The causes of the Great War

The President of the Republic in Russia. The tsar and the President of the French Republic inspect marine guards in Peterhof
Corps 1


Corps 2

The First World War was responsible for about 8 million deaths. As time passes, it is difficult to understand how and why in 1914 the great nations of Europe came to confront each other with such rage. All the more reason to analyse precisely how the war happened.Although it is true that the causes of any historical event are generally manifold and complex, it is nevertheless surprising that, 90 years after the start of the Great War, we are still asking ourselves about the causes of this conflict. The reason for this is that for a very long time, we were less concerned with analysing the causes than deciding who was to blame - it was obviously the other's fault! We must look for an explanation for the war in the state that Europe was in at the beginning of the 20th century. And not just through earlier sequences of events, such as the return and loss of the Alsace-Lorraine, but also in the development of nations throughout the 19th century. The concept of national identity had become the ruler in Europe.

But far from creating harmony between nations, it had more often encouraged an increase in national antagonism, which did not necessarily include the ”inherited” enemies of yesteryear. And so the age-old antagonism between France and England was buried and transformed into the ”Entente cordiale” in 1904, whilst Franco-German hostility tended to grow as a result of memories of the war of 1870, compounded by the crises which had set France against Germany over Morocco - especially the one in 1911, which had left both countries' public opinion wounded and mistrusting of each other. The French, or at least some journalists and generals, feared a German ”rushed attack”, whereas the Germans were convinced that the Revenge spirit continued to flourish in France, an opinion that could only add strength to the attitude of some of the French media and those inclined towards ”militaristic demagoguery” (1) which had become evident with the reintroduction of three years of military service in 1913. Another key factor: the alliance between France and Russia, which could, if necessary, lead Germany to fear a war on two fronts. When, in 1907, Russia then became closer with the United Kingdom, the feeling of being truly surrounded started to spread in Germany, where there was at the time an obsessive fear of the Slavic giant.

The attack on Sarajevo, the spark in the Balkans

Suspicions harboured by one nation towards another had in a way transformed Europe into a powder keg. But a powder keg is only dangerous if someone takes it into their head to set light to it and in fact the European governments and, more importantly, the people were with only a few exceptions, peace loving.However, the unrest that prevailed in Balkan Europe posed a possible danger. Since the start of the 19th century, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians and Bulgarians had been intent on escaping from Ottoman domination to form their own nations. In Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, there only remained a large strip of the former Turkish Empire, comprising mainly of Albania, Macedonia and Thrace. During an initial Balkan war in 1912, the Turks were practically banished from Europe, but in 1913 the division of the conquered territories caused a second Balkan war in which the Bulgarians were the losers and the Serbs winners. The latter, the only one of the Balkans to have a national dynasty, showed their virulent nationalism and demanded the liberation of Slavs from the south, which was under Austro-Hungarian rule, in particular those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was mainly populated by Serbs. The Austro-Hungarian empire did not take kindly to the aggressiveness of such Serb nationalism along her southern borders.

