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The Causes of World War One
June 28 in Sarajevo
The events of July and early August 1914 are a classic case of "one thing led to another" - otherwise known
as the treaty alliance system.
The explosive that was World War One had been long in the stockpiling; the spark was the assassination of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Ferdinand's
death at the hands of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society, set in train a mindlessly
mechanical series of events that culminated in the world's first global war.
Austria-Hungary's Reaction
Austria-Hungary's reaction to the death of their heir (who was in any case not greatly beloved by the
Emperor, Franz Josef, or his government) was three weeks in coming. Arguing that the Serbian
government was implicated in the machinations of the Black Hand (whether she was or not remains
unclear, but it appears unlikely), the Austro-Hungarians opted to take the opportunity to stamp its
authority upon the Serbians, crushing the nationalist movement there and cementing Austria-Hungary's
influence in the Balkans.
It did so by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia which, in the extent of its demand that the assassins be brought
to justice effectively nullified Serbia's sovereignty. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was
moved to comment that he had "never before seen one State address to another
independent State a document of so formidable a character."
Austria-Hungary's expectation was that Serbia would reject the remarkably
severe terms of the ultimatum, thereby giving her a pretext for launching a
limited war against Serbia.
However, Serbia had long had Slavic ties with Russia, an altogether different proposition for AustriaHungary. Whilst not really expecting that Russia would be drawn into the dispute to any great extent other
than through words of diplomatic protest, the Austro-Hungarian government sought assurances from her
ally, Germany, that she would come to her aid should the unthinkable happen and Russia declared war on
Germany readily agreed, even encouraged Austria-Hungary's warlike stance.
One Thing Led to Another
So then, we have the following remarkable sequence of events that led inexorably to the 'Great War' - a
name that had been touted even before the coming of the conflict.
Austria-Hungary, unsatisfied with Serbia's response to her ultimatum (which in the event was almost
entirely placatory: however her jibbing over a couple of minor clauses gave Austria-Hungary her
sought-after cue) declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914.
Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, announced mobilization of its vast army in her defense, a slow
process that would take around six weeks to complete.
Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war
against Austria-Hungary, and after scant warning declared war on Russia on 1 August.
France, bound by treaty to Russia, found itself at war against Germany and, by extension, on AustriaHungary following a German declaration on 3 August. Germany was swift in invading neutral Belgium
so as to reach Paris by the shortest possible route.
Britain, allied to France by a more loosely worded treaty which placed a "moral obligation" upon her
to defend France, declared war against Germany on 4 August. Her reason for entering the conflict lay
in another direction: she was obligated to defend neutral Belgium by the terms of a 75-year old
treaty. With Germany's invasion of Belgium on 4 August, and the Belgian King's appeal to Britain for
assistance, Britain committed herself to Belgium's defence later that day. Like France, she was by
extension also at war with Austria-Hungary.
With Britain's entry into the war, her colonies and dominions abroad variously offered military and
financial assistance, and included Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South
United States President Woodrow Wilson declared a U.S. policy of absolute neutrality, an official
stance that would last until 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - which
seriously threatened America's commercial shipping (which was in any event almost entirely directed
towards the Allies led by Britain and France) - forced the U.S. to finally enter the war on 6 April 1917.
Japan, honouring a military agreement with Britain, declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914.
Two days later Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Japan.
Italy, although allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary, was able to avoid entering the fray by
citing a clause enabling it to evade its obligations to both. In short, Italy was committed to defend
Germany and Austria-Hungary only in the event of a 'defensive' war; arguing that their actions were
'offensive' she declared instead a policy of neutrality. The following year, in May 1915, she finally
joined the conflict by siding with the Allies against her two former allies.
The Tangle of Alliances
Such were the mechanics that brought the world's major nations into the war at one
time or another. It's clear from the summary above that the alliance system was as
much at fault as anything in bringing about the scale of the conflict.
What was intended as a strictly limited war - a brief war - between accuser and
accused, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, rapidly escalated into something that was
beyond the expectations of even the most warlike ministers in Berlin (and certainly
Vienna, which quickly became alarmed at spiraling events in late July and sought
German reassurances).
It's possible to delve deeply into European history in the quest to unearth the roots of the various alliances
that were at play in 1914. However, for our purposes it serves to date the origins of the core alliances
back to Bismarck's renowned intrigues, as he set about creating a unified Germany from the loose
assembly of German confederated states in the 1860s.
Bismarck's Greater Germany
Bismarck, first Prime Minister of Prussia and then Chancellor of the German Empire (once he had
assembled it), set about the construction of Germany through high politics judiciously assisted by war
against Austria and France.
Appointed Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Prussia by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1862, Bismarck was
consumed with a desire to achieve the creation of a German Empire out of the collection of smaller German
states largely led by Austria's influence (another German-speaking nation).
His first step was to oust Austria as the prime influence among these German states. He achieved this by
engineering war with Austria in 1866 over disputed territory in the duchy of Holstein (much against the
wishes of his own Kaiser).
The resulting war lasted just seven weeks - hence its common title 'The Seven Weeks War' - and ended
with the complete dominance of the supremely efficient Prussian military.
In a peace mediated by the French Emperor, Napoleon III, Bismarck extracted from Austria not only
Schleswig and Holstein, but also Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt, creating the North German
Federation. As importantly, Bismarck had successfully displaced Austria in the spheres of influence over
the many small German states.
Having assembled a united assembly in the north Bismarck determined to achieve the same in the south and so unite all of the German states under the Prussian banner.
How to achieve this? Bismarck resolved that war with the French, a common
enemy, would attain his aims.
