War and Responsibility

History: The Great War happened because dangerous men wanted it to

Ypres Cathedral in Ypres, Belgium, seen from the market square during World War I
Ypres Cathedral in Ypres, Belgium, seen from the market square during World War I / AP
June 23, 2014

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, as they rode through the streets of Sarajevo. Journalists and pundits have relied on a few select metaphors to describe the consequences of the assassination. It 'triggered" the First World War. It was the 'spark" that 'ignited" or 'set off" the 'kindling" or 'powder keg" of latent European antagonisms.

These descriptions are deeply misleading, however. They fail to convey that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife were not a cause of war, but a pretext. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians deliberately chose to prevent a diplomatic resolution of the assassination crisis because they wanted to crush Balkan nationalism with violence. After decades of ferocious debate over responsibility for the First World War, an increasing number of historians now accept that one side undermined potential diplomatic solutions despite the obvious risks of a broader conflict.

Unfortunately, journalists and pundits tend to echo the viewpoint of historians who refuse to hold any party to account for the outbreak of war. Regrettably, mistaken beliefs about the causes of the Great War nourish the illusion that such cataclysms happen as if by accident, and that the best hope for peace consists of extraordinary precautions designed to prevent misperceptions or miscalculations.

Precautions are welcome, yet the true lesson of Sarajevo is that great wars happen because dangerous men want them to. Those men do not have to be monsters like Hitler or Stalin. They may be narrow-minded, reckless, or aggressive like Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei, Kim Jong-Un, or certain leaders in Beijing. Looking back at the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand one hundred years ago, it is clear that the preservation of peace ultimately depends on maintaining the strength and determination necessary to deter or defeat such adversaries.

The Conspiracy in Belgrade and Sarajevo

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a surprise but not an aberration. Gavrilo Princip was not a lone gunman. He was part of a terrorist network led by Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević of Serbian military intelligence. Colonel Dimitrijević, known as Apis, provided weapons and training to Princip and two other assassins while they were in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Dimitrijević was an accomplished conspirator who played an instrumental role in the murder of Serbia’s own king and queen in 1903 because they were insufficiently committed to the nationalist cause.

By 1914, Serbia once again had a government insufficiently nationalist for Dimitrijević, who took matters into his own hands. His network smuggled Princip and two others into Bosnia in advance of the Archduke’s visit. Altogether, seven terrorists gathered in Sarajevo to murder the Archduke. One threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car, but missed his target. Others failed to act, with one later claiming that he felt sorry for Sophie. The first bomb alerted the Archduke’s entourage to the threat, but the group failed to take effective precautions. The Archduke went ahead with a planned speech at Sarajevo’s town hall. Then he and Sophie departed for a local hospital to visit those wounded by the morning’s attack. When a wrong turn delayed their car, Princip struck.

If Princip failed to execute his mission, the Dimitrijević network likely would have begun preparations for its next attack. Six months before killing the Archduke, the network had attempted to assassinate the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia, which Vienna had annexed in 1908. The empire had a large and restive Slavic population from which extremist networks could recruit. Princip and his confederates were easily replaceable.

Two historians of the Great War, Gordon Martel and the late James Joll, observe that assassinations were a 'familiar technique" for radicals in turn of the century Europe. Why, then, did the assassination of Franz Ferdinand lead to war, whereas 'no previous assassination within living memory had provoked a major international crisis?"

The answer is that Austria-Hungary, with the full support of its German ally, chose to exploit the crisis. Vienna’s outrage is not hard to understand, given that agents of a foreign military had just assassinated the heir to its aged emperor. Ironically, Franz Ferdinand himself preferred diplomatic solutions to the recurrent conflicts that destabilized the Balkans, since he suspected they might derail his succession to the throne. Other influential figures had no such concerns. Under their leadership, Vienna ensured that diplomacy would not get in the way of the war they wanted with Serbia.

Austria-Hungary Chooses War

On July 23, 1914, Vienna delivered an ultimatum to Belgrade, insisting on a response within 48 hours. The ultimatum incorporated an array of onerous demands designed to ensure its rejection. Vienna indicated that any response other than unconditional acceptance of its demands would result in a breach of relations. When news of the ultimatum reached other European capitals, governments were shocked. When the Russian foreign minister first heard Vienna’s terms, he shouted at the Austrian ambassador: 'You have set fire to Europe!"

