There have been literally thousands of books on the origins of the First World War. Christopher Clark’s 2012 offering The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is one of the more interesting and even-handed examples of the genre.
One fascinating point that Clark makes is that the great powers in 1914 did not really have coherent foreign policies. Foreign policy was made by shifting factional groupings of politicians and bureaucrats and even ambassadors often made their own foreign policy. What is usually thought of as the division of Europe into two hostile armed camps, the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia), was merely a temporary arrangement in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope. Italy had already all but abandoned the Triple Alliance while Britain was gradually moving back towards a pre-German position. Had peace endured for another year or two the system of alliances might have been quite different.
While there were certain factors that made war a distinct possibility it was far from being a certainty. Europe was not quite a powder-keg just waiting for a spark to set it off. There were constant sparks caused by constant crises (Fashoda, disputes over Morocco, the Agadir Incident, the Austrian Annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Italo-Turkish War and the First and Second Balkan Wars). None of these sparks was sufficient to trigger war. There was no reason to think that yet another Balkan crisis would lead to a general European war. War came about because the latest spark was of a peculiar type and it was struck at a moment when war parties happened to be in the ascendant in France and Russia.
The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serbian terrorists was the kind of incident that Austria could not possibly ignore, but it should not have led to war. In fact, had Austria reacted immediately war would most likely not have followed. An immediate Austrian response would have been considered to be a perfectly understandable reaction to extreme provocation. Unfortunately Vienna chose to wait until the evidence of Serbian government complicity had been established beyond doubt, by which time the initial sympathy for Austria-Hungary had evaporated and attitudes in Russia and France had hardened. Vienna’s eventual response, in the form of the famous ultimatum to Serbia, was actually remarkably mild (much milder than for example the US reaction to terrorist attack in 2001). The result should have been at most some sabre-rattling by Russia. Serbia had already decide to accept the ultimatum. The tragedy is that the hawks were at that time temporarily in the driver’s seat in Russia and Russia persuaded Serbia to reject the ultimatum. Russia’s hard line only came about because at that moment the foreign policy hawks were also in the ascendant in France and France chose to push Russia towards war. And France’s insanely reckless actions were only made possible by their conviction that Britain would back them up.
Ironically the British government was absolutely opposed to war, and British public opinion was equally strong against war. It was a small clique within the governing Liberal Party, a clique that included Churchill and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, that pushed Britain reluctantly towards war.
Germany was even less interested in war. They had no intention of being drawn into a war on behalf of Serbia.
The fatal problem was the fear factor. Germany did not want war but the Germans were afraid that if war came a few years later Russia would be too strong. So a war now would be less bad than a war later. The French were afraid that within a few years Russia would be so strong she would no longer need the alliance with France. Both the French and the Germans were therefore willing to risk war even though they had zero interest in the fate of Serbia. Both Germany and France made their calculations on the basis of ludicrous over-estimations of Russia’s military capability. The Russo-Japanese War in 1904 had demonstrated Russia’s total inability to fight a modern war but somehow that was overlooked. Russophobia had been of the great constants in European foreign policy for the previous century (and of course it remains as potent and as deluded as ever today).
Nobody really wanted war, apart from the Serbs. War came about when fatalism took over. Once statesmen convinced themselves that war was bound to come sooner or later they were prepared to listen to the urgings of the generals that now was the most favourable moment for such a war. So Europe drifted into a war that nobody wanted and that benefited nobody, apart from Serbia.
There are obvious lessons here - the folly of getting mixed up in eastern European squabbles, the folly of nations fighting wars in which they had no vital interests at stake. And of course the folly of listening to self-proclaimed military experts.
Clark’s conclusions are that any attempts to assign guilt to any one nation are futile. The French and the Russians were certainly guilty of extreme recklessness, and the cabal that pushed Britain into war can certainly be accused of both criminal stupidity and recklessness. There were however no real good guys and no real bad guys, just short-sighted fearful people blundering towards disaster. Pretty much the way the west is blundering towards disaster again in eastern Europe.
A stimulating and thought-provoking study. Highly recommended.