First, he needed to engineer a credible reason for war. Thus, in 1870, Bismarck
attempted to place a Hohenzollern prince on the throne in Spain. Napoleon III,
fearful of the prospect of theoretical war on two fronts - for the Hohenzollern prince
was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm I - objected.
Bismarck turned up the diplomatic heat by releasing, on 14 July 1870, a doctored
version of a telegram ostensibly from the Kaiser to Bismarck himself, called the Ems Telegram. The effect
of the telegram was to simultaneously insult both France and Prussia over their inability to resolve the
dispute over the Spanish throne.
Napoleon III, facing civil revolt at home over quite unrelated matters, and receiving encouraging noises
from his military commanders, responded by declaring war against Prussia five days later, on 19 July 1870.
Once again, as was the case against Austria, the Prussian military machine
demolished the French forces. Napoleon III, who personally led his forces at the lost
Battle of Sedan, surrendered and was deposed in the civil war that boiled over in
France, resulting in the Third French Republic.
Meantime the Prussian forces laid siege to Paris between September 1870 and
January 1871, starving the city into surrender.
The consequences of the war were numerous. Aside from the usual territorial gains
- France ceded both Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia and was forced to pay swinging reparations (equivalent
to around $1 billion today) - the southern German states agreed to an alliance with their northern
counterparts, resulting in the creation of Bismarck's cherished German Empire.
Bismarck's Need for Alliances
Bismarck's creation of a unified Germany was of direct relevance to the outbreak of war some 43 years
later, since it resulted in the assembly of the key alliances that later came into play.
For, having achieved his life's aim, Bismarck's expansionary plans were at an end. He had secured what he
wanted, and his chief desire now was to maintain its stability. He therefore set about building European
alliances aimed at protecting Germany from potentially threatening quarters.
He was acutely aware that the French were itching to revenge their defeat at the earliest opportunity - and
the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia would prove to be a lasting sore. Indeed, the French plan for war
in 1914, Plan XVII, was largely based around the recapture of Alsace and Lorraine in the shortest possible
time - with disastrous consequences.
Britain's Splendid Isolation
Bismarck did not initially fear an alliance between France and Britain, for the latter was at that time in the
midst of a self-declared 1870s policy of "splendid isolation", choosing to stay above continental European
If not Britain then, how about Russia and, conceivably, beaten foe Austria-Hungary?
The Three Emperors League & Dual Alliance
He began by negotiating, in 1873, the Three Emperors League, which tied
Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia to each other's aid in time of war. This
however only lasted until Russia's withdrawal five years later in 1878, leaving
Bismarck with a new Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879.
This latter treaty promised aid to each other in the event of an attack by Russia, or
if Russia aided another power at war with either Germany or Austria-Hungary.
Should either nation be attacked by another power, e.g. France, they were to
remain - at the very least - benevolently neutral.
This alliance, unlike others, endured until war in 1914. It was this clause that Austria-Hungary invoked in
calling Germany to her aid against Russian support for Serbia (who in turn was protected by treaty with
The Triple Alliance
Two years after Germany and Austria-Hungary concluded their agreement, Italy was brought into the fold
with the signing of the Triple Alliance in 1881. Under the provisions of this treaty, Germany and AustriaHungary promised to assist Italy if she were attacked by France, and vice versa: Italy was bound to lend
aid to Germany or Austria-Hungary if France declared war against either.
Additionally, should any signatory find itself at war with two powers (or more), the other two were to
provide military assistance. Finally, should any of the three determine to launch a 'preventative' war (a
euphemism if ever there was one), the others would remain neutral.
One of the chief aims of the Triple Alliance was to prevent Italy from declaring war against AustriaHungary, towards whom the Italians were in dispute over territorial matters.
A Secret Franco-Italian Alliance
In the event the Triple Alliance was essentially meaningless, for Italy subsequently negotiated a secret
treaty with France, under which Italy would remain neutral should Germany attack France - which in the
event transpired.
In 1914 Italy declared that Germany's war against France was an 'aggressive' one and so entitled Italy to
claim neutrality. A year later, in 1915, Italy did enter the First World War, as an ally of Britain, France and
Austria-Hungary signed an alliance with Romania in 1883, negotiated by Germany, although in the event
Romania - after starting World War One as a neutral - eventually joined in with the Allies; as such AustriaHungary's treaty with Romania was of no actual significance.
The Reinsurance Treaty
Potentially of greater importance - although it was allowed to lapse three years after
its signature - Bismarck, in 1887, agreed to a so-called Reinsurance Treaty with
This document stated that both powers would remain neutral if either were involved in
a war with a third (be it offensive or defensive).
However, should that third power transpire to be France, Russia would not be obliged
to provide assistance to Germany (as was the case of Germany if Russia found itself at war with AustriaHungary).
Bismarck's intention was to avoid the possibility of a two-front war against both France and Russia.
A decidedly tangled mesh of alliances; but the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to
lapse in 1890 (the same year the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, brought about the dismissal of his
veteran Chancellor, Bismarck).
Franco-Russian Agreements
The year after the Reinsurance Treaty lapsed Russia allied itself with France. Both powers agreed to
consult with the other should either find itself at war with any other nation, or if indeed the stability of
Europe was threatened.
This rather loosely worded agreement was solidified in 1892 with the Franco-Russian Military Convention,
aimed specifically at counteracting the potential threat posed by the Triple Alliance of Germany, AustriaHungary and Italy.
In short, should France or Russia be attacked by one of the Triple Alliance signatories - or even should a
Triple Alliance power mobilise against either (where to mobilise meant simply placing a nation on a war
footing preparatory to the declaration of hostilities), the other power would provide military assistance.
