Editor’s note: The following is a combination of three seperate writings. The first and last sections were originally posts on this blog while the middle section was an essay written for a college course, which also became a post. If the writing seems to shift in tone throughout this piece, that is why.
World War I is a fascinating, yet often overlooked historical event, usually overshadowed by it’s larger and bloodier successor World War II. It’s a topic I’ve been wanting to study more in depth for a long time, but for one reason or another I just haven’t. But what I do know I will share with you here and I’ll be learning in the process as well.
The short answer to what started WWI is the 1914 asassination of Franz Ferdinand. No, not the Scottish indie-rock band, but the Archduke. Franz Ferdiand was the Archduke of Austria and heir apparent to the throne of aging monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his uncle Franz Joseph. The Arhcduke was in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 to observe military manuevers, open a musesum, and celebrate his annisverary with his once-common wife.
Seven young slavs who were a part of a Serbian nationalist organization called the Black Hand were milling about the streets that day with the intent of assasinating the Archduke. The Black Hand was part of a greater movement known as Pan-Slavism. The aims of the movement were to foment an uprising among the Slav population of Austria-Hungary in order to bring about the creation of an independant Slav state, Yugoslavia. As the Archduke’s motorcade made it’s way through the city, it passed several of the would-be assasins, but for one reason or another they made no attempt to carry out their plan. Except one. Despite this very day being a Serbian patriotic holiday, Vidovdan, and Sarajevo being in a heavily Slav province, security was light and the Archduke insisted on riding in the car with the top down. As the ragtop passed one of the assasins on it’s way to the Town Hall, Nedeljko Čabrinović threw a bomb at it. Fortunately for the Archduke and his wife Sofie, the would-be assasin was limp wristed, as almost all assasins are, and his toss missed, hitting another car in the motorcade and exploding. When the Archduke arrived at the Town Hall, he interupted a prepared speech from the mayor by saying, “One comes here to visit and is received with bombs. Mr. Mayor, what do you say? It’s outrageous! All right, now you may speak.” After a tense but otherwise peacful reception, the Archduke requested to visit the hospital to check on the bomb victims.
The remaining assasins meanwhile, either because they thought the bombing had succeeded or because they knew they had failed, began to go their seperate ways. Gavrilo Princip stopped at a sandwhich shop to grab a bite. You wouldn’t believe the appetite you can work up after an attempted assasination. As he emerged from the shop, no doubt slurping down a bite of his rueben, he came face to face with the Archdukes car which, as providence would have it, had made a wrong turn down this very street. Seizing the opportunity, he pulled out his pistol and fired hitting Sofie in the stomach and the Archduke in the neck. As blood began to stream from Franz Ferdinand’s mouth Sofie cried, “For heaven’s sake, what’s happened to you?” then she lost conscienceness. Ferdinand pleaded with his wife, “Sophie dear, Sophie dear, don’t die. Stay alive for our children.” The mayor, who was also in the car, asked the Archduke if he was hurt to which he replied, “It is nothing, It is nothing…” and then died.
The question then is how did this one event spark a worldwide conflict that would become the bloodiest and most destructive war to that point in history? Why did the assasination of an heir to the crown by a rogue youth have such dire global consequences?
Ripe For War
Few things in history are as simple as they appear in the history books you read in high school, especially wars. World War I is no exception. There were a great number of things that created the climate in Europe that allowed the type of inertia which occured after the assination to…occur. In the interest of time, we will cover only three of them: militarism, nationalism, and a complex system of alliances-ism.
How did one event in a city of seemingly no real world significance spark a global conflagration that would become the most destructive and devastating in history to that time? How did the concerns of a crumbling European empire and a Balkan country barely larger than the state of Maine lead to what was labeled at the time as the War to End All Wars? Why did the assassination of an heir to the throne (just an heir, not even the ruler) cause the great nations of Europe, many of their own rulers from the same royal family tree, to march to battle? When one looks at the ruin wrought by World War I in comparison to its catalytic event, it does not seem to add up. But the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just that, an event, a kick off. When studied within the greater context of the geo-political climate of late 19th, early 20th century Europe, a better question may be, how had it not happened sooner? If the Assassination in Sarajevo was the match thrown into the powder keg that was the Balkans, then that powder keg was only one of many in the powder magazine that was Europe. That singular event set into motion of chain of events that were influenced by the nationalism, militarism, and complicated system of alliances that dominated Europe at the time.
