We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” —
“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions—but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the minds and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.” Edmond Taylor’s book The Fossil Monarchies, published in 1967, was one of the first academic works to make this point: that even though the Second World War was far more devastating to mankind, it was the First World War (also known as the Great War) which truly reshaped the course of human history. In just four short years, two empires were destroyed, a third plunged into the darkness of a communist revolution, a fourth politically but not militarily defeated, and two more fatally weakened. The only nation which truly emerged intact from the Great War almost immediately withdrew from European affairs entirely. The victorious Allied Powers, in their eagerness for revenge against the Germans, cast away their triumph at the Versailles peace conference and instead set the world on a course for an even longer and more destructive conflict twenty years later.
The Great War’s origins lay as far back as the French Revolution, but its direct cause can be traced to the creation of the German Empire in 1871 at the hands of King Wilhelm I of Prussia and his “Iron Chancellor,” the nationalist Otto von Bismarck. Since the Middle Ages, Germany had been a collection of small, independent kingdoms and principalities dominated either by the Roman Catholic Church or by foreign powers. Upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat in 1815, Germany was reorganized into the 39 states of the German Confederation, a loose alliance of nations presided over by the Austrian Emperor Francis I. Austria, although ruled by the ethnic Germans of the Hapsburg monarchy, was largely populated by other racial groups like Magyars, Czechs, Poles and Ruthenians. For German nationalists, it was unthinkable to include these outsiders within a German Reich (the word literally means “realm” but is usually translated as “empire”). Upon coming to power in the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest majority-German nation in the confederation, Otto von Bismarck embarked on a seven-year campaign to first expel the Austrians from Germany and then to unify all ethnic Germans under Prussian rule. In three wars—against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870—Bismarck succeeded in uniting the German people by “iron and blood.” His defeat of France and the destruction of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (the great emperor’s nephew) scarred the French public psyche, and the rise of a mighty Germany who had stolen some of their sacred soil (the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine) struck fear into their hearts. Across the English Channel, the British Empire also watched the rise of Germany with trepidation. Since the dawn of the 19th century, Britain had been the Continent’s dominant economic and naval power, and yet Germany matched its industrial power within a decade of its creation and began to build a High Seas Fleet to match the power of the Royal Navy. Bismarck’s creation of a “Second Reich” had upset the entire balance of power in Europe so carefully maintained since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Once his goal had been achieved, Otto von Bismarck set aside his militaristic instincts and adopted a statesmanlike persona, seeking only to preserve in peace what he had created in war.
The German Kaiser, Wilhelm I of the House of Hohenzollern, had not wished to rule a united Germany and was content to allow his chancellor to run the country while he spent his time marching with his troops and doting on his grandson (and eventual successor) Willie. From 1871 until his forced retirement nineteen years later, Bismarck maintained the peace on the Continent by playing the honest broker in both colonial disputes between the other European powers and ethnic struggles in southern Europe. He insisted that no conflict in Europe— especially in the troubled Balkan region—was “worth the blood of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” When Wilhelm I died in 1888, his son took the throne as Kaiser Frederick III, but he was already dying of throat cancer. Thus, the young Willie became emperor at the age of 26 later that same year; he was young, arrogant and ill-tempered, and he resented Bismarck’s efforts to restrain his global ambitions. Two years later, Wilhelm II dismissed the old chancellor from office and chose weaker men to serve as head of government for the rest of his reign. He would govern Germany directly as its “Supreme Warlord.”
Troubles in the East and South
The vast Russian empire had been ruled by the Romanov dynasty since the 17th century, and after two centuries the country was growing restless. The czars governed with absolute authority, but with the rise of liberalism and nationalism came calls for reform. The first two czars of the 19th century, Alexander I and Nicholas I, had ruthlessly crushed all efforts to transform Russia into a democratic, European state. However, Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War and the rise of Czar Alexander II brought about a new era for the country. Alexander II was willing to tolerate some democratic and liberal reforms, and he improved the nation’s infrastructure to prepare it for a modern war. Russian culture flourished under Alexander II, but when he was assassinated by a member of the People’s Will, a revolutionary socialist organization, all toleration of dissent and anti-czarist opinions vanished. His son, Czar Alexander III, imprisoned and executed thousands of reformers, and tens of thousands more fled the country for the liberal nations of France, Britain and Switzerland. (Among those sent to Siberia on his orders was a young socialist revolutionary from Simbirsk named Vladimir Lenin.) Like Wilhelm I, Alexander III was far too indulgent of his offspring, and his son Nicholas spent his early adult years going to the theater and attending parties with Bolshoi dancers rather than learning how to govern the country. When Nicholas II became czar on his father’s death in 1894, the young ruler’s attitude was much like that of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II—he was to be obeyed immediately and without question. A year later, Nicholas granted a minor concession to liberal reformers by creating a democratic legislature, the Duma (whose acts and declarations he usually ignored), and his palace at Tsarskoye Selo remained the center of all power in Russia. While the czar and his wife Alexandra lived lives of unimaginable opulence, the people starved and began to consider how to bring about real reforms for their country.
