by ProfDave, ©2022

(Jun. 9, 2022) — Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!  Just as the French Revolution is a textbook case for revolutionaries, with an appendix from the Revolution of 1848, so “the Great War,” World War I, is the textbook case, for diplomats, of crisis mismanagement.  But it did not look that way in 1890.

We are going to briefly examine the “Fin de siècle” – the end of the century; Bismarck’s system and the effect of dismantling it; general factors leading to conflict; crisis mismanagement; and who was to blame?

What was the Western world like at the end of the century?  First, there had been almost a century of relative peace after Waterloo.  There were periodic revolutions and a lot of social and ideological unrest, but for almost a half century Metternich and the Concert of Europe had intervened all over Europe to keep the peace.  True, peace had been interrupted by eastern conflicts, like the Crimean War, and the short, sharp, and decisive wars of German and Italian unification, but the period between 1815 and 1914 was remarkably peaceful.  People had forgotten how terrible war was and young men rather idealized it as an ennobling adventure.

Secondly, although the 1890’s were a period of prolonged depression, industrial maturity had been reached through much of the West.  The second and third generation of industrial entrepreneurs and industrial proletariat had settled in.  A second industrial revolution, related to electricity and steel, was underway.  Machine technology had transformed almost every industry, big business commanded respect and political favor, and real wages for working men were up 45%.  Business cycles, accidents, and unemployment were still tragedies, but the material objective of the masses was no longer mere survival, but enjoyment.

The ideologies of the 19th century were in a state of flux.  Liberalism had become respectably bourgeois.  Parliaments and constitutions had become the rule rather than the exception throughout the West, though real democracy was another matter.  You remember “liberty, equality and fraternity?”  Well, equality had been co-opted by socialism on the left and fraternity by conservatism on the right.  That leaves liberty.  Liberty tended to be identified with the business classes.  Socialism was split by its political success.  Marxist predictions did not figure on working class prosperity and voting power.  While socialist parties never really broke the one-third barrier, they gained enough clout in multi-party systems to be coalition partners.  Would they abandon their revolutionary dreams for present reform legislation?  In England and America trade unionism took their place, in Germany it was the welfare state.  Nationalism – though still a popular movement – had been co-opted by conservatism and the state in western Europe and America, with a strong taint of imperialism and social Darwinism.  It was radical and subversive in eastern Europe, but the identification with liberal democracy had been pretty much lost. 

Romanticism, as a cultural movement, had passed into realism and on into naturalism – but not the idyllic naturalism of the milkmaid and the meadow lark, but of the Darwinist nature – red in tooth and claw – and the urban jungle of the prostitute and the hunchback of Notre Dame.  Art had turned away from representation to the impressionism of points of light and the expressionism of the artist’s feelings.

The end of the century brought a sense of unease.  Positivists embraced science as the model for all of life.  These years saw the beginnings of modern scientific sociology and psychology and the climax of historicism.  But there were anti-positivists, too, who rebelled – as the Romantics had done a century before – at the excess of materialism and rationalism.  Henri Bergson, for example, taught two ways of knowing – the rational and the intuitional.  Sigmund Freud taught that we are products, not of reason or emotion, but of subconscious drives.  Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and a new Übermensch (superman), the product of struggle.  Some turned to futurism: action for action’s sake, glorifying youth, speed, power, and danger.  Others to decadence, a cult of death, blood, and sex, enthralled with images of Byzantium – the crumbling Empire – and the approaching end of the world.

These were also the decades of Anarchism, sister of socialism.  Individualistic violence and martyrdom, the propaganda of the deed, stunned Europe with the assassinations of six heads of state, 1890-1914.  The Social Revolutionary movement in Russia represented a mixture of socialist and anarchist ideas among the intelligentsia and the peasant masses.

How was Bismarck’s system corrupted to lead to war instead of peace?  What went wrong?  After 1871, no one was more bent on preserving the peace of Europe than German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.  Bismarck was a feudal conservative, from a family “older and better than the Hohenzollerns,” he would say, though with a barnyard way of life.  He was a Prussian statist, loyal to his Kaiser, Wilhelm I.  His philosophy was political Lutheranism: mankind was greedy, lazy and bellicose.  The state and the social hierarchy were ordained of God to keep the struggle orderly.  Politics and statecraft were the arts of balancing the antagonisms of a plurality of interests or states.  It is arrogance for liberal professors to superimpose theoretical principles upon society.  In the unification of Germany, he saw the possibility of greater glory for his king and the Prussian state.  He clearly saw that this would not be achieved by resolutions and parliaments, but by blood and iron.  And he was right.