In the European powder keg, the Balkans was therefore a sensitive area, where it was best to avoid anything happening. All governments were conscious of the fact (except to some extent the Austro-Hungarian government) but it had nothing to do with them. On the 28th June in Sarajevo, young Serb nationalists from Bosnia-Herzegovina assassinated Archduke François-Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as his wife. According to what was expected at the time, in order to keep its international credibility, Austro-Hungary had to exact her revenge. But as the young terrorists were Austrian nationals, it had to be shown that it was really Serbia who was responsible. Furthermore, for some firebrands, such as Conrad von Hotzendorf, head of the army and Count Berchtold, the minister for foreign affairs, with very strong support against the Serbs, this attack had the advantage of providing a good reason to keep an eye on Serbia. But Austro-Hungary could not act without the agreement of her powerful German ally. This agreement was not automatically guaranteed, since the year before - in admittedly different circumstances - the German government had opposed Austro-Hungarian action against the Serbs. However the German government now adopted a different attitude for two reasons. The first was that Germany could not see her only real ally become weakened, which was to allow the creation in the heart of Europe of a powerful Germanic bloc (even though the Germans were a minority in François-Joseph's Empire). The second was based on the notion that the other European powers, because of their horror at the attack and, more generally, because they had little sympathy for the Serbs, would not react. This German reasoning proved to be incorrect because, once it had obtained Germany's agreement, the Austrian government was to do as it pleased, barely consulting them. It wanted to declare war immediately on Serbia, whatever the attitude of the latter might be. After having sent Serbia an ”unacceptable” ultimatum, it then took no account of the fact that the Serbs had for the most part accepted it and declared war on Serbia on the 28th July. A very hasty decision, all the more so as the Austro-Hungarian army was not yet ready to enter into a military campaign. This outward display of warmongering changed the deal. Some European public opinion, Russian public opinion in particular, turned against it.At first, there was no reaction from the Russian government nor from public opinion (in the towns, where it really mattered). Serbia had just been advised to show restraint (which did not extend to the Serb media, who were not far off approving the attack). But Austro-Hungary's warmongering ended up making the Russians feel, once emotions had calmed down, that it was not possible to abandon ”their little Serbian brother” to condemnation by the Austrians. After a lot of procrastinating, the Russian generals, supported by public opinion, succeeded in extracting the general mobilisation order from Tsar Nicolas II on 30th July.

The rise of a patriotic and aggressive spirit

What everyone had envisaged was to happen: general Russian mobilisation had a ”red flag” effect on German public opinion: instead of the sizeable pacifist movement, there was a patriotic and aggressive spirit with enormous repercussions. In fact, the German strategic plan, ”the Schlieffen plan”, made provision, in the eventuality of a European conflict, for putting the French army out of action before turning back on Russia. After having shown great virulence in July, Emperor William II realised the stupidity in attacking France to settle a conflict in Bosnia. He could not understand Austria's extremist attitude and thought that application of the ”Schlieffen plan” should be deferred. However, he was ”over-ridden” by his general staff who claimed that they could not change their plans without putting Germany in great danger.

So how did France end up running the risk of finding herself in the front line of a war that hardly concerned her? The French government had been in a state of uncertainty, made all the more so as Raymond Poincaré, the President of the Republic and René Viviani, the President of the Council, whilst returning from a routine visit to Saint-Petersburg, found themselves on the Baltic Sea at the very moment when the crisis broke and were therefore in a position where they were unable to take the initiative. Russia had ordered general mobilisation without even informing France about it, which in principle allowed the latter to remain outside the conflict.

But that was not really possible: application of the German plan did not leave them much choice and the policy that Poincaré had followed for several years prevented him from breaking away from Russia, whatever the circumstances might be. While, as far as French public opinion was concerned, pacifist demonstrations were certainly more numerous than nationalist demonstrations, and although the population - mainly rural - was hardly conscious of what was happening, the French government was also subject to blackmail by the High Commander, General Joffre, who threw his resignation into the equation, considering that it was no longer possible to wait to take the necessary measures. This is how, on the afternoon of Saturday August 1st, at practically the same time, France and Germany both ordered general mobilisation.Out of the great powers - apart from Italy, who preferred for the time being to claim neutrality (on the 3rd August) - the United Kingdom remained. Her politics had been lacklustre during the crisis and her internal problems and the population's deep pacifism led her to remain outside the conflict. But the government's attitude, with public opinion soon to follow, was changed by the ultimatum delivered on the 2nd August to Belgium demanding that she let the German army through. On the 4th August the British government, judging that the breakdown in the balance of Europe that was underway threatened her directly, declared war on Germany, who had herself declared war on the 1st against Russia and on the 3rd against France.

The attackers or the attacked?

The causes of the war are therefore much more complex than might have been thought. All the European states in some way played a role in starting the conflict that set Europe alight. But the unfolding of events - the invasion of Belgium and the attack against France (not counting the violent acts of German troops in their wakes) - left a lasting impression in French minds of German aggression. Yet French people at the time would never have imagined that people of all European nations, including the German people, had the same feeling, at the same moment, of having been attacked, either directly or indirectly.

(1) According to the term used by the historian Henry Contamine