Enduring Lessons From The Diplomatic Crisis of July 1914
Dan McLaughlin
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Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo by pro-Serbian terrorists.  30 days later, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.  The dominoes fell swiftly from there: between August 1 and 4, Germany declared war on Russia and France, and invaded France and then Belgium, the latter invasion bringing Great Britain into what became the First World War.  A century later, what can we learn from the month-long diplomatic crisis that led to the Great War?

Europe Gone Mad

The war seems today, and seemed to observers at the time, an eruption of irrationality, if not outright madness.  Its cost, even within a few months of its start, was vastly disproportionate to the original provocation, which directly concerned only two of the (ultimately, lesser) combatants.  It was fought for no great cause against no great enemy, but among largely similar states for a variety of war aims that were often pretextual and developed after the fact.  It broke out in the most prosperous and powerful part of the world that had ever existed, and resulted in a permanent reduction in Europe’s place in the world and image of itself.  Virtually all of the combatants (with the arguable exceptions of the U.S. and Japan, both relatively late entrants) ended the war worse off than if it had never been fought.  Thus, the war’s reputation as something more like an accident or an outbreak of collective hysteria than a crime.

We tend to think of World War I and World War II as opposite poles in terms of the lessons we draw from their origins.  The Second World War is the archetype for the conservative view of how wars can be caused by doing too little to deter aggressors early and stop them from gathering power.  The First has long served as the liberal counterpoint, offering a fertile field for a variety of theories about how wars derive from militarism, mutual misunderstandings, colonial rivalries, too much nationalism and too little diplomacy.  There is some truth in this, but the facts are not the same as the popular mythology, and the events of July 1914 offer alternative and more practical lessons for modern international relations.

The Falling Dominoes

The basic background and narrative is well-known.  Before the July crisis, the rise of Germany and its alliance with Austria-Hungary had created an alliance between Russia and France.  Great Britain – alarmed mainly by Germany’s naval armament and designs on colonial expansion – joined that alliance, albeit with characteristic British ambiguity as to its plans and intentions if it came to a fight.  Serbia triggered the crisis by its involvement in the assassination, a direct provocation of Austria-Hungary.  Austria-Hungary, its leaders divided and nervous about a wider war, asked for and received a guarantee of support from its ally Germany, and delivered an ultimatum to Serbia.  Russia, a promoter of the interests of Slavic peoples like the Serbs against the non-Slavic empires, mobilized its military to a war footing in response – and seeing Russia mobilize encouraged the Serbs to reject parts of the ultimatum, and led the Germans to declare war on both France and Russia and put into action its pre-existing military plan for general war.  The French were thus compelled into the war, and when Germany invaded Belgium, the British (as guarantors of Belgian neutrality) dropped all ambiguity about where and when they would help the French, and threw their whole available land force into the war against Germany.

While the system of interlocking alliances is often blamed for the spread of war from a localized crisis, it is (with the notable exception of Russia’s support for Serbia) hard to blame the allies for entering into those alliances, or for honoring them.  If the goal of the alliances was to create a perfectly even balance of power that would produce military stalemate, they worked beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, creating an unwinnable war that was ultimately resolved only when the Americans entered and disrupted the balance of power following the exhaustion of all the other combatants’ manpower.  And a nation that refuses to honor its alliances in a crisis will swiftly find itself without allies at the next one.

Some of the other traditional explanations – even those that may have contributed in a more general sense to the conditions in which the crisis erupted – simply do not fit the realities of the run-up to war.  The First World War cannot be blamed on cultural misunderstandings.  The Serbians and the Austrians, or the French and the Germans, understood each other all too well, and while war may not have been inevitable, conflict was.  Their differences involved real collisions of national interest, whether the Franco-German territorial dispute over Alsace-Lorraine or the more existential threat that Serbian nationalism posed to the ethnically diverse Austro-Hungarian Empire, that could not be papered over with happy talk.  Nor can the war be blamed on personal misunderstandings.  The diplomats of Europe had maintained cordial channels of communication for a century.  Even at the level of heads of state, the crowned heads of Europe were literally cousins, and the Kaiser and the Czar continued an affectionate correspondence almost to the moment of the war’s outbreak.  There were real breakdowns in diplomacy in July 1914, but they had much more to do with vacationing leaders, untimely vacancies in some key embassies, failure to use modern communications technologies (an issue that would plague the entire conduct of the war on all sides), the absence of an impartial honest broker to keep a dialogue going (the Russians tried to offer multinational mediation at a conference scheduled for the following year, an obviously impractical and self-serving solution), and poor decisions under pressure.