Like the Romanovs and Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburg family had spent centuries at the center of European politics. From their seat at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the Hapsburgs ruled the mighty Austrian Empire, which had played a vital role in Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat and brought art and culture to the backwater lands of Central Europe and the Danube Basin. And yet, it seemed as though time had passed the Hapsburgs by. Emperor Franz Joseph had come to power in 1848, and his temperament and policies stagnated the empire as the rest of the world embraced the Industrial Revolution and democratic reforms. More importantly, the multiethnic nature of the empire meant that Franz Joseph was forced to confront demands for equality with the ruling Germans, which was unthinkable for this proud ruler. In 1867, however, after a rebellion in Hungary, Franz Joseph granted autonomy to the Magyars and allowed them to create the Kingdom of Hungary (the throne of which was his). Austria thus became the “Dual Monarchy” of Austria-Hungary. As the century neared its end, Franz Joseph’s life was beset by tragedy. His son Rudolf committed suicide with his mistress in 1889, and his wife Elisabeth was murdered by anarchists nine years later. The new heir-apparent, his nephew Franz Ferdinand, was young and headstrong, eager to embrace new reforms and modernize the empire. These tendencies, combined with his marriage to a lesser noblewoman named Sophie Chotek, soured the relationship between the emperor and his heir. Locked in the power dynamics of dynastic politics, the two men neglected their people. Instead, Austria looked to the south for ways to maintain their status as a Great Power in Europe even as the empire slowly rotted from within.
The Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe has always been a source of considerable ethnic and political strife, even in the decades since the Second World War. A mass of squabbling nationalities with deep roots of hatred toward outsiders, the region had been governed by the Ottoman Empire since the 17th century. As Ottoman power waned, nationalist groups sought independence for their peoples. The Greeks had won their independence with British and French help in 1832, and two other Balkan ethnicities already possessed limited autonomy by the 1870s: the Serbs and the Romanians. War with Russia in 1878 saw these groups win independence, together with the Bulgarians, and the Austrians carved out a client state in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Ottomans controlled a strip of Balkan lands between Albania and Constantinople, and the “Eastern Question” of who would dominate the peninsula once the empire fell apart helped set the stage for the Great War.
The Fuses are Lit
Two distinct but related series of events brought about the eruption of the Great War in 1914. The first was the ever-present contest between France and Germany (with Britain occasionally backing the former) over control of Western Europe and colonies in the Third World; the second was the ever-growing ethnic crisis in the Balkans. Each one could have probably led to a small conflict in either Western or Eastern Europe, but when combined they created a war that engulfed the entire continent.
During his years of power, Otto von Bismarck’s foreign policy had been oriented around a single goal: isolating France and preventing her from launching a war of revenge against Germany. To this end, he signed formal military alliances with Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy as well as commercial treaties with Great Britain and Spain. In effect, France was surrounded. However, after his dismissal in 1890, Wilhelm II chose to abandon the treaty with Russia and trusted to his own personal relationship with his cousin, Nicholas II, to keep the peace. Seeing an opportunity, the French Third Republic immediately signed a defense treaty with the Russians, presenting Germany with the possibility of a two-front war. Germany’s naval building program worried the British, whose Royal Navy had dominated the world’s oceans since the start of the century. So too did Wilhelm’s desire for colonies in Africa (and specifically his meddling in France’s affairs in Morocco), and so Britain came to an understanding with France and Russia in 1894 and later entered a formal alliance in 1902 against German power. The balance had now swung against the Germans—if war broke out, they would be surrounded, not France.
