War broke out in Europe in August of 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the capital of the ex-Turkish province of Bosnia which had been annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908. The Dual Monarchy had in fact taken administrative responsibility for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, therefore participating in the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire from the start. Following the 1908 Bosnian crisis Germany, taken by surprise by the actions of its ally Austria, issued an ultimatum to Russia demanding it accept the fait accompli. Russia styled herself the protector of Slavic interests in the Balkans and was extremely peeved at being unable to put its metal where its mouth was - however, still shaking from the Revolution of 1905, she could do nothing. The Russian government brooded.
Austria-Hungary, meanwhile, had problems of its own. The Dual Monarchy was comprised of people of many different nationalities, many of whom resented been inside the borders of the Austro-Hungarian state. The existence of strong independent states on its borders - Serbia, for instance - acted as focal points for the national aspirations of the minorities in the Empire. The Bosnian crisis only made this worse. The Austro-Hungarian government increasingly believed that the only way they could secure the existence of their own state was through the destruction of the Serbian state. This was in a way a mad last gamble - they knew war would destabilise the state further, but feared it would simply implode anyway given enough time. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the perfect opportunity to strike at Serbia.
The issue of who is to blame for the war was and is contentious. Lenin blamed international capitalism, Hitler blamed international Jewry, and the belligerent countries blamed everyone but themselves. It is probably Germany that holds the most blame for the escalation of the war from what might have been a local one to a general, European war. This did not happen in 1908, and by looking at why, we can understand the forces at play.
Why did a European War develop from the Serbian crisis of 1914, but not from the Bosnian crisis of 1908?
War broke out in 1914 because, in contrast to 1908, the main antagonists concluded that this war had to be fought. There were numerous factors that changed or came to their head between 1908 and 1914 that made the various Great Powers conclude this. Each had its own pressing domestic issues and goals in foreign policy that it was believed a war would solve. In the case of Russia there was a large degree of fatalism in the decision – with a decade of failure in foreign policy behind them, the Russians were not willing to abdicate their position as a Great Power once and for all by being impotent in the face of aggression. The role of Austria-Hungary and Germany was more active – they sought to change the international status quo to one more favourable for themselves.
Intransigence characterised the actions of all these countries. It was clear that Austria-Hungary intended to "deal with" Serbia once and for all, an action that Russia could not allow. After their turning away from Asia following the 1905 defeat, and the subsequent weakness they had shown in the Balkans, they were well on their way to becoming insignificant in international affairs. For the self-styled protectors of the Slavs, it was not conceivable to let the "Germanic" races inflict such an insult on them. Germany, meanwhile, chose the occasion of this local conflict to fight the general one it believed to be necessary for a reapportionment of European power.
The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina brought the issue of the South Slavs living in the Dual Monarchy even more clearly into focus, and did not quell the domestic problems they caused the Austro-Hungarian state. They had brought another million disillusioned Slavs under their rule, and did very little to help the economy of the impoverished provinces. It was believed Serbia could exercise a dangerous pull on these people and inspire them to acts of terrorism against the Austro-Hungarian state. In 1908 the policy of the Austrian foreign ministry was not to actively seek war – rather, they handed Russia a fait accompli and let them make the decision. But by 1914 the personnel in the department had changed, and they had inherited the former's belief in an expansionist policy but none of his caution.
This lack of caution stemmed from the belief that a pre-emptive strike was needed against the Serbian state to secure the existence of their own. After the increase in Serb and Croat nationalism after 1908 and the failure of economic pressure to bring Serbia to its knees, it was decided more decisive action was needed. The other consequence of the 1908 crisis had been to make the implications of the Austro-German treaty of 1879 clearer, especially to the Germans. Although it had initially been planned by Bismarck as a way of restraining Austria-Hungary and stopping it dragging Germany into a Balkans conflict, Austria-Hungary had in this instance acted of its own volition and independently of Germany. But Germany still rallied to its side, partly because Austria was the only friend they had left inside a ring of countries that seemed increasingly hostile.
1908 was an inopportune moment for the Reich government, but 1914 was more favourable. The view current in German diplomatic circles was that a war would have to be fought against France and Russia eventually if Germany was going to achieve its goal of becoming a Weltmacht (World power). Similarly, a duel with England was inevitable as the German goal of becoming a colonial power could not be achieved but at the expense of the British Empire. Although the two powers managed to reach agreement on specific colonial issues, it was the general principle that was irresolvable – conflict was seen as, sooner or later, inevitable. The advantage of 1914 over 1908 to the Germans was that Russia could be painted more convincingly as the aggressor, which was necessary both for domestic and international reasons. Strategically, this also seemed like the right time to start the war.
Germany was more prepared than she had been in 1908, and although this was also true of Russia it was thought that the latter would get stronger over time. The Russians had made a remarkable recovery from the shock of 1905 and with the help of French capital they were continuing to build on it – the strategic railroads in Poland, essential for modern warfare, were also nearly complete. That the Germans were concerned primarily with their own conflict against Russia, to the detriment of the Austrian goals in the Balkans, is shown by their instructions to the Austrians when war broke out. They were told to strengthen Galicia against Russian offensive so that the Schlieffen Plan could be put into action, and furthermore that "in this gigantic power struggle on which we are embarking shoulder to shoulder, Serbia plays a quite subordinate role".