The arms race was also mostly a dog that did not bark in the July crisis.  The main arms race – Germany’s effort to gain ground relative to Britain’s dominant naval position – played an important role in setting the stage for the crisis because it was a driving force behind Britain’s decision to ally itself with France and Russia against Germany, but it was at the fore of nobody’s thinking.  The broader militarization of Europe before the war was the result, not the cause, of a century of population growth, colonial expansion, and national rivalries.  One particular improvement in arms – Germany’s development of artillery powerful enough to break the Belgian forts at Liege and Namur – would end up playing an important role in making the German war plan more practically feasible.  But what obsessed the military planners of 1914 was not the balance of high-tech weaponry but that most ancient of considerations, the ability to mobilize and deploy infantry.  That started with plans to commandeer the peacetime technology of rail lines, and depended from there on the speed at which men and materials could be moved by the most old-fashioned methods known to war: on foot and by horse.  In the end, war became inevitable because of fear of the timetables of feet and hooves rather than any manufactured innovation.

Even the desire of various of the combatants for territorial or colonial gains – Germany’s hunger for a more equal share in overseas colonies, France’s thirst for revenge for 1870 and the reclaiming of Alsace-Lorraine, Russia’s century-long quest to supplant the Ottoman Empire at the gateway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean – fails to explain the actions of the Serbians, Austrians, Russians, and French, and is inadequate to explain the behavior of the Germans, who were poorly prepared for a showdown with the British Navy and woefully unprepared to defend the overseas possessions they already had.  For those explanations, we must consider the combatants in turn.

Experience Is The School of Mankind

Ultimately, if we take the major alliances as a given, it was the choices of four monarchies in Eastern and Central Europe – two on the Entente side (Serbia and Russia) and two Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany) – that escalated the crisis to war.  We can learn from their choices today.

Serbia: Terrorist Proxies

But the Serbian government and people learned the painful lesson that states so often learn when they pal around with terrorists: the harder you work to make it look like you wanted deniability, the less you can actually achieve it.

The crisis began with an assassination, carried out (like the 9/11 attacks and other modern terror attacks around the globe) by non-uniformed non-state-actors.  The precise relationships between the Serbian government, the assassins, and the Black Hand terrorist group or other affiliated or similar pro-Greater-Serbian terrorist groups remain somewhat murky and disputed even to this day.  But then, as now, it did not ultimately matter.  Terrorist groups rarely follow a transparent chain of command, and often have indistinct or overlapping membership with groups with similar goals or methods.  They also often have multiple and conflicting agendas.  Indeed, a major purpose of a states sponsoring terrorists is precisely that they can claim deniability when it becomes difficult after the fact to determine responsibility for an atrocity.

The more indirectly you provoke more conventionally powerful states, the more terrible will be their vengeance.  While the immediate consequences of the July crisis would be war in Belgium, France, and Poland, the war would eventually take a harder toll, per capita, on Serbia than any other combatant due to especially heavy civilian casualties.  Serbia was overrun by enemy armies, its people driven into the hills, its military situation desperate enough that its 70-year-old king would pick up a rifle and head for the front, and eventually its population would be decimated by a typhus pandemic.

Did Serbia achieve its war aims?  In a sense, yes: the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire was driven to collapse, and a Serbian-dominated greater Slavic state (“Yugoslavia”) was formed in the wake of the war.  But even that victory would prove a poisoned chalice, as Yugoslavia would suffer the agonies of invasion and ethnic partisan warfare on an even worse scale in the 1940s and would unravel in vicious bloodletting in the 1990s.  Even the winnings of terrorism are rarely to be collected at peaceful leisure.

Austria-Hungary: Indecision

The next move fell to Austria, which responded by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, nearly four weeks after the assassination.

