Tuesday, August 05, 2014


"The Situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you can bring about a different understanding, there is some day going to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria."
Colonel Edward House [American President Wilson's special envoy] to Wilson, May 1914. In The Origins of the First World War: diplomatic and military documents. Edited and Translated by Annika Mombauer. (2014), p. 136.
"Germany is becoming anxious as to the future, as she knows very well that Austria may not exist for any appreciable length of time as a coherent country, and that before long the disintegrating forces in the Dual Monarchy may become seriously operative. She therefore does not look upon Austria as a very strong ally; while, on the other hand, the growth of Russia in all directions is inspiring her with some apprehension".
Private Letter from Sir Arthur Nicolson [Permanent Under-secretary of the Foreign Office] to Lord Hardinage [Viceroy of India], 11 June 1914. In Mombauer, op. cit., p. 142.
"Yesterday with the Reich Chancellor....long conversation of the situation....Russia's military power growing rapidly; following strategic build-up of Poland situation untenable; Austria continually weakening and more immobile; the undermining [of Austria-Hungary]from the North, South[,] East far advanced. At any rate incapable of going to war for a German cause....The future belongs to Russia, who grows and grows, and becomes for us an ever more oppressive nightmare."
Quotation from Reich Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg's ADC Kurt Riezler's diary, 7 July 1914. In T. G. Otte. July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914. (2014), pp. 92-93.
Yesterday was the one-hundredth anniversary of the true commencement of the Great War. The date that is when England declared war on Imperial Germany. The one-hundredth anniversary has of course sparked as the Financial Times tells us to-day numerous public events to mark this august occasion 1. The anniversary has also sparked a small deluge of historical works dealing with the origins of the Great War. In particular those books by Christopher Clark, Sean McMeekin (in his case two of them), Margaret Macmillan, Thomas Otte, Annika Mombauer and Gordon Martel. As the recent review of this literature by Hew Strachan & William Mulligan among others, shows the predominate historical literature in this field has moved away considerably from the Fischerite consensus of the late 1960's, 1970's and 1980's 2. Marked by a renewed interest in Luigi Albertini's magnum opus, the trend of the past fifteen years, of which in particular the works of Clark and McMeekin have served as the chief points of reference are an emphasis on contingency and the agency that each of the actors in this particular historical drama: Serbia, Austria, Russia, France and even England played. No longer it is merely the case that Germany was the precipitator of both the July crisis and the World War that follow it 3. With that being said, one cannot but gainsay the fact that while unpremeditated and in some fashion completely unexpected, both the July Crisis and the Great War that followed it, did not (pace Niall Ferguson), occur out of the blue 4. There were certain pre-conditions which made a European-wide war, if not 'inevitable' at the very least thinkable in the minds of many of Europe's elites in a way that was not true circa 1905 or 1908 or even as late as the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911. What were those preconditions? I would suggest three in particular as being the very most important: i) an armaments race which had commenced in 1910-1911 and which seemed to be accelerating in the Spring of 1914; ii) tied up with 'i' was the perception among both> the Triple Alliance Powers (Germany, Austria and Italia) and the Triple Entente powers (Russia, France and England), that the former was losing the arms race and the latter and Russia in particular were winning it. Viz Bethmann-Hollweg's black pessimism on the 7th of July was not merely caused by the recent death of his wife, but were part and parcel of the common talk in European foreign ministries in 1913 and 1914 and thus Sir Arthur Nicolson's comments to Lord Hardinage. As the Chief of the Staff of the Italian Army exclaimed to the German military attaché in the Spring of 1914:
"The ring which is forming around the Triple Alliance is getting stronger every year and we are calmly looking on! I honestly believe that the years 1917 or 1918 which are generally named by the opponents of the Triple Alliance as the date for a military strike are not just a product of fantasy. They could very well have a real basis. Do we really wait until the opponents are prepared and ready? Is it not more logical for the Triple Alliance to abandon all pretence of civility and to start a war ourselves which will one day be forced upon us, while there is still time?" 5
Remarks which were seconded by the British Ambassador to Russia Sir Arthur Buchanan, also in the Spring of 1914:
"The temporary advantages, which Germany has secured by her Army Bill of last year, will in a few years time be eclipsed by the counter measures which Russia has been obliged to take in self defence. By the year 1917 she will have increased by some 460,000 men the peace time strength of her army....Unless therefore Germany is prepared to make still further financial sacrifices for military purposes, the days of her hegemony in Europe will be numbered; as even without the co-operation of England, Russia and France combined will then be strong enough to confront the united forces of the Triple Alliance. There are however, still three critical years to pass before that result is achieved. In the race of armaments Russia has more staying powers than Germany; and as Germany is aware of that fact there is always the danger that she may be tempted to precipitate a conflict before Russia is fully prepared to meet it". 6.