British Emergence From Splendid Isolation
Meanwhile, Britain was awaking to the emergence of Germany as a great European
power - and a colonial power at that. Kaiser Wilhelm's successor, Wilhelm II,
proved far more ambitious in establishing "a place in the sun" for Germany. With
the effective dismissal of Bismarck the new Kaiser was determined to establish
Germany as a great colonial power in the pacific and, most notably, in Africa.
Wilhelm, encouraged by naval minister Tirpitz, embarked upon a massive
shipbuilding exercise intended to produce a naval fleet the equal of Britain's,
unarguably by far and away the world's largest.
Britain, at that time the greatest power of all, took note. In the early years of the
twentieth century, in 1902, she agreed a military alliance with Japan, aimed squarely at limiting German
colonial gains in the east.
She also responded by commissioning a build-up in her own naval strength, determined to outstrip
Germany. In this she succeeded, building in just 14 months - a record - the enormous Dreadnought
battleship, completed in December 1906. By the time war was declared in 1914 Germany could muster 29
battleships, Britain 49.
Despite her success in the naval race, Germany's ambitions succeeded at the very least in pulling Britain
into the European alliance system - and, it has been argued, brought war that much closer.
Cordial Agreements: Britain, France - and Russia
Two years later Britain signed the Entente Cordiale with France. This
1904 agreement finally resolved numerous leftover colonial squabbles.
More significantly, although it did not commit either to the other's
military aid in time of war, it did offer closer diplomatic co-operation
Three years on, in 1907, Russia formed what became known as the
Triple Entente (which lasted until World War One) by signing an agreement with Britain, the Anglo-Russian
Together the two agreements formed the three-fold alliance that lasted and effectively bound each to the
other right up till the outbreak of world war just seven years later.
Again, although the two Entente agreements were not militarily binding in any way, they did place a "moral
obligation" upon the signatories to aid each other in time of war.
It was chiefly this moral obligation that drew Britain into the war in defence of France, although the British
pretext was actually the terms of the largely forgotten 1839 Treaty of London that committed the British to
defend Belgian neutrality (discarded by the Germans as "a scrap of paper" in 1914, when they asked
Britain to ignore it).
In 1912 Britain and France did however conclude a military agreement, the Anglo-French Naval
Convention, which promised British protection of France's coastline from German naval attack, and French
defence of the Suez Canal.
Agreements Set, The Occasional Minor War...
Such were the alliances between the major continental players. There were other, smaller alliances too such as Russia's pledge to protect Serbia, and Britain's agreement to defend Belgian neutrality - and each
served its part in drawing each nation into the coming great war.
In the interim however, there were a number of 'minor' conflicts that helped to stir emotions in the years
immediately preceding 1914, and which gave certain nations more stake than others in entering the world
Russian War With Japan: Shock Japanese Victory
Ever since Russia declined Japan's offer in 1903 for each to recognise the other's interests in Manchuria
and Korea, trouble was looming.
The Japanese launched a successful attack upon Russian warships in Korea, at
Inchon, and in Port Arthur, China. This was followed by a land invasion of both
disputed territories of Korea and Manchuria in 1904.
Among other set-pieces, the Japanese astonished the western powers by
destroying the entire Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima (27-28 May 1905)
for the loss of two torpedo boats - a humiliating Russian defeat.
The U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, mediated a peace agreement between Japan and Russia, one that
resulted in material gains for Japan and with note being taken in Berlin of the fallacy of the myth of Russian
The scale of Russia's defeat in part contributed to the attempted Russian Revolution of 1905, and the
battered and shaken Tsar, Nicholas II, was determined to restore Russian prestige (not least in the
Romanov dynasty itself): and what better way to achieve this than through military conquest?
The Balkans, 1912: Italy Versus Turkey
Strife in the Balkans was nothing new. In 1912 it continued with war between Italy and Turkey, over the
latter's African possessions. Turkey lost and was forced to hand over Libya, Rhodes and the Dodecanese
Islands to the Italians.
The Balkans, 1912 (Part II): The First Balkan War
Turkey's troubles were not yet over. Having concluded peace with the Italians it found itself engulfed in
war with no fewer than four small nations over the possession of Balkan territories: Greece, Serbia and
Bulgaria - and later Montenegro.
The intervention of the larger European powers brought about an end to this the First Balkan War of 191213. Again Turkey lost out, shedding Crete and all of its European possessions.
The Balkans, 1913: The Second Balkan War
Later in the 1913, conflict erupted again in the Balkans, as Bulgaria, unsatisfied with its earlier spoils,
fought with its recent allies in an attempt to control a greater part of Macedonia; and when the so-named
"Young Turks" - Turkish army officers - denounced the earlier peace as unfair.
Between May and July 1913 Bulgaria's former allies beat back the new aggressor,
Bulgaria, and Romania captured the Bulgarian capital Sofia in August. Beaten and
having surrendered on 10 August 1913, Bulgaria also lost Adrianople back to Turkey.
Troubled Peace in the Balkans
Despite the re-establishment of peace in the Balkans, nothing had really been settled
and tensions remained high. The numerous small nations that had found themselves
under Turkish or Austro-Hungarian rule for many years stirred themselves in
nationalistic fervour.
Yet while these Balkan nations sought their own individual voice and selfdetermination, they were nevertheless united in identifying themselves as pan-Slavic
peoples, with Russia as their chief ally.
The latter was keen to encourage this belief in the Russian people as the Slav's
natural protectors, for aside from a genuine emotional attachment, it was a means
by which Russia could regain a degree of lost prestige.