Those in the German government that wished for a reapportionment of European power in their favour had various reasons. The naval arms build-up that Tirpitz began brought together a number of interests in German society that served both domestic and foreign policy concerns. International concerns addressed both the balance of power on the European Continent and in the World at large. On the Continental front, it was recognised that in a war Britain could blockade the German seaboard and starve them into defeat. In Weltpolitik (World politics), a strong Navy was believed necessary to force Britain to give "fair play" to Germany in Imperial questions. This challenge to British hegemony could not be taken lightly by the Brits, and since it was begun a confrontation was looming. But the Germans were unwilling to abandon the Tirpitz program because it was believed to be acting as such a unifying force in German society, as well as fulfilling foreign policy goals.
The Reich government wanted to give the German nation a unifying force to rally behind – some national goal to lure the people away from the Social Revolutionaries. In 1907 the program was accelerated still faster as the fortress mentality of the Reich grew – a fact which had not a little to do with the containment policy of Britain, which had just finalised the Triple Entente agreement. Fortified by the increased tempo of its armaments production and believing itself surrounded by hostile powers, Germany's intransigence was assured by 1914.
The Austrians had wanted Germany to head off the Russian threat while they sorted out their problems in the Balkans. This had worked in 1909, when the Russians had capitulated after Germany’s ultimatum. Russian society and its military were still recovering from the defeat of 1904 - 05 in the Russo-Japanese war and the subsequent Revolution, and the state was militarily unprepared for war in 1909. It was also feared that a war would lead to Revolution and the end of Tsarist rule. However, between then and the Serbian crisis, Russian capabilities and attitudes changed. Russia had rearmed and could now contemplate fighting a war against the Central Powers, however undesirable the consequences might be for society. More important was the diplomatic failures that had dogged Russia ever since 1905, especially in the Balkans. The Bosnian crisis was in itself a turning point, as the Russians had not stood by their ally when the Germans had. They had subsequently failed to support Serbia in its goal of acquiring an Adriatic port, refused to support Montenegro’s demand for Scutari and failed to threaten war over the Von Sanders mission to command an army in Constantinople as late as January 1914.
The national press, not necessarily a deciding factor in decisions, but an important one for testing the social mood, was angry over Russian capitulation. As well as the desire to make up for these past weaknesses, the range of options available was narrower in July 1914. Austria-Hungary’s goals were much more comprehensive than ever before, and Russia would be abdicating its role as a Great Power if it failed to intervene. This concept of prestige is important for understanding the reasons statesmen went to war in 1914, apparently against economic rationality. A more practical reason is that France was willing to support Russia in 1914, which it had not been in 1908.
French support of Russia was important to the Russians, and British support of France was important to the French. Both Britain and France entered the war for primarily negative reasons – if they had not done, then their national security would have been threatened in both the long and short term by a dominant Germany. But both nations could only enter the war if they managed to convince their respective populations that the nature of the actions was defensive, so that they could maintain national unity. Unlike Germany, neither of these countries sought war to advance their own interests. Nor did France go to war over Serbia or Britain go to war over Belgian neutrality. They went to war because German hubris had reached a new level and because, in the long run, it threatened them both. Britain, never a huge land power on the Continent, feared that the global balance of power would tip in Germany's favour. France had a long history of problems with Germany and didn't want Germany to become more powerful and to cause it bigger problems in the future. The difference between 1914 and 1908 was that the Central Powers were now pursuing their goals to restructure the international situation actively and aggressively. The confrontation had come and would have to be faced down.
In the final analysis, it was the different capabilities and goals of the Great Powers in 1914 as opposed to 1908 that made war happen at that particular point. 1908 and the years since had been full of instances that proved that the goals of the Central Powers and of Russia in the Balkans were mutually exclusive. Austria-Hungary had become convinced that the gains Serbia made in the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire's European domains made it a threat whose existence could not be tolerated. Meanwhile, Russia could not afford to allow itself to be relegated to the status of a third-rate power which failed to act as the protector of Slavs that it portrayed itself as. German militarism and belief in Weltpolitik had reached new heights as their capabilities had increased. Many of these factors had a root in the domestic politics of the countries concerned, especially the need by the conservative regimes involved – Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany – to stabilise their fragile political systems.
A short, successful war was sought to change the international status quo in their favour and shore up support at home by achieving national unity through war. Retrospectively, this does not appear to have been a very rational decision, and we must acknowledge the role that emotion and sentiment played when statesmen considered their actions. But it is equally important to recognise that, helped along by propaganda portraying the enemy as the aggressor, such policies had a chance of achieving national unity. In 1914 the Austrians, Germans and Russians believed that the moment was opportune to do this and, further, to change the international situation in their favour.
J. Joll, The Origins of the First World War (1984)
M. Trachtenberg, "The Meaning of Mobilisation in 1914", International Security 15/3 (1991)
V.R Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (2nd ed., 1993)
K. Wilson, Decisions for War, 1914 (1995)
Samuel R. Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (1991)
D.C.B Lieven, Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1983)
L.C.F Turner, "The Russian Mobilisation in 1914" in P.M Kennedy (ed.), The War Plans of the Great Powers 1880 – 1914 (1985)
R.J.W Evans and H. Pegge-von Strandmann (eds), The Coming of the First World War (1988)
I survey the historiography of the origins of the war in my node in World War I. European tribal nationalism may also be of interest for an understanding of Panslav and Neoslav ideology, as well as their Teutonic equivelents.
Many, many books have been written with the title of this node. James Joll's of 1984 is particularly salient and a good overview.