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fter all the research, thousands
of books and learned papers,
who or what started World
War One is still debated. In
commemorating the 100th anniversary of
the beginning of the war, it’s important that
we understand how the ‘murderous horror’
came about.
The problem
After the assassination in Sarajevo of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife
by Bosnian Serbs in June 1914, Austria-
Hungary decided to put a permanent stop
to the Serb movement behind the outrage
by invading the country, giving parts to its
neighbours, and turning what was left into
a vassal state.
But to do this, they needed German
support. The concern was that Russia might
come to the aid of Serbia, and the only way
that Austria-Hungary might discourage
Russia, was if it had the military backing of
Germany. Within days of the assassination,
Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to Berlin
with a message for the kaiser, Wilhelm II.
The kaiser believed that Russia would
not fight for Serbia, and that Russia’s
ally France would not come to its aid
because of its military weakness. He gave
his unqualified support to the Austro-
Hungarians to do whatever they thought
right, and exhorted them to move quickly.
As things turned out, Russia (supported
by France) didn’t hesitate on springing to
action into action in Serbia’s defence.
While the kaiser in Potsdam considered
the chance of war with Russia unlikely,
in Berlin, the top official of the German
foreign office was telling the Austro-
Hungarian envoy that there was a 90 per
cent probability of war in Europe.
As we mark the 1914 centenary of World War One,
Alan Paton, author and long-time Richmond resident,
explores the true causes of The Great War
Countdown to
The Germans also believed that Britain would
remain neutral. King George V met Prince
Henry, the kaiser’s brother, and gave him the
impression that Britain wanted to stay out of
any European conflict. The prince wrote to
the kaiser, reporting that King George had
said: ‘We shall try all we can to keep out of this
and shall remain neutral.’ When, at the height
of the crisis (and after numerous warnings
from the German ambassador in London
that Britain would be drawn in and support
France) the likelihood of Britain staying neutral
was questioned by Tirpitz, the German Navy
minister, the kaiser immediately quashed any
doubt, saying: ‘I have the word of a King’.
Even Sir Edward Grey, the British
Foreign Secretary, spoke as if Britain
would remain aloof. In several diplomatic
exchanges, he spoke of the danger of war
involving four powers: France, Russia,
Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain
wasn’t in this war.
Missed opportunities
The ultimatum Austria-Hungary gave
Serbia was designed to be rejected,
giving them an excuse to invade. But the
Serbs made a very clever reply, giving the
impression they were being contrite and
reasonable. The kaiser thought the reply
was a great moral victory for Vienna, and
‘every reason for war dropped away’. He
proposed that Austria-Hungary should not
invade, but instead occupy the Serbian
capital Belgrade, until the Serbs delivered
on their promises.
The kaiser came to this conclusion
while out riding at Potsdam early in the
morning, and wrote instructions for his
opinion to be sent to the government in
Vienna. However, Bethmann, the German
chancellor, did not act on those instructions
until that evening, after Austria-Hungary
had already declared war on Serbia. ‘Halt
in Belgrade’ (as the kaiser’s idea became
known) would have left the Serbian army
and country intact, not broken up and
defeated as the Austro-Hungarians wished.
It was hardly an idea to be expected from
the leader of a nation bent on a pre-
planned world war of imperial conquest.
When Bethmann realised that war
would break out, and that the British
would be involved, he sent frantic wires to
Vienna, telling the Austro-Hungarians to
modify their objectives. In parallel, Moltke,
chief of the German General Staff, was
wiring his Austrian counterpart, urging
general mobilisation against Russia. These
conflicting messages elicited the remark
from the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister,
‘Who rules in Berlin?’
Moltke knew that German military
strategy depended on the success of an
immediate surprise attack in the west
to seize the Belgian forts blocking the
invasion route to France. As the French
and the Belgians had already started to take
precautions, time was running out for the
Germans to make their move.
Long-term causes and
human agency
Most books about the causes of World War
One examine the underlying or long-term
causes: the rival alliances, the armaments
race, imperial ambitions, domestic
issues and economic competition.
But the immediate causes should also
be considered, as they embody the
human elements: miscalculation, poor
information, attitudes, temperament and
even bad organisation.
Without these immediate (or
human) problems, the long-term causes
don’t amount to anything; they remain
issues that may change or eventually fade
away, as has happened many times in
history. For example, US-Soviet rivalry
did not bring about World War Three in
October 1962 during the Cuban Missile
Crisis. Kennedy, Khrushchev and their
advisors made the right decisions. If
the decisions were made in the early
summer of 1914, we might now be
discussing how the Cold War or the
alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact)
‘caused’ a third World War. As it is, we
are left considering how human errors in
judgement led hundreds of thousands to
their deaths in the terrible trenches and
battlefields of WWI. n
Alan’s e-book Who Started World War
One? is available to buy on Amazon
Kindle, iBooks and Smashwords. He
is also content editor of the website
George V met
Prince Henry,
the kaiser’s
brother, and
gave him the
impression that
Britain wanted
to stay out of
any European
Alan Paton
Alan’s Book, £5.94
Tyne Cot Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.
Tyne Cot Commonwealth

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