Unsettled Empires
Come 1914, trouble was not restricted to the smaller nations outlined above. The
Austro-Hungarian empire was directly impacted by troubles in the Balkans and, under
the ageing Emperor Franz Josef, was patently struggling to maintain coherence of the
various diametrically opposed ethnic groups which fell under the Austro-Hungarian
As such, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by the Serbian nationalist secret society,
the Black Hand, provided the Austro-Hungarian government with a golden opportunity
to stamp its authority over the region.
Russia, ally of the Slavs - and therefore of Serbia - had been struggling to hold back
full-scale revolution ever since the Japanese military disaster of 1905. In 1914, while
the Tsar himself was reluctant, his government saw war with Austria-Hungary as an opportunity to restore
social order - which indeed it did, at least until the continuation of repeated Russian military setbacks,
Rasputin's intrigue at court and food shortages combined to bring about the long-threatened total
revolution (which, encouraged by Germany, brought about Russia's withdrawal from the war in 1917).
Then there is France. Almost immediately following her defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of
1870-71, together with the humiliating annexation by the newly unified Germany of the coal-rich territories
of Alsace and Lorraine, the French government and military alike were united in thirsting for revenge.
To this end the French devised a strategy for a vengeful war upon Germany, Plan XVII, whose chief aim
was the defeat of Germany and the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine. The plan was fatally flawed, and
relied to an untenable extent upon the "élan" which was believed to form an integral part of the French
army - an irresistible force that would sweep over its enemies.
Germany's Path to War
As for Germany, she was unsettled socially and militarily. The 1912 Reichstag elections had resulted in the
election of no fewer than 110 socialist deputies, making Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg's task in liaising
between the Reichstag and the autocratic Wilhelm, not to mention the rigidly right-wing military high
command, next to impossible.
Bethmann Hollweg, who became most despondent, came to believe that Germany's only hope of avoiding
civil unrest sooner rather than later lay in war: preferably a short, sharp war, although he did not rule out
a European-wide conflict if it resolved Germany's social and political woes.
This outlook on life fuelled his decision of 6 July 1914 - whilst the Austro-Hungarian government was
weighing its options with regard to Serbia - to offer the former what has been commonly referred to as "a
blank cheque"; that is, an unconditional guarantee of support for Austria-Hungary no matter what she
Germany's military unsettlement arose in the sense that Kaiser Wilhelm II was finding himself largely
frustrated in his desire to carve out a grand imperial role for Germany. Whilst he desired "a place in the
sun", he found that all of the bright areas had been already snapped up by the other colonial powers,
leaving him only with a place in the shade.
Not that Wilhelm II was keen upon a grand war. Rather, he failed to foresee the consequences of his
military posturing, his determination to construct both land and naval forces the equivalent - and better than those of Britain and France (with varying success).
However his government and his military commanders assuredly did anticipate what was to come. A plan
to take on both Russia and France, a war on two fronts, had long been expected and taken into account.
The so-called Schlieffen Plan, devised by former Army Chief of Staff Alfred von Schlieffen, had been
carefully crafted to deal with a two-front war scenario. The plan, which very nearly succeeded, outlined a
plan to conquer France, to knock her out of the war, on a 'Western Front', within five weeks - before, the
Germans calculated, Russia could effectively mobilise for war on the 'Eastern Front'
(which they estimated would take six weeks).
It is often speculated - and argued - that the plan would have succeeded but for
the decision of the then-German Chief of Staff in 1914, Helmuth von Moltke, to
authorise a critical deviation from the plan that, it is believed, stemmed from a lack
of nerve, and crucially slowed the path towards Paris - with fatal consequences
(and which ended in static trench warfare).
Still, the German plan took no real account of Britain's entry into the war. The
German government gave no credence to the possibility that Britain would ignore her own commercial
interests (which were presumably best served by staying aloof from the conflict and maintaining her allimportant commercial trading routes), and would instead uphold her ancient treaty of obligation to recover
violated Belgian neutrality.
For a fuller explanation of the powers' war plans, and of their upshot, click here.
British Dithering
It is also suggested that Germany would have backed away from war had Britain declared her intentions
sooner. Believing that Britain would stay out of the coming conflict, and would limit herself to diplomatic
protests - after all, Britain was under no strict military obligation to France - Germany, and AustriaHungary, proceeded under the belief that war would be fought solely with France
and Russia.
The British Government, and its Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, attempted to
mediate throughout July, reserving at all times its right to remain aloof from the
dispute. It was only as the war began that the British position solidified into
support for, ostensibly, Belgium.
Hence the oft-levelled criticism that had Britain come out clearly on the side of
Belgium and France earlier in July, war would have been avoided: Germany would have effectively
instructed Austria-Hungary to settle with Serbia, especially given the latter's willingness to co-operate with
Whether this would have transpired given the German war machine's determination for war is of course
A Family Affair
The First World War has sometimes been labelled, with reason, "a family affair". This is derived from the
reality that many of the European monarchies - many of which fell during the war (including those of
Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) - were inter-related.
The British monarch George V's predecessor, Edward VII, was the German Kaiser's uncle and, via his wife's
sister, uncle of the Russian Tsar as well. His niece, Alexandra, was the Tsar's wife. Edward's daughter,
Maud, was the Norwegian Queen, and his niece, Ena, Queen of Spain; Marie, a further niece, was to
become Queen of Romania.
Despite these familial relations - nine Kings attended Edward's funeral - European politics was all about
power and influence, of protection and encirclement. Thus the tangled web of alliances which sprung up in
the wake of the rise of the newly united German Empire in 1871.
This article has not by any means encompassed all of the suggested
contributory factors that led inexorably to world war.