Bismarck saw clearly that Germany had been united at the expense of Europe and in name only.  His aims were: 1. In a Europe of five major powers, Germany would be one of three allies.  2.  Peace must be maintained.  3.  The status quo must be kept in the east.  4.  France, humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war (against Bismarck’s advice), must be kept isolated by diverting her to colonial expansion (for her pride) and keeping her republican (and repulsive to alliance with conservative powers).  5.  Friendship must be made and maintained with Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Britain.  He proceeded to construct an alliance system based on realpolitik, the balance of interests and hostilities, and semi-secret permanent alliances.  These alliances came to be reinforced by integrated war plans. 

Any disturber of the peace must face the formidable weight of the German military machine.  The challenges were: French antagonism, British isolationism, and the Eastern Question.

Step by step, here is how it was built.

1st – Three Emperors’ League, 1872-76 – a personal alliance of Wilhelm I of Germany, Alexander III of Russia, and Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary. 

2nd – Dual Alliance – Germany and Austria.  Each would be neutral if the other were involved in war with France and would assist if the other were at war with Russia.

3rd -Triple Alliance – Germany, Austria & Italy.  Italy would assist against France and be neutral if Austria was at war.

4th – Mediterranean Pact – Britain, Italy and Austria Hungary – this was to enforce the status quo in the Med against Russia and protect British interests in the Suez.

5th – Reinsurance Treaty – with Russia, promising diplomatic support in the Balkans.

Note that Germany was committed to support both Austria-Hungary AND Russia in the Balkans.

“Dropping the Pilot,” Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914), published in “Punch”, 1890, public domain

When Bismarck was in charge, with the full confidence of his Emperor, it worked.  But Wilhelm I was not immortal.  His successor did not have the sense and humility to trust the Chancellor’s wisdom.  Wilhelm II was erratic and bombastic by nature.  He dropped the pilot and took matters into his own hands. 

  1.  First the Emperor thought the Dual Alliance and the Reinsurance Treaty were contradictory.  Wouldn’t it be better to exchange Russia for Britain as an ally?  After all, Victoria was his aunt.  He dropped the Reinsurance Treaty. 
  2. Soon after, France broke out of her isolation to ally – republic and all – with Russia 1892.  Britain did not commit to any alliance with Germany.
  3. Wilhelm thought imperial conflicts would keep Britain and France apart, but instead the two powers settled most of their imperial differences and arrived at an Entente Cordiale, 1898.  Still no alliance with Germany.
  4. During the Russo-Japanese war the Russian fleet, on its way from St Petersburg to the bottom of the Sea of Japan, fired on British fishing boats in the North Sea.  Instead of driving Britain into the Kaiser’s arms, Britain resolved the issue by entering into the Triple Entente 1904 with France and Russia.

German efforts to upset imperial settlements and to bully Britain into alliance backfired.  Instead, it created a bipolar alliance system, an arms race, and the ascendancy of military influence over foreign policy.  Wherever and whatever the conflict, instead of German power blocking war, Germany was committed to war on one side or the other.  Nice going Wilhelm!

How did nationalism, economics, and imperialism contribute to the Great War?  Ideas do have consequences.  Nationalism undermined the stability of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  For example: Serbs on both sides of the borders sought to destroy both Empires in order to create an independent Greater Serbia.  French nationalism demonized Germany and German nationalism envied Britain and despised Slavic peoples in general.

Marxist theorists predicted a global civil war.  Was this the product of economics?  Capitalist anarchy and uncontrolled business cycles lead (so the theory goes) to a frantic global search for markets, in turn lead to imperialism.  This makes some sense.  The nineties featured a prolonged depression, the exposure of many business scandals, and a race for African territory.  But freedom was another name for anarchy, and frantic was not exactly the mood.  Was this a causal chain or did other factors enter in?  The inevitable explosion was supposed to be the consequence of capitalist excess, labor misery, and imperialism.  Was it?

How about imperialism?  The partition of Africa began in 1876 with Leopold II of Belgium’s International Association for the Civilization of the Congo.  The Berlin conference of 1882 set up international rules for territorial claims and by 1914 all but Ethiopia had been gobbled up.  The theory was that the industrial revolution created surplus capital, driving foreign investment in underdeveloped places.  The flag then followed investment.  The truth was: most of British investment went to the United States and the old Empire: India, Australia, Canada, South Africa.  Though fortunes were made and lost, in terms of national economies colonies were white elephants.  Was it political?  A projection of European power struggles?  More like a national sport, conducted competitively, but by the rules, never allowing open conflict at home in Europe. 