Histories of the crisis of July 1914 generally look at Austria as on the horns of a dilemma.  On the one hand, a powerful nation simply cannot take sitting down the assassination of its head of state (or in this case, a man who would have been its head of state within two years) by terrorists armed by a hostile neighbor.  On the other hand, the empire’s delicate balance was unsuited to the test of a major war; events would prove this soon enough (the Austrians faced manpower exhaustion earlier in the war than any of the other major combatants), and the reasons why were well known to Austrian policymakers in July.  Austria chose its national honor and ended up losing its nation.

Militarily, Austria’s dilemma was that its pre-war dispositions, worked out in coordination with the German general staff, called for placing more than half of its army, and three quarters of its initially deployed forces, on the northern frontier with Russian-controlled Poland rather than the southern frontier with Serbia.  An offensive against Serbia alone would mean deviating from the plan for general war to the prejudice of Germany, and potentially risking leaving its own flanks open to Russia.

But the great unanswered question is what would have happened had Austria moved swiftly and decisively to retaliate against Serbia – without waiting for German assurances, without giving Russia time to mobilize, without throwing the capitals of all Europe into war fever.  Paradoxically, had Austria chosen a limited war against Serbia and presented the Russians with a fait accompli, its decisiveness (like that of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine today) might have convinced Serbia’s potential protectors that the assassination had been justly punished.  The desire to avoid the implications of the crisis only widened them.

Russia: Unpreparedness and Unreliable Allies

The central military fact that drove all the war plans of 1914 was that it would take Russia far longer to mobilize – both its initial military strength and its full military capacity – than the other European powers.  From Day One, Russia would be weak and vulnerable compared to its potential, and this weakness would prove provocative.  From Germany’s perspective, the fact that Russia would move more slowly than France meant an opportunity to take France out first and defeat Russia in detail.  From Russia’s perspective, this meant that the Russians would need to find the earliest possible opportunity to mobilize (as they did), knowing that word of mobilization would be hard to conceal and would likely trigger the Germans to flip the switch from mobilization to combat (as it did).  Indeed, it was word of Russian partial mobilization reaching Belgrade at the hour of crisis that led the Serbs to reject critical portions of the Austrian ultimatum – even though the Czar was still balking at a full mobilization order as late as July 29.  Russian weakness led to fear, fear led to partial mobilization, mobilization led to war.

From Day One, Russia would be weak and vulnerable compared to its potential, and this weakness would prove provocative.

It is easy in hindsight to criticize the Imperial Russia of 1914 for its lack of military preparedness, which was the result of geography, relative poverty (compared its neighbors), the weakness of the Czarist system and specifically the lack of a rail network in Poland that was partly a matter of policy choice.  But Russia found itself in crisis in the first place because it had chosen to ally itself with an aggressive and unpredictable government, hardened by recent war, that had no qualms about arming radicals whose subsequent behavior could not be predicted.  Bismarck is said to have remarked, years before, that general war would come to Europe as a result of “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” – less a prophecy than a shrewd assessment of where the real threats to stability lay.  Had Russian policymakers adequately considered their military posture and the nature of their Serbian ally, they should have either exerted more influence in advance to let the Serbians know that they could not count on full Russian support if they behaved irresponsibly.

Germany: Technocracy and Preemption

If it was Serbia that chose local crisis, Austria that chose to widen the crisis, and Russia that chose to arm for general war, it was Germany, in the end, that preferred to fight and fight now, rather than run the risk of attempting a more modest resolution  It was Germany that immediately invaded two countries – France and Belgium – that had done nothing to provoke it.  Why?

The answer, of course, is that Germany’s military experts had developed one – and really only one – military plan for a general European crisis, the famous Schlieffen Plan.  The Schlieffen Plan was brilliant and incredibly detailed, full of careful consideration of the balance of forces and the available opportunities for Germany pushing through Belgium and overwhelming France before Russia could get its act together.  And it almost worked.  The intricacy and audacity of the Schlieffen Plan seduced the military planners of Germany then, and has seduced military analysts of the war ever since with the elusive question of whether this or that change in the disposition of forces or the battlefield decisions of von Kluck and other commanders could have made it work and forced France to sue for peace as swiftly in the fall of 1914 as it did in the spring of 1871 and the summer of 1940.

