Beginning the Great War
A Virtual Roundtable
We invited four leading World War One historians and Cambridge authors to explore the main reasons for the outbreak of The Great War. Around the table are Jack S. Levy, William Mulligan, Thomas Otte, and John C. G. Röhl.
Jack S. Levy is Board of Governors’ Professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University. He is co-editor of The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics and Decision-Making.
William Mulligan is a lecturer in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin and the author of The Origins of the First World War.
Thomas Otte is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author or editor of fourteen books, most recently July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914.
John C. G. Röhl is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex. His previous books include The Kaiser and his Court which was awarded the Wolfson History Prize as well as the two previous volumes of his biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II which have won the Einhard Prize in 2012.
Moderator: Historians have recently characterised the Great War as an improbable war and stressed the stability of the international system. Clearly previous Balkan crises had been managed without a general outbreak of war and so what was so different about 1914? Were there systemic pressures at work?
John Rohl: Historians have underestimated how closely the Great Powers came to general war after the Balkan Wars in November and December 1912, and have consequently overstated both the stability of the European states system and the role of diplomacy in preserving the peace in that winter crisis. On 8 December 1912 it was the threat of British intervention which acted as a last-minute deterrent to the German Reich, which had already decided to back Austria-Hungary if it should find itself at war with Russia over Serbia, as seemed highly likely, and it was the withdrawal of German support which on 11 December 1912 dissuaded Austria-Hungary from attacking Serbia on that occasion. The great mystery is why, one and a half years later, the rulers in Berlin – Kaiser Wilhelm II, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, Moltke, Tirpitz and a handful of others – could have believed that Britain would stand aside to allow the violation of Belgian neutrality, the crushing of France and the establishment by armed force of German hegemony on the continent.
On 28 November 1912 the prime ministers of the South German states were summoned to Berlin and informed that Germany was close to a “possible mobilisation” over Serbia’s demand for a territorial corridor to the Adriatic and Austria-Hungary’s refusal to accept it. In a speech to the leaders from Munich, Dresden, Stuttgart and Karlsruhe Bethmann Hollweg made it clear that “if Austria has to fight for its position as a Great Power, regardless of the cause, then we must stand at her side so as not to have to fight alone at a later stage with a weakened Austria beside us…We cannot permit our ally to suffer any humiliation. We wish to avoid war for as long as that is possible with honour; if that should prove impossible, we shall face it with equanimity and firm resolution.” These words, which had been virtually dictated to the Chancellor by Moltke, were repeated by him in the Reichstag on 2 December 1912. The response of Europe was immediate and devastating. The French President Raymond Poincaré ordered the French ambassador in London to ask the British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey the question: “What will the British Government do if Austria attacks Serbia, if Russia is drawn into the conflict in her defence, if Germany intervenes against Russia in support of Austria and finally if France were forced to support Russia?”
The British answer was quite unequivocal. As Prince Lichnowsky, the newly-appointed German ambassador, reported to Berlin on 3 December, Lord Haldane, speaking for Grey, had told him clearly that “in a general European conflict that might arise from an Austrian invasion of Serbia” it was “hardly likely that Great Britain would be able to remain a passive observer.” The principle of the balance of power was simply “an axiom” of British foreign policy and had led the United Kingdom to align itself with France and Russia. “England could therefore under no circumstances tolerate the crushing of the French…England cannot be, and is not willing, to be confronted afterwards by a united continent under the leadership of one Power.” On 4 December 1912 Grey himself spoke to Lichnowsky to warn him that Russia would not be able to suffer a second humiliation as in the 1909 Bosnia annexation crisis and would resort to arms in defence of Serbia should Austria attack. Grey informed both the Russian and the French ambassadors of the clear position he had taken in response to Bethmann Hollweg’s Reichstag speech.
As is well-known, on receiving this news from London the Kaiser summoned his top generals and admirals to a “war council” in the Schloss, at which it was decided to withdraw the support already promised to Vienna and to postpone any general conflict until a massive army bill had been implemented and the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal had been widened to take dreadnought-class ships in the summer of 1914. One of the admirals present at the “war council” recorded his dismay at this delay. “That was the end of the conference”, he wrote in his diary. “The Chief of the General Staff says: War the sooner the better, but he does not draw the logical conclusion from this, which is: To present Russia or France or both with an ultimatum which would unleash the war with right on our side.”
In the summer of 1914 the same leaders put into effect a carefully-laid but disastrously miscalculated plan to achieve exactly that end.
Jack Levy: One important sense in which the First World War was improbable was in terms of existing trends in warfare – namely, the continuing decline in the frequency of war between the leading powers in the international system. The world had not experienced a general war involving all of the great powers since the Napoleonic Wars ended with the Congress of Vienna in 1815. There had been four wars between the great powers since then, but all were concentrated between 1853 and 1871, and they lasted less than a year on average, far shorter than in earlier times. The four decades since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 was the longest period of peace among the European great powers in at least four centuries. Confidence in the stability of the peace was enhanced by recent scholarly analyses pointing to economic and technological trends that reinforced the continued decline of war among the leading states in the system. Ivan Bloch’s 1899 book, subtitled Is War Now Impossible?, and Norman Angell’s 1910 book The Great Illusion each argued that any war would be long, economically devastating, socially disruptive, and hence not rational. The implication was that a major war was highly unlikely to occur. True, there had been several recent great power crises – in 1905, 1908-09, 1911, and 1912-13 – but each was resolved peacefully.
As John argues, however, the great powers came close to war in 1912. In addition, there had been significant military, technological, economic, and political developments that would further complicate the task of peacefully resolving any subsequent crisis. It is hard to sort out their relative importance, largely because of the extraordinary complexity of the conditions, processes, and events leading to the First World War. To keep things manageable, I narrow my focus for now and emphasize what I regard as the most fundamental structural change in the European system in the decade leading to the war – the continued increase in Russian military power – and its impact on Germany.
The growth in Russian power, in conjunction with the Franco-Russian alliance, led to increasing security fears in Germany. The preferred outcome for Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and many other German leaders was a break-up of the Entente and a diplomatic realignment in Europe. The increasing realization that such an outcome would not be feasible (in part because of ill-advised German policies) led to growing pressure in Berlin for a preventive war to defeat the Russian army while the opportunity was still available. Other developments reinforced these pressures. The effectiveness of the German Schlieffen Plan, which called for a rapid defeat of France in the West before turning to engage the large but slowly mobilizing Russian army in the East, was gradually being eroded by several factors: the general increase in Russian military power, funded in part by generous French loans; the expansion of the Russian railroads in Poland, which reduced Russian mobilization time and increased the strategic threat to Germany; and the outcome of the Balkan Wars, which increased the threat to Austria-Hungary, forced the Dual Monarchy to divert army strength away from the Russian front to the Balkan front, further exposing Germany to the Russian threat. A German army bill of 1913 provided for a substantial increase in the size of the German army, but that led to an increase the term of military service in France, and, more significantly, to Russia’s “Great Programme” of army reform. That Programme called for a 40% increase in the size of the Russian army and a 29% increase in the Russian officer corps by 1917. German military and political leaders concluded that by 1917 they would no longer be confident of winning a two-front war in Europe. This fear was compounded by the growing belief among German leaders that Germany, because of financial and domestic institutional and political constraints, would not be able to keep up with Russia in an arms race. The final straw for Moltke was the War Ministry’s rejection, on financial grounds, of his request for a further expansion in the size of the army. Moltke concluded that war was the only option. This preventive logic also influenced Bethmann and the Kaiser, but the story there is more complicated.
There is, of course, far more to it than this. The intensification of the Austro-Serbian rivalry is a central part of the story. So are early Russian military measures, beginning with the secret “period preparatory to war” beginning July 25, which German leaders regarded as an early mobilization and which created pre-emptive pressures. Also critical were domestic political developments, including the reassertion of autocratic power in Russia and the driving out of moderating influences on the Tsar in early 1914. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke was another key factor. One can go on and on.
I think that the moderator absolutely nailed it by asking “what was so different about 1914?” We cannot fully understand why a general war occurred in 1914 without understanding why such a war did not break out during earlier crises, when many (but not all) of the same military, economic, political conditions, along with cultural attitudes, were in place. The question of what was different about 1914 is one of the most critical unanswered questions in analyses of the outbreak of the First World War.
I basically agree with John’s interpretation of the events of late 1912, and with his statement that “The great mystery is why, one and a half years later, the rulers in Berlin – Kaiser Wilhelm II, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg, Moltke, Tirpitz and a handful of others – could have believed that Britain would stand aside to allow the violation of Belgian neutrality, the crushing of France and the establishment by armed force of German hegemony on the continent.” Yes, it is a mystery in many respects, though it is useful to remember that German leaders were not the only ones to get it wrong. Neither French nor Russian leaders were certain that Britain would enter the war, and even British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey was not confident he could persuade the Cabinet to enter the war. We also need to remember that in 1914 Moltke did not share the belief that Britain would probably stand aside, and criticized those who held that belief. In May 1914, referring to the Kaiser, Bethmann, and others, he stated that “Our people unfortunately still expect a declaration from Britain that it will not join in.”
Although I share the view that the Kaiser, Bethmann, and others believed that Britain would stand aside, I gather that this is still a matter of considerable controversy among historians. There is also some ambiguity in the way this question is often presented in the historiography on the war. (I refer to the broader literature because I understand that the nature of this “virtual roundtable” generally requires the simplification of complex arguments, so that nuances tend to be left out.) More specifically, not enough attention is given to the question of the timing of a possible British intervention and the conditions on the continent that might lead British decision-makers to make that decision. There is a difference between British intervention in the early stages of a Franco-German war, and a later intervention under conditions of a French military collapse and a real threat of German hegemony over the continent. Foreign Secretary Edward Grey believed that any Franco-German war warranted British intervention, but for many in the Cabinet only a more concrete and imminent threat of German hegemony would be sufficient. The question is whether Germany leaders recognized these nuances. I think they did. Bethmann and the Kaiser understood that Britain would not allow France to be crushed by Germany. They believed, however, that any intervention would come too late to affect the initial success of the Schlieffen Plan. Any threat of a later British intervention could be minimized by German assurances that it sought no territorial annexations from France. But I am not certain about this, and I welcome feedback regarding evidence that contradicts or supports my argument.
