How Europe went to war in 1914” -

That history is written by the winner is a rather well established fact. But it is still amazing how many people still fall into pre-packaged narratives. The most commonly accepted idea about how the First World War started is that an unsecured Germany took aggressive measures to break out from its encirclement by France, Russia and England. According to this view, France and Russia were drawn into the war against their will, mobilizing and activating their war plans in reaction to Germany, even though they firmly believed in peace. Then follows 4 savage years of war throughout the world, the Allied eventually winning and punishing the Germans for their misdeeds.

Most of the media about the Great War assert this narrative again and again, supported by a great literature including letters, diplomatic dispatches and private diaries. Yet, in his book “The Sleepwalkers“, Christopher Clark sets out to dispel the myth of German aggressiveness and European victimhood. True, Germany was unsecured, supporting a fledgling dual monarchy which was being challenged by a idealistic and violent Serbia just across its border. But the rest of the ‘Great Powers’, France, Russia and England, certainly have their share in the making of the Great War, and much more than usually thought.

With the aim to clearly defining the processes leading up to the Great War, Christopher Clark starts with the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, the young expansive state and the old dual-monarchy. While the war actually started from these countries, their relations is usually overlooked, seeing them as a side-show to the larger powers’ confrontation. But Clark describes two countries increasingly resenting each others, mostly due to the violent history of Serbia and its ideal to free all Slavs in the Balkans, including those in Austria-Hungary, by all (and increasingly violent) means.

Serbia was in turn aggressively supported by a Russia whose ego was seriously wounded after its defeat in Asia by Japan in 1905. Following this surprising and thorough defeat, Imperial Russia decided to focus once again on its Western borders, supporting Serbia as the pillar of its foreign policy in the Balkans. Particular attention was given on both its ‘mortal enemy’, Austria-Hungary, and the Bosphorus, through which was passing most of Russia’s grains exports and arm imports.

Over the years, increased tensions and rapid political changes led to a multiplication of wars in the Balkans, redefining frontiers and pushing the Ottoman Empire out of continental Europe. Thus, as the Ottomans retreated and their predicted collapse seemed even more likely, the Bosphorus became an object of competition between Russia and Austria-Hungary, each trying to control the straits and firmly opposing the other side’s ambitions towards it. As years passed and resources poured into this clash, mutual distrust grew rapidly, allowing Serbia to take advantage of the situation and assert its own foreign policy.

Clark then moves on to France and Germany, two equally unsecured powers engaged in a Cold War since the aftermath of the war of 1870. While France was worried about its long term prospects and the rise of Germany’s economic and military power, Germany itself was trying to manage its immediate security environment after the eviction and death of Bismark. As both were increasingly distrusting each others, they turned to relying on less stable countries (Russia and Austria-Hungary) to secure their defense, triggering a vicious circle of military expenditures also know as ‘security dilemma‘, the spiraling military preparations taken in response to other countries’ own defensive measures.

Given the limited numbers of major powers in Europe and major political (and financial in the case of France) investments in their partners, Germany and France became stuck with their allies, fearing that the latter would walk away them if they didn’t support their claims. As time went by, the alliances arrangements throughout Europe became ever more rigid, leaving even less room for manoeuvre -and eventually, peace.

Christopher Clarks also describes the inner workings of governments in Europe to dismiss a number of myths, including the roles of the military, emperors, and public opinion. Indeed, postwar memoirs emphasize or downplay their respective roles, giving such image as a militaristic Germany, a peaceful France or a Russia pressured by its public opinion. Yet the reality is quite different from those narratives.

In France, the short periods in office of governments effectively meant that the military and foreign policy were directed by insiders, leaving Foreign or War Ministers in the dark. Hawkish and uncontrolled ambassadors, politicians and officers pressed for revenge on Germany, a ‘tougher line’ that was bound to alienate the other side.

In Russia, the various parts of government had to fight for Nicolas II’s attention and approval, but the monarch’s heavy handed management of the government and its strong preference for autocracy frequently to the sacking of able and reform-minded ministers, leaving policy making to hawkish ministers.

