The Road to World War I

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And Issues.

T.S. Eliot, Gerontion, 1919

This has been the bloodiest century in history. From 1900 to 1997 more than 100 million people (civilians included) had been killed in wars - more than all of recorded history prior to 1900. The first eight months of 1945 was the bloodiest time in human history - more people were killed in that short period  of time than in some CENTURIES. 

Where did it all begin?

 The Archduke Franz Ferdinand

On the 28th of June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, was assassinated, along with his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo by Garvrilo Princip, a Serbian. Within weeks all of the major European powers were at war, a war that would last over four years and claim millions of lives - civilians as well as soldiers. How did it happen that in June, The heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a Serbian, and in August, Germany invaded Belgium while Russia invaded Germany? Then The Ottoman Empire and Italy joined the war. Soon, Canadians would be gassed in Belgium, Australians would be bombing Turks and Africans would be fighting Germans. Even Americans, black and white, and citizens from China and India would be combatants. What would follow would be the bloodiest war, in history to that point, by far. The war would solve little, or perhaps even nothing, and lead to an even bloodier war only two decades later. What started in 1914 would not finish until 1945. The children of 1914 were to become the soldiers of 1939. To understand World War II is to see it as WWI starting again after a long break. It all starts in 1914. Likewise, World War I does not end in 1918 or even 1919 in Versailles, but in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hitler and Truman were soldiers in The First War, among many others. Four great empires would fall by 1918. Communism and Fascism would rise in nations that were devastated by the wars. In 1914 Europeans ruled the world. In 1918 Europe was virtually in ruins. After rebuilding, in 1945 she was in ruins again. European domination was finished, and two new superpowers would inherit the world.  There is no single, obvious cause of World War I, and no single person, nation, or ideal that can be isolated. The vast energy of the European peoples, an energy that conquered most of the globe, was turned in on itself. The decades leading up to 1914 were the golden age of the last European monarchies, and the last gasp of the Ottoman Empire.  Versailles blamed Germany for the war. This explanation was an emotional one, and not one created based on fact. Germany, however, does play the leading role in the drama. The greatest of the great European powers would be at the center of the conflict. None of the great powers would benefit from going to war in 1914 but all did so willingly and much to the delight of most of their citizens. 

In the history of conflicts between European nations, is there a place where one could start and say "This is the point where military and political events begin that cause World War 1"?  No. But there are developments in The Nineteenth Century that change Europe so that the conditions that exist in 1914 are present. Michael Wood, in his documentary "Legacy" (1991) makes a valid point when he asks: who are the true ancestors of Europeans and those of European descent - The Greeks? The Romans? The Victorians? None of these. Our ancestors are the barbarians that invaded and destroyed The western Roman Empire. Ever since, while we have soared in intellectual areas and spread our culture around the world, the barbarian has come to the surface from time to time. In the first half of this century the barbarian was front and center. From 1854 to 1856, Russia fought a war in The Crimea against a combined Turkish, British and French force, yet in 1914, Russia would be allied to France and England while Turkey would be allied to Germany and Austria. In 1890 England thought of Germany as her ally on the continent and France and Russia as her enemies. In 1914, France and Russia were her allies and Germany her enemy. The alliances would shift again between 1914 and 1945. In 1905 Britain allied with Japan and then fought against Japan by 1941. Italy would fight against Germany in 1915, and then be her ally in 1939. Technology plays a major role, as the European world began to change at a pace that was stunningly quick. The barbarians of our century would not be armed with spears, but with weapons of great destruction including, by 1945, a weapon more terrifying than ever imagined. Industrialized nations went to war against other industrialized nations and the result was disastrous. In 1914, the most advanced people ever, did the stupidest thing ever. It was a complicated road that lead to 1914. The world of 1871 is so far removed from ours today that it is almost a mythical or fictional age. The two figures of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II are at the heart. Bismarck was the architect of the German Empire, which he had forged through war, but worked diligently after unification to avoid a major war. The Kaiser had never known a war and was anxious to fight one. If there is a single major cause of the war, it is that Wilhelm ignored Bismarck's plan, and in so doing, destroyed his own empire. The war would topple the empires of Germany, Russia, Austria and Turkey, and destroy the social order of the European world that had begun with Charlemagne.