But while the Schlieffen Plan was brilliant, it was also fundamentally flawed in ways that should have precluded it from gaining a dominant role in the nation’s war planning, and would have precluded it in a nation with better civilian control of the military.  Even tactically, Schlieffen had no more plan than the Underpants Gnomes for how the German army was actually supposed to roll up Paris once it arrived, and took inadequate consideration of the potential of British intervention on the line of march through Belgium.  He also left East Prussia dangerously exposed, and only good fortune, good generalship and poor Russian communications prevented an epic military disaster for Germany on the Eastern Front and instead inflicted one on the faster-mobilized-than-expected Russians at Tannenberg.

On a broader strategic level, the Schlieffen Plan committed Germany to a swift preemptive war without a plan for how to conduct a long-term war if the initial move failed – a failure similar to that of Imperial Japan in attacking the United States a quarter century later.  The subject of preemptive wars has a long and controversial history, full of successes and failures, that has tended in recent years to be overshadowed by the American experience in Iraq.  For these purposes, the important point is that preemptive war is a hazardous undertaking, and doubly so when its premise is that the balance between a roughly militarily evenly matched set of combatants can be overwhelmed by rapid action.  A war launched on such a premise, without a fallback plan for prolonged combat, is the height of irresponsible statesmanship.  In fact, the German military’s view of pre-emption was driven largely by the accelerating industrialization of Russia, which left German war planners in fear that the careful balance of the Schlieffen Plan would be upset if Russia had a few more years to build up its industrial capacity.  The planners built into their plans a war that would need to be fought before the plans were overtaken by events.

And so, when push came to shove, it was the war plans that dictated the war, and even the Kaiser (who like many of his ministers was of two minds about war) lacked the gravitas to overrule the military technocrats who had planned this series of tripwires.  All the way to July 30, two days after Austria’s declaration of war, the Kaiser, the British Foreign Minister and the French were all pushing for Austria to “Stop in Belgrade” so as to avoid widening the war beyond Austria and Serbia.  But at the same time von Moltke, the head of the German General Staff, had already demanded that Belgium allow free passage of the German army through its territory and was now telling Austria to mobilize for war against Russia.  The Austrian emperor signed a general mobilization order on July 31, and the Russian generals, by now in a panic over being caught unawares, talked the Czar into the same thing.  The Kaiser’s remaining reluctance melted away, Germany demanded that Russia demobilize or face war, and both Germany and France mobilized shortly thereafter.  War could be stopped only if the various powers, now mobilized to a war footing, could be persuaded to talk it out.  But von Moltke, having talked the Austrians into mobilizing, impressed on the Kaiser the impossibility of calling off the Schlieffen Plan.  The Kaiser told him to call it off anyway – but then did nothing to back down from the series of ultimatums that had been premised upon it, and let von Moltke put the plan into action when none of the others blinked.  The urgent inflexibility of the Schlieffen Plan had robbed Germany of any other option.

The lesson is one that should never be lost on policymakers, military or otherwise: technocratic experts not only aren’t always right, they can be affirmatively dangerous without adequate civilian supervision because of their tendency towards tunnel vision that excludes the larger considerations of state policy that range outside their expertise.  In fact, the fewer probing questions an expert is apt to get from civilians, the more likely the expert is to make mistakes even within his own area, like failing to account for the British or not having a plan to reduce the Belgian forts (Schlieffen completed his plan before the German heavy guns had been manufactured).  The German government of 1914 was often portrayed by the Western democracies as some sort of absolute despotism, but the Kaiser’s fatal flaw (common enough to hereditary monarchs) was instead too much trust in his subordinates, trust that a confident elected leadership would not have accepted blindly.


Europe blundered into the First World War, but it did so due to a series of clearly identifiable mistakes that should not be repeated.  Its leaders failed when they took steps that stripped them of options, whether by trusting in irresponsible terrorists and terror-sponsoring states, by dithering instead of taking prompt action while they had the freedom of initiative, or by tying themselves into inflexible technocratic long-range plans.  Today’s policymakers should not repeat those errors, but to avoid them they must understand why they went wrong in the past.

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