“The outbreak of war in 1914 was a shock, but it did not come out of a clear blue sky,” writes Margaret MacMillan in her new book The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. The First World War may have been triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but all the bullets were already in their chambers when the event erupted into a brutal continent-wide conflict: many times prior had Europe’s nations managed to sidestep major war. As German diplomat Arthur Zimmerman explained to a British ambassador in August 1914, this time it all came down to “this damned system of alliances … the curse of modern times.”
Click on a yellow circle beneath a country name on the map to read about many of the tangled military alliances and recent historical events that led to a devastating chain reaction among Europe’s greatest powers.
As least until 1901, Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, favoured cosying up to Germany and even pushed to join the Triple Alliance. Many in Britain did not agree, preferring to avoid at all costs being pulled into Germany’s quarrels with France and Russia. England did its best to remain in so-called “splendid isolation,” focusing on ruling its enormous empire rather than becoming mixed up in mainland Europe’s political drama.
But Britain could not stand the idea of a single nation dominating mainland Europe. Increasingly worried about Germany’s mounting power — especially that of its navy — the Brits joined Russia and France in 1907 to form the Triple Entente (but were the least committed country in the alliance).
Until the last possible moment, decorum defined Britain’s interactions with Germany. As Margaret MacMillan tells in The War that Ended Peace, shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, all social events in Kiel, Germany, were cancelled and a British fleet that had been paying a courtesy call left the northern port city. “The Germans sent the signal ‘Pleasant journey’ and the British replied ‘Friends in past and friends forever,’ ” writes MacMillan. “Just over a month later they would be at war.”
To help the Dual Monarchy counter the increasing likelihood of Russia’s wrath, Germany formed the powerful Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879 — the year after the latter occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. That treaty grew into the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882. The three countries were to defend one another if attacked by either Russia or France.
Germany, hemmed in by these two enemy nations, continued to bolster its military forces. By the early 1900s, it had become the greatest threat to Britain and its allies: the German economy was booming, it had the strongest military in Europe and, next to Russia, the largest population. And always prepared to make short work of the French, it had at the ready the Schlieffen Plan — named for the general who designed it — which guaranteed (in theory) a quick victory over France’s armies, freeing most German troops to clash with Russia in the east.
For all its political and military manoeuvrings and ambitions, Germany believed that Austria-Hungary had carelessly risked war with Russia by threatening Serbia after the Balkan Wars, and relations between the two nations became strained. Even as Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II begged Emperor Franz Joseph to cease operations.
Nonetheless, on July 30, 1914, Germany’s military commander Helmuth von Moltke contradicted his Kaiser by sending a telegram to Austria-Hungary that said “Austria Hungary must be preserved, mobilize at once against Russia. Germany will mobilize.” Franz Joseph authorized the general mobilization of the Dual Monarch’s army the next day.
Austria-Hungary’s territorial expansions roused Russian ire more than once. But until Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the two European powers had been on somewhat peaceful terms for decades.
Even after that bold seizure of territory, certain Austro-Hungarian ministers — mainly Chief of Staff (and often reckless diplomat) Franz Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf — believed that Russia would tolerate a small-scale attack by Austria-Hungary on Serbia and Montenegro. But as Franz Ferdinand said in 1913, an attack by Russia, which backed Serbia, would be disastrous: “If we enter a great war with Russia, it would be a catastrophe … now is a very disadvantageous moment. If we wage war specifically with Serbia, we will quickly overcome that hurdle, but what then? First all of Europe would fall on us and see us as disturber of the peace and God help us, if we annex Serbia.”
A month after the archduke’s death, these words would prove true. Russia, determined not to stand idle a second time, began mobilizing its army within days of Austria-Hungary’s July 28 declaration of war on Serbia.
France had suffered a humiliating defeat and lost northeastern territory (in Alsace and Lorraine) to German states during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71. Like most of Europe, in the years leading up to the First World War France frantically industrialized and modernized, but was still unable to match its German neighbour in manpower and economic growth. In answer to the formidable alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, the French formed the Dual Entente with Russia in 1892.
