Who is Responsible for Causing World War I?
In August of 1914, the war to end all wars began. The First World War saw incredible amounts of casualties because of new fighting techniques and technology, among other reasons. While it is clear who the victors of the war were after the battles had been fought and the Peace of Paris signed, what is not clear is who started this war. Historians have debated this question since the very early stages of the war and it is one that still remains without one concrete answer. A common elementary history textbook will explain the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria as the sole cause for World War one, but further research seriously brings this statement into question. I feel as though it was not one single person, or even a single country who/that caused the war, but rather a series of events and situations which include the following: the allying of countries and preparing for war which preceded the fighting itself, the actions of the Black Hand as a message of Serbian nationalists, the persuasion of Austria-Hungary by Germany for a swift retribution for this act, and Russia’s swift mobilization of troops along the Central Powers’ eastern border in the early stages of the war.
The first and possibly most important cause of World War I may have been the allying of the countries involved in the war and the posturing for action which they participated in. Although many treaties were signed and many alliances made previously, the start of the time line of WWI may be traced to the Dual Alliance signed by Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1879, to which Italy joined in 1882 forming the Triple Alliance. It was an agreement that was one of military protection, stating that if any member of the alliance were to become involved in the war with two other powers, they would respond with military aid and intervention. This agreement was countered by the Franco-Russian Alliance signed in 1894. Its terms were similar to that of the Triple Alliance’s.
These two agreements directly opposed one another. Who would there be to oppose these groups but one another? These drawing of allies basically served to prepare Europe for eminent war. After their signings, it seems very plausible and likely that the many power struggles in Europe would only be solved by warfare. At this point in time, many countries started to prepare for a war that they were unsure would even occur, much less who it would be fought against.
The first of these movements was the incredible investment of France’s resources into Russia. The French knew that to be a valuable ally, Russia would have to be better equipped and more able to fight, if needed. Therefore, by the time Russia started to mobilize in the early stages of war, France had invested incredible amounts of money and resources to support and build up its principle ally. However, They were not the only countries preparing for possible war.
Germany took this opportunity to construct a naval fleet. The chief result of this naval production was an equal production from England, which held a common interest of having a two-to-one naval advantage over all other countries. The ongoing one-upping between these two countries led to huge fleets being assembled with no other primary function, save for war. Because of this, these new navies only increased the probability of a costly war. By the beginning of war, the German to English ship ratio was in proportion of 10 – 16 which the English often regarded as unmenacing.
These events were causes of the war in that they affected many other countries besides those directly involved. Neighboring countries noticing increased armament would only want to arm themselves, which is what happened in this instance. The result was the cause of a widespread nervousness in regards to a war that more and more people were not only coming to expect, but also one that many were starting to realize would be quite great in scope. The next significant event, in my opinion, was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by the Serbian nationalist group, Black Hand. The actual assassination is not nearly as important as the message it was intended to send, as well as the far-reaching effects it had. The Archduke had been on a visit to the Serbian portion of Austria-Hungary to issue a message of diplomacy. Understanding that these Serbs would be extremely important in the looming war, the crowned prince wanted to give these people representation in the Austria-Hungary government. While opposed by the Hungarian portion of the government because of the possible weakening it offered them, this plan was favored by the most powerful members of the state, the Austrians. Knowing that Serbs constituted a significant part of their army, and understanding that these people only added to their power as a kingdom over all, they were more than willing to accept the Archduke’s plans.
The key group that wasn’t however, were the Serbians of the neighboring Serbia. Fresh off becoming a regional superpower after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, this group next wanted to annex the Serbian Portion of Austria-Hungary. They had a nationalistic feeling that led them to want to unite their people. Thus, they came to the conclusion that this would be their best route for action. However, it not only did not server their purposes, but many have actually backfired in its original intentions, certainly in its outcome in Europe, but also in regard to Serbians.
This action was probably the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Austria-Hungary could not stand by and take this direct attack without being defaced in front of other powers. Their only reservation was to make certain that their principle ally, Germany, would support an outcome of retaliation. When support came in the form of the famous “blank check” and unconditional support from Germany, a strong urging of action also came with it.This support may have led to an irreversible action signifying the start of WWI.
Germany’s insistence that Austria-Hungary strike immediately may have been the key reason for Austria-Hungary’s retaliation. After their initial declaration of support of their ally, the Germans increasingly pressured them to strike. When the Austro-Hungarian point of ultimatum to Serbia, which included public expression of fault, judicial measures against those who may be involved and immediate elimination of all possible anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda,among other points was rejected, it was hardly a surprise to those involved in its construction, such as German Under-Secretary of State Zimmerman.This event signified the success of this pressure and Germans realizing their goal for Austria-Hungary if not for themselves. This ultimatum would not only give Austria-Hungary power over Serbia, but also be “Incompatible with Serbia’s dignity as a sovereign state.”When Austria-Hungary finally declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, it was no longer the quick action that Germany wanted, rather a premeditated attack.
With this declaration of war, the power balance of Europe was upset. Russia, not wanting a substantial power, in the form of Austria-Hungary, to build strength with a victory over Serbia on its doorstep, was quick to become involved. Russia immediately mobilized forces in response to the Austro-Hungarian military mobilization that had occurred so closely to their nation. It wasn’t a response to impose war, they claimed, but one of protection of Russia.Thus, both major alliances were brought into the new war, which had by now become irreversible. Therefore, the Black Hand’s actions eventually cause World War I, but is still may have been avoided had one last event not occurred.
The last key event in the cause of World War I, in my opinion, was not in fact a precursor to the war, rather one of its major surprises. The mobilization of Russian forces after Germany declared war on France may have led the war to progress to one of world importance, instead of being a quick victory for Germany.
This event was made pivotal because of the German contingency plan for the war known as the Schlieffen Plan. The problem with this was that it was Germany’s one and only plan for war. In short, it had two major stipulations. First, Germany planned to march on Paris and take the city after surrounding it. They figured that this would be a swift capture and then they would swiftly mobilize back to their eastern front to engage the Russian force that they were positive would be slow in mobilizing. This plan was to take approximately three weeks, at the conclusion of which Germany would arise as the super-power of Europe.
The major flaw of this plan was the incredible oversight of in regards to Russian forces. Russia was able to mobilize their troops into position within 24 hours, when the German contingency plan allotted a much longer period of time for this movement. This caused the Germans to break off their attack of Paris to defend their country, rather than to fight it offensively. This mobilization ended up causing the war that eventually occurred because of it.
If the Russians hadn’t surprised almost all of Europe with the quickness with which they were able to pose a threat to Germany, Germany’s plan may well have succeeded. In the opinion of many historians, the taking of Paris was proceeding favorably for them. They also had more than enough power and resources to defeat an ill supplied Russian army. However, with both going on simultaneously, Germany was spread too thin. Germany mistook Russian advancement as a serious threat, when in actuality, it turned out to be poorly supplied and may have been easily defeated with a full German force that was expected to encounter it. This retreat of the Germans led to the French being able to gain a much more even battle on the western front, which was where the majority of the war was to be fought. Thus, the war that could have ended in only three weeks lasted for over four years.
To say that there was on person, one event, or even one country that started a particular war is often a gross misrepresentation. In the case of World War I this statement is even more applicable. It seems as though leaving out any of the events previously mentioned may not only have led to a shorter war, but may have also caused this incredible battle for power to have never occurred.