Nationalism had been a growing trend in Europe for several decades leading up to the Great War. While the United States is considered a “young” country, numbering only 230 years, it outstrips many European countries at least as far as nation-state status is concerned. Until the mid to late 19th century many European “nations”, that is those peoples sharing a common language and similar culture, were not united in an all encompassing state. For example, the principalities of Italy were not unified as the nation-state of Italy until 1861 and those of Germany until a decade later. The growing tide of nationalism was especially strong in the Balkan territories under Austro-Hungarian rule in the years leading up to World War I. They were especially vulnerable to such movements because, as Peter Kauffner states, “With five major religions, 11 nationalities, and 16 languages, the Habsburg Empire was an anachronism in an age of nationalism.” Pan-Slavism, a Slav nationalist movement, had been a growing problem for Austrians for some time and the assassins of the Archduke were in fact members of a secret Slav nationalist group known as The Black Hand. Though Serbia was an independent Slav nation, it felt as threatened by Austro-Hungarian dominance as the Austro-Hungarians feared the rebellion of their Slav subjects, spurred on by Serbian Pan-Slavists. The Russians, Slavs themselves, portrayed themselves as the “big brother” to all oppressed Slavs and encouraged Pan-Slavism partly out of, as Michael Duffy explains, “a genuine emotional attachment” but also as “a means by which Russia could regain a degree of lost prestige” after their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. This nationalistic fervor created an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust in south Eastern Europe.
In order to achieve the unification of German states Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had used military might, though he did so judiciously. His opponents in two wars, Austria in 1866 and France in 1871, were isolated and alone resulting in wars that were relatively short. However, with the aftereffect of a powerful and united German state, the rest of Europe began to fret over the prospects of a European continent dominated by Germany. In the years between the Franco-Prussian war and WWI, the standing armies of the major European nations began to swell. As Susan Karpilovsky, Maria Fogel, and Olivia Kobelt observe, “The standing armies of France and Germany doubled in size between 1870 and 1914.” H.P. Willmott agrees that, “the need for all states, unless they were prepared to accept German military hegemony” was to “ensure their security by raising armies through conscription” (12). Germany also challenged Britain’s naval dominance buy building more and larger battleships. Kauffner notes that the British, “responded with an accelerated naval buildup of their own under the slogan, ‘We want eight [new battleships] and we won’t wait.’”
Another factor of the militarist mindset in Europe was intricate war plans. Most nations in the years leading up to 1914 had developed detailed war plans that were based on strict timetables. The most notable of these was the German Schlieffen Plan. The plans had specific trigger mechanisms that would set them in motion and, due to the nature of communications of the period and the fear of losing tactical and strategic advantage, were virtually impossible to stop (“World War I”). It may seem strange that the war plans were unstoppable, but you have to take into account the nature of communications at the time. Even now with cell and satalite phones, email, and other wireless technology, communication on the battlefield is far from flawless. In the early 20th century most communication was either by telegraph or messenger. So even though most of the countries involved were ruled by autocrats who could pretty much do whatever they wanted, even if they wanted to recall the troops communicating with all of them efficiently was impossible.
The destinations of the large standing armies that were set in motion by the intricate war plans were determined by a tangled web of international alliances. After he had consolidated Germany, Duffy writes that Bismarck’s “chief desire now was to maintain its stability. He therefore set about building European alliances aimed at protecting Germany from potentially threatening quarters.” From 1871 until the outbreak of the war, the nations of Europe engaged in a dizzying whirlwind of alliance making, breaking, and rearranging. By the time the fateful shots were fired at the Archduke in Sarajevo, “International tension was greatly increased by the division of Europe into two armed camps” (Karpilovsky, Fogel, Kobelt). What should have remained a relatively minor squabble between an aging empire and an upstart neighbor, rapidly transformed into a chain reaction of reactions, ostensibly in obligation to allies.
If any one of these conditions had been present in Europe alone, the dire consequences may have been avoided. Nationalism without the militarist mindset may have fizzled. Without the alliances, the ordeal between Austria-Hungary and Serbia may have been settled, if not peacefully, at least in a much smaller, limited military engagement. Strident nationalism led to distrust and suspicion among nations, giving rise to the presumptive necessity of large and powerful standing armies. The alliance system provided the impetus for aggressive action because it gave nations the confidence to flex their muscle, knowing they would not be alone in a fight. The resulting conflict would shape not only its immediate aftermath, but, arguably, the future of the next 75 years.
The US Enters The War
Ever since George Washington’s Farewell Address, the US had maintained a policy of mostly keeping out of European affairs, so long as they remained in Europe. So, when the Great War broke out in 1914, it wasn’t too surprising that the United States remained on the sidelines. For the most part. Some Americans, feeling the call of duty, joined the Canadian armed forces and in 1916 the French deployed a fighter squadron called the Lafayette Escadrille that was composed of mostly American pilots. But the official position of the American government was one of neutrality. President Woodrow Wilson was an idealistic man and offered to mediate between the two sides, but neither took him up on his offer. They had their heads full of visions of conquest and glory.
Looking back to WWI through the lens of 2008, it would appear to us a foregone conclusion that the US would eventually enter the war on the side of the Allies. However, that is not exactly the case. Though the earliest European settlers of America had been British, and many more British emigrated after the Revolution, the country had had a huge influx of German and Irish immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century. The Irish have never been what you would call buddy-buddy with their British cousins, less so in the early 20th century. Americans of German decent at that time were likely not so far removed from the Old World that they wouldn’t still have friends and relatives fighting for the Central Powers. So, early on public opinion was not so solidly pro-British or Allies. However, the Germans made three major mistakes that would change that.
The first was unrestricted submarine warfare. At the outbreak of the war, Wilson was counting on America’s neutrality to guarantee it freedom to trade with all belligerents. The Atlantic would be an open business. However, the British had other plans. With their superior navy they blockaded Germany’s ports to all traffic, neutrals included. This put quite a crimp in the free flow of trade Wilson was hoping for. He protested to London, but there was practically very little he could do short of declaring war, which he absolutely wouldn’t. The British and their allies, never missing a beat, were now in a position to be the near exclusive trading partners with the US. Obviously this stuck in Germany’s craw. They responded with unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping. In the early days of the war, submarine warfare was quite civil. A merchant ship would be stopped, the crew removed, and then the ship sunk. For obvious reasons, this was not having the desired affect on the British, of cutting off their food supply, as it were. Unrestricted submarine warfare can best be described like this: see boat, sink boat, celebrate to the swinging sounds of David Hasselhof (Germans love David Hasselhof). OK, I made that last part up. After a cruise liner, the Lusitania, was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, killing 128 Americans, the British were sure Wilson would declare war. However, he instead protested vehemently to Germany on the illegality of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the Germans ceased the practice…until 1917. By that time, Germany was in dire straits. With the free flow of munitions from America to Britain the Bosch were in danger of being out gunned. It wasn’t so much that the American munitions peddlers didn’t want to sell their wares to Germany, they simply couldn’t due to the British blockade. With the resumption of their harsh submarine tactics the Germans realized that America would stand idly by for only so long before declaring war, however they grossly miscalculated the time it would take to get enough doughboys across the pond to have an impact on the Western Front.
A second mistake Germany made was the use of sabotage. As we’ve noted, Germany was fairly perturbed that though the US was technically neutral and free trade with both sides, most, if not all, of its trade was with the Allies. Another way they attempted to stifle this was through sabotage in the US itself. Probably the largest act was on a munitions dump in New Jersey known as Black Tom. There were about 200 incidents of German sabotage in the US during the war and the real-life spectre of German agents running around in picklehaubs along the Eastern seaboard blowing things up was enough to start to sway public opinion.
The third mistake the Germans made occurred south of the the border, our border. British intelligence had intercepted a communique from the German Foreign Secretary Artur Zimmerman to his ambassador to Mexico in Mexico City. Known as the Zimmerman Telegram, the note instructed the ambassador to approach the Mexican government on the possibility of a Mexican-German military alliance should the US declare war on Germany. Germany would assist Mexico with arms and funds if they would stage an invasion of the American southwest. Germany would also assist Mexico in reclaiming the land lost in the Mexican-American war. Small places like Texas and California. Tensions between Mexico and the US were already high. The neighbor to the South was already in the midst of revolution and political instability and General John “Black Jack” Pershing had been chasing Poncho Villa back and forth across the border for months. Despite the tension, the plan was infeasible and quixotic. Mexico was in no position, as per the aforementioned revolutionary activity, to make war on the US and Germany could promise all the guns and money it wanted, but how were they going to get them to Mexico? The British blockades weren’t letting anything in, and they certainly weren’t going to let anything out. The Huns were most definitely desperately grasping at straws.
The Zimmerman Note was the last of these straws. The British turned it over to the US in February of 1917 and by April Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany to make “the world safe for democracy.” War could no longer be avoided. Also playing a part in Wilson’s decision was the fact that Imperial Russia was now out of the Allied camp, and indeed no longer existed. The Bolsheviks had taken over and made peace with Germany. Even if the Tsar still had been in power, its unlikely this would have been a sticking point for Wilson as public opinion would likely have forced him to the same conclusion.
By June of 1917 there were 14,000 US troops in Europe under the command of Pershing. In eleven months there would be over a million. Six months after that, on November 11th, 1918, the War to End All Wars, that began with the assassination of an Austrian nobleman (who was commissioning a symphony in C) that claimed more than 9,000,000 lives, that redrew the maps of Europe and the Middle East, that would send echos nearly 100 years into the future was over. The document that was supposed to mark a new era for mankind, the Treaty of Versailles, would leave a devastating legacy that would lead, a mere 21 years hence, to an even greater conflict. But that is a post for another day.
(P.S. Bonus points to whoever can pick out the obscure song reference in that last paragraph.)