It has however attempted to pull together the main strands: AustroHungarian determination to impose its will upon the Balkans; a German
desire for greater power and international influence, which sparked a
naval arms race with Britain, who responded by building new and greater warships, the Dreadnought; a
French desire for revenge against Germany following disastrous defeat in 1871; Russia's anxiety to restore
some semblance of national prestige after almost a decade of civil strife and a battering at the hands of the
Japanese military in 1905.
Having dealt with these topics, however briefly, feel free to further explore the First World site to
gain a wider perspective of what happened, when, and to whom. The How It Began section is probably as
good a place as any to start. Click here to view a map of pre-war Europe.
The Balkan Causes of World War One
Few issues in modern history have received as much attention as assigning blame for the outbreak of the
World War in 1914. The debate began during the war itself as each side tried to lay blame on the other,
became part of the "war guilt" question after 1918, went through a phase of revisionism in the 1920s, and
was revived in the 1960s thanks to the work of Fritz Fischer.
This lecture also deals with the causes of World War I, but does so from a Balkan perspective. Certainly
Great Power tensions were widespread in 1914, and those tensions caused the rapid spread of the war
after it broke out, but many previous Great Power crises had been resolved without war. Why did this
particular episode, a Balkan crisis that began with a political murder in Bosnia, prove so unmanageable and
Focussing on the Balkans
From a Balkan perspective, it is crucial to look at the actors and decision-makers who were at work during
the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the two states involved in the original Sarajevo crisis.
Doing so highlights factors that are somewhat different from those at work among the Great Powers at
large, or those cited in general explanations for the war.
General treatments of the European crisis of 1914 often blame Great Power statesmen for their shortsightedness, incompetence, or failure to act in a timely or effective way to keep the peace. A common
theme is the passive nature of Great Power policy: leaders reacted to events instead of proactively
managing the crisis. With some justification, scholars conclude that French leaders had little choice:
France was the object of a German invasion.
England in turn entered the war because a successful German attack on France and Belgium would have
made Germany too powerful. Both Germany and Russia mobilized their armies in haste, because each one
feared defeat by powerful enemies if they delayed. Germany and Russia also rashly committed themselves
to support Balkan clients - Austria-Hungary and Serbia, respectively - because Berlin and St. Petersburg
feared that failure to do so would cost them the trust of important allies and leave them isolated.
view treats Balkan matters largely as influences on policy elsewhere.
An analysis rooted in a Balkan perspective, on the other hand, can evaluate the proactive steps taken in
the region from the start of the crisis.
Unfortunately, when Austrians, Hungarians, and Serbs made
important decisions early in the crisis, they consistently avoided compromise and risked war.
Two months passed between the murder of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a
Bosnian Serb high school student on June 28, and the coming of general war at the end of August. In
other words, there was plenty of time for calculation, caution and decision. Who chose to risk war, and
The Purpose of the Murder Itself
The murder itself was hardly a mystery. There were scores of witnesses and the
killers were immediately arrested: we even have a photograph of Gavrilo Princip
being wrestled to the ground by police.
The conspirators willingly confessed: transcripts of their trial statements have
been published. Nor was the fact of murder per se crucial. It was an age of assassins: Franz Joseph's
wife, the Empress Elizabeth, had been murdered in 1898 in Switzerland by an Italian, but Austria did not
seek war with Italy or Switzerland. It was the significance of this particular crime for Austro-Serbian
relations that mattered.
Serbian Blame: The Assassins
To assess the degree of Serbian guilt, we should look in three places: the young Bosnian assassins, their
backers in Serbia, and the Serbian government.
Franz Ferdinand, his wife Sophie Chotek, and Governor Potiorek (in an open car) passed seven assassins as
their procession drove through Sarajevo. A look at the actual participants tells us something about South
Slav nationalist dissatisfaction in Habsburg-ruled Bosnia.
The first conspirator along the parade route was Mehmed Mehmedbasic, a 27-year
old carpenter, son of an impoverished Bosnian Muslim notable: he had a bomb.
After planning a plot of his own to kill Governor Potiorek, Mehmedbasic joined the
larger plot.
When the car passed him, he did nothing: a gendarme stood close by, and
Mehmedbasic feared that a botched attempt might spoil the chance for the others.
He was the only one of the assassins to escape.
Next was Vaso Cubrilovic, a 17-year old student armed with a revolver. Cubrilovic
was recruited for the plot during a political discussion: in Bosnia in 1914, virtual strangers might plot
political murders, if they shared radical interests. Cubrilovic had been expelled from the Tuzla high school
for walking out on the Habsburg anthem. Cubrilovic too did nothing, afraid of shooting Duchess Sophie by
accident. Under Austrian law, there was no death penalty for juvenile offenders, so Cubrilovic was
sentenced to 16 years. In later life became a history professor.
Nedelko Cabrinovic was the third man, a 20-year old idler on bad terms with his family over his politics: he
took part in strikes and read anarchist books. His father ran a cafe, did errands for the local police, and
beat his family. Nedelko dropped out of school, and moved from job to job: locksmithing, operating a
lathe, and setting type. In 1914 Cabrinovic worked for the Serbian state printing house in Belgrade.
He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, who recruited him for the killing, and they travelled together back to
Sarajevo. Cabrinovic threw a bomb, but failed to see the car in time to aim well: he missed the heir's car
and hit the next one, injuring several people. Cabrinovic swallowed poison and jumped into a canal, but he
was saved from suicide and arrested. He died of tuberculosis in prison in 1916.
The fourth and fifth plotters were standing together. One was Cvetko Popovic, an 18-year old student who
seems to have lost his nerve, although he claimed not to have seen the car, being nearsighted. Popovic
received a 13-year sentence, and later became a school principal.
Nearby was 24-year old Danilo Ilic, the main organizer of the plot; he had no weapon. Ilic was raised in
Sarajevo by his mother, a laundress. His father was dead, and Ilic worked as a newsboy, a theatre usher,
a laborer, a railway porter, a stone-worker and a longshoreman while finishing school; later he was a
teacher, a bank clerk, and a nurse during the Balkan Wars. His real vocation was political agitation: he had
contacts in Bosnia, with the Black Hand in Serbia, and in the exile community in Switzerland. He obtained
the guns and bombs used in the plot. Ilic was executed for the crime.
The final two of the seven conspirators were farther down the road. Trifko Grabez was a 19-year old
Bosnian going to school in Belgrade, where he became friends with Princip. He too did nothing: at his trial
he said he was afraid of hurting some nearby women and children, and feared that an innocent friend
standing with him would be arrested unjustly. He too died in prison: the Austrians spared few resources
for the health of the assassins after conviction.
Gavrilo Princip was last. Also 19-years old, he was a student who had never held a job. His peasant family
owned a tiny farm of four acres, the remnant of a communal zadruga broken up in the 1880s; for extra
cash, his father drove a mail coach.
Gavrilo was sickly but smart: at 13 he went off to the Merchants Boarding School in Sarajevo. He soon
turned up his nose at commerce, in favor of literature, poetry, and student politics. For his role in a
demonstration, he was expelled and lost his scholarship. In 1912 he went to Belgrade: he never enrolled
in school, but dabbled in literature and politics, and somehow made contact with Apis and the Black Hand.
During the Balkan Wars he volunteered for the Serbian army, but was rejected as too small and weak.
On the day of the attack, Princip heard Cabrinovic's bomb go off and assumed that the Archduke was
dead. By the time he heard what had really happened, the cars had driven by. By bad luck, a little later
the returning procession missed a turn and stopped to back up at a corner just as Princip happened to walk
by. Princip fired two shots: one killed the archduke, the other his wife. Princip was arrested before he
could swallow his poison capsule or shoot himself. Princip too was a minor under Austrian law, so he could
not be executed. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and died of tuberculosis in 1916.
We can make some generalizations about the plotters. All were Bosnian by birth. Most were Serbian, or
one might say Orthodox, but one was a Bosnian Muslim: at their trial, the plotters did not speak of Serbian,
Croatian or Muslim identity, only their unhappiness with the Habsburgs.
None of the plotters was older than 27: none of them were old enough to remember the Ottoman regime.
Their anger over conditions in Bosnia seems directed simply at the visible authorities. The assassins were
not advanced political thinkers: most were high school students. From statements at their trial, the killing
seems to have been a symbolic act of protest. Certainly they did not expect it to cause a war between
Austria and Serbia.
A closer look at the victims also supports this view: that symbolic, not real, power was at stake.
Assassination attempts were not unusual in Bosnia. Some of the plotters originally planned to kill Governor
Potiorek, and only switched to the royal couple at the last minute. Franz Ferdinand had limited political
power. He was Emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, and became the heir when Franz Joseph's son killed
himself in 1889 (his sisters could not take the throne).
This position conferred less power than one might think. Franz Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, was a
Bohemian noblewoman, but not noble enough to be royal. She was scorned by many at court, and their
children were out of the line of succession (Franz Ferdinand's brother Otto was next). Franz Ferdinand had
strong opinions, a sharp tongue and many political enemies. He favored "trialism," adding a third Slavic
component to the Dual Monarchy, in part to reduce the influence of the Hungarians. His relations with
Budapest were so bad that gossips blamed the killing on Magyar politicians. There have been efforts to say
that Serbian politicians had him killed to block his pro-Slav reforms, but the evidence for this is thin.
Serbian Blame: The Black Hand
The assassins did not act alone. Who was involved within Serbia, and why? To
understand Serbian actions accurately, we must distinguish between the Radical Party
led by Prime Minister Pasic, and the circle of radicals in the army around Apis, the man
who led the murders of the Serbian royal couple in 1903.
The role of Apis in 1914 is a matter of guesswork, despite many investigations. The
planning was secret, and most of the participants died without making reliable statements . Student
groups like Mlada Bosna were capable of hatching murder plots on their own. During 1913 several of the
eventual participants talked about murdering General Oskar Potiorek, the provincial Governor, or even
Emperor Franz Joseph.
Once identified as would-be assassins, however, the Bosnian students seem to have been directed toward
Franz Ferdinand by Dimitrijevic-Apis, by now a colonel in charge of Serbian intelligence. Princip returned
from a trip to Belgrade early in 1914 with a plan to kill Franz Ferdinand, contacts in the Black Hand who
later supplied the guns and bombs, and information about the planned June visit by the heir, which Princip
would not have known without a leak or tip from within Serbian intelligence.
In 1917, Apis took credit for planning the killing, but his motives can be questioned: at the time, he was
being tried for treason against the Serbian king, and mistakenly believed that his role in the plot would lead
to leniency. In fact, the Radical Party and the king were afraid of Apis and had him shot.
Those who believe Apis was at work point to "trialism" as his motive. Apis is supposed to have seen the
heir as the only man capable of reviving Austria-Hungary. If Franz Ferdinand had reorganized the
Habsburg Empire on a trialist basis, satisfying the Habsburg South Slavs, Serbian hopes to expand into
Bosnia and Croatia would have been blocked. In early June 1914, Apis is said to have decided to give guns
and bombs to Princip and his accomplices, and arranged to get the students back over the border into
Bosnia without passing through the border checkpoints. Later in the month, other members of the Black
Hand ruling council voted to cancel the plan, but by then it was too late to call back the assassins.
Serbian Blame: Pasic and the State
While Apis may or may not have been guilty of planning the murder, the murder did not necessarily mean
war. There was no irresistible outburst of popular anger after the assassination: Austria-Hungary did not
take revenge in hot blood, but waited almost two months. When the
Habsburg state did react against Serbia, it was in a calculated manner as we
will see in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the Austrians chose to
blame the Pasic government for the crime. How culpable was the Serbian
There is no evidence to suggest that Pasic planned the crime. It is unlikely
that the Black Hand officers were acting on behalf of the government, because the military and the Radical
Party in fact were engaged in a bitter competition to control the state. After the Balkan Wars, both military
and civilian figures claimed the right to administer the newly liberated lands (the so-called Priority
Question). After 1903, Pasic knew that Apis' clique would kill to get their way.
Pasic's responsibility revolves around reports that he was warned of the intended crime, and took
inadequate steps to warn Austrian authorities. Despite Pasic's denials, there is substantial testimony that
someone alerted him to the plot, and that Pasic ordered the Serbian ambassador in Vienna to tell the
Austrians that an attempt would be made on the life of the heir during his visit to Bosnia.
However, when the Serbian ambassador passed on the warning, he appears to have been too discreet.
Instead of saying that he knew of an actual plot, he spoke in terms of a hypothetical assassination
attempt, and suggested that a state visit by Franz Ferdinand on the day of Kosovo (June 28) was too
Austrian diplomats failed to read between the lines of this vague comment. By the time the warning
reached the Habsburg joint finance minister (the man in charge of Bosnian affairs), any sense of urgency
had been lost, and he did nothing to increase security or cancel the heir's planned visit. After the murders,
the Serbian government was even more reluctant to compromise itself by admitting any knowledge, hence
Pasic's later denials.
If we agree that the Pasic government did not plan the killings, what can we say about their response to
the crisis that followed? War in 1914 was not inevitable: did the Serbs work hard enough to avoid it?
Blame in Austria-Hungary
Before we can answer that question, we must look at the official Austrian reaction to the killing. This took
two forms.
First, the police and the courts undertook a wide-ranging series of arrests and investigations. Hundreds of
people were arrested or questioned, sometimes violently. Twenty-five people were finally tried and
convicted, though only a few were executed, because so many of the defendants were minors.
Second, the Austrian foreign ministry and the emperor's closest advisors considered what to do about
Serbia's role in the plot. Investigators quickly learned that the murder weapons came from Serbian
sources, but Austrian intelligence failed to distinguish between the roles of the Pasic administration and
unofficial nationalist groups: for that matter, they blamed Narodna Odbrana for the crime, apparently
unaware of the Black Hand.
Austria's blame for the war attaches to its calculated response to the murders. Early councils were
divided. The chief of staff, General Franz Baron Conrad von Hoetzendorf, wanted a military response from
the beginning. Conrad had previously argued that the Monarchy was surrounded by enemies who needed
to be defeated individually, before they could combine.
In other words, he wanted a war against the
Serbs and Russians, followed later by a confrontation with Italy. Leopold Count von Berchtold, the
Habsburg foreign minister, generally agreed with Conrad's analysis. Berchtold took no strong position in
the crisis: he was apparently convinced by Conrad, and his only hesitation involved the need to prepare
public opinion for war.
The only real opposition to a policy of confrontation and war came from the Hungarian Prime Minister,
Count Stephan Tisza. Tisza was personally opposed to militarism and took the risks of war more seriously
than Conrad. Also, as a Magyar, Tisza realized that a Habsburg victory would be a domestic defeat for
Hungarians: if Austria annexed Serbia, the delicate ethnic balance in the Dual Monarchy would be lost.
Either the Slavic population of Hungary would increase, leaving the Magyars as a minority in their own
country, or trialism would replace the dualist system, again discounting Magyar influence.
The early Austrian deliberations included another, calculated element that shows their limited interest in
peace: in weighing the merits of a military response, Vienna first sought the reaction of her German ally.
The Austrian ambassador in Berlin found that the Germans, especially Kaiser Wilhelm, supported a war to
punish Serbia and offered their full support. This was in clear contrast to events during the Balkan War of
1912, when Berlin refused to back Vienna in any intervention. Like the Austrians, the Germans feared a
future war with Russia, and preferred to fight at once, before their enemies grew stronger.
When the Austrian Council of Ministers met again on July 7, the majority favored war. To satisfy Tisza, the
council agreed to present demands to Serbia, rather than declare war at once.
In the belief that a
diplomatic victory alone would not be enough to destroy Serbia as a threat, the demands were deliberately
to be written in such extreme terms that Serbia could not accept them: Serbia's refusal to comply would
then become the excuse for war. Within a week, Tisza himself consented to this plan: his only reservation
was insistence that no Serbian territory be annexed after the war.
The final 10-point ultimatum demanded the suppression of anti-Austrian newspapers and organizations
(including Narodna Odbrana), a purge of anti-Austrian teachers and officers, and the arrest of certain
named offenders. Two points seriously interfered in Serbian sovereignty:
Austrian police would help suppress subversives on Serbian territory,
Austrian courts would help to prosecute accused conspirators inside Serbia.
The document had a 48-hour deadline. The council finalized the demands on July 19 and sent them to
Belgrade on the 23rd. The war party in Vienna hoped that the Serbs would fail to agree, and that this
could be an excuse for war. As further evidence, the 48-hour time limit altered the document from a
negotiating piece, to an ultimatum.
