Who Started It?

Who started World War 1?

As someone who has read a substantial amount of research while writing these novels, I am often asked: “Who started the war?” It appears to me that most people already have an answer in mind but also aware that there is some controversy about the matter. My opinion tends to be relatively blunt, and I will explain it in full.

It would be easy to answer that Austria-Hungary started the war, inasmuch as Austria-Hungary was the first to declare war and that against its neighbor Serbia whom it blamed for the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Whether the Serbia government was in any way complicit in the assassination is doubtful, although members of the Serbian military seem to have assisted the assassins. It didn’t matter how questionable the evidence appeared because Austria-Hungary was also antagonized by Serbia’s hostility toward the past Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia or, in general, by Serbia’s expansionist policies.

An Austro-Hungarian-Serbian war might have remained a local conflict but for the interests of Russia as an ally to its ethnic brothers in Serbia. Russia had previously been drawn to the brink of war with Austria-Hungary in 1908 when that country annexed Bosnia, but Russia had backed down. In 1914, Russia instead felt obligated to come to Serbia’s aid. This was crucial to Russia’s interest in preserving a balance of power in the Balkans following collapse of the Ottoman authority there in the 1800’s, which in turn was crucial to Russia’s access to the Dardanelles, the waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. So, in response to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, Russia decided to threateningly “mobilize” its army. Mobilization, which involved calling up soldiers from farms and factories around the country, transporting them to the borders and arming them, was a big deal.

Germany had perhaps foolishly agreed to back Austria-Hungary should Russia come to Serbia’s defense. When Russia mobilized its army, Germany believed it would likely have to fight Russia after all. There were three significant issues raised by that prospect: First, Russia’s army was truly massive – millions of men; second, Russia was so large that it took a long time for it to amass its army; and, third, France was Russia’s ally and could declare war against Germany if Germany fought Russia. These three longstanding and well-known factors nudged Germany toward a simple strategy: Send most of the army to defeat France quickly first, and then turn about to deal with Russia.

Was Germany’s decision to back Austria-Hungary a mistake or a plot by some lone diplomat? Or was Germany simply unwilling to let Austria-Hungary be destroyed by Russia? Or was Russia’s resolve underestimated? Perhaps so, but Germany was also a quickly rising star among modern industrial nations and was becoming increasingly pinched by its competitors. For Germany to become a great and powerful nation, it could not back down from a fight, and it needed to expand its colonial territories abroad and within Europe. It would be fair to say that Germany didn’t want war; it wanted preeminence.

Accordingly, Germany responded to the threat of Russian army mobilization by declaring war against Russia and France, and then immediately pursuing a quick defeat of France. Unfortunately, Germany believed that the quickest way to defeat France was to invade through Belgium, which Great Britain in turn had promised to defend in the event of war. Thus, the German preemptive attack on France immediately resulted in a war involving five of the great imperial nations of Europe, nations which collectively, through their colonies, represented a significant portion of the world: The British Empire, Imperial Russia, and France against Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary. But all did not go according to plan. Germany was unable to quickly defeat France and hadn’t planned on fighting Great Britain, and Serbia was able to rebuff the attacks of Austria-Hungary. It was clearly going to be a long war.

So, to return to the original question, “who started it?” I could lay the blame predominately, but not exclusively, on the head of Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph: It was ultimately on his authority that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which predictably aroused Russia, which in turn made it possible for Germany to declare war on France and Russia. But it is also unlikely that Franz Joseph would have declared war if he had not been backed unconditionally by Germany. It is that act in July 1914 that, in my opinion, most precipitously “caused the war.”

The events of the “July Crisis” are the subject of many treatises. It is clear that German Kaiser Wilhelm II was both naïve and belligerent. He declared on July 4 that he was entirely for “settling accounts with Serbia.” He told the German ambassador in Vienna: “We must finish with the Serbs, quickly. Now or never!” He said Austria-Hungary could “count on Germany’s full support”, even if “grave European complications” ensued, and that Austria-Hungary “ought to march at once” against Serbia. He added that “in any case, as things stood today, Russia was not at all ready for war, and would certainly think long before appealing to arms”. Even if Russia were to act in defense of Serbia, Wilhelm promised that Germany would do everything in its power, including war, to support Austria-Hungary. Lastly, the Kaiser stated that he wanted the Serbians dealt with quickly.

Nowadays, it would be easy to imagine the head of a European state counseling a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. That was not Kaiser Wilhelm’s style. While it is clear he did not anticipate a global war that would go on for four years and cost millions of lives, neither was such a war an unimaginable outcome. In short, it was a foolish position to take. It was a position that anticipated war and encouraged it, and it was a position that discounted diplomacy, temperance and sensibility.

Therefore, I principally blame the First World War on Kaiser Wilhelm II, that one man. And because I view one man as responsible, I think it is reasonable to ask why he acted as he did. Certainly racial animosity played a role, as did his personal disgust with the wave of assassinations that had rolled through Europe, his own sense of power, entitlement, and preeminence, and his belief in Germany’s moral and industrial superiority. It was these same attitudes that led him, later in life, to cheer on Adolf Hitler and even, in his own mind, take personal credit for some the Nazi’s military successes in World War II, even though it was the Kaiser’s destruction of Germany that allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to come to power. Finally, I would like to state, especially now that we are reaching the centennial of the Great War, that the actions of a single man cannot be blamed on an entire nation, and that is particularly the case in 1914, a time when monarchs still ruled in Europe with “divine right” and their decisions were not subject to debate by the people.

– Edward Parr