Thomas Otte: It is true to say that, in recent years, historians have modified their views on the origins of the First World War somewhat. They have certainly tried to develop a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the complexities of Great Power politics in the years before 1914. This is a (perhaps generational) reaction to the near-exclusive emphasis on structural forces in much of the literature that emerged in the wake of Fritz Fischer and the insufficient attention it paid to the role of perception in decision-making and to decision-making processes as such.
Was war in 1914 improbable? I am not sure that I would agree with this statement as such. War was by no means inevitable, as is all too often still implied in some of the literature, what I have called the unspoken teleology of 1914. But the threat to resort to military force was a standard item in the tool kit of the Great Powers of the period. This leads me to a point that should be central to the debate about 1914. Historians, and political scientists, have tended to treat crises as aberrations from the normal patterns of international relations. But this seems to me a profound misreading of the nature of international politics. Just as crises are an inherent aspect of the modern market economy, so clashes of interest are a natural part of power politics. They are moments of adjustment in the relations between the Powers. Throughout the long nineteenth century, there were such moments when the constellation of the Powers was readjusted. Sometimes they resulted in wars, but by and large the Powers had established a robust enough framework for settling such disputes. This is sometimes referred to as the international system. But, of course, it was not a real-life phenomenon, but rather a set of norms of behaviour and agreed understandings about the appropriate mechanisms for settling disputes.
All of this underlines how important it is to ask what made 1914 different from earlier crises. Historians have often been tempted to present the years before 1914 as a sequence of crises. These, so the argument goes, left enough unexploded ordnance in their wake, so that only a small spark was needed to set fire on Europe. This strikes me as a bit problematic. The two Moroccan crises, for instance, were aftershocks of the ‘scramble for Africa’. There was a European dimension to them, of course, just as there had been to the partition of the African continent in the 1880s. But the triggers lay in developments ‘on the spot’, and their settlement was within a colonial context. Similarly, the Balkan crises were settled more or less peacefully, albeit not without problems.
This leads to me to John’s observations. It is, of course, one of the many feathers in his cap to have discovered the evidence of the so-called ‘war council’ of 8 December 1912. There is no doubt that the Kaiser and his military entourage discussed war with a view to the current disturbances in the Balkans, essentially the sudden collapse of Ottoman military power at the beginning of the First Balkan War. But there are a number of points that need to be taken into consideration here. (1) There was no proper policy coordination at Berlin on this issue. Bethmann Hollweg famously dismissed news of the meeting, in which he did not participate, as ‘the Kaiser playing war again’. (2) More tellingly, for all the bellicose rhetoric that emanated on that occasion, there was no systematic preparation for a war in Germany afterwards, as David Stevenson and others have shown. (3) Equally, if there had been a carefully laid plan, this would also required a degree of coordination with Austria-Hungary. This was not the case – not after 1912 and not even during the July crisis itself.
In 1914, the Germans disastrously miscalculated. I agree with John to that extent. But that was not because they had a flawed plan of action. It was because they had none.
To understand the July crisis of 1914, it seems to me, it is necessary to cast our net wider, and move beyond Germany. The calculations and decisions made in the other capitals, and the perceptions that informed them, are important here. Jack, for instance, has touched on the revival of Russian power. One of the often neglected aspects of the decade or so before 1914 is, first, Russia’s weakness as a result of the double-crisis of 1905 (defeat abroad at the hands of Japan and revolution at home) and the country’s remarkably rapid economic and military resurgence after 1912. And even domestically, the Tsar’s regime seemed more stable than at any time since 1905. The revival of Russia heralded another readjustment in the relations between the Powers, and it so affected their calculations as much as it affected the foreign policy thinking at St. Petersburg.
John Rohl: I’m glad all three of you have commented so helpfully on the famous “war council” of 8 December 1912, the evidence for which, as Thomas rightly states, was unearthed by me and published in The Historical Journal in 1969. It was I who passed on the manuscript of my article to Fritz Fischer, who then made the “war council” the keystone of the argument of his second great work The War of Illusions, German Policies from 1911 to 1914 (1969, English translation 1975). I therefore have some proprietorial interest in this issue in particular, and also a sense of responsibility for clearing up the many misunderstandings which still bedevil our assessment of the place of this Sunday morning meeting in the Berlin Schloss in the sequence of events leading to the First World War, some of which have now resurfaced in our round table debate. Please forgive me for abusing your patience. Worrying away at this question for forty-five years has often seemed like spitting in the wind, and it is important to me to know that you three, and through Chris’s compilation of the round table debate at the end a larger readership, are aware of some salient new developments.
Admiral von Müller’s diary entry for 8 December 1912 is an eye-witness account, written immediately after the event and one of the lengthiest in his entire diary, of what must surely rank as one of the most significant debates on record of the thinking of Germany’s army and navy leaders in that winter crisis, when war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia seemed imminent and Germany needed to decide what to do if Russia became involved. It is virtually the only example we know about of an attempt, within that notoriously disfunctional decision-making system, to coordinate the divergent views of the General Staff (“war the sooner the better”) and Tirpitz (“the navy would prefer to see the postponement of the great fight for one-and-a-half years”). The alacrity with which we historians have rushed to dismiss this evidence as yet another of the Kaiser’s meaningless bévues has never ceased to amaze and (frankly) shock me.
There are three further records of the “war council” in addition to Müller’s, but historians – most influentially Christopher Clark – have seized on Müller’s own apparently dismissive final comment “That was the end of the conference. The result amounted to almost nothing” to discount all four sources and the significance of the meeting as a whole. In fact, as you know, and as Fischer and I made clear forty-five (!) years ago, the published version of Müller’s diary was deliberately falsified by its “editor” Walter Görlitz, and Müller actually expressed his dismay that the meeting had ended without a decision for immediate war with the words: “That was the end of the conference. The result amounted to almost nothing. The Chief of the Great General Staff says: War the sooner the better, but he does not draw the logical conclusion from this, which is: To present Russia or France or both with an ultimatum which would unleash war with right on our side.”
Thomas makes the point, as many others have done, that Bethmann Hollweg was not present at the meeting and indeed mocked the Kaiser’s bellicosity, and concludes that no great significance should be attached to the meeting since no proper policy coordination occurred. In the third volume of my biography of the Kaiser and also in the forthcoming concise biography of Wilhelm I demonstrate with a wealth of new evidence that, ironically, it was Bethmann Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Kiderlen-Wächter who had been urging Wilhelm II since early November 1912 to agree to supporting Austria-Hungary should it come to a major war over Serbia’s resurgence, and that the Kaiser only abandoned his policy, sarcastically described by both his civilian and his military advisers as “non-intervention at any price”, on 9 November 1912.
From that day on until Sunday, 8 December the Berlin leadership pursued a coordinated policy which came to within a hair’s breadth of world war that winter. It was not the Kaiser but Kiderlen-Wächter who informed the Austrian government on 19 November that they could count on Germany’s support in the event of war with Russia; it was not the Kaiser but the “cautious” Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg who summoned the prime ministers of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony and Baden to an extraordinary meeting of the Bundesratsausschuss für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten on 28 November to inform them that Germany had handed the Austrians a blank cheque. “If Austria has to fight for its position as a Great Power, regardless of the cause, then we must stand at her side so as not to have to fight alone at a later stage with a weakened Austria beside us…We cannot permit our ally to suffer any humiliation. We wish to avoid war for as long as that is possible with honour; if that should prove impossible, we shall face it with equanimity and firm resolution.” (This is a something I discovered in the archives only a few weeks ago and which has therefore not yet been factored in to the debate on the “war council” – avis aux lecteurs!) From the report of the Austrian military attaché we know that these strong words were inserted into Bethmann’s speech here and a few days later in the Reichstag at the insistence of Moltke. Again, evidence of coordination.
The “war council” was NOT, as Fischer assumed, the point at which “war in eighteen months” was decided on, but on the contrary the point at which Germany’s Supreme War Lord and his “loyal paladins of thte army and navy” backed away from a decision already taken four weeks earlier to fight a war against France and Russia if the Austro-Serbian conflict were to involve Russia, and the reason for this retreat was the realisation that Britain would not allow France to be crushed and the balance of power to be overturned. Such a panicky retreat does not imply the setting of a timetable for war in one or two years’s time, as Fischer assumed, but it does show the thinking behind German policy which was to change little if at all in the subsequent eighteen months.
Two of the decisions of the “war council” had the character of ticking timebombs. (a) The increase in the size of the army approved by the Reichstag in spring 1913, along with the several other expensive preparatory measures, not only put the French and Russian armies under huge pressure to follow suit, but also meant that Germany should strike when it reached its optimum readiness. (The railway timetable for the Schlieffen Plan for example took some nine months to rewrite to accommodate the new units.) As Field Marshal Freiherr Colmar von der Goltz confirmed to Bethmann Hollweg two days after the “war council”, the new Army Bill implied “the firm intention of striking soon”. (b) The second timing implication was the decision to delay any naval confrontation with Great Britain at least until the completion of the widening and deepening of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Canal to take dreadnought-class battleships. The hope was that this measure would help to deter Britain from entering the war, at least at first. As we know, the dreadnought Kaiserin negotiated the Canal successfully on 25 July 1914. Was that a coincidence? But of course the deterrent expectations proved unfounded. “So the war with England was there”, wrote Admiral von Müller, crestfallen, on 4 August 1914. “It has come because our politicians have no idea of the importance of superior sea-power.”
