The War that No One Wanted and Everyone Started: The Origins of World War I

Third in a series commemorating the Centennial of World War I

By Albert I. Berger

Europe in 1914 had been at peace, more or less, for most of a century. That was remarkable. Europe had been an arena of war since the destruction of the Roman Empire. It had begun exporting its wars around the world in the age of Columbus and was still doing that.

At the same time, Europeans paid for scientific and technological development around the world. Once Napoleon was out of the way, Europeans successfully and very profitably wove complex networks of railroads, telegraphs, stocks, and bonds around the globe. Those links allowed goods, services, and business information to cross national borders routinely; and that helped Europeans profit. At the same time, those same Europeans — and their governments — competed, and sometimes fought with each other, everywhere else in the world.

But the system worked — for the Europeans. Or at least the Europeans thought it worked. And most thought that too many had too much to lose to allow a continent-wide European war to spoil such a good thing. They were wrong.

What surprises us today is that almost no one foresaw what was coming. Almost no one objected. European governments went to war with almost the full support of their peoples. Even the Socialist parties went along. Only the American Socialist Party opposed war in the interests of an international working class. And that was on the other side of the Atlantic and three years later.

Even the leaders who followed their worst instincts into war had no idea of how it started. They displayed no sense that they, their friends, or their enemies knew what they wanted from the war. And they certainly had not the slightest idea how to end it Above all, Europe’s great powers were unwilling to admit to the violent legacies they had left around the world. In their great age of imperial consolidation, they feared any ethnic nationalism that challenged their own.

They had memories too. And they had studied their history. Carl von Clausewitz had taught soldiers to place the pursuit of political objectives by military means at the center of their work. The world was a dangerous place and anything might happen at any time.

European railroads, telegraphs, and manufacturing meant new weapons and increasingly complex support networks. Nations had to plan against even remote possibilities. Simple prudence required action if a neighbor did something that looked like preparation for war. And in the new industrial age, anything could look like preparation for war.

Peaceful Europe had more gunpowder than anyone realized, or was willing to admit. What came next was the match and the Serbian military provided that. It conspired with terrorists to murder the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne. The object was to unite the small Balkan states into one nation led by Serbia. In Vienna, the Austrians felt threatened. Serbia’s big brother ally was Russia. Russia, in turn, had agreements with France. So if the Serb plan worked, the balance of international power would shift forcefully against Austria.

Austria threatened Serbia with war. That required Austria to call upon its own larger ally, Germany. So harshly had the Austrians drawn their demands that they believed Serbia would reject them and provide an excuse for war. However, the Serbs, with Russian approval, accepted most of the demands Austria made in its ultimatum. For the moment, Russia and Germany alike were relieved. It had been a close call.

But the Austrians began to mobilize for war with Serbia anyway. Determined to humiliate Serbia for killing their Archduke, they also intended to crush any power in the Balkans that challenged their own. And they persuaded Germany to go along.

As Austria and Germany mobilized for their war, Russia and its ally, France, had to mobilize too. Britain stood a little apart, but when the Royal Navy finished summer maneuvers, the ships stayed home instead of dispersing to normal peacetime cruising stations. After that, the requirements of warfare in the early industrial age overrode everything else.

Within days, the big parade was stepping off and no one could or would stop it.

Industrial Europe could not afford to support armies large enough to fight wars like the American Civil War. Not on a permanent basis. But wars like that were coming. Europe’s answer was to draft its male adults: full-time for short training periods, followed by long-term service in the reserves. The system spared taxpayers. The economy did not have to compete with the military for labor. However, everyone had to plan for the emergency of war.

Governments had to move millions of reservists out of their regular jobs in days, and get them to the anticipated battlefields as fast as possible. Railroads solved that problem. Lines near where fighting was expected built dozens of small town stations, each with mile-long platforms, against the day when the troop trains arrived. It was necessary. It was all very efficient, and all very rigid. It was also very visible; and, for that reason, it was very, very provocative.

Some of that was deliberate. We still call the strategy deterrence: put one’s hand on the butt of the gun, just to remind a neighbor of the consequences of trespass. The problem was, the problem still is, that the neighbors have hands too—and gun butts of their own. Meanwhile, getting armies mobilized and out to their stations — and the cost of failure if they didn’t — kept each government from responding to increasingly desperate peace initiatives. It got so bad that Kaiser Wilhelm II proposed to his cousin Czar Nicholas II that they both interrupt their mobilization timetables. Russian military leaders opposed that.

It might allow the Germans to get the jump on them. For its part, Germany, located between two of its enemies, remained focused on its plans to rapidly defeat France before wheeling around to confront Russia. That depended on speedy movement and great striking power. Germany, like Russia, feared that slowdowns in mobilization would be but a prelude to defeat.

And so each tick of the clock brought Europe closer to a war few wanted; a war that would wreak violent havoc across the continent for four years; a war whose aftermath placed at risk virtually all the accomplishments—material, moral, and political—of which Europeans were most proud.

(Albert I. Berger is a professor of history at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.)

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