Opinion: The True Causes of World War One discussed for Centenary News

Posted on centenarynews.com on 11 June 2014
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Alan Paton writes for Centenary News in an opinion article which explores the "true causes of World War One", analysing the roles which all the major powers played.

After all the research, thousands of books, and learned papers, who or what started World War One is still debated.

The British government isn't much help. In commemorating the 100th anniversary of the War it decided to exclude discussion of its causes to avoid upsetting Germany. Though one leading conservative broke ranks and couldn't resist blaming German imperialism. In the words of Boris Johnson "It is a sad but undeniable fact that the First World War – in all its murderous horror – was overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression".

A recent book, "July 1914", heaps all the blame on Russia set on its ambition to take control of the Turkish Straits, eagerly pushed along by France seeing in the ensuing war an opportunity to liberate Alsace-Lorraine. The author is an American and an assistant professor at a Turkish university.

A Familiar Problem

Immediately after the assassination by Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo of the Archduke, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Austria-Hungary decided to put a permanent stop to the Serb movement for Greater Serbia, the movement behind the outrage, by invading Serbia and giving parts of the country to its neighbours, Albania and Bulgaria, and turning what was left into a vassal state of the Empire.
It sounds familiar. A great power invades a small nation to ensure a crime, recognised internationally as outrageous, is not repeated or to prevent even worse things happening.

If the Austro-Hungarians had struck quickly with a less ambitious plan, seizing Belgrade, the capital of Serbia just across the border, without an ultimatum or a declaration of war, presenting Europe with a fait accompli, the crisis might have eventually been solved by negotiation. It was widely recognised that Serbia had a case to answer. But the Austro-Hungarians moved very slowly. Many regular troops were on harvest leave and the objections of the Hungarian prime minister had to be overcome.

And, they needed German support. Russia might come to the aid of Serbia if Serbia was invaded and threatened with Austro-Hungarian vassalage, and the only way that Austria-Hungary might deter Russia was if it had the military backing of Germany. Within days of the assassination Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to Berlin with a message for the Kaiser to get that backing.


The Kaiser believed Russia would not fight for Serbia and Russia's ally France would not give its military support because of their military weakness. The Russians hadn't completed their modernisation and expansion programme and an opposition French politician had "exposed" the inadequacy of French artillery and fortifications. And, in any case, the Russian Tsar would not protect those who murdered royal persons such as the Archduke. The Tsar's own grandfather had been assassinated.

The Kaiser gave his unqualified support to the Austro-Hungarians to do whatever they thought right and exhorted them to move quickly and put an end to the Serb problem. When the German minister of war asked him if Germany should take any preparatory measures he replied no preparations were necessary; a war with France and Russia was unlikely though it was "something to keep in mind".

As things turned out, Russia, supported by France, didn't hesitate to defend Serbia.

Even more amazing is that while the Kaiser at his palace in Potsdam outside Berlin was giving the Austro-Hungarian ambassador the so-called "blank cheque" and counting the chance of war with Russia as unlikely, just "something to keep in mind", in Berlin the top official of the German foreign office, Zimmermann, was telling Hoyos, the Austro-Hungarian envoy, that there was a 90 percent probability of a European war as a result of the policy they had chosen.


The Germans also believed Britain would remain neutral. George V met Prince Henry, the Kaiser's brother, and gave him the impression that Britain wanted to stay out of any European conflict. The Prince wrote to the Kaiser reporting King George had said "we shall try all we can to keep out of this—and shall remain neutral". When at the height of the crisis, and after numerous warnings from the German ambassador in London that Britain would be drawn in and support France, the likelihood of Britain staying neutral was questioned by Tirpitz, the German Navy Minister, the Kaiser immediately quashed any doubt, saying "I have the word of a King".

The importance of this belief in British neutrality also surfaced when the French ambassador in Berlin warned Jagow, the German foreign minister, England would stand by France and Russia. The minister replied "You have your information. We have ours which is quite to the contrary. We are sure of English neutrality". 

Even Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, spoke as if Britain would remain aloof. In several diplomatic exchanges he spoke of the danger of war involving four powers, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. He even said he expected Russia to mobilise against Austria (which had mobilised against Serbia) and only then could serious discussions take place on avoiding a European war. He thought mobilisation could be used as a diplomatic tool.

Ignorance – Civilians and Military Matters

He was not the only one to misunderstand the consequences of military measures. After the Russian Council of Ministers persuaded the Tsar to approve partial mobilisation, that is against Austria-Hungary only, the Russian generals pointed out such partial mobilisation would be a disaster if negotiations failed. It would dislocate the carefully laid plans for general mobilisation. The only practical choice was between general mobilisation, which threatened Germany as well as Austria-Hungary, and no mobilisation. 

Civilian leaders did not understand the complexity and consequences of the military measures they supported or proposed. The military measures initiated by Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, dramatically changed the nature of the crisis in ways he did not foresee.

Jagow, his German opposite number, told the British and French ambassadors in Berlin that Germany would not mobilise if Russia mobilised only on the Austro-Hungarian border and did not directly threaten Germany. He was unaware of the likelihood, in fact, it was considered a certainty by the German Chief of the General Staff, that Austria-Hungary would move to general mobilisation to counter the Russian threat, and under the German and Austro-Hungarian military alliance, Germany also had to mobilise. And German mobilisation led immediately to war.

Missed Opportunities – German Style

The ultimatum Austria-Hungary gave Serbia to mend its ways was designed to be rejected and give Austria-Hungary an excuse to invade. But, the Serbs made a very clever reply that gave the impression they were being contrite and reasonable. In fact, it could be argued it was a reasonable in the circumstances. Grey thought it could be used as a basis of negotiation. He thought the Serbian reply agreed with the Austro-Hungarian demands "to an extent such as he would never have believed possible".

So did the Kaiser. He thought the reply was a great moral victory for Vienna, and "every reason for war dropped away". He proposed Austria-Hungary should accept it but occupy Belgrade until its demands were met, any remaining differences being settled by negotiation. Unfortunately, the German chancellor and foreign minister did not bother to obtain a copy of the Serbian reply and give a copy to the Kaiser until two and a half days after it was made.

The Kaiser came to his conclusion there was no need for war while out riding at Potsdam early in the morning after receiving his copy and wrote instructions for his opinion to be sent to the government in Vienna. The Kaiser did not use the telephone and his instructions were sent by courier to the foreign office in Berlin where they arrived about midday. Bethmann, the German chancellor did not act on them until that evening after Austria-Hungary had already declared war on Serbia. The chancellor had known for at least a day and a half that Austria-Hungary was about to declare war. The Kaiser did not know. 

"Halt in Belgrade" as the Kaiser's idea became know would have left the Serbian army and country intact, not as the Austro-Hungarians wished, to have the army smashed and the country broken up. It was hardly the idea to be expected from the leader of a nation bent on a pre-planned world war of imperial conquest.

There is another way to look at the course the German leaders took. Rather than the outcome of a rational attempt to further or protect German ambitions it was more the result of a dysfunctional government led by personalities unsuited to leadership.

Missed Opportunities – British Style

When Grey finally made clear that Britain would not be neutral, it had a significant impact and caused the German chancellor to put pressure on Austria-Hungary to modify its objectives.

It was true Grey was in a small minority in the Liberal cabinet and in an even smaller minority in the Liberal party in parliament, that would go to war on the side of France as a result of a conflict in the Balkans involving imperial Russia. Any public warning by Grey that Britain would side with France would have split the Liberal party, and, in fact, the warning he did eventually give was given privately to the German ambassador in London.

The Conservative party was fully in favour of supporting France, and if Grey and the other cabinet members supporting British intervention, which included the prime minister, had resigned it would have brought about a pro-war coalition or a pro-war Conservative government. It is not unreasonable to argue that Grey could and should have given a private warning earlier than he did. Even a few days could have made a difference.

In the event the Liberal cabinet stuck together and went to war because Germany invaded Belgium. 

Too Late - The Military Take Over

When Bethmann, the German chancellor, realised war would break out, the Russians were going to fight supported by the French, and he had Grey's private warning, he sent frantic wires to Vienna telling the Austro-Hungarians to modify their objectives. In parallel, Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, was wiring his Austrian counterpart urging general mobilisation against Russia. Forget the Serbs! These conflicting messages elicited the remark from Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, "Who rules in Berlin?"

Moltke knew German military strategy depended on the success of an immediate surprise attack in the west to seize the Belgian forts blocking the invasion route to France, as soon as German mobilisation started. Any defensive preparations by the Belgians or the French would lessen the chances of success. And the French and the Belgians had already started to take precautions. Germany might not be able to wait. Time was running out.

Long Term Causes and Human Agency

Most books about the causes of World War One examine the underlying or long term causes; the rival alliances, the armaments race, imperial ambitions, domestic issues, cultural trends, and overseas and economic competition, vast impersonal forces.

This is not to say long term causes are more important than immediate causes, the contemporary events and decisions. The immediate causes bring out the human factors; miscalculation, ignorance, poor information, attitudes, temperament, and even bad organisation.

In fact, if there are no immediate causes the underlying or long term issues don’t cause anything, they remain issues which may change or eventually fade away, as has happened many times in history.

US-Soviet rivalry did not bring about World War Three in October 1962, during the "Cuban Missile Crisis". Kennedy and Khrushchev and their advisors made the right decisions. If they hadn't, we might now be discussing how the Cold War or the alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) "caused" World War Three, that is, if there was anyone left to have such a discussion.

The Author

Alan Paton is the author of "Who Started World War One?" an electronic book just published and available on Amazon Kindle, iBooks and Smashwords.

He is also content editor of the website www.whostartedwwone.com which gives a new way to study the 1914 July crisis. The central feature of the website is a Timeline covering over 500 critical events, decisions, statements, meetings, and actions, involving 50 or so politicians, military leaders, and diplomats, in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Serbia, Russia, Britain, France and Belgium from the 29th June to the 4th August 1914, and the outbreak of World War One "the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century".

Copyright (c) 2014 Alan Paton