I will not go into the question of the absence of “systematic preparation for a war” which Thomas, citing David Stevenson, raises, except to say that there was more such activity than is generally known, and that I found it fascinating to discover recently that Clemens von Delbrück, Bethmann Hollweg’s deputy, complained in November 1912 that he had his hands full “preparing for a possible mobilisation”.
Finally, as I have again shown in my third volume and in the concise biography, let me stress that the degree of coordination between the German Reich and the Habsburg Monarchy in the period 1912 to 1914, while still woefully inadequate, was in fact far far greater than we have all been assuming. There was a second “war council” in early May 1913 about which we know too little but which again came within a hair’s breadth of world war. Let me end this far-too-long contribution à bâtons rompus with Berchtold’s account of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Vienna on 26 October 1913:
“Belgrade will be bombarded and occupied until His Majesty’s [Franz Joseph’s] will has been fulfilled. And of this you can be sure, that I [Kaiser Wilhelm II] stand behind you and am ready to draw the sword whenever your actions make it necessary.” (His Majesty accompanied these words by moving his hand to his sabre.) […] Whenever during our talk, which lasted an hour and a quarter, the opportunity arose to touch on our alliance relationship, His Majesty ostentatiously seized the opportunity to assure me that we could count on him fully and entirely. That was the red thread that ran through the Highest Lord’s words, and when on departing I alluded to this and thanked him, His Majesty deigned to assure me that whatever came from the Vienna foreign office was for Him a command.
Moderator: Was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand a clear case of a state-sponsored act of terrorism? Could Austria-Hungary have responded differently and averted war or at least restricted it to a regional conflict?
Thomas Otte: That is the proverbial $64,000 question. Edward Grey later said that ‘Probably there is not, and never was, any one person who knew all that there was to know.’ That is probably still true today. No smoking gun has yet been found. However, we do know quite a lot about the assassins and their connections with rogue, dissident elements in Serbian military intelligence.
It would go too far to argue that the assassination was a case of state-sponsored terrorism. Political violence and aggressive irredentism, of course, were in the political DNA of the Karadjordjević state. But it seems unlikely that the civilian political leadership was party to the plot. This does not apply to senior intelligence officers, and more especially to the head of military intelligence, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, a man with much blood on his hands, having played a crucial role in the brutal murder of the Serbian kind and his consort in 1903. His underlings recruited the assassins, equipped and trained them, and then smuggled them across the border into Bosnia. Dimitrijević and other nationalist army officers were also locked in a fierce power struggle with the civilian authorities, the so-called ‘Priorities Question, in essence a fight for political dominance. This helps to explain why prime minister Pašić was so reluctant to admit Austro-Hungarian policemen onto Serbian soil as part of an official inquiry into the assassination. He simply could not be certain that they might not find something that could be construed as official involvement in the plot. Indeed, any Habsburg police inspector worth his salt probably would have found something vaguely incriminating at Belgrade.
Ultimately, we cannot know for certain if a different reaction by Austria-Hungary might have averted the war that was to follow. That the Habsburg empire was entitled to some sort of retaliation was accepted by most foreign diplomats. I would suggest that a swift, limited punitive strike, say the occupation of Belgrade followed by certain political demands, would not have triggered intervention by the Powers. As Ion Brătianu, the Romanian prime minister said on 24 July, if Austria-Hungary had acted immediately after Sarajevo, she ‘would have had the sympathies of Europe on [her] side.’ As it was, the empire’s cumbersome dualist constitutional arrangements, its pre-modern, largely agrarian economy, short-term tactical considerations, and Conrad’s determination to wipe out the Serbian army all demanded delay, and the opportunity was lost.
Jack Levy: This is really two separate questions. I agree with Thomas that it goes too far to put this in the category of state-sponsored terrorism. I want to add two things to his commentary. First, Serbian Prime Minister Nichola Pašić was well aware of the extremist views of Col. Dimitrijević and the Black Hand, but he knew that it would be too risky, politically and personally, to try to suppress extremist elements from the government. Second, there is evidence that Pašić learned of the assassination plot prior to Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo, and that the Serbian government tried to warn Austrian officials about the plot. However, that warning was indirect and vague rather than explicit, and it had no impact.
Yes, the opportunity for peace was lost, but decision-makers in Austria-Hungary and in Germany saw the assassination as another kind of opportunity – for war, preferably one that was localized in the Balkans – rather than for peace. Austria-Hungarian leaders believed that through military force – which became feasible only after the “blank check” from Germany on July 6 – it could eliminate the rising threat from Serbia and break Serbia’s hold on the loyalties of the Serbian and Croation minorities within the Dual Monarchy. They hoped that German threats would deter Russia and localize war in the Balkans, but with Germany’s support they were willing to risk Russian intervention. German leaders believed that an Austro-Serbian war would strengthen its only great power ally in Europe, one that had grown weaker over time, and at the same time create the conditions for a possible diplomatic realignment in the Balkans and in Europe (though they were never clear on exactly how that outcome might come about). Although German leaders hoped that the war would remain confined to the Balkans, they were willing to risk Russian intervention and a larger continental war. In fact, many German leaders believed that the assassination created an opportunity for a preventive war against Russia under nearly ideal conditions, because it engaged the interests of Austria-Hungary and assured its involvement in a Russo-German war.
German leaders believed that the chances of localizing the war could be maximized if Austria-Hungary would move quickly against Serbia, at a time when Europe expected and presumably would tolerate some Austro-Hungarian action. The idea of a limited occupation of Belgrade (the “Halt-in-Belgrade” plan) was not proposed until the last few days of July. At that point, however, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and Austrian leaders preferred a local war, and even a larger continental war, to peace, even a peace that favored Austria-Hungary. All of this was conditional, however, on the assumption that England would stand aside. When Bethmann learned from his ambassador in London on the evening of July 29 that Britain would intervene in a Franco-German war, thus realizing his worst outcome (a world war, in contrast with a desirable local war or a tolerable continental war), he reversed course. In a flurry of telegrams Bethmann tried to restrain Austrian leaders and convince them to accept the Halt-in-Belgrade proposal, at one point even threatening to abandon Vienna. But Austria had already declared war against Serbia and crossed its psychological Rubicon, the Tsar had approved a mobilization order (only to retract it later), and meanwhile German Chief of Staff von Moltke was urging the Austrians forward. So Austria did not hold back. There may still have been some opportunities for crisis management at this point, but options were rapidly dwindling as perceived threats were escalating.
William Mulligan: There are different degrees of state-sponsored terrorism, from full support of state institutions to turning a blind eye to the presence of terrorist groups within state territory. The role of Serbian military intelligence in equipping, training, and facilitating the conspirators makes the assassination a case of state-sponsored terrorism. On the other hand, neither Pasic nor his colleagues in the Radical Party and civilian government were party to the plot, though they had concerns that Dimitrijevic and his colleagues might undertake an attack of some kind on Austria-Hungary.
Any assessment of this question must also take into account the domestic political context in Serbia. Following the Second Balkan War Pasic and the Radical Party sought to bring the military under civilian control. There were conflicts over the administration of newly conquered territories, the appointment of senior officers and the war minister, and the military budget. Civil-military relations remained fraught at the time of the assassination.
Yet even if Pasic had asserted civilian control, this would not have resolved Austria-Hungary’s fears about the growth of Serbian power. Pasic differed with figures like Dimitrijevic over the means, rather than the ends of Serbian policy. Indeed the charges levelled by the Austro-Hungarian government against Belgrade went far beyond rogue elements in the military. Berchtold and others frequently complained about anti-Habsburg sentiment and the expansionist claims of Serb nationalism, which they viewed as underpinning attacks on the Habsburg empire, notably the assassination.
The assassination was both a challenge to which Austria-Hungary had to respond and an opportunity to deal with the long-standing Serbian threat. Amongst the leading Habsburg politicians and diplomats, most were committed to military action against Serbia. Within days, even before the Hoyos mission to Berlin, Berchtold and his colleagues saw war as the only feasible option. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Istvan Tisza, however, considered initially that Austria-Hungary should concentrate on scoring a diplomatic triumph and isolating Serbia within Europe rather than launching a war, which, he feared, would turn the Habsburg empire into the ‘rogue’ state. By mid-July, Tisza had changed his mind, convinced by promises of German support and Romanian neutrality (Hungarian leaders feared that Romania might exploit an Habsburg-Serbian war to take possession of the Siebenburgen region of Hungary, with its large Romanian population).
War might have been localised, had the military strike been carried out quickly and in a very limited fashion. But what was striking about debates in the ministerial council in Vienna in July 1914 was the marginal consideration to the wider European repercussions and the intense focus on the Serbian challenge and the Balkans. Arguably, Austro-Hungarian leaders had ceased to think in terms of great power politics, framing the fate of the empire in terms of Balkan geopolitics.
John Rohl: The motives and events leading to the assassination remain one of the murkiest in world history, and the last thing one can say of the outrage is that it was a “clear cut” instance of “state terrorism”.
It is not disputed by anyone that Apis, Chief of the Intelligence Department of the Serbian General Staff, gave his approval to the plan to smuggle Gavrilo Princip and his Young Bosnia group of nationalist idealists together with their weapons over the border into Austrian-administered Bosnia in readiness for the visit of Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo on 28 June. The idea to kill the Archduke seems to have been Princip’s own, the link-man between him and Apis was one Voja Tankosic, but Apis undoubtedly gave his approval. The arms – 4 revolvers and 10 hand grenades – were delivered to the Princip group by Tankosic on 27 May. They left Belgrade on 28 May, crossed the border into Bosnia in the night of 1st to 2nd June and arrived in Sarajevo on 4 June.
This much is known, but here the fog of recrimination descends. On 4 June 1914 the Prefect of the border town of Sabac on the Drina reported that he had received information on plans to smuggle arms and ammunition into Bosnia, which he intended to stop. His report arrived at the Ministry of Interior in Belgrade on 6 June, which instructed the Prefect indeed to prevent the shipment on 10 June. But by this time Princip and his gang were already in Sarajevo, so it is unclear whether the Prefect’s information related to the Young Bosnians or to some other illegal arms shipment.