Take a look.  The primary conflict – the two biggest empires – was between Britain and France.  Britain sought to connect South Africa with Egypt by sending Lord Kitchener up the Nile.  France wanted to stretch a broad band of territory from West to East by sending an expedition across equatorial Africa under Marchand.  They met at Fashoda on the upper Nile – and drank tea in a tent while the diplomats postured and the public raged back home.  No war.  The second conflict would be between Britain and Russia: in Persia, Afghanistan, and Manchuria.  Britain went as far as alliance with Japan in 1902, but we have already seen how the Dogger Bank incident led to treaty, not to war.  Between Britain and Germany?  Bismarck was not interested, but Wilhelm II meddled in South Africa, built up the German navy and tried to stir up trouble.  But all these things were settled by 1907.  I conclude that imperialism had nothing to do with the Great War.

Wait a minute.  How about that navy?  How did militarism contribute to the Great War?  The Kaiser did not intend to really challenge British naval supremacy.  He just wanted a navy big enough to support his imperial ambitions and gain some respect.  It was Britain that changed the game.  In 1906 she launched the HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first modern battleship.  Long gone were the days of wooden ships firing broadsides at close range with hundreds of canons.  The heavily armored Dreadnought packed a battery of long range 12-inch guns that could sink you miles away.  Every other ship in the British navy was now obsolete.  Germany soon built one and Achtung!  They had a fleet equal to Britain!  And the arms race was on.  It certainly inflamed passions, but there was no guarantee the German fleet would ever be used – it wasn’t really.

The Prussian army, in its war with Austria in 1866, showcased a new model of military power.  Four factors yielded a quick victory: the needle gun, the general staff, the railroad, and the tin can.  All were adopted by everyone by 1914.  The needle gun – the breech-loading rifle – gave the Prussians six times the firepower of the Austrian muzzle-loaders.  The tin can: standardized, portable supplies.  The railroad:  a fast and efficient way to get troops and supplies to the right place at the right time.  But the general staff was what put it all together.  The best and brightest minds were selected out of war college and put to work full time for years to prepare detailed war plans in advance.  These plans, without computers, merged maps and schedules to deliver every soldier, every bullet, every tin can in the right boxcar to the right place at the right instant to win the most likely war.  Permanent alliances allowed these top-secret plans to be shared and coordinated among allies. The weakness: plans could not be changed or improvised at the last minute and trains could not be turned around and sent back.  It was war by timetable.  Decisions could no longer be made, as Napoleon had, from the back of a horse.  Civilian authorities and diplomats had little or no knowledge or input into these plans.  The generals were more anxious than anybody else to prevent war, but once it was imminent, they must execute the plan, without flexibility and without pause in order to win.

Take a look at the German Schlieffen Plan.  The General Staff foresaw Bismarck’s nightmare: a two-front war against France and Russia.  There was only one way to win.  The Russian army was huge, but slow.  At high noon in the OK corral, theirs would be the last gun to clear the holster.  If Germany could defeat France – quickly as in 1871 – before the Russian army started shooting, they would have a chance.  But how?  The French frontier was heavily fortified.  The French plan was probably to invade Alsace-Lorraine (territory lost in 1871).  So Germany planned a lightning strike through Belgium, swinging south and east like a revolving door, and pinning the French army against their own fortifications.  This, they calculated, was the only way to win.  They waited and planned.  Russian, French, Austro-Hungarian and other general staffs did the same.

Crisis mismanagement.  This has been analyzed day by day and hour by hour, but I will try to be brief.  We have already traced the development of the Eastern Question.  Let’s pick it up with 1.  The Bosnian crisis of 1908.  Bosnia-Herzegovina was a Turkish province under Austrian occupation – for the protection of the Serbian population.  Independent Serbia sought to annex it.  Austria-Hungary had promised to assist Russia in gaining treaty access to the Bosporus in exchange for a more-or-less free hand in dealing with Bosnian unrest.  In the 1908 crisis, Austria-Hungary suddenly annexed the disputed province, but did not succeed in obtaining Russian privileges from the Turks.  Germany gave assurances of support to Austria-Hungary which amounted to a blank check.  Serbia was blocked.  Russia lost credibility and restraining influence over the Serbs.  So did France.  Serbia became so hostile and dangerous to Austria-Hungary that there was talk in Vienna (and probably general staff work) about a preventive war to stamp out the threat to stability.