We can say three things about how the Austrian process of decision bears on Austria's responsibility:
First, the majority in the Council of Ministers assumed from the first that war was the appropriate response. Only
Count Tisza opposed it, and he did so largely for reasons of domestic politics. His objections were overcome by
the promise to seek no annexation of Serbia. The negotiations with Serbia were really a sham, to create a good
impression: even the 48-hour ultimatum shows that crisis, not compromise, was the intent.
A second clue to Austria's intent is Vienna's approach to Berlin, for Germany's support in case of war. After the
Berlin government responded with the so-called "blank check," the war party saw no further reason to seek peace.
Third, the terms of the ultimatum show that the Austrians came to a decision even though they were acting on
incomplete information. The ultimatum was issued well before the trial of the assassins could establish the facts of
the crime. Vienna knew nothing about the Black Hand or its role, but it made no difference: the decision for war
was based on expediency, not justice or facts.
The Serb Reply
The Serbs in turn failed to do their utmost to defuse the crisis. When Serbia
first received the ultimatum, Pasic indicated that he could accept its terms,
with a few reservations and requests for clarification.
As time passed, however, it became clear that Russia would support Serbia
regardless of the situation. After that, Pasic gave up seeking peace. While
a long reply was written and sent, Serbia rejected the key points about
Austrian interference in domestic judicial and police work.
Pasic knew this meant war, and the Serbian army began to mobilize even before the reply was complete.
While this was prudent, it did not imply a strong commitment to peace.
Because the Serbian reply did not
accept every point, Austria broke off relations on July 25.
The tough positions taken by both Austria and Serbia brought the situation too close to the brink to step
back, and in a few days matters were out of control. Again, the specific arguments raised by each side
matter less than their mutual willingness to take risks. This policy of brinkmanship made war more likely
than negotiation.
Why A Balkan War?
This leads us to the last question: why did the Balkan crisis of 1914 lead to World War I, when many other
crises were resolved without a general war in Europe?
These are really two questions:
From what we have seen about risk taking by the Austro-Hungarians and the Serbs, we can say something
about why those two states went to war in 1914.
In the first place, both governments believed their prestige and credibility were on the line, not only in the
international community, but at home.
For the Austrians, a personal attack on the royal family required a strong response, especially if it involved
Serbs, who had defied the Dual Monarchy during the Pig War, been labelled as traitors during the Friedjung
Trial, and recently destroyed south-eastern Europe's other dynastic empire (the Ottomans). Failure to act
in the summer of 1914 invited greater turmoil later.
For the Serbian regime, the humiliating Austrian terms would have undone all the progress made since
1903 in achieving independence from Habsburg meddling. The economic Pig War, Austria's annexation of
Bosnia in 1908, and now the demand to send police into Serbia, all implied renewed Austrian control. In
addition, Pasic and his ministers faced a real risk that right-wing extremists would kill them if they backed
On the international stage, both sides were one defeat away from being marginalized: Austria-Hungary had
no intention of replacing the Ottoman Empire as the "Sick Man of Europe," and Serbia refused to be treated
as a protectorate.
Second, in 1914 both sides believed that they were in a strong position to win if war came. The Austrians
had German backing; the Serbs had promises from Russia. Neither side considered the chance that the
war would spread across Europe.
Third, neither side really believed that their differences could be settled by negotiation. Only one regime
could rule the South Slavs in Bosnia.
Fourth, both sides focussed on the fruits of victory, and ignored the costs of defeat. We have already
discussed the Great Serb ideas that became Belgrade's war aims: annexation of Bosnia, Croatia, Vojvodina
and so forth. Despite promises to Tisza that the war would bring no annexation of unwelcome Slavs, by
1916 the Vienna government drew up plans for the annexation of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as border
districts in Russia and Italy, and an economic plan to make Albania and Romania into economic
Fifth, there was too little fear of war. After the Greco-Turk war of 1897, the ethnic fighting in Macedonia,
the two Balkan Wars, and the Italian war with Turkey in 1911, war in the Balkans was not unusual. A little
warfare had become commonplace, a normal aspect of foreign relations. No one foresaw what the World
War would mean.
In sum, too many leaders on both sides in 1914 deliberately decided to risk crisis and war, and the initial
Austro-Serb combat was the result.
Finally, why was the local war between Austria and Serbia so significant that it grew into a World War?
Here, we can draw inferences from what we know of the Eastern Question and past Balkan politics. An
essential element of Greek, Serb and Bulgarian nationalism had always been the destruction of the
Ottoman Empire: the achievement of national unity necessarily meant the achievement of Ottoman
The same choice pertained to Austria-Hungary. Concessions to Serbian nationalism could only make
Vienna's problems worse, not solve them: after the South Slavs would come the Romanians, the Italians,
the Czechs and Slovaks, each with their demands. Once the Habsburg Monarchy started down that road, it
would inevitably disappear as a Great Power.
The potential collapse of Austria-Hungary was important not only for the Vienna government, but for
Austria's German ally, for the other Great Powers, and for the balance of power system. Because the clash
with Serbia in 1914 affected an issue of such magnitude, it is not surprising that all the Powers soon
became involved: all of them had interests at stake. The specific steps to the World War, and the division
into two sides, reflected local considerations from Poland to Belgium: but the risk of world war, and not just
war, entered the equation because of the ethnic issues behind the Sarajevo crisis of 1914.
Answer the following questions:
1. What was the purpose of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 and who was
responsible for the killing, besides the assassins themselves?
2. Was a war inevitable after the murder, or did policy-makers let the crisis escape control?
3. Why did a Balkan crisis lead to a world war in 1914, when other crises had not?
4. Why did that conflict soon involve the rest of the Great Powers?
5. Make a drawing or a timeline of the Domino Effect during the Black Week of the Great War, explaining the war
declaeations and the motives of everyone involved.