In 1975 the Austrian government returned documents to Serbia seized in Belgrade back in 1915. This cache contained another, longer, report from the Prefect at Sabac dated 14 June 1914. Here he refers to two arms shipments into Bosnia, the first of 6 June of 4 revolvers and 400 pieces of ammunition, the second of 13 June of a suitcase full of grenades and ammunition intended for an operative in Bosnia named Rade Malobabic. The first of these references could well relate to the Princip group, although as I have just mentioned they had crossed the border fully five days earlier. In both cases the Prefect warned of the dangers of provoking the Austrian authorities by such operations.
The document carries a note by the Serbian Prime Minister Nichola Pasic ordering the Minister of War to be informed so that such dangerous activity be stopped immediately. Pasic’s order was passed on from the Ministry of War to the General Staff and finally to Apis as head of Intelligence. Apis’s justification of 21 June of the arms shipment to Malobabic – there was no mention of Princip – was regarded as unsatisfactory Pasic, but his efforts to investigate the matter further were overtaken by the tragedy in Sarajevo.
It seems clear from this reconstruction of events that Apis was acting as a rogue operator outside the control of his bitter rival Pasic, the Prime Minister of the State of Serbia, that Pasic knew nothing of the Princip gang’s crossing of the border nor of their intention to assassinate the Archduke, and that the state authorities considered the smuggling of arms into Bosnia a highly dangerous activity which they did their best to prevent.
There is, as Jack Levy mentions, some evidence that the Austrian government was forewarned of the possibility of an attempt on Franz Ferdinand’s life in Sarajevo on 28 June of all days – the anniversary of disastrous battle against the Turks in Kosovo in 1389. Jovan Jovanovic, Serbia’s envoy in Vienna, warned the Austrian Finance Minister Leon Bilinsky on 5 June 1914 of the unfavourable climate for the Archduke’s visit, but the warning was couched in general terms and was made without, as far as one knows, any official instruction from Belgrade.
As with so much else relating to the coming of war in 1914, the archival record on the Sarajevo outrage is not only incomplete but soiled with the fingerprints of later manipulators such as Hans Uebersberger, who changed the wording of crucial documents seized in Belgrade in 1941 to “prove” Russia’s involvement in the Sarajevo plot.
As for the second part of Question 2, let me just say again that the ultimatum to Serbia was deliberately designed to be unacceptable, with the Habsburg envoy in Belgrade, Baron Giesl, being ordered as early as 7 July to break off diplomatic relations whatever the Serbian answer to the ultimatum turned out to be.
Is it too wild to speculate that we could be dealing here with “state terrorism” of another kind?
On 12 May 1914 Moltke and Conrad von Hötzendorf met in Karlsbad and agreed that “at the moment things were still favourable for us, that one should therefore not hesitate on a suitable occasion to proceed with vigour and, if necessary, to begin the war.” They also agreed, however, that the civilian statesmen could not yet be “won over for any energetic measures”. Is it quite unthinkable that Franz Ferdinand was sent to Sarajevo in the knowledge that seven “murder boys” would be waiting there to kill him? And that the German military knew and approved of such a possibility?
On 16 June 1914 the Quartermaster-General of the German General Staf, Count Georg von WAldersee,f summoned the military plenipotentiaries of the South German kingdoms of Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg and requested them “that we should refrain from written reports to the Ministries of War [in Munich, Dresden and Stuttgart respectively].” Those Ministries would be “informed orally by special emissaries of the General Staff.” We know that the War Minister of Bavaria was informed of this special measure – whatever it was – by Oberst Krause of the Berlin General Staff on 25 June 1914, exactly one hundred years ago today!
Moderator: The old view that Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of war has been increasingly challenged in recent years. How critical was her ‘blank cheque’ in support of Austria-Hungary in leading to war and to what extent did all of the powers share responsibility for war?
Thomas Otte: The so-called ‘blank cheque’ is central to the debate on July 1914, and is likely to remain so. Without it, there would have been no consensus amongst the Austro-Hungarian leadership in favour of firm action against Serbia, and Habsburg diplomacy would not have been able to determine the pace and direction of events during much of the crisis.
The motivation behind the ‘blank cheque’ has been the subject of much controversy. But it seems more important to go back to the sources, here in the first instance ambassador Szögyény’s despatch on his interview with the Kaiser. Even allowing for a degree of colouring by the diplomat, what is striking is the change in the monarch’s attitude during the interview. It really was a game a two halves. Wilhelm initially urged caution and warned of ‘a serious European complication’. After lunch, he responded to Szögyény’s appeal to monarchical solidarity by affirming Germany’s readiness to offer loyal support to the Monarchy. Despite his bellicose outbursts on earlier occasions, there was something casual about this offer, as Avner Offer has noted. There was little coordination of policy planning at Berlin. If there was a ‘calculated risk’, it was based on individual calculations but not on a collective decision.
It seems clear from Wilhelm’s observation to Szögyény that Austria-Hungary should not wait but act swiftly, that he may have expected some form of rapid retaliation. As for Bethmann Hollweg, who was not present on the occasion of the interview but who confirmed the ‘blank cheque’ on the following day, and Jagow, who was on his honeymoon, concern about Austria-Hungary’s stability and alliance-worthiness were the principal considerations. Jagow more especially had often spoken of ‘race’ between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires as to which would collapse first. The monarchy was to be given a chance to reassert its influence in the Balkans, and for that reason German diplomacy was to shield the action against Serbia from interference by the Powers. In my reading of the evidence neither Bethmann nor Jagow were at this point ready to run the risk of some form of preventive war. The chancellor’s conversation with the Bavarian envoy four days before Sarajevo leaves little room for doubt that he expected Britain to enter a continental war in the event of a German attack on Belgium and/or France. The alacrity with which Bethmann more especially was ready to row back at the end of July, and the fact that he was ready to revoke the ‘blank cheque’ then, suggest that he did not plan for a European war. But this is not to suggest that the German chancellor was not culpable. German diplomacy was reckless beyond belief. With the ‘blank cheque’ the Zweibund alliance with Austria-Hungary ceased to be a restraining alliance, and Berlin had no real influence over Habsburg decision-making, much to the chancellor’s evident frustration at the end of July. The Germans were not criminal in their intent; they were criminally stupid.
The other Powers share a degree of responsibility, but this is not to suggest that Europe somehow ‘slithered over the brink’ into war, as David Lloyd George put it in his highly mendacious war memoirs, or that the Powers somehow sleepwalked into conflict. In Russia, there was a sense that with the now seemingly likely total collapse of Turkey in the near future the geopolitics of the Balkans and the Near East were on the cusp of major change. And the Russians were determined not to allow the two Germanic Powers to take advantage of the situation, hence the resolve of the Tsar and his ministers to resist what they regarded as unacceptable pressure on Serbia, the latter being a key piece in the regional jigsaw from a Russian perspective. Sazonov’s twin-track diplomatic strategy, pushing for mediation while using the threat of armed force to back up his diplomatic signals, was ill-conceived and badly executed. The chop-and-change in St. Petersburg’s policy added to some of the confusion in July 1914. The crass professional incompetence of the chief of the Russian general staff, and the disjuncture between the civilian and military authorities at St. Petersburg further added to this. As for the French, Poincaré’s unilateral tightening of the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance in November 1912 meant that French diplomacy did little to restrain Russia during the crisis. Ambassador Paléologue’s private diplomacy, urging Russia to remain firm and withholding from his own government vital information about Russian mobilisation, further narrowed the room for diplomatic manoeuvre. The British, meanwhile, also appreciated that, after the events of 1904-5, Great Power politics was about to enter a new phase. Relations with Germany seemed to have improved quite significantly, so much so that Sir Edward Grey’s private secretary was to visit Germany incognito for political discussions in the summer of 1914, plans that were overtaken by events in July of that year. At the same time, relations with Russia were more strained, and it was by no means clear to Grey and his advisers that the 1907 convention with Russia could be renewed in 1915.
The irony about July 1914, it seems to me, is that the Powers were driven more by a sense of weakness – either their own or that of their allies – and by a sense of impending and uncertain changes than by any aggressive designs. In turn, this reduced their perceived room for manoeuvre, made them more rigid and more determined to avoid the certainty of a diplomatic defeat. There was also, I think, a degree of complacency. Europe has weathered so many storms before, and come close to war but somehow always avoided it. Given also how late it was in the year (- all previous wars in the long nineteenth century started well before the middle of July -), there was an assumption that merely the threat of military force would be sufficient to deter the other side from escalating the crisis further. As Henry Kissinger said, Europe’s leaders – with the notable exception of Grey – had lost the sense of the ‘tragic’, that all human endeavour is fallible and that peace and stability are not a given but that they need to be reaffirmed day by day.
Jack Levy: Yes, the old view that Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of the war – which goes back to the “war guilt” clause (Article 231) of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which lost favor during the revisionist wave of the 1920s, and which was partially resurrected by Luigi Albertini in the 1940s and then fully by Fritz Fischer in the 1960s and 1970s – has been increasingly challenged. As for Germany’s “blank cheque” of July 5-6, promising nearly unconditional support for Austro-Hungarian military action against Serbia, it was critical in the processes leading to war. As I suggested in my answers to earlier questions, it was a necessary condition for an Austro-Hungarian war against Serbia. Austria leaders would not have gone to war, and run the risk of Russian intervention, without assurances of German support – support that they hoped would deter Russia, or, if deterrence failed, guarantee that Austria-Hungary did not lose a multi-front war. Moreover, because a European war could not realistically have broken out in 1914 without a prior Austro-Serbian war leading to Russian intervention (because German leaders would not have gone to war without public support, which required the perception that Russia was the aggressor), the German blank cheque was a necessary condition for a European war in 1914 (as I argue in my article on “Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914,” International Security, Winter 1990-91). A Franco-Russian-German war, without Austro-Hungarian involvement on the side of Germany, was extremely unlikely.