Germany: A New Empire in Europe

Prior to 1870, The Dominant powers on the European continent were France and Austria. From The Treaty of Vienna in 1815, and onwards, Austria had overseen the political affairs of the German states through The Frankfurt Diet. The largest of these states was Prussia.

In the 1850's, Prussian Minister-President Otto Von Bismarck, one of history's greatest diplomats, devised a plan that would unite and greatly strengthen Prussia, in particular, and Germany in general. He succeeded. In 1848 all of the major cities in Europe had erupted in civil disobedience, but no revolution actually succeeded. In the Duchy of Holstein, situated between Denmark and Prussia, German residents rebelled against the Danes. With the support of The Frankfurt Diet, Prussia sent troops to aid the Holsteiners. Britain and Russia supported Denmark demanding that Prussia withdraw its troops. What followed was The Treaty of London, whereby it was agreed that Holstein and it's neighbor Schleswig (unlike Holstein populated mostly by Danes), would remain attached to the Danish Crown,  but they would not be absorbed by Denmark. In 1863, six months into Bismarck's term as Minister - President, the new Danish King Christian IX, proclaimed the two duchies to be part of Denmark.  Bismarck was not particularly concerned over the fate of The Holsteiners, but was anxious to extend Prussian power and territory. Austria backed Prussia, and the original goal was to regain independence for the duchies. Since Denmark had violated the Treaty of London by occupying the two states, no other European power backed them. Eventually, Holstein was assigned to Austria and Schleswig to Prussia. Bismarck had his first victory. A naval base was begun in Kiel, on The Baltic Sea. 

In 1866, Bismarck began challenging Austria and demanded a German parliament that was independent of Vienna. Also, he maintained, Holstein had a right to be a part of Prussia. This lead to war between Prussia and Austria. Italy sided with Prussia, while the German states of Hanover, Saxony, Bavaria and Wittenberg allied with Austria. In a single day, Prussia defeated the Austrian army and ended Austrian influence in internal German affairs. While some Prussians advocated a total victory over Austria, and a march of troops into Vienna, Bismarck was satisfied with the Austrian withdrawal from German politics. Austria lost no territory but agreed to cease all influence in Germany. A federation of North German states was formed with Prussia at the helm. 

Prussia had shown clear military superiority over Austria, so the great western European power, France, took notice. France had relied on Prussian and Austrian antagonism to maintain her position. Now that Prussia had prevailed, France's position was not as secure. A United Germany, going back to The Seventeenth Century, was always a threat to France. A north German alliance was one thing, but a unification of all German states was intolerable to Napoleon III, the last French Emperor. Bismarck saw the need for a common enemy to unite all of the German states, and France was the obvious choice, but when the opportunity came to do so, it was not Bismarck who started it. 

Wilhelm I, of the Hohenzollern family, had become the King of Prussia in 1863. In 1869, the Spanish crown was secretly offered to a distant cousin of Wilhelm, prince Leopold. Wilhelm was concerned only with Prussian affairs, and had no real interest in The Spanish Crown, but Bismarck was keenly interested. Should the succession take place, France would be surrounded by Hohenzollerns. Bismarck finally persuaded Wilhelm to support Leopold. The French, at this point, were not aware of this, but Bismarck knew that they would be outraged when they found out. When France did find out, they demanded of Wilhelm that he renounce the succession, and Wilhelm was willing to do so. A telegram was intercepted and altered by Bismarck to appear to be anti-French. France was outraged and mobilized her army. Prussia followed, with all of Germany behind her. German troops soundly defeated France, and marched to Paris. Unlike the conflict with Austria, however, Prussia was not willing to withdraw and leave it at that. Paris was bombarded for four months and eventually surrendered: two of France's richer provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, were annexed by Prussia. Bismarck did not approve of the annexation of French territory, as he realized that France would never forgive or forget, but in this case he did not have his way. 

In 1871, at the Palace of Versailles, where the German armies had made their base during the siege of France, Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. The German Empire was born, with Prussia at it's heart, and Bismarck as it's Chancellor. Not only was France humbled, she was thoroughly embarrassed. The goal of any future French military action against Germany would be to retake Alsace and Lorraine. By 1871, Austria and Hungary had united to form the Dual Monarchy. Italian Unification had also taken place. There were now five great powers in Europe: Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Italy was forever on the verge of entering the ring, but did not ever reach "great power" status. Bismarck had forged The German Empire out of war, but the last thing he wanted was a major war for the new empire. He succeeded: during his tenure as Imperial Chancellor, no wars were fought between the major powers. 

In the first few decades of the monarchy Bismarck managed to keep a "balancing act" whereby Germany would always try to be, in any dispute between the five great powers, among a majority of three, to prevent alliances from forming that would threaten Germany. To keep Russia and Austria from going to war, he ensured an alliance with Austria. Italy later joined to form The Triple Alliance in 1882. Behind Austria's back, Bismarck signed a Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, in the event of Austrian aggression. Bismarck also tried to keep ties open with England, the greatest sea power in the world and holder of the world's largest overseas empire. 

Kaiser Wilhelm I was content to remain mostly a figurehead, while Bismarck ran the empire. Wilhelm's son Frederick reigned, after his father's death, for only a few months and Wilhelm's grandson, Wilhelm II, became Kaiser in 1888. When Wilhelm II assumed the throne, he intended to rule as a true sovereign and Bismarck was removed in 1890. Bismarck was a threat to Wilhelm, and The Kaiser would not stand in the shadows while someone else ruled the empire. Nor would Bismarck be content as someone who simply followed orders. Bismarck's diplomatic machinations and manufactured wars had created a strong German empire, the strongest nation in Europe. Bismarck focused almost exclusively on Europe and had only trivial interest in overseas colonies. As a result, Bismarck cared little for a navy preferring to focus on a strong army, to defend against aggression from France, Russia and Austria. Wilhelm was unwilling to continue Bismarck's balancing act. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was allowed to lapse in 1890. Bismarck had foreseen that if Germany and Russia were not allied, then Russia would seek an alliance with France. This is precisely what happened. Still, the balance was kept by England's "splendid isolation" - a policy not to interfere with affairs on the continent, unless necessary.

In 1896, in The Cape Colony, in Southern Africa, Dr. Jameson, a renegade colonialist, attempted to overthrow the Dutch Boers. His rebellion was quickly squashed. Wilhelm decided to telegram the Boer Prime Minister, Kruger, and congratulate The Boers on their victory. Even though England had not backed the Jameson Rebellion, it was taken as an offence against English Queen and country for the German Kaiser to do such a thing. England had thought of Germany as not exactly an ally, but not an enemy either: France and Russia had been her primary concern. There was no reason quite yet to write off an Anglo-German alliance. Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's grandson, and his Uncle was the Prince of Wales. Wilhelm detested what he saw as English "liberal" ideas, yet he was attracted to things English nonetheless. England had two things that Wilhelm coveted: an empire and a great navy - folly in opposition to what had been Bismarck's view. The German naval commander, Tirptiz, lobbied for many years to increase the size of the navy, but this required that there be an enemy who warranted such a build-up, and the only enemy that would fit that bill was England. He began to foster anti-Anglo sentiment which The Kaiser was pleased to endorse, despite his English blood and ties to the nation of his mother and grandmother. 

