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Causes of World War I from Books Published in 1914
When World War I broke out in August 1914, many book authors attempted to explain the reasons for a conflict that soon become known as the European War, the Great War, or the World War. These authors came from different backgrounds, including journalism, academia, and history writing.
Much of their writing reflected surprise and often shock at the sudden turn of events from the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Crown Prince of Austria to August 4, 1914, when Germany and England declared war on each other and the full conflict began.
These writers did not have the luxury of perspective and information access that was enjoyed by later writers. They hoped that a detailed analysis of the causes of the war might help people better understand this profound and unprecedented historical event that had sprung up so suddenly.
The autumn of 1914 brought several books that focused on the causes of the war and the general conditions of warfare in the early days of the conflict. The books would soon be succeeded by books about the battles of the war, like the battle near the Marne River that prevented the German army from marching into Paris.
Through the years, the Germans have gotten much of the blame for the start of the war. It's fair to say that the German army was the main cause for the size and intensity of the conflict once it started. But before the war started, the ambitions of the German army were just one of many factors that led to the fighting.
The factors were so numerous that several writers talked about how countries were swept up in the momentum of the events that led to the war.
(In 1914, many books used the name "Servia" as the name for the country that is now called Serbia)
- Charles Morris in The Causes and Issues of The Great War:
As a panic at times affects a vast assemblage, with no one aware of its origin, so a wave of hostile sentiment may sweep over vast communities until the air is full of urgent demands for war with scarce a man knowing why.
- C. M. Stevens in The True Story of The Great European War:
Germany, Austria, Russia, England, Belgium, France, Portugal, Servia, and Japan have sprung into the arena, each screaming out that the other fellow began it, each loaded down with arms and troops, yet claiming a desire to keep the peace.
Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
A good way to analyze the origins of the World War I is to analyze the self interests of each country as it became involved in what initially looked like a local conflict between Austria and Serbia.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz (or Francis) Ferdinand of Austria was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia, which had been annexed (with Herzegovina) by Austria in 1908. Bosnia had a large Slavic population, as the did the nearby independent country of Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was next in line to succeeding his uncle Francis Joseph as the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Serbia was also the home country of several young men who traveled to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. The assassination attempt succeeded, resulting in the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
Austria immediately launched an investigation, and concluded that people in Serbia had helped plan and carry out the assassination. This investigation took up much of July 1914, resulting in a July 23 communication from Austria to Serbia which demanded that Serbia take responsibility for the assassination. Serbia's response to Austria by a July 25 deadline did not satisfy Austria, and Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28.
In The Great War: The First Phase (From the Assassination of the Archduke to the Fall of Antwerp), Frank H. Simonds wrote that the Austro-Hungarian Empire needed the war to survive:
Victorious Austria could annex Servia, unite all the southern Slavs under the Hapsburg crown, perhaps win their loyalty by transforming the Dual Monarchy into a tripartite state...But without war she was, in the view of her rulers, doomed to crumble, destined to be torn by the dissensions between her many races until she fell apart automatically. Austria had decided for war as the price of national existence.
The family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire was one of the three royal families that were given a lot of responsibility for the war. In The Causes and Issues of The Great War, Charles Morris wrote:
The fact is patent that this vast, this inexcusable, war was primarily due to three men, three autocrats, three rulers of a type beyond which the civilized world has long since grown, bare surviving remnants of Roman imperialism and medieval tyranny. These three men were Francis Joseph of Austria, William II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, men who, when it came to a question of war, had but to raise their hand and the peoples under their rule were forced to respond.
Russia Gets Involved
Russia had closely observed the negotiations between Austria and Serbia after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Russia had a large Slavic population, as did Serbia and many people in Austria. When Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia took steps to help defend Serbia.
The Balkans had also been the centerpiece of political conflict between Russia and Austria in 1912 and 1913 during the Balkan Wars which had threatened to turn into a larger regional conflict. These wars first pitted the Balkan states against Turkey, and then involved conflicts among Balkan states. Serbia had emerged stronger after these wars, which helped embolden Serbian nationalists to assassinate Franz Ferdinand.
The Balkan Wars were almost a dry run for World War I, with tensions between Austria and Russia being aggravated. These tensions pushed these two countries closer to a tipping point that they avoided in 1912 and 1913, but finally reached in 1914.
In The War in Europe, Albert Bushnell Hart described the significance of the Balkans to the beginning of World War I:
That the war begin in eastern Europe was natural because, as has been shown in earlier chapters, the tension in that part of the world is greater, and on that battleground of the ages live a number of race groups of individuals whose fate is settled for them by members of a different race unacceptable to them. Whatever might have happened next year or in the next decade, it is clear that the prime reason for the war of 1914 is to be found in the abnormal relations of the Balkans to the rest of the European powers.
Russia and Austria also were part of regional defense alliances that had pledged to collectively provide defense for any of the members of the alliance. Russia was allied with France and England in the Triple Entente. Austria was allied with Germany and Italy in the Triple Alliance.