This does not necessarily imply, however, that Germany bears primary responsibility for the First World War. In emphasizing German pressure on Austria-Hungary to move militarily against Serbia, for the purposes of advancing German interests, Fritz Fischer underemphasized Austria-Hungary’s independent role in the processes leading to war. As Samuel Williamson, Christopher Clark, and others have documented, there were increasing pressures for war in Vienna to deal with the growing Serbian threat, and at the same time Austro-Hungarian leaders could not have been pushed into a war they did not think served their interests. This was a second necessary condition for a Austro-Serbian war and hence for a general European war in 1914. War would not have occurred unless decision-makers in both Berlin and Vienna believed that it served their respective interests.
The actions of other states also played an important causal role in the processes leading to war. The behaviour of the Serbian government and of extreme nationalist groups in Serbia posed an increasing threat to the Dual Monarchy. The Russian general mobilization, which many have called premature because it was disproportionate to the security threat facing Russia at that time, significantly narrowed the window of opportunity for crisis management that might have avoided war. Moreover, Russia encouraged Serbia to adopt an uncompromising stance, and strong French support hardened the Russian position. There was more than one blank cheque in 1914. Williamson is right to claim (in his chapter in Levy and Vasquez, eds., The Outbreak of the First World War) that “Germany gave Vienna a ‘blank check,’ Paris gave Russia a ‘blank check,’ and France and Russia gave Belgrade a ‘blank check.’”
I am not sure what this all means for the question of responsibility. Actually, I think that the longstanding question of responsibility for the First World War is a little misleading (though I am glad that our moderator asked it). The key question, for me, is what caused the war, not who was responsible for it. These are a little different – the question of assessing the relative weight or impact of different causal factors, and the question of assessing responsibility. For one thing, the focus on responsibility tends to bias the analysis towards agent-centred explanations and away from structural explanations. It gives more attention to the choices made by political leaders than to the international structural forces that shape those choices. Admittedly, distributing causal weight among system-level forces, domestic pressures and constraints, and individual perceptions and choices, all of which interact, is not an easy thing for an analyst to do. It seems to me, however, that of these three “levels of analysis,” systemic forces such as the shifting distribution of power and the tightening alliance system, had the greatest causal weight, and that the perceptions and choices of individual leaders had the least causal weight. Cultural attitudes about the utility of the threat and use of military force also contributed. Different choices at the very end of the crisis might have made a difference, but by that time the combination of systemic forces and domestic pressures had significantly narrowed the available options.
At this point in my writing, I see that Otte’s insightful response to the question has come in. I fully agree with his concluding argument that “the Powers were driven more by a sense of weakness – either their own or that of their allies – and by a sense of impending and uncertain changes than by any aggressive designs. In turn, this reduced their perceived room for manoeuvre, made them more rigid and more determined to avoid the certainty of a diplomatic defeat.” It seems to me that the Powers’ sense of weakness, impending and uncertain changes, and reduced room to maneuver, were each primarily the result of pressures from the international system – and their own earlier reactions to those pressures. I will leave it to others to talk about the implications of this argument for the question of responsibility. My own view is that it is more useful to frame questions in terms of causality than in terms of responsibility.
On this last point, I suspect that that more political scientists than historians will agree with me.
John Rohl: The question of Germany’s intentions in July 1914 and before has been bedeviled from the outset by the drastic cleansing and manipulation of the archival record, first under the Kriegsschuldreferat under Bernhard Wilhelm von Bülow in the Weimar Republic and then by diverse self-appointed censors almost up to the present day. The Müller diaries to which I alluded in my earlier answer are a case in point, but at least they survived intact and can be inspected in full in Freiburg. Not so the diaries of Bethmann Hollweg’s amanuensis Kurt Riezler, the first thirty (sic!) volumes of which, covering the years 1911-14, were destroyed, probably as late as the 1950’s or early 1960’s. When the Riezler diaries were finally published in 1972, in place of the original diary for July 1914 we were presented as authentic with a text actually composed by Riezler at some later date with evident apologetic intentions. The latest issue of the Historische Zeitschrift (No. 22, July 2014) contains a critical re-editing of this spurious source which so many of us have relied on in an attempt to fathom Germany’s real intentions in that crisis. The whole business is rendered so opaque by the complete absence of Bethmann Hollweg’s own papers. Can it really be that his entire Nachlass was used as toilet paper by Russian soldiers in the winter of 1945/46?
Despite these efforts to eliminate all evidence of German premeditation, a few hints have survived, and these are often very powerful. I am thinking here for instance of Moltke’s bitter complaint, in a letter written in his own hand in 1916 to his fellow general Field Marshal Freiherr Colmar von der Goltz: “It is dreadful to be condemned to inactivity in this war which I have prepared and initiated [den ich vorbereitet und eingeleitet habe].” Or of the speech Tirpitz gave to the senior officers of the Reichs-Marine-Amt in October 1913: “The question of whether Germany should fight against England, if necessary, for her world position — with the enormous effort that such a struggle would involve — or confine herself in advance to the position of a European continental Power of the second rank, this question is in the last resort a matter of political conviction. In the end it would seem more worthy of a great nation to fight for the highest objective and perhaps to perish with honour, than ignobly to renounce the future.” Or of the “beaming faces everywhere” in the Prussian War Ministry when news arrived of Russia’s mobilisation. Or of the Kaiser’s calling for champagne when, at the very end of the July Crisis, it seemed as if Britain would stay neutral after all and Germany could have her war against France and Russia as planned.
Much of this is simply omitted in the latest revisionist works, notably in Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which has already sold over 300,000 copies in Germany. Much of the German media is jubilant, with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently announcing that it has now been proved that there was no connection between Germany’s pre-war policies and the July Crisis, and no connection between the July Crisis and Germany’s war aims, so Fischer and all his work can now be discounted. And an article in the Spiegel going further still, to claim that if the war guilt clause was unjust, then Versailles was unjust and then perhaps Hitler’s attack on Poland was justified after all…I fear the mood in Germany is now such that it will not be possible for any research student to gain funding for investigative work into the intentions of Wilhelmine generals, admirals and statesmen for a long time to come.
William Mulligan: The significance of the ‘blank cheque’ remains a contentious topic. First, it reinforced the conviction amongst the Habsburg political and military elite that they should attack Serbia. Berchtold had advocated ‘forceful’ action against Serbia before the Hoyos mission to Berlin to secure German support; equally Berchtold considered German support necessary before attacking Serbia. As Thomas has pointed out, the blank cheque changed the balance in the Austro-German alliance and allowed Vienna to dictate the pace of events up until the submission of the ultimatum.
Second, there is a question of the intentions of German leaders, notably William II and Bethmann Hollweg, in giving Vienna unconditional support. While they considered a general European war a possibility, they would have preferred a localised war in the Balkans, which would bolstered Austro-Hungarian security and administered a major blow to Russian prestige in the region.
Here the evidence that John has uncovered raises two further considerations. William II’s assessment of the Triple Entente’s weaknesses – Britain on the edge of civil war, France suffering from a financial crisis, and Russia still far from prepared for war – was striking. On 5 and 6 July there were similar comments that Russia was neither financially or military ready for war and therefore would stay out. The perception of the Triple Entente’s weakness led German leaders to consider a local war as more likely than a general European war.
For the preventive war strategy to work, German leaders had to hope that Russia would take up the challenge, support Serbia, and enter war. While for some, particularly in the military, this was the preferred outcome, for others, including William II and Bethmann Hollweg, an Austro-Hungarian victory in a local war was the favoured scenario. Moreover German leaders were uncertain, even doubted, that Russia would take military action. Nor was William II’s comment about preventive war out of line with contemporary views. Since 1871, there had been numerous occasions when the great powers, particularly the German Reich, had an opportunity to unleash a preventive war, but its advocates in the military had never succeeded in overcoming civilian opposition. In part this opposition was driven by fear of the material risks, but in part it also reflected the difficulty of justifying a preventive war, which was necessarily a war of aggression, to public opinion both in Germany and internationally.
For the sake of argument, even if we did agree that William II, Bethmann Hollweg and others pursued an aggressive policy aiming at continental war in 1914, the success of these machinations required Russian and French leaders to fall into the trap of supporting Serbia. If Sazonov and others had decided not to support Serbia – whether out of military unreadiness, outrage at regicide, or fear of a general European war – then even the most devious German leaders would have been deprived of their justification for a preventive war.
To understand why there was a general European war in 1914 requires analysis of the decisions in all the great powers, even if some powers were more cautious and conciliatory than others.
Moderator: To what extent were the three monarchs (George, Nicholas and Wilhelm) able to influence events and dictate policy?
William Mulligan: The three monarchs, George V, Nicholas II, and William II, occupied very different positions, both in constitutional terms and their actual political influence. They all had significant powers in theory, such as the right of appointment to senior posts and patronage. Although the powers of the monarch in the British parliamentary system were limited, during the constitutional crisis in 1911, the king’s threat to create new peers led the House of Lords to acquiesce in the Parliament Act. Nonetheless George V had the least influence of all three, while Nicholas II and certain courtiers were seeking to re-assert the Tsar’s position in policy-making following constitutional reforms since the revolution of 1905. On the eve of the war, the system of united government, in which the Council of Ministers was the primary site for major policy decisions, remained in place, although ambitious ministers, generals, and others sought to circumvent it. The role of William II in German politics remains contentious. While his position in the constitution gave him significant powers, William II’s influence, I would suggest, also rested on his personal ambitions and the degree to which the German political elite accepted his primacy. However I bow to John’s mastery of this subject.
Even if we view the European monarchies as lacking a significant role qua monarchs in the July crisis and in early twentieth century diplomacy in general, it is worth remembering that they constituted a particular network that facilitated delicate diplomatic exchanges, couched in an ethos of familiarity and restraint, that was sometimes at odds with the aggressive nationalist tone of the era. An exchange of letters between monarchs provided a means to ease tensions, to improve the tone of international relations, and to consolidate relations. Sending Prince Hohenlohe as Emperor Francis Joseph’s personal envoy to Nicholas II in early 1913 was a means of choreographing the disengagement of Austria-Hungary and Russia from more assertive stances.