In the short term, England and France were running into each other in Asia and Africa. English possessions were centered in the south and west, while France was concentrated in the North. A dispute developed over Fashoda, in the Nile Valley, in The Sudan. A conflict was averted but the alliance system was tested. Russia did not feel obligated to follow France as her part was interpreted as applying only to Europe. France could not compete with The Royal Navy and without allies she had little choice but to back down. Also, what major undertaking could be planned with Germany on her border? Wilhelm had watched, hoping for an Anglo-French war, but it did not happen. 

Wilhelm did envy France and England her overseas empires, and England her massive navy. By 1900, however, most of the Non European world had been colonized for centuries by The Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese, French, Belgians and Danes. It may have been a little too late for Germany to jump in. Germany did succeed in colonizing west Africa, but no more than 25,000 Germans ever emigrated. Most German emigration was to America and the New World, as millions of Europeans would do in The Nineteenth Century. Even America, herself a former British colony, had begun a colonial expansion. 

Despite the ramifications it would have, by 1898 Germany had begun plans and provided funding to build a world class navy. England had the world's largest navy, which was required to maintain her vast overseas empire, and was understandably worried about a rival German fleet. This lead Britain to move towards an alliance with France in the event of possible aggression by Germany: potential allies, The Germans and British, were moving towards becoming enemies. No formal alliance was yet solidified between France and Britain, but there was an agreement in place by 1904 that both would respond should Germany attack either of these nations. It seemed unthinkable: The Royal Navy had France in mind as the potential sea enemy. France and Britain had been at war, off and on, since The Middle Ages, could they actually become allies?

The Age of Progress

The Nineteenth Century was the century of optimism, invention and progress. Life began to change at an ever-increasing pace. Synthetic fertilizers had increased agricultural yields and mechanization on the farm changed harvesting methods. Europe's farms were emptying as people began to migrate to the cities. In those cities science, or rather it's practical arm technology, provided railways, the telegraph, public electricity, the automobile, the telephone, cinema and then radio. Progress, for the betterment of all, began to be expected as problems one after another were solved by technology. Human achievement seemed limitless in possibility. England had been the first nation in the world to industrialize, beginning in the late 18th Century, and Western Europe followed suit in the 19th Century: Belgium, Germany (at a brisk pace) and then France. Russia remained primarily a backward agrarian nation, but with a very large population, and an immense continuous land empire. 

While technology provided improvements that would benefit everyone, it meant that the tools of war were also to be vastly improved.

Europe was growing rich on her overseas empires. Raw materials were plundered, native people put to work and moved around the world (such as Indians by The British) and production just kept increasing. By 1900, most of the globe was directly controlled or at least influenced by Europeans. For most of the century, workers had rioted, rebelled and in 1848 came close to revolution in all of the major European cities. With the wealthy getting wealthier, why should the rest of society not benefit as well? Socialism and Communism were born and these ideas spread to places such as Germany, France, Britain, and even Russia. The women's movement, as well, has it's beginnings in The Nineteenth Century. The old aristocratic order, which had held most of the wealth, was challenged by the new working classes. Reforms were fought for and won, and social programs were instituted such as old age pensions and maximum working hour regulations. 

It was also the century of Darwin, and more specifically, Social Darwinism. England had her "white man's burden", the belief that the white man was superior to yellow and black men, and had a moral obligation to "civilize" the lesser peoples of the world. The young German Empire, in particular, embraced the idea that it was "survival of the fittest", and many Germans believed themselves to be "the fittest". Many saw war as necessary where the stronger Germans would defeat the weaker peoples of Europe - with seemingly easy victories over France and Austria, there was no reason to suspect that Germany would be anything but triumphant in any future war. Germany would have her "living space" to expand The Empire and move towards a golden age of German kultur.


The Western ideal, which reached it's pinnacle in the Nineteenth Century, was growth and expansion. Nations that do not grow and expand, perish. In 1905 Count Alfred Von Schlieffen submitted a plan, which assumed that any war for Germany would be a two front war. Germany would attack France quickly and capture Paris before The Russians were able to mobilize. After France had fallen, Russia would be the next target. The stronger Germans would prevail over the weaker French and Russians. But Germany was nonetheless more than a little concerned that the nations all around her were starting to ally with each other, against her.

