moment for action had come. He sent an emissary to Berlin to ascertain if his German allies would back him. The German government broke the deadlock in Vienna. Not only did it issue a “blank check”; it also insisted that Austria’s credibility depended on its willingness to fight. Since the Serbs played their familiar games, seemingly agreeing to an ultimatum but refusing to let Austria participate in the inquiry, Vienna launched a local war.

The German Way of War

German diplomacy, however, with malice aforethought, transformed a local incident into a general war. The elites of Kaiser Wilhelm’s generation thought that the Reich deserved a place in the sun on a par with Britain and America. Given its rapid economic development, the Reich ought to dominate Continental Europe. Germany had built the best army in the world as well as a navy almost rivaling that of Britain. Germans embraced the Social Darwinist view that the “races” stood in conflict. If they failed to take part in the struggle among the species they would inevitably decline.

Moreover, Germans believed in the supremacy of military to civilian policy-makers. Once the army decided, the politicos would have to follow. The Reichsheer had worked up the Schlieffen Plan for a two-front war. That plan required invading neutral Belgium and defeating France before Russia could mobilize. The army pressed for immediate action because five years hence the Russians might have built a railroad system that quickened mobilization and made execution of the Schlieffen Plan impossible. Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, as well as the military, therefore schemed to take this opportunity to provoke a general war. They aimed to consolidate Germany’s “world power status.” They hoped that Britain would stay out, but were prepared to roll the dice. The evidence shows that none of the other powers desired a general war.

Once hostilities began, Bethmann stood ready with a shopping list of war aims. He proposed to seize France’s industrial areas and impose an indemnity that would make its revival impossible, to partition Belgium and annex Luxembourg, and to transform Holland into a protectorate. He would create a customs union of a dozen countries including Austria under German domination. In the East, he would push Russia back to its 17th-century borders, create a Polish puppet state, and deport Poles and Jews to an uncertain fate from a border strip the size of Maryland. He also sought to conquer a large part of Central Africa.

Bethmann’s aims rated as moderate within the German context. Leading industrialists proposed to seize the Caucasus and construct a land-bridge across Asia Minor to menace the British Empire in India. The “German way of war” also involved giving no quarter and ignoring international law. Germany had previously carried out genocide against the Herero people in Southwest Africa. It began this war by committing manifold atrocities in neutral Belgium.

Hidden History

In the 1920s the German Foreign Office carried out a sophisticated campaign to distort the war’s origins and repudiate an alleged war-guilt clause that was considered, but ultimately eliminated, from the postwar Versailles treaty. Many Americans were taken in by that campaign. They came to believe that their participation had lacked a purpose. Isolationists now claimed that World War I had resulted from misunderstandings, from disembodied forces such as militarism, imperialism and nationalism, or from the absence of international organization.

Yet disembodied forces do not cause war in the absence of human agency. Experience teaches also that international organizations like the U.N. cannot keep peace among major powers. As a famous diplomat remarked, the real alternative to a balance of power is an imbalance of power. And although political scientists feared during the 1950s that nuclear war might break out because of miscalculation, it never happened.

In the early 1960s a German historian named Fritz Fischer got access to hidden archives squirreled away under Soviet control and laid out German war aims in detail. His meticulous research made clear that, notwithstanding the carnage, this was a war that the Allies could not avoid fighting.

Fischer explained why a compromise peace of the sort proposed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson before America’s entry into the conflict remained illusory. Unfortunately, Wilson had framed the issue narrowly as a violation of American neutral rights instead of a threat to national security, as suggested by his White House predecessor Theodore Roosevelt.

Wilson’s rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy encouraged exaggerated hopes and ultimately led to disillusionment. As the fate of the Arab Spring reminds us once again, democracy must grow organically. No outside forces, however well intentioned, can impose it.

Oddly, a curious development took place as the 100th anniversary of World War I approached. A new generation of historians began to ignore Fischer’s well-documented findings. The innovators pretend that the nations on each side somehow “sleepwalked” their way into war.

Perhaps, as Voltaire cynically remarked, history is only a pack of lies that the living play on the dead. And yet, to comprehend why a whole generation endured four miserable years in the trenches, it is essential to get the story right.

Stephen A. Schuker is Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia. This essay was written for the Free Lance-Star in Fredricksburg, Va.