In the July crisis, statesmen sought to use these monarchical networks to ease tensions. In the days before Austria-Hungary issued its ultimatum to Serbia, the possibility of a personal letter from Nicholas II to Francis Joseph was broached. The thinking behind this proposal was that a personal letter would strengthen the hand of Francis Joseph, widely believed to favour peace, against the war party in Vienna, by circumventing the normal diplomatic channels. However the reasons Paul von Benckendorff gave for not proposing the letter to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sazonov, were interesting, as he cited the role of public opinion, the ‘moral condition’ of Russia, and the unwillingness of the Russian government to undertake a measure, which might boost Habsburg influence in Serbia. In other words, the conventions of great power politics and the growing nationalism in Europe appeared to trump any remnants of monarchical solidarity.
Thomas Otte: When looking at the July crisis one encounters a paradox. On the one hand, the political role of Europe’s monarchs was much diminished when compared with the middle of the long nineteenth century. On the other, they had come to personify their respective countries – hence their prominent and highly visible public roles (usually dressed in uniform). And yet, their roles in 1914 were by no means negligible.
I agree with William that the constitutional arrangement in Britain, Russia and Germany left the three cousins, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, with rather different roles. George’s was perhaps the most limited, and he was the most punctilious in adhering to constitutional proprieties. (Even his 1911 threat to create 500 new peers to overwhelm diehard opposition to constitutional change was made largely at the suggestion of the prime minister.)
To an extent, Nicholas II was in a stronger position in 1914 than at any stage since 1905. He had staged a form of miniature coup d’état in February, removing the chairman of the council of ministers, Kokovtsov, discontinuing the practice of giving the chairman an important ministerial portfolio, and replacing Kokovtsov with Goremykin, a superannuated courtier him. This was actually an attempt to dismantle the last vestiges of ‘united government’. In practice, however, it opened the way for ambitious ministers and courtiers to intrigue against each other, and this opened the way for doves and hawks to tussle for influence. The Tsar himself – his diaries show this – was in favour of a hard line against Austria-Hungary, and I suspect that Benckendorff’s counselling against a private letter from Franz Joseph took account of this fact. The events of 1908-9 had produced a breach between the two empires, and the absence of confidence in the reliability of the other was a complicating factor in 1914.
Wilhelm’s position is still debated by historians. The Kaiser’s position was not as strong, perhaps, in 1914 as it was before 1909. That said, his assurances to Szögyény on 5 July, of course, established the parameters of German policy for much of the July crisis. Like William, I am more than ready, however, to bow to John’s judgment on this matter.
The existence of familial ties and monarchical networks was important aspect of pre-1914 international politics, providing the crowned heads of Europe with an additional private channel of communication. Their communications were private in their form, but intensely political in their nature. They were partly governmental, reflecting the monarchical nature of governments then, and partly private in that they were part of royal prerogative. The Tsar certainly was something of a martinet when it came to etiquette and established procedural and decision-making hierarchies (more so than his cousin in Berlin). The ‘Nicky-Willy’ telegrams, then, were a genuine attempt by the two monarchs to establish a framework for localising the conflict. But in many ways, they came too late, and other forces were at play. Winston Churchill, too, suggested some form of monarchical summit at the height of the crisis – but, then, Winston was an incurable romantic.
In all of this, the role of the other Kaiser, Franz Joseph, should not be forgotten. He is often still – and wrongly – seen as a man of peace. The extant evidence clearly shows that he supported a war against Serbia from the outset, and his private letter to Wilhelm II struck the right tone for his and his ministers’ bellicose purposes, appealing to that Kaiser’s sense of monarchical solidarity and moral outrage at this latest affront to the Habsburg empire. Unlike Franz Ferdinand in 1913, Franz Joseph did not act as a brake on the war party in Vienna.
John Rohl: If any of you saw the two-part drama-documentary Royal Cousins at War on BBC2 earlier this year, you will have a good idea of my answer. But here are a few points to put into our mix.
On 13 August 1914 George V wrote to his cousin Nicky (their mothers were of course sisters): “Both you & I did all in our power to prevent war, but alas, we were frustrated & this terrible war which we have all dreaded for so many years has come upon us. Anyhow Russia, England & France have clear consciences & are fighting for justice & right. I feel sure D.V. that we shall be victorious in the end, for the right spirit exists in all our troops & Navies. I deeply sympathise with you in these anxious days & I trust that your troops will soon be able to move, ours will shortly be in France cooperating with the French. I trust for all our sakes that this horrible war will soon be over & peace once more exist in Europe. God bless & protect you my dear Nicky.”
Neither the King nor the Tsar had any doubt as to where the blame lay or what the root of the conflict was. On the day their other cousin Wilhelm crossed the Belgian-Dutch border into ignominious exile in November 1918, George V wrote in his diary: “He has been Emperor just over 30 years, he did great things for his country but his ambition was so great that he wished to dominate the world & created his military machine for that object…Now he has utterly ruined his country & himself & I look upon him as the greatest criminal known for having plunged the world into this ghastly war which has lasted over 4 years & 3 months with all its misery.”
What I find so significant about this quotation, with which I begin the third volume of my biography of the Kaiser, is that it stresses Wilhelm’s ambition throughout his reign rather than concentrating on his role in the July Crisis. In those critical weeks in the summer of 1914, Wilhelm did indeed play a decisive part, far more than George V or even Nicholas II, but he also allowed himself to be manipulated and sidelined by a small cohort of leaders dominated by Generals Moltke, Falkenhayn and Waldersee, Admirals Tirpitz and Müller, and the civilians Bethmann Hollweg, Zimmermann and Stumm, especially when he was persuaded to take his annual Norwegian cruise to make it look as if nothing was going to happen. The fact that the Hohenzollern anchored off Balholm just north of Bergen rather than continuing to sail up to the Cape indicates in itself that Wilhelm and the two or three people “in the know” on board were well aware of the time-bomb the Austrians were preparing to hurl at Belgrade – the idea was that he could be back in Germany within 22 hours to sign the mobilisation order. (The Foreign Secretary von Jagow even suggested that in the final days perhaps the Hohenzollern could sail around in circles in the Baltic to ensure an even speedier return to Berlin!) Throughout the two-week stay at Balholm Wilhelm II was kept fully informed of the Wilhelmstrasse’s manoeuverings and himself fired off telegrams to ensure that Germany’s allies and the neutrals would fight on her side. On 25 July, still in Balholm, he ordered the bombardment of the Russian naval bases in Estonia and Latvia (his orders were ignored for the time being) and on his return to Kiel on 27 July he commanded the blockading of the eastern Baltic Sea. On a recent trip to Doorn I discovered that the reason for his extreme agitation on the voyage back from Balholm to Kiel was his fear of being captured by the Royal Navy.
But what did Wilhelm himself want in July 1914??? I think it is actually quite easy to decode the many confusing signals he gave out in the crisis. There was never any doubt that he fully supported Austria’s intention to subjugate Serbia, and (as I have mentioned in earlier responses) he urged Vienna on many occasions before the Sarajevo outrage to get on with it, “With head held high and hand on sword-hilt!” The preponderance of the Central Powers in the Balkans was his minimum aim, as a springboard for any future war with Russia and France. He was also happy in July 1914 to have the war against France and Russia – so long as it looked as if Britain would stay out at least at first. Bethmann and Jagow knew this was the Kaiser’s weak spot and toned own Lichnowsky’s warning dispatches from London for as long as possible. It was when it dawned on Wilhelm, on the morning of 28 July, that Britain would not remain neutral that he proposed his Halt-in-Belgrade move, which came too late and in any case was not properly passed on by Bethmann to Vienna.
Fascinating is the mission the Kaiser’s brother Prince Heinrich undertook, at Wilhelm’s instigation, to speak to George V in London on Sunday morning, 26 July 1914. Heinrich had been sent over once before to ask Cousin Georgie what England would do in the event of a continental war — on 6 December 1912, just before the “war council” of 8 December decided not to risk war after all. In July 1914 the two cousins met for 6 minutes, since the King was hurrying to St. George’s Chapel for the service at 10 a.m. Exactly what George replied to Heinrich’s blunt question is unknown, and made more obscure by Heinrich’s attempt to gloss over anything that might seem like a threat. Both the King and the Prince inserted their (extremely brief) account of the exchange into their diaries after the outbreak of war.
It was this personal meeting between the cousins George and Heinrich which then led to the final exchange of letters and telegrams between the King and Prince Heinrich that seemed to offer the last tentative hope of saving the peace, with Heinrich dashing from Potsdam to the Wilhelmstrasse and back at midnight on 30/31 July with a message from Wilhelm to George and Nicholas which somehow never reached its destination.
But then, later that day, the Kaiser, now back in his Schloss in Berlin surrounded by his generals and top statesmen, signed the order proclaiming a threatening danger of war with tears of triumph in his eyes. “His bearing and language are worthy of a German Emperor! Worthy of a King of Prussia!”, the Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn recorded in his diary.
George V was devastated by the news of war. When the American ambassador saw him the King, wringing his hands, asked him in despair: “My God, Mr Page. What else could we do?”
Jack Levy: There are a few examples of limits on monarchical power in the period leading up to the war. First, back in 1905, German concerns about the recent Anglo-French entente, in conjunction with the perceptions of an opportunity while Russia was engaged in a war with Japan, led the Kaiser to embark on a diplomatic approach to the Tsar. The Kaiser and the Tsar signed a treaty of rapprochement in July 1905. But the Tsar’s ministers, emphasizing that the treaty was incompatible with the terms of the Russo-France alliance, forced the Tsar to back away from the treaty and abandon the idea of an agreement with Germany. At the same time, when German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow learned that the Kaiser had made an alteration in the terms of the treaty previously agreed upon in Berlin, he protested and threatened to resign. The Kaiser agreed to withdraw the amendment to the treaty.