The third precondition has already been noted: the fact that Austria-Hungary was widely seen as the chief loser along with the Ottoman Empire from the results of the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. That the surprising and impressive victories of the Russian-sponsored 'Balkan League' led by Serbia had almost completely changed the status quo ante bellum in the peninsula. And that a Serbia which was now twice the size of its pre-war self, was becoming close to a position wherein it could think seriously about challenging the Austria Monarchy. Something which, sub rosa, it was already doing of course via its sponsorship of state terrorism, and hence the vicious and unnecessary crime of Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914. As the German Foreign Minister, Gottlieb von Jagow noted in the midst of the July Crisis to the German Ambassador to London:
"Austria, which has forfeited more and more prestige as the result of her lack of vigour, hardly counts any longer as a really Great Power. The Balkan Crisis weakened her position still further. Our alliance federation has also been weakened by this retrogression of Austria's position as a Power." 7
I sum, the pre-conditions for turning what in other circumstances might have passed off as a very sharp but limited diplomatic crisis, were present to make first a continental then a world war possible. Which is not to agree with the argument first raised by Eyre Crowe, the Senior Clerk responsible for European affairs at the British Foreign Office on the 25th of July and subsequently given academic form by Fritz Fischer and his school, that the July Crisis was au fond a:
"struggle, which is not for the possession of Serbia, but one between Germany aiming at a political dictatorship in Europe and the Powers who desire to retain individual freedom." 8
If nothing else (and it would be erroneous to overlooking the many other positive aspects of the recent scholarship), the works of Clark, et. al., make it extremely difficult to read into German actions and inactions in the July Crisis as being a Hitlerian attempt to 'Griff nach der weltmacht' (a leap to world power and domination), to employ the title of Fritz Fischer's first book 9. Certainly for Austria-Hungary, who was erroneously regarded as little more than a German puppet by the Entente Powers, the entire July Crisis was first and foremost a Balkans Crisis. And indeed one could well regard the Great War as in origins the Third Balkans War. Why a 'Third Balkans War', turned into a World War is simply that unlike in previous Balkans wars, both Russia and France were willing to back Russia's Serbian protégé to the hilt. Regardless of the fact, Russia was not, strictly speaking even allied to Belgrade. As the very pro-Entente, British Ambassador to France, Lord Bertie observed in his private diary on the 26th & 27th of July:
"It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians [sic]. Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained. Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretensions that she is by right, the protectress of all Slavs? What rubbish!...I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it....If, however the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, war is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia. 10 "
And as Lord Bertie correctly foretold, the inevitable result of Russian support for Serbia and its crimes against the House of Austria was the world war that many had feared would occur. It is arguable that if Europe had on its stage a great statesman like Bismarck or a Metternich, the crisis would never have turned into such a horrible conflict. Perhaps, but neither of these great statesman, the greatest statesman that Europe threw-up in the 19th Century, had to deal with such an acute crisis. Hopefully, Europe and indeed the world will not ever have to confront another one in our lifetimes.
1. Clear Barrett & Adam Thompson, "European leaders mark war centenary." The Financial Times. 5 August 2014, in www.ft.com.
2. For the recent reviews of the historical literature, see: Hew Strachan, "Review Article: The origins of the First World War." International Affairs. (March 2014), pp. 429-439; William Mulligan, "The Trial Continues: New Directions in the Study of the Origins of the First World War." English Historical Review. (June 2014), pp. 639-666. Romedio von Thun-Hohenstein, "Review." The Royal United Services Institute. (February / March 2014).
3. For Albertini's work, see: Origins of the War of 1914, Volumes I-III. Translated by Isabella Massey. Revised Edition with an introduction by Samuel Williamson. (2005). For Christopher Clark's work, see: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. (2013). For Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War (2014). And, Russian Origins of the First World War (2012).
4. Niall Ferguson, "War: In history's shadow". The Financial Times. 2 August 2014, in www.ft.com.
5. Mombauer, op. cit., p. 139. For the fact Germany was losing the arms race with the Entente Powers, see: David Stevenson. Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914. (1996), p. 6-10 and passim. As the British Chargé d'affaires in Berlin, Sir Horace Rumbold noted in a dispatch to London on the 18th of July: "Whatever confidence the Germans may have in the efficiency and quality of their army, the enormous masses of men at the command of the Russia are a constant source of pre-occupation to them. Speculation as to the events which might set those masses in motion against Germany seems to follow almost as a matter of course". See: British Documents on the Origins of the First World War, 1898-1914. Volume XI. Edited J. W. Headlam Morley. (1926), pp. 49-50.
6. Mombauer, op. cit., p. 118. For a similar if not more drastic view, see the following comments from the Riezler diary on the 20th of July: "Again conversation about the entire situation. Russia's increasing demands and incredible explosive power. In a few years no longer possible to fend off, particularly if the current European constellation remains". See: Ibid., p. 295.
7. See: July 1914, The outbreak of the First World War: selected documents. Imanuel Geiss, Edited & Translated.(1967), p. 122.
8. See: Minute by Crowe on a dispatch from Buchanan to Sir Edward Grey [British Foreign Secretary], 25 July 1914, in British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914. J. W. Headlam Morley. op. cit., p. 101.
9. On the Fritz Fischer school of interpretation of the Great War's Origins, see in particular his two best books (as translated into English): Germany's Aims in the First World War. (1968). Which is a translation of Griff Nach der Weltmacht. And, The War of Illusions: German policies from 1911 to 1914. I would be a truism to say that everyone (myself included) who studied late 19th / early 20th century European diplomatic history in the period from the early 1970's to the early 1990's in academia was influenced in some manner or other by Fritz Fischer's writings.
10. The Diary of Lord Bertie, Volume I. Edited by Lady Algernon Gordon Lennox. pp. 1-2.


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