The German Presence
Several of the 1914 authors speculated that Austria aggressively moved against Serbia because it felt confident of the backing of its alliance partner Germany.
Germany had been under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm for more than 25 years. During that time he had built Germany into a military state that mandated military service for its young men.
Germany was ready for war. Its interest in defending Austria against Serbia and Russia also served as an opportunity to put its war machine to work in western Europe, where it had concerns about France and England.
For more than four decades, France had been burning with a desire to regain land in Germany that was taken from France during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and 1871. England had achieved dominance on the seas and in the world economy, and Germany felt threatened by that dominance.
A German-born professor at Harvard attempted to counter the growing negative feelings towards Germany by writing one of the first books about the war. In The War and America, Hugo Münsterberg described his perception of the war:
It is central Europe's desperate defense against the mighty neighbors of east and west who have prepared and prepared for the crushing blow to the Germanic nations. This war had to come sooner or later. Russia spent billions to be ready to push the steam roller of its gigantic population over the German frontier. France armed as no civilized nation ever armed before; even the educated had to serve three years in the army against the one year's service in Germany.
Münsterberg did help educate the public about the various historical and political forces that led to World War I, but his enthusiastic support for the German side of the conflict brought him criticism in the United States.
Attempts to Prevent War
Hopes for the prevention of war lay in great part with Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister of England, according to Albert Bushnell Hart in The War in Europe. Grey had helped limit the scope of the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913.
In the tense days of late July 1914, Grey tried to mediate between Russia and Austria through the following methods:
- A meeting of officials from Germany, France, England, and Italy.
- Personal Involvement by the German Emperor William II
- Discussions in St. Petersburg, Russia and Vienna, Austria
"To the very last Grey still tried to propose anything that would call a halt," wrote Hart.
But all efforts failed. The True Story of The Great European War by C. M. Stevens included an excerpt from a July 31, 1914 message to the Russian Czar Nicholas from the German Emperor William II that helps show the different forces at work:
In answer to thy appeal to my friendship and thy prayer for my help, I undertook mediatory action between the Austro-Hungarian Government and thine. While this action was in progress thy troops were mobilized against my ally, Austria-Hungary, in consequence of which, as I have already informed thee, my mediation was rendered nearly illusory.
Attempts were also made to take advantage of the family relationships between various royal families in Europe. William II and King George V of England were grandsons of Queen Victoria of England, and Nicholas II was married to a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
In The War in Europe, Albert Bushnell Hart quoted from an August 1, 1914 message from Emperor William to King George about Czar Nicholas' actions:
Nicky had ordered the mobilization of his whole army and fleet. He has not even awaited the results of the mediation I am working at and left me without any news. I am off for Berlin to take measures for insuring safety of my eastern frontiers.
Activation of Alliances
Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. On that same day, Russia started mobilizing troops against Austria. From there, the dominoes of widespread involvement began to fall as the two alliances went into operation:
(Dates from The Great War by Frank H. Simonds)
- On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and started mobilizing its troops.
- On August 2, German troops entered Luxembourg.
- On August 3, German troops entered Belgium.
- On August 4, Germany declared war on France, Belgium, and Great Britain. Great Britain declared war on Germany.
- On August 6, Austria declared war on Russia.
- On August 10, France declared war on Austria.
- On August 12, Great Britain declared war on Austria.
Italy decided not to join its Triple Alliance partners in Germany and Austria because it did not feel that the war was for defensive purposes.
So began World War I. The quickness and the thoroughness of the German army's widespread march through Belgium and France gave the strong impression that the Germans had been anxiously waiting for the chance to go to war.
The destruction of the German march—particularly in Louvain, Belgium and Rheims, France—helped turn worldwide public opinion against the Germans and build up the perception that Germany was the main cause of the war.
In the December 1914 book With the Allies, the famous war correspondent Richard Harding Davis blamed the war on the German military aristocracy and gave no other analysis of the causes of the war. Davis had witnessed much of the destruction by the German army in Belgium and France, and could not support the neutral position that was officially taken by his native country, the United States.
Germany's ambitions and insecurities were major factors in the historical forces that led up to the full outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, but they were only part of many factors. An analysis of these factors is a good lesson in the need to take a broad, integrated view of the political and historical scene when you try to foresee and prevent catastrophic events like World War I.
- Davis, Richard Harding. With the Allies. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914.
- Hart, Albert Bushnell. The War in Europe. D. Appleton and Company, 1914.
- Morris, Charles. One Hundred Years of Conflict Between the Nations of Europe: The Causes and Issues of the Great War. L. T. Myers, 1914.
- Münsterberg, Hugo. The War and America. D. Appleton and Company, 1914.
- Simonds, Frank H. The Great War: The First Phase (From the Assassination of the Archduke to the Fall of Antwerp). Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.
- Stevens, C. M. The True Story of The Great European War. The Hamming Publishing Co., 1914.