A naval arms race began between Britain and Germany. Germany wanted a navy at least something like The Royal Navy. Britain vowed to keep pace and the goal was to be stronger than any two other navies combined. As the century wore on, it was soon obvious that the race was against Germany alone. The German build up served to sever any possible alliance with Britain: they were both building navies to face each other in war. Eventually, Britain withdrew her ships from The Mediterranean placing the bulk of the fleet in The Atlantic and The North Sea, while France was left to police The Mediterranean.

Europeans had been colonizing China since early in The Nineteenth Century. In 1900, an uprising occurred in China, known as The Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers wanted to overthrow foreign influence, in particular, Western and Christian influences. This applied to Chinese Christians as well. Westerners were killed along with Chinese Christians and eventually in Peking there was a siege of a compound that held American, British and European citizens. European forces that were stationed in the Far East were sent, but they seemed inadequate. An allied force was assembled in Europe under a German commander, Waldersee. Unfortunately for The Kaiser, before the German-led Allied troops could reach China, the rebellion had been contained. Wilhelm was extremely disappointed, after the mobilization of the troops which Russia and Britain had allowed to be led by Germany. The Kaiser had been looking for a chance to show his strength. In perhaps his most ill-conceived speech ever, Wilhelm addressed his troops and demanded that they offer no quarter, no mercy to the enemy, and that they behave as if they were Huns of Attilla. The speech would haunt Germany for decades, as in the coming world wars, German soldiers would often be referred to as "Huns". 

Britain, meanwhile, was busy fighting a war in Southern Africa. Britain had colonized parts of South Africa originally to help maintain her hold on India. In the 1870's diamonds and gold, in great deposits, were discovered and a more active colonization and expansion plans followed. Dutch colonists, The Boers, had been driven into the interior in 1836 by The British colonization closer to the coast. After the Jameson incident it was a good bet that there would arise a conflict between Boers and Brits. The Boer war would last until 1902. Initially The Boers were successful, defeating an army of 25,000 that should have been more than adequate to maintain the British position. Eventually, 500,000 troops were mobilized and the Boer republics of The Free Orange State and Transvaal were annexed into The British Empire. This proved an embarrassment to Britain and an indication that Britain was not as great a military power as once may have been thought. Thousands of civilian Boers had been imprisoned or killed by British Troops which lead to condemnation of British actions by France and Germany. Britain defended herself and to Germany put forth the claim that their actions were no less noble than German military tactics under Frederick The Great or Bismarck during The Franco-Prussian War. Germany was outraged at this comparison. 

When English "splendid isolation" ended it did not lead to a German alliance. Concern over Russian expansionism, likely to next involve Korea, lead to an alliance with Japan. It was a two-step agreement: If Russia attacked Japan, Britain would remain neutral; if France or another ally joined in against Japan, then Britain would support Japan. This arrangement could lead to war against France. In 1905 Russia was defeated by Japan in a naval war. This did not go unnoticed in Germany, and German foreign policy became more aggressive, as there was an opportunity to exploit Russia's defeat and wounded pride. 

That same year, there was a crisis in Morocco. In 1880, both France and Germany were among the signators of The Treaty of Madrid where it was agreed that no nation would take action against Morocco without consulting the other signators of the treaty. By 1905, Morocco had become unstable and France, in violation of the treaty, sought to take control of the Moroccan police and army. Although Britain was a larger trading partner with Morocco than France, her position was that it was better that France attempt to impose order than Britain. The price for France would be to leave Egypt, colonized by France since Napoleon, in British hands. King Edward VII, son and successor to Victoria, visited Paris. The damage done to Anglo-French relations through Fashoda and The Boer War were beginning to mend. Germany had now lost two potential major allies: Russia and England. 

