Tag Archives: World War 1

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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Initial Reflections on First World War

PAIU1989_140_01_1Next year will see the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. The UK and Scottish governments have already announced that plans are afoot to commemorate this tragic event. Though the specific events are nearly a year away, it seems appropriate to make a start now on reflecting on the war and in particular its causes and what we can learn from that terrible struggle.

My first thought is that there was nothing good about the First World War. It was a terrible, brutal and bloody conflict, which brought great suffering and destruction to all sides. There is nothing to celebrate about this war, except its end, which we can do in 2018. There will be no cause for celebrations in 2014.

My second thought is that the war was primarily caused by Empires. Though one small state, Serbia, was involved in the casus belli, the impetus for war came from the Imperial powers of the day. They were fearful of each other and were if anything, even more fearful of the threat from within. The growing demand from subject peoples for greater self government was a constant threat to the survival of Empires. They, the great imperial powers of Europe – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the British and Ottoman Empires – were all willing to go to war to preserve their empires. War was seen as an acceptable, indeed noble, way to maintain power and influence.

This leads on to my third point of reflection. Not only was the war caused by these Empires, the war was primarily fought by these same Empires. Many smaller countries in Europe and subject peoples in other parts of the world were drawn into this war, but it remained a bloody struggle for supremacy amongst Empires.

My fourth point is that all of the main participants lost to a greater or lesser extent. Though the Franco-British alliance, with the indispensable assistance of the USA, eventually won on the battlefield, they were so weakened as to make this a most bitter victory. Within 50 years even the French and British Empires would cease to exist in the same way as the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, which all collapsed in 1918. The only long term victor was perhaps the USA, not something any of the European powers anticipated nor wanted.

The fifth point that strikes me is that the war resolved nothing. Some Empires disappeared for good, others lost but survived in a truncated form, while some got bigger, but only for a short period. But the fundamental issues around imperial rivalry and self-government were not in any sense resolved and the world, particularly the rest of the world, remained much the same. It was the Second World War which finally resolved many of the key issues, by bringing about a new balance of power in Europe and most of the rest of the world.

My sixth point of reflection is that though many of the underlying issues remained, the war did bring about enormous change. In particular the post war map of Europe looked very different. Many new independent countries emerged from the war. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all recognized as independent countries. The uncertain and difficult future which awaited all these countries was to illustrate just how little the war had resolved many of the underlying conflicts, in particular the right to self-determination.

Even the UK was not untouched by the creation of new countries. Though little is said about it now, it was during the First World War that the seeds for the first break-up of the UK were sown. The bloody uprising of Easter 1916 was to be the precursor for the formation of what is now the independent Republic of Ireland. Shortly after the end of that war the UK itself had become a truncated state.

A seventh point would be that most of the continuing problems in the Middle East can be traced directly back to the insistence by the British and the French to deny the peoples liberated from Ottoman rule the right of self-determination. In particular the Israel/Palestine conflict has only developed because the British were powerful enough to impose their rule over most of the Arab world. With this came the commitment to create a Jewish state in Palestine, against the wishes of the Palestinian inhabitants.

My final point for reflection is that the mess that was the First World War and the legacy it left behind is a direct product of the Victorian and Edwardian ages that our elites seem so keen to extoll. We badly need a serious re-evaluation of that period and how its inequalities and iniquities helped create the conditions for the First World War.

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