The second example comes from late July 1914. On July 28, after the Kaiser began to realize that Britain would probably enter the war against Germany, and after he reacted to the conciliatory Serbian reply to the ultimatum by concluding that “every cause for war had vanished,” he instructed Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow to request that Vienna accept a “temporary military occupation” of Belgrade in the hope that it might dampen the escalating crisis and facilitate a great power agreement. The message was passed on to Vienna, in a somewhat softened form. Moreover, Bethmann, still convinced that Britain would stand aside, undercut the Kaiser’s plea by continuing to push Austrian leaders for war against Serbia. It was not until the next evening, after a telegram from the German ambassador in London finally convinced Bethmann that Britain would enter the war, and also after he learned of a Russian mobilization order, that Bethmann abruptly reversed course. He immediately sent a flurry of telegrams off to Vienna, insisting that they accept some version of the “Halt-in-Belgrade” plan, even hinting that Germany might abandon its ally if it failed to follow through. This was a dramatic policy change, but the Kaiser played no role.
Moderator: Is there any truth in the old view that the alliance system and mobilisation plans meant that the powers couldn’t really turn back from war once events started to escalate?
Thomas Otte: Alliance systems work until they don’t. In 1912 and 1913, the alliance system and the established mechanisms of crisis diplomacy helped to contain the risk of escalation. There were difficulties, of course, but by and large the diplomatic machinery worked. It is important to remember this because it suggests the need to rethink older views that a rigid system of bloc-like alliances, underpinned by war plans and mobilisation schemes, contributed to the outbreak of the war.
It seems to me – and some of our discussion has already touched on this – that the existing alliances engendered a sense of vulnerability. Gottlieb von Jagow, the German state secretary, for instance, had repeatedly commented on the decline of Austria-Hungary, possibly even the collapse of the Habsburg empire. Not everyone in Germany (or elsewhere) agreed with this view. Ambassador Lichnowsky dismissed it as fanciful nonsense. But such views help to explain why many at the Wilhelmstrasse were fearful of Germany’s more precarious strategic position, hemmed in between a resurgent Russia and France, and with only a weakened and weakening Austria-Hungary and a highly unreliable Italy as allies. Conversely, Poincaré and Paléologue reaffirmed the ties with Russia in 1912 and in July 1914 beyond what was politically prudent because they (wrongly) thought that Russia might buckle under Austro-German pressure. Given the, as Dominic Lieven has shown, still significant influence of pro-German circles at the court of St. Petersburg, who could tell whether the alliance would survive intact or for how long? One of the ironies of 1914, then, is the fact that, the existing alliances tended to reinforce a sense of vulnerability; and it was this that contributed so powerfully to the miscalculations of several of the key players.
The issue of the various mobilisations has been the focus of much of the debate on 1914. Historians tend to examine it with a view to explaining how military measures led to war. Of course, the Russian and German mobilisations did change the strategic calculus, and so helped to escalate the crisis. There can be no doubt about it. But it is equally important to ask what the political leaders sought to achieve by resorting to such military measures. To varying degrees, the key actors pursued deterrence strategies during the crisis, using the spectre of conflict to force their opponents to disengage. Military preparations, or the threat thereof, were thus principally a means of increasing leverage so as to extract some advantage from the situation. But if this was the intention, understandings of deterrence were not sufficiently sophisticated for such strategies properly to be implemented. Poincaré and Sazonov had always insisted that ‘clarity of intent’ would be key to the successful containment of any aggressive move by the two Germanic Powers. But in the case of France this translated into a degree of rigidity that made a diplomatic solution more difficult. It is interesting to note here that the British ambassador at Paris – no friend of Germany by any stretch of the imagination – complained that the French government was ‘not sufficiently coulant’ to Germany. In the case of Sazonov, his deterrence strategy was flawed. It combined a mixture of offers of mediation and military preparations. But the balance between the two was ill judged. Moreover, he kept changing his mind as to what form mediation should take – direct talks with Vienna, or mediation by an international quartet as suggested by the British. His violent language to the German ambassador, followed by an amiable chat with the Habsburg representative, was liable to confuse matters, especially since both diplomats were likely to compare notes (as, indeed, they did). It is little wonder, then, that the two ambassadors remained convinced until the very end that Russia would not intervene in another Balkan war.
Russia’s crisis strategy was based on a twin-track approach. On the diplomatic track, Vienna was to be asked for an extension of the ultimatum; and Belgrade was to be encouraged to give a conciliatory reply to the demands. In addition, thirteen army corps were to be prepared for mobilization against Austria-Hungary. There was a general sense at St. Petersburg, as Tsar Nicholas II recorded in his diary, that ‘8 [of the Austrian demands] are unacceptable for an independent state.’ Russia could not tolerate Serbia to be crushed if Russian influence in the Balkans was to be preserved at a time when the wider Eastern Mediterranean region appeared on the cusp of yet further changes. Conversely, the Wilhelmstrasse was determined to shield Austria-Hungary against irresistible Russian pressure. The Austro-Serbian conflict had to be separated from any wider clash of interests between the Habsburg and Romanov empires. Austria-Hungary had to be given every opportunity to reassert her influence in the Balkans.
Under such circumstances, the desired increase in leverage did not materialize, and it was at this point, 30 July-1 August, that narrow military calculations of railway timetables and mobilization logistics began to dominate thinking in the three Eastern capitals.
Even after the first moves towards mobilisation, mediation on the basis of some form of localization was still possible. As even a limited Habsburg campaign against Serbia alone could not commence for another fortnight, Grey’s initiative of 26 July, for instance, could have worked. But it required German pressure to force Vienna to accept mediation. And this the German chancellor refused to apply, unless the Austro-Serb dispute could be separated from a wider Austro-Russian stand-off. The insistence on strict localisation further narrowed the room for diplomatic manoeuvre. Russia, meanwhile, might have accepted the temporary occupation of Belgrade or other strategic points across the Danube and Sava, but no more than that. Given Britain’s limited ability to restrain France and Russia, the viability of the conference proposal depended on a suspension of all military activities by all sides. Once Austrian troops had entered Serb territory before any diplomatic framework was in place, the dispute could no longer be localized; conversely, if Russian military preparations continued apace, it was understood that diplomatic ‘wiggle’ room would be further curtailed. ‘Halt in Belgrade’, meanwhile, was made impossible because there had been no diplomatic or military coordination between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Bethmann Hollweg and the Kaiser thought that some form of temporary occupation of Serbian territory by Habsburg forces while negotiations proceeded, represented an acceptable outcome. But Conrad’s war plans never envisaged the occupation of Belgrade, and the disposition of the Austro-Hungarian forces made it impossible to reconcile diplomatic moves with military plans.
On this last point, as on numerous occasions before, it is the absence of coordination and consultation amongst allies that is a remarkable feature of the summer of 1914. It calls into question some of the older assumptions about an alliance system.
John Rohl: Once war began and lives were lost, a Pandora’s box of unimaginable horrors was opened and no one was able to shut it again short of total victory. But when was the point of no return reached?
Both Austrian and Germany policy in the July Crisis of 1914 was designed to prevent mediation. Vienna made sure the ultimatum to Serbia would be rejected, ordering their envoy to leave Belgrade whatever the Serbian answer, and then putting the issue beyond reach by bombarding Belgrade on 28 July. In Berlin Bethmann Hollweg was concerned to avoid mediation by denying any foreknowledge of the Austrian intention to issue Serbia with an unacceptable ultimatum, and then passing on Sir Edward Grey’s proposal for a four-power conference to Vienna with the clear message that he was doing so only for the sake of appearances; his policy was at all costs to put the blame for any ensuing conflict on Russia. The Kaiser’s halt-in-Belgrade proposal was similarly undermined by Bethmann, with War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn telling the monarch to his face on 28 July that he was “no longer in control of the matter”.
At what point in time did the handful of Austrian and German decision-makers decide to go for broke – after the assassination at Sarajevo or before? At the recent conference in Belgrade, the leading Austrian historian of the First World War, Lothar Höbelt, argued very forcefully that in Austria only three people decided foreign policy: Emperor Franz Joseph, Foreign Minister Count Berchtold and the Hungarian Prime Minister Count Tisza. He argued, further, that in October 1913 Franz Joseph had declared that Austria-Hungary could simply not afford yet another mobilisation without going to war – so that war against Serbia was a foregone conclusion the moment mobilisation was decided on in June/July 1914. For Germany there is strong (if slender) evidence that the General Staff had decided on what they called “preventive war” against France and Russia even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, though it probably took that outrage to convince the Kaiser and Bethmann to take the great gamble and roll the iron dice.
Once “the bloodiest enterprise the world has ever witnessed” had begun, it would have been virtually impossible for any government to justify a return to the status quo ante bellum. When Prince Lichnowsky, Imperial Germany’s last ambassador to London, proposed this to Count August zu Eulenburg in 1915, urging him to eschew all annexations in Europe and settle for the Congo and a financial indemnity, he received the answer from the veteran Minister of the Royal Household that the monarchy and all it stood for would collapse the moment such a suggestion were made. German diplomats such as Flotow were also convinced by 1915 that a settlement could not be reached with the Allies.