In Germany, the volatile emperor Wilhelm II was indeed a noisy liability for the German government. Yet the governmental structure actually gave able ministers a fair share of power, and they disregarded most of Wilhelm II’s decisions, working together toward consistent goals. Seen from abroad however, the aggressive wording from the German emperor created a dissonance with German governmental actions, leading to doubts about the sincerity and reliability of German intentions.

In the UK, years of paranoia and the realization of its increasing political loneliness led a few military and political leaders to  take Britain out of its isolation and drew closer ties with France out of perceived (if not overestimated) fear of Germany. But only a few years ago, Britain almost went to war with France over colonial disputes and its alliance with the latter meant that it also had to draw closer from Russia, who was threatening its interests in Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, the Russo-Anglo uneasy partnership actually came close to breaking point just before the outbreak of the war, and England hesitated over intervening to help France at its onset.

Finally in Austria-Hungary, the dual structure of government with different internal and external pressures gave other countries the idea that the empire was crumbling anyway. But in reality, reforms pushed by Franz Ferdinand could actually have saved the empire. In addition, the Dual Monarchy was keenly aware of its weaknesses and pushed for international peace as long as it could. It is only when faced with a direct and violent attack of the Serbian state on the heir to the throne (Franz Ferdinand) that Austria-Hungary pressed for war, the irony being that the victim was actually the leader of the peace party.

On top of these international and internal governance issues, domestic opinion played an ambiguous role in the decade leading to the war. As various crisis had erupted regularly, the press seized on them and gave unprecedented coverage, both in reach and intensity. But papers were actually more of a mouth-piece for politicians who used it to pressure governments into falling with their policy lines. Over the years, the press took increasingly opposed positions, leading to the idea that only radical policies could make the other side blink while it built up pressure on politicians to never back down, so as to not ‘lose face’ and keep the status of world power.

In early summer 2014, the built-in rigidity of international alliances, the will to confront their adversary and the various fears of key actors combined in a potent mix from which escape was difficult. Surprised during the summer break, Europe let the crisis brew without intervening. Given the outrage over the death of Franz Ferdinand and the unrepentant Serbian government, Austria-Hungary felt compelled to give a military lesson to the unstable country right outside its border. Ensuring themselves of German support but keeping them in the dark regarding their military ambitions, Austria-Hungary sought to keep the conflict localized.

But French and Russia, highly suspicious of Germans intentions and believing that Austria-Hungary ultimatum was actually a German trick, decided to stand by Serbia, risking world war over a remote and unstable country. Russia started semi-mobilization, to which Germany felt compelled to react after desperately trying to de-escalate the crisis. In the mean time, the French manoeuvred carefully to avoid being perceived as the aggressor and ensure public support, while covertly actively supporting Russia.

Once war was declared, the emphasis on speedy mobilization and concentration of troops meant that no time was left to work out peaceful exits. Europe thus plunged into war without aims, hoping for a quick victory, yet without strategic alternatives to the original plans. Four bloody years later, the Allied established a narrative which at the time mostly convinced themselves, yet became the official explanation for the following decades.

If the Entente actually believed in peace and wanted to avoid war, their actions leading up to late July 1914 is at best ambiguous, at worst a frightful miscalculation based on divergent expected outcomes (peace at all costs while keeping increasing pressure on Germany, even at the growing risk of war). On the other hand, Germany’s quest for peace has been greatly underestimated, even though the country’s readiness for war shows how military plans became embedded into their political thinking.

Above all, what Christopher Clark highlights is the disruptions triggered by fast changing geopolitical environment, the difficulties of leaders to follow and their inability to correctly assess the opposite side’s intentions. Over a short period of time, technological, economic and political changes modified the geopolitical map, including Russian renewed focus on Eastern Europe, Germany’s fast rise as an economic powerhouse yet lacking political clout, French economic insecurity, Japanese rise as Asia’s powerhouse, a distant, aloof but growing USA…

The parallels with today’s situation may seem striking, even if fundamentally different. In the end, the most important take away from the pre-war situation is that a combination of uncertainties, conflicting messages, creeping insecurities and rapidly changing international environment led to increasing rigidity, serious miscalculations and eventually a war that no one wanted but that was born out as a self-fulfilling prophecies.

March 2015 update: “Stumbling Into World War I, Like ‘Sleepwalkers“, Christopher Clark’s interview on NPR


Written by Carlito

About Carlito Riego

"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi