World War 1 – A Tragedy, not a Crime?

Gavrilo Princip AssassinationThis phrase, without the question mark, is used in the concluding chapter to Christopher Clark’s illuminating book, The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to War in 1914. In this carefully argued book, Clark is at pains to counter the notion of a guilty party. And it does seem to be true that none of the belligerents planned for the actual war that began in August 1914. On the other hand as Clark makes clear all the major powers were to a greater or lesser degree prepared and willing to go to war, if not in 1914, then sometime soon. Though all the main countries involved in the war were in extremis prepared for war, it seems to me from reading Clark’s book, that some were more willing than others.

In the case of France and Serbia there is much evidence that both countries were not just willing to go to war in the years from 1913 onwards, but that both countries needed a general war in order to achieve their own national objectives. This is clearly the case of Serbia, the instigator of the assassination that proved to be the catalyst for the war. The aims of just about all Serbians, especially the elite, both political and military, was to create a greater Serbia. Their notion of what constituted this enlarged Serbia included all the places where Serbs used to live and all the places where Serbs currently lived. To further complicate matters the Serbian elites regarded Croatians, Bosnians and Macedonians as Serbs, who just weren’t aware of it yet. Serbian policy was to achieve the union of all these lands within a greater Serbia. This aim could only be achieved by war, as most of this notional greater Serbia was currently part of other states, most noticeably the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hence the deep antagonism of most Serbs towards the Hapsburg Empire. On its own Serbia was most unlikely to defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a war. A local war was of no use to Serbia, as it could not win it. Only with the destruction of the Hapsburg Empire could Serbia hope to achieve its aim of a greater Serbia. This in turn could only happen in the context of a general European war. Russian support for Serbia in a war with Austria-Hungary would of course trigger off the intervention of Germany, which in turn would trigger off the intervention of France. Thus it would seem that in 1914 Serbia needed a general European war and at the very least would do nothing to prevent one from starting.

Something similar could be said for France in the years preceding the war. The main aim of French policy was to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1870. Much like Serbia, France could not on its own militarily defeat Germany. Hence the need to develop the military alliance with Russia. However the Russians were unlikely to go to war with Germany just to help France recover Alsace and Lorraine. Only in the context of a wider war would Russia participate on the side of France. As Russia did not have major issues with Germany, this wider war would have to start elsewhere. Which takes us back to Serbia and the Balkans. Russia’s main opponent in the Balkans was Austria-Hungary, and Russia’s main ally in the region was Serbia. The French had for some time realized that a war between Serbia and Austria-Hungary would provide the trigger for involving Russia and thus in turn involving Germany as outlined above. Thus the French too had reasons for wanting a general European war as the most likely way to win back their lost provinces.

Russia too had its own reasons for wanting a general European war. These were twofold and both related to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The first was to secure and if possible increase Russia’s control and influence in the Balkans, which of course brought her into direct conflict with Austria-Hungary. The other and probably deeper reason was the age old Russian ambition to control Istanbul and the Straits. In this ambition Russia was opposed by just about everyone, not just Austria-Hungary. The Ottomans themselves were none too keen and were desperate to modernize their military forces on land and at sea to secure their capital. So the Russian leadership came to the conclusion that they could only secure control of Istanbul as part of the upheavals that come with a European war, when the British and others would be unable to prevent a Russian attack. There was also the factor that if the Russians did not act sooner rather than later, the Ottomans may have improved their military sufficiently to ward off any Russian attack.

Austria-Hungary was in as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. Internally it was beset by all kinds of problems due to the unique nature of the regime and the large number of nationalities living within its boundaries. Many of these nationalities had brethren in neighbouring states and the Empire was always at the risk of irredentist campaigns. The rapid decline of Ottoman power in the Balkans only exacerbated this trend, as Serbia in particular became a larger and more powerful state, with ill-concealed ambitions on Hapsburg land. Austria-Hungary was in no position to seek to extend its territory, it had more than enough problems as it was. But how to thwart the aggressive intent of the Serbs in particular. This was the question which most pre-occupied Hapsburg leaders. Most were strongly opposed to war, but the recent rise in Serbian power and the strengthening of Russian support for Serbia made this line more difficult to hold. The assassination of the heir apparent changed this completely. A local war against Serbia quickly became regarded as the only option to maintain the integrity of the Empire. But could a war against Serbia remain a local war? Given the strength of Russian and French support for Serbia this was most unlikely. Yet the Hapsburg leadership felt they had no alternative. If the Empire was to survive then it would probably involve sooner or later, a war with Russia.

This feeling that if there was to be a war then it was as well to fight it now, seems to have been the main thrust of leadership opinion in both Germany and Britain. Neither country had a direct interest in the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. However both were bound by treaties to come to the aid of others if war did spread beyond these two states. This was particularly the case for Germany, which pretty much had no option but to come to the aid of the Hapsburg Empire if it was attacked by Russia. There is no evidence that the Germans were actively seeking a wider war in 1914, rather the opposite. However they did very little to “lean” on Austria-Hungary and try and find a peaceful settlement with Serbia. Then again no-one was “leaning” on Serbia to try and get the Serbian leadership to co-operate with Austria-Hungary. Indeed the opposite is the case. If the Russians were determined to go to war against Austria-Hungary, then Germany would accept the challenge. But they did not seek it. In which case it is hard to see why Germany should continue to be singled out as the guilty party for the war which followed.

Something similar seems to have been the case with Britain. Largely on the outside of developments during July, the British had no particular wish for a general European war, but were like Germany tightly bound by alliances with Russia and more closely with France. Much like Germany, Britain did little to try and prevent a war in 1914. Rather it let it happen and then willingly participated int the war.

Not a happy tale, with no country covering itself in glory. All contributed to one degree or another to the war, but it seems to me that Serbia, France and Russia were the countries that acted in ways that made the war more rather than less likely.

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One response to “World War 1 – A Tragedy, not a Crime?

  1. Pingback: 2013 – A Year in Books | thebargellist

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