Europe did not act as if it were on the brink of war during the four weeks between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the delivery of Vienna’s ultimatum. The British government remained preoccupied with unrest in Ireland. With morbid curiosity, the French awaited the impending trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a former prime minister who murdered a prominent editor after he published her private letters, which had implied an adulterous affair with her husband before their marriage. With good reason, Europeans did not see the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as an event likely to transform the entire continent into a charnel house.

Concerned with its own survival, Belgrade delivered its response to Vienna’s ultimatum just before the two-day time limit expired. The Serbs accepted most of Vienna’s demands. Historians continue to debate whether Belgrade intended its response to be conciliatory, or whether it was determined to resist Austro-Hungarian pressure. The most difficult demand to accept was the participation of Austro-Hungarian officials in the investigation of the plot to kill the Archduke. The Serbian prime minister was fully aware of Dimitrijević’s conspiracy, and sought to bring his network under control. But, if this became public knowledge, it could bring down the government. Thus, Belgrade rejected that particular demand.

When the Serbs delivered their response to the Austrian envoy on July 25, he immediately declared it unsatisfactory, and departed for Vienna within the hour. Three days later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

A Clash in the Balkans Becomes the Great War

The conflict between Vienna and Belgrade became a global conflagration because the Germans gave Austria-Hungary the license for aggression known as 'the blank check." On its own, Vienna could not afford the risk of Russian intervention on Belgrade’s behalf. To deter the Russians, Austria-Hungary needed a guarantee of support from Berlin. Within days of the assassination, Vienna dispatched an envoy with a personal letter from Emperor Franz Josef to Kaiser Wilhelm. After lunch at the royal palace in Potsdam, the Kaiser promised full support in the event of Russian intervention.

The motivation for the Kaiser’s pivotal decision remains the subject of intense debate. Was it an impulsive act by a ruler known for his personal instability? Or was it a decision based on a careful but flawed assessment of German interests? If the latter, were Wilhelm II and his advisers motivated by fear of France and Russia, or by an aggressive desire to establish Germany as the preeminent power in Europe? To borrow a phrase from the 21st century, was Wilhelm II 'the decider," or were his ministers and generals calling the shots?

What made the Kaiser’s blank check so dangerous was that Germany had a single reckless plan for mobilization and prosecution of war. Known as the Schlieffen Plan, it mandated a preemptive strike against both France and Belgium in the event of a conflict with Russia. Speed was so essential to the plan that the Germans refused to wait for Russia to declare war in response to the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia. Instead, the Germans declared that Russian mobilization alone was so provocative that war had become necessary.

As planned, the Germans invaded France and Belgium within a matter of days. The violation of Belgian neutrality brought a wavering British government into the war. Tens of millions would now march to their deaths because Vienna and Berlin were willing to risk everything to achieve the relatively modest objective of checking Balkan nationalism.

A New Attack on the Historians’ Consensus

In The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark launched a high-profile bid to demolish the view that the Germans and Austro-Hungarians bore the lion’s share of responsibility for the war. In addition to dismissing the charges against Vienna and Berlin, Clark challenges the propriety of any and all efforts to determine who was responsible for the war. He rejects the idea of asking who is to blame because 'The question is meaningless."

'Prosecutorial narratives," Clark says, 'narrow the field of vision by focusing on the political temperament and initiatives of one state rather than on multilateral processes of interaction." The results of such efforts are 'conspiratorial narratives" that reduce targeted decision-makers to 'velvet-jacketed Bond villains." As for the Great War, 'There is no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character."

The Sleepwalkers provides an excellent single-volume narrative of the war’s origins. But Clark’s moral equivalence does not hold water. Historians concerned with issues of responsibility have consistently taken into consideration the interaction between states instead of limiting their focus to the internal workings of one government or another.

Furthermore, it is insulting and implausible to suggest that historians who exercise moral judgment cannot tell the difference between Kaiser Wilhelm and Dr. No. Their scholarship displays ample concern for the complexity of decision-making processes in Vienna and Berlin. It illustrates the humanity of those decision-makers as well as their flaws and belligerence.

This last point is critical. Some wars are the work of demonic figures like Hitler. Yet geopolitical catastrophe may also result from the pedestrian flaws of men who resort to violence as a means of advancing their own self-interest or that of ruling elites. Regrettably, such men still hold power in numerous capitals.

However, unlike in 1914, there is now one democratic superpower rather than several balancing states. For 25 years, American leadership has prevented major wars. What remains uncertain is whether the United States has the will to lead for another generation.