A partnership with Britain was slower coming. The two countries had almost gone to war in 1898 over territory in northeast Africa and political relations were still poor into the early 1900s. France’s alliance with powerful Russia troubled Britain, and France was not particularly eager to align itself with its major colonial rival. Nevertheless, the 1904 signing of the Entente Cordiale (between France and Britain) and the 1907 creation of the Triple Entente established a new friendship between the nations. That friendship took a real military shape in 1911, as British forces helped France flex its muscles in Morocco when Germans arrived to threaten French interests in the North African nation.
This was a shaky union — a relatively new empire with an unwieldy mix of at least 11 distinct ethnicities and language groups, held together by an unusual political form. Since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 (which protected much of Hungary’s autonomy), the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary had been governed by separate parliaments in Vienna and Budapest, but united under a single emperor, Franz Joseph.
The emperor’s nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was often portrayed by international media as a warmonger, he was actually more realistic about the empire’s weaknesses than many of its other leaders, and had long spoken against going to war with Serbia to reassert Austria-Hungary’s strength. He did, nevertheless, loathe Hungarians, and had grand ideas about taking political power away from Hungary and centralizing it in Vienna. At the same time, he favoured combining Slavic provinces in Austria-Hungary’s south into a third monarchy, which would effectively undercut the efforts of Serbian nationalists who were desperate for the reunification of all Southern Slavs.
When 84-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph became ill in early 1914, the prospect that Franz Ferdinand would soon have his chance to enforce these changes became very real.
On June 23, 1914, Franz Ferdinand boarded a train in Vienna en route to the southern provinces, where he was to visit Sarajevo to inspect the troops and open the new state museum. He was heard to say to one in his company, “This thing isn't especially secret and I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few Serbian bullets waiting for me!”
Just days later, on June 28, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Sarajevo, shot in the neck by 19-year-old Bosnian student and Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Emperor Franz Joseph had hardly been fond of his nephew Franz Ferdinand, but a month later (July 28), taking the opportunity to blame the Serbian government for the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
Despite being a member of the Triple Alliance since 1882, ongoing disputes with Austria-Hungary meant Italy was glad to excuse itself from fighting on the side of the Dual Monarchy when Russia backed Serbia in 1914. The Italians cited a loophole in their treaty that bound them to come to the aid of their “allies” only if they were on the defensive, which Austria-Hungary and Germany, of course, were not.
Both Franz Ferdinand and Austria-Hungary’s often foolhardy Chief of Staff Conrad detested Italy, considered it a major threat to the empire and, even while allied with the Italians, had considered going to war against them. Italy, weak in military strength but always eager to be seen as a great power, had grappled with the Dual Monarchy over its influence in Albania after the Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913.
Add to that the fact that Italy continued to pester Austria-Hungary about the rights of Italian speakers living in the dual monarchy, and as MacMillan writes, “Relations between the two powers had reached such a low point by the summer of 1914 that neither the Italian King nor an official representative attended Franz Ferdinand's funeral.”
Italy gave up its policy of neutrality and entered the war in May 1915, but having secretly made alliances with the Triple Entente and being promised significant territorial gains during the secret 1915 Treaty of London, it sided against Austria-Hungary and Germany, its former allies.
The Serbs, who had strong historical ties with the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an alliance with Russia (not to mention Slavic-cultural ties), were infuriated when Austria-Hungary officially annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 — though it had been occupied by the Austro-Hungarians since 1878. Due to some political wheelings and dealings, Russia condemned the annexation but took no military action, and Serbia’s government was forced to grudgingly accept the situation. Many in Serbia continued to covet the territory.
After the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Serbia gained land, military strength and political confidence, while the collapsing Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its European territory. Serbia’s gains weakened Austria-Hungary, because the newly emboldened little nation was pushing to unify the region’s Slavic peoples and their lands, including those in Austria-Hungary’s south.
Austria-Hungary had debated going to war with Serbia a number of times before June 1914 assassination, but had been stopped, often by the council of Franz Ferdinand himself (despite the fact that he hated the Serbs as much as any of his fellow political and military leaders). With Franz Ferdinand dead from a Serb nationalist’s bullet, no one remained who would council the Dual Monarchy against war.
Base map: historicair
Text: Nick Walker