Ever since the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the three northern Balkan states of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria had been under Russian protection against any outside threats. Of these small nations, Serbia was the closest to Russia because of their shared Slavic ancestry. This presented a problem to the Austrians, who controlled the ethnically-Serb region of Bosnia and Herzegovina which Serbia coveted. However, it was thought that an agreement might be reached between Russia and Austria. In 1907, the Russian foreign minister tried to secure Austrian backing for a move against the Dardanelles Straits which connected the Black and Mediterranean seas. Russia had long coveted these waters as an outlet to the wider world, and so a bargain was struck. The Russians would support Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (betraying their Serb friends), and in exchange the Austrians would support Russia at an international conference of the Great Powers to give the Russians control of the Dardanelles. But then, Vienna betrayed St. Petersburg and marched into Bosnia and Herzegovina before a conference had been arranged and without prior notification. The Russians demanded that Austria fulfill her end of the bargain, but here Germany intervened. Under the post-Napoleonic Wars settlement among the Great Powers (Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia), all five nations had to agree to attend a conference to discuss an international crisis. As Germany was the successor-state to Prussia, she now held an effective veto over any conference, and the Kaiser’s government refused to attend. Berlin also threatened that if Russia made trouble over Austria’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, war with Germany would be the result. Humiliated, Russia stood down.
The Bosnian Crisis of 1907 was, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for the Great War. As Bismarck is alleged to have commented, a European war would be set off by “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” The crisis had two long-term results. First, Russia’s embarrassment by Austria pushed them closer to the French and British and deepened their animosity toward the Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires (though the czar and Kaiser continued to remain friendly). Second, and more important, the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire had found a friend who would back her in any situation: Germany. Armed with this diplomatic “blank check,” Austrian attitudes toward Serbia soon became more aggressive.
The Powder Keg Blows
In May 1912, dignitaries from over seventy countries traveled to London for the funeral of King Edward VII. Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book on the first year of the Great War The Guns of August brilliantly captures the pageantry of this largest gathering of European royalty in history. In many ways, this was the last image of the Victorian Old World, of class divisions and polite society. Just two years later, European society would be shattered forever by war. The Continent was, according to a reporter in London whose name has been lost, a “powder keg” of competing interests and alliances. That keg finally erupted with an assassin’s bullet on July 28, 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Hapsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, was in Sarajevo for a state visit with his wife Sophie. While being driven through the streets of the Bosnian capital city in an open car, both the archduke and his wife were shot by Gavrillo Princip, a member of the Serb terrorist group “The Black Hand.” Austria immediately demanded compensation from the Serb government, presenting a list of demands to the government in Belgrade. In London, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey did his best to hold the situation together, and for three weeks it seemed as though the crisis would pass. Serbia agreed to Vienna’s harsh demands, but then the situation changed. On July 23rd, the Austrian ambassador
to London informed Grey that his government viewed Serbia’s compliance as “unsatisfactory.” Grey was outraged, as the Serbs had agreed virtually to Austria taking control of the government; he could not understand what the Austrians were trying to do. It has since come to light that the Germans were pushing Austria toward war with Serbia—they intended to hold the Russians back after destroying France in a great battle near Paris, and with Austria’s victory in the Balkans the two nations would then redraw the map of Europe to their own advantage. Austria’s army was pitifully weak compared to that of Germany and the Western Allies, but Vienna was convinced that Berlin would protect them, and so they pushed forward. Meanwhile, the Russians were mobilizing their army to protect Serbia, and the French were desperately trying to convince the British to back them if Germany attacked. (Britain’s treaty with France was not a mutual defense agreement but rather a “statement of common interests.”) When Serbia rejected new demands for more concessions from Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph’s government declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
Under the terms of the various alliances which existed in 1914, the following sequence of events should have taken place: Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary to protect Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia to protect Austria-Hungary, France declared war on Germany to protect Russia. In fact, none of these events took place. Russia did commence full mobilization of its armed forces on July 30th but did not declare war on Austria. Germany replied by issuing mobilization orders on August 1st and declared war on both Russia and France that same day. Thus, Germany was viewed as an aggressor in the conflict, which had terrible consequences for the entire world. The next day, Berlin demanded that the neutral nation of Belgium permit the German Army to pass through the country in accordance with Germany’s war plan against the French. When Belgium refused on August 3rd, Germany invaded; this violated the 1839 Treaty of London in which all five Great Powers agreed to respect the “eternal neutrality” of Belgium. In response, Britain declared war on Germany the following day. Finally, on August 6th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. Europe was now at war.