Austria, Russia and The Balkans

England had pretty much settled colonial issues with France, and solidified an entente. The next move was to secure an agreement with Russia.  In 1908, after a negotiation process, an entente was reached with Russia, and colonial claims in Asia and The Black Sea left England confident that her greatest prize, India, was safe from Russian aggression. As with the entente with France, the Russian agreement was not a military alliance, and no formal declaration of alliance was solidified, but at least Russia and England were friends if not allies. 

The Ottoman empire had been withering throughout the Nineteenth Century. In 1878 Austria became the administrator of the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1909 a coup took place in Turkey and an unstable regime of "Young Turks" seized power. Austria then annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. In an agreement with Russia this was to happen: Russia would be given passage by her navy through the Black Sea . Turkey had maintained a blockade either way which at times benefited Russia, as it kept European warships from attacking Russia that way. In 1905, however, in the war against Japan, the Russian Black Sea fleet could not be used, and Russia was swiftly defeated. Austria would take Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria would break away from The Ottoman Empire and declare independence. What happened was quite different. Serbia was a Russian ally and demanded that Russia intervene in regard to the Baltic states in an effort to protect fellow Slavs. The Serbian army mobilized. Germany vowed to back Austria as she was her only remaining ally among the five powers. Russia, not ready for a war against Germany and Austria, backed down and decided to keep out of the whole Bosnian situation when Austria threatened to publicize the agreement made between them regarding Bosnia and sea passage. Russia persuaded Serbia to back down as well. But Russia vowed not to back down again! Russia put in place a plan that would constitute a Russian offensive in the west, should another such crisis arise and from that point on, a European crisis might lead directly to war against Austria and even Germany. 

The German response, as it had been with The Anglo-French Alliance was to publicly declare that it saw nothing to worry about, as it was an agreement over colonial issues and did not affect Europe. But a tenant of German foreign policy since Bismarck had been to keep England and Russia apart. Germany was now surrounded , with allies in Italy and Austria to the south, but potential enemies joined together, to the east and west. Austria had maintained that bringing Bosnia and Herzegovina into the empire would benefit the provinces, affording them all that the empire could offer. There were a great many ethnic Serbians in Bosnia and Serbia had had hopes that a Pan Serbian nation for all Serbs would be created instead. The Bosnian crisis fuelled animosity between Austria and Serbia. As 1905 and 1909 showed, conflicts between two European powers could draw other countries into it very quickly, and it seemed in any dispute that Germany and Austria would side against Russia and France ( and then of course Britain ). Also in 1909, Italy signed two agreements: one with Austria and another with Russia. Italy could end up on either side. The Triple Alliance was no longer a sure thing for Germany and only Austria was left, among the five powers, as a solid German ally.

"Some damned foolish thing in The Balkans, will ignite a major war."

- Bismarck

 In October 1912, war broke out between the waning Ottoman empire and four Balkan states - Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria - new states that were former Ottoman possessions. Turkey was no match and in December, Serbian troops captured Durrazzo, a seaport on The Adriatic. Austria demanded that Serbia withdraw, and mobilized a large army to back-up these threats. But, if Austria were to attack Serbian forces, Russia would back-up Serbia. This situation showed the potential to escalate into a major war. One initial armistice was signed and collapsed and a second conflict began. A conference was held in London, and in May 1913, a treaty was signed assigning possessions from former Ottoman holdings. The new state of Albania was created, but this cease fire lasted only a month and war resumed for a third time. A second treaty was signed in August in Bucharest. War was averted and a smaller war, between Turkey and Balkan states, did not draw in the major powers, notably Russia and Austria, into war. Peace had prevailed, but the animosity between Austria and Serbia continued uncooled. With the alliances entrenched (historical pun intended), egos posturing and Nationalism in full bloom, Europe was a chamber filling with gas - all that was needed was a match to be lit. On June 28th, 1914, that match was struck. In Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was assassinated, along with his wife. Serbia and Austria were now going to settle the issue, and drag all of Europe into it. What would begin in 1914 would not be halted until 1918, and not settled until 1945, dragging the world into the bloodiest century in history.

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