2.  In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 13, the Balkan states fought Turkey, then each other.  Austria-Hungary intervened to deny the spoils to Serbia.  Russia failed once again to support its client.  Could it afford to fail again?  Britain and France cooperated to bring an end to the conflict.

3.  That brings us to June 28, 1914, and the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, Francis Ferdinand and his wife, by Serbian terrorists while on a visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.  While Belgrade celebrated in the streets, all the rest of the world was shocked and outraged.  Vienna moved slowly.  Would Germany back them up?  The Kaiser said yes, the foreign office urged caution.  What would Russia do?  Finally on July 23, an ultimatum was sent to Serbia, designed to be rejected.

Who was to blame?  Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles (written by the victors) blamed everything on Germany.  Revisionist historians have blamed France and Russia.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Start with Serbia.  The Serb state, officially and unofficially, since its foundation, had condoned pan-slavic terrorism against Austria-Hungary.  The organization that planned the attack, the Black Hand, had plenty of ties to the government.  Post-war research has shown that the Serbian foreign office knew of the plan and made no effort to warn Austrian authorities.  The blame for the assassination rests with Belgrade.  They were fully willing to send the world to Armageddon for the chance of a Greater Serbia – like terrorists today.

How about Austria-Hungary?  Vienna had favored a preventive war against Serbia since 1908.  The danger of pan-Slavism to the very existence of the Empire was clear enough – whether the occupation of Belgrade would have solved the problem is another matter.  If action had been taken immediately in June, it is just possible – with European sympathy high and Russian reaction time slow – they might have gotten away with it as a crime of passion.  But the month of delay took away the moral justification.  Austria-Hungary is responsible for launching a small war against Serbia on July 28, 1914.

Wilhelm II of Germany, 1902, public domain

But that was not World War I.  How about Russia?  Moscow had sponsored Serbian nationalism and Pan-Slavism to some extent for decades, but not assassination.  Personal relations between Nicholas and Wilhelm II were close.  So Nicholas ordered a partial mobilization against Austria only on July 29.  Impossible, protested his general staff.  They only had one plan: for war against the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy).  Plans could not be improvised.  Any departure would result in chaos.  Despite a desperate cable from Wilhelm, Nicholas capitulated.  He knew that the Russian Empire and the Romanov dynasty might very well not survive.  Full mobilization began July 30.  The slowest cowboy in the OK corral had just gone for his gun.  Schlieffen’s clock was ticking.  Germany had six weeks to knock France out of the war.  World War I, though neither desired nor intended by Russia, became inevitable.

But how do we blame Kaiser Bill, then?  Go back to the blank check of 1908.  The German general staff had committed themselves to the support of Vienna, come hell or high water.  When the crisis came, mixed messages from the Kaiser, the foreign office and the army contributed to the Austrian delay but did not prevent Austrian action.  Once things began to move, military pressure became insistent.  The Schlieffen plan must be implemented, the Kaiser was indecisive, there was no Bismarck to exert civilian control, and the Generals dominated.  On July 31 they issued ultimatums to Russia to cease mobilization and to France to guarantee neutrality.  On August 3, Germany declared war on everybody and invaded Belgium.  Germany was responsible for the first blow.  According to plan.

But France was not entirely innocent.  Theirs was the blank check to Russia.  They exercised no restraint on anyone and, spoiling for revenge for the humiliation of 1871, were all too willing.  Britain did nothing to prevent the war either, keeping her position unclear until the actual invasion of Belgium.  Italy reneged on its commitments and sold its army to the highest bidder, eventually stabbing Austria-Hungary in the back.  No one was innocent.  But generally, everybody was all too willing.  Young men volunteered and marched off to war cheering, expecting adventure, glory, and a validation of their manhood.  The days of August were a time of celebration all over Europe.  This war would be short, decisive, and glorious.   It would resolve everything.  NOT.

Do you think it could happen again?

Sources Consulted:

            Kieft, David.  Diplomatic History of Modern Europe, lectures at University of                                          Minnesota, c. 1970.

            Lafore, Laurence.  The Long Fuse.  Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965.

Remak, Joachim.  The Origins of World War I, 1871-1914.  New York: Holt,                                      Reinhart & Winston, 1967.

            Tuchman, Barbara W.  The Proud Tower.  New York: Macmillan, 1966.


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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