But it was not just the appalling loss of life that made a return to peace impossible, it was also an unwillingness to forgo the aims for which one had gone to war in the first place – the ‘general aim’, as Bethmann euphemistically put it in his ‘September Programme’ in 1914, of ensuring ‘security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time’. In March 1915 the Danish diplomat Hans Niels Andersen came first to Berlin and then to Supreme Headquarters at Charleville to speak to Kaiser Wilhelm on behalf of the King of Denmark in the hope of initiating a peace process. It quickly emerged that neither the Chancellor nor the Kaiser was remotely prepared to accept a return to the status quo. The former insisted that Germany had not entered the war ‘for the conquest of new land, nor for the extension of her frontiers, but for the attainment of a lasting peace for her development, and that a peace that did not secure her these factors would never be accepted by Germany.’ But Bethmann went on to emphasise that, ‘even if the war had been commenced solely for attainment of the big aims already mentioned, events had developed in such a way that the German nation would not be content with a peace that brought Germany no compensation, or an important economical position in Belgium.’ He argued that the root cause of the war had been Britain’s refusal to accept Germany’s rightful demand for a greater say in world affairs. London, he complained, had shown nothing but ‘contempt for Germany and lack of understanding of the demands of 70 million people of a caliber like the Germans.’ Britain had been unwilling ‘to grant Germany the place in the world she was entitled to as a result of the ethical position of the German people and for their industry and progress.’ When Andersen spoke to the Kaiser at Charleville on 19 March 1915, Wilhelm also blamed Edward VII and Sir Edward Grey for trying to isolate Germany ‘to keep her down, & in this way hamper her peaceful world development’. King Edward, he claimed, ‘had treated Germany with great arrogance and contempt’. Now Germany was militarily and financially strong, her army was deep into France and French soil was undergoing economic Germanisation ‘to assist in the future supplies of the German people and the German armies’. It must be clearly understood, Wilhelm declared, that the peace to come would need to be a lasting peace, ‘concluded on a dignified basis for the German people and in harmony with the sacrifices made by them. This comprised Great Britain admitting German equality and not to regard her as an inferior partner […] who had to enquire first in Great Britain if, and when, Germany might build ships.’
All this was of course a euphemism for German domination of the Continent, including the subjugation of France and the virtual annexation of Belgium, with German veterans settled along the Flanders coast, aims to which Great Britain could never agree.
But there was another, still deeper issue involved. How could Britain and France have accepted a return to the status quo if it meant leaving Germany with the military and naval power she had had before the war, the Prussian military monarchy at its heart and an expansionist ideology deeply rooted in the German nation? As Keith Wilson has shown in his essay on “Britain and the ‘Re-education’ of Germany, 1917-1920”, plans to ensure that Germany would not simply restart its drive for domination after a suitable interval soon hit the buffers, since the cost of occupying and policing Germany after the war was judged to be prohibitive, and the forces for peace and democracy within Germany were seen as too weak to be relied upon to bring about a fundamental change of heart.
All this pointed to the even darker conflict that lay ahead.
William Mulligan: There is some truth to the old argument about ‘war by timetable’, but it may obscure more than it explains, particularly if the mobilization plans are seen as the primary cause of the outbreak of the war. Nonetheless, the German mobilization plan, the Schlieffen plan, made a general European war inevitable because it required the invasion of France and Belgium. This would necessarily lead to the entry of Russia into the war on the grounds of its alliance commitments to France. The Schlieffen plan differed from the mobilization plans of the other great powers, which simply aimed at the most effective concentration of troops, but did not necessarily imply an invasion of a neighbouring country. The example of the French government holding its forces back from the front, to avoid even the hint of aggression, was a telling case of political control of the military.
However German political and military leaders claimed that their mobilization was prompted by a Russian general mobilization on 30 July. They could hardly risk the concentration of Russian troops at their border without responding. The problem lay in the inflexibility of the German response, which could not be calibrated to achieve a policy aim other than war.
This rigidity contrasted with the use of mobilizations in other crises and indeed during the July crisis itself. There had been a number of partial mobilizations in 1912 and 1913. These were often used to signal intentions and the scale of interest to other states. For instance, in late July 1914, the Russian partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary was designed to warn Vienna not to attack Serbia, while not threatening Germany, thus keeping this channel of communication open in the hope that Berlin might moderate Austro-Hungarian policy.
Russian planners recognised that general mobilization on 30 July marked an escalation of the crisis, but it did not mean war.
In the July crisis, instruments such as mobilization and alliances, which had worked to preserve peace in fraught crisis management, now failed, as Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand determined to press on at the risk of war, while Russia and France prepared to take up the challenge of the Central Powers at the risk of war.
Jack Levy: The interlocking alliance system contributed in significant ways to the escalation and outbreak of the First World War. It also made it highly likely that any Austro-Serbian War, once it began, would escalate to a continental war and possibly a world war. However, the fact that the second Moroccan crisis and the Balkan Wars did not escalate to a great power war despite the existence of a nearly identical alliance system demonstrates (as T.G. Otte reminds us) that in the context of a alliance system like that of 1914 a spiral of escalation could be reversed. More technically, the interlocking alliance system and the escalating conflict spiral were not jointly sufficient for war.
Having said that, let me also say that it is difficult to separate the effects of alliances and the underlying interests and geopolitical realities that helped generate those alliances in the first place. Alliances reflect interests that states want to defend even in the absence of a formal alliance. British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, along with many other British leaders (but not the radicals in the Cabinet) supported intervention on the continent in response to the German invasion of Belgium en route to France for reasons that had little to do with the 1839 Treaty of London and the formal guarantee of Belgian independence and neutrality. However, alliances reinforce intentions to defend interests by signaling to friends and adversaries the importance attached to those interests and by generating additional reputational costs that would be incurred by any failure to honor the terms of an alliance.
Mobilization plans were closely related to alliances because the nature of alliances played a significant role in shaping mobilization plans. I begin with the German Schlieffen Plan, which was the last link in the chain of mobilizations leading to decisions for war. Regardless of exactly how one conceives of the Plan given current debates triggered by Terence Zuber’s critique of conventional treatments, it is fair to say that the Schlieffen Plan was different than other mobilization plans because (as William Mulligan notes) it required German armies to cross the frontier and advance into Belgium as an integral part of the mobilization process itself. The Plan called for German armies to gain control of Liège, and its vital forts and railway lines, on the third day of mobilization. This made a larger war almost certain. (Some might argue that France could still have avoided war by complying with Germany’s July 31 ultimatum by agreeing to neutrality in a German-Russian war, but it is virtually inconceivable that France would abandon Russia at that point, given the near certainty of a German and Austro-Hungarian victory over Russia and Serbia and its consequence for France.)
One thing that the Schlieffen Plan shared with the mobilizations plans of other states was its rigidity. Once ordered, the Schlieffen Plan could not be reversed without enormous risks. For one thing, by 1914 Germany had no other mobilization plan. In addition, the Plan’s assumption that France had to be defeated quickly, so German armies could turn to the East and confront the Russian steamroller before it got too strong, left no room for delay or for pauses that might facilitate attempts to manage the crisis. The rigidity of the Schlieffen Plan is nicely captured by Sergei Dobrorolski, Chief of the Mobilization Section of the Russian General staff, writing about mobilization a few years after the war: “The whole plan of mobilization is worked out ahead to its end in all its details. When the moment has been chosen, one only has to press the button, and the whole state begins to function automatically with the precision of a clock’s mechanism. … The choice of the moment is influenced by a complex of varied political causes. But once the moment has been fixed, everything is settled; there is no going back; it determines mechanically the beginning of war.”
Dobrorolski’s statement may not apply perfectly to Russia and the other powers, whose leaders attempted to use mobilization as a coercive instrument of policy, but it does apply to Germany. The Schlieffen Plan was a plan for war that had no diplomatic or coercive utility. It was not a Clausewitzian instrument of state policy in the political sense.
Whereas German mobilization was a sufficient condition for a continental war, the same was not true for other powers. Consider Austria-Hungary. Austria’s declaration of war and mobilization against Serbia significantly narrowed the window open for a settlement, largely because it triggered a Russian mobilization, but it did not make war inevitable. Moreover, the primary source of the increased probability of war was not the mobilization itself, but the accompanying declaration of war, which Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad had opposed. The declaration was a political decision by Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold, designed as an irreversible action that denied Germany any opportunity to change its mind about war. With respect to the above-mentioned concept of rigidity, the Austro-Hungarian mobilization plan, as T.G. Otte notes, did not include plans for a limited occupation of Belgrade, which was a strong argument against accepting the Halt-in-Belgrade proposal.
The Austrian mobilization against Serbia did not by itself significantly escalate the crisis because that mobilization, which was directed at Serbia alone, posed no immediate threat to Russia and did not necessitate an immediate Russian mobilization. In fact, the further the Austrian mobilization proceeded against Serbia, the more difficult it would be for Austria to mount a successful defense against a Russian offensive from the east. Moreover, the Austrian-Hungarian war plan did not allow an actual invasion of Serbia until August 12. Had Russian leaders recognize these complex strategic incentives, the window of opportunity for negotiation would have opened a little wider. These strategic dynamics were not recognized, however and the Tsar, after issuing a partial mobilization order on July 29 that he soon reversed, issued an order for general mobilization on July 31. This was the point of no return in the processes leading to war.
It was the point of no return because a Russian general mobilization, by posing a direct threat to Germany, was a sufficient condition for German mobilization. It is also important to note that a Russian mobilization, whether partial or general, was a necessary condition for the German mobilization. It was necessary because German political and military leaders believed strongly that in order to secure the support of the Social Democrats at home (and, for Bethmann and the Kaiser but not Moltke, the neutrality of Britain abroad) it was essential that Russia be perceived as the aggressor. That required that Russia, not Germany, mobilize first. It is quite unlikely that Germany would have mobilized, thus initiating a war, in the absence of a Russian mobilization, at least in July-August 1914.
Thus the Russia general mobilization was a sufficient condition for a German mobilization, which was a sufficient condition for a continental war. There is a difference, however, in the causal mechanisms underlying these two causal linkages. It was not really anything about the nature of the Russian mobilization plan that led directly and automatically to the German mobilization, but instead the political decision to begin mobilization. By contrast, the German political decision led to war because of the nature of the German mobilization plan, the fact that the plan itself required military action that led to declarations of war by Germany’s adversaries. With a mobilization plan that did not require military action across national boundaries as an inherent part a mobilization, a German political decision for mobilization would have significantly increased the probability of war, but it would not have made war inevitable.