- James Houser
July 28, 1914 - The Outbreak of World War I
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
July 28, 1914. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. The First World War has begun.
So, why did World War I happen? That’s the question I’m gonna answer today. Strap in.
First, I’ll address the more common answers I’ve heard. Everyone knows that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is in there somewhere, but a lot of folks are unclear about just who he was or what he represented. The “high school history class” answer is that a bunch of alliances brought all of Europe into the conflict, but this doesn’t explain why those alliances existed and why the treaties didn’t all work out as planned. If you want to get philosophical about it, you could blame nationalism, militarism, romanticism, or a host of other “isms.” All of this leads the general public to a very incomplete picture of why World War I began.
The key to this whole story is that it was insecurity – both internal and external – that drove the nations of Europe to war. Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia had great internal issues that they sought to resolve by military victory, while Britain, France and Germany saw looming threats that had to be dealt with before it was too late.
Let’s start with Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary was a decaying empire, a country that was not a nation, a broken political system ruling over dozens of peoples that didn’t give a crap about the empire as a whole. Austrian Germans and the Hungarians ruled the country in partnership – hence the name – but all sorts of groups like Czechs, Poles, Italians, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks dreamed of their own countries and hated being stuck inside this corpse of a country. There was nothing to keep the Austro-Hungarian Empire together – no constitution, no belief system, no sense of nationhood – except for the decaying Habsburg Dynasty.
The Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph, was a sad, broken old man of 84 years, and it was commonly accepted in European diplomatic circles that once he was gone his ramshackle Empire might well fall apart. Franz Joseph’s only son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, had infamously committed suicide in 1889 and Franz Joseph’s younger brother Ludwig died in 1896. The new heir to the throne was Ludwig’s oldest son and Franz Joseph’s nephew – the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the only reasonably competent person left to inherit the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Franz Ferdinand was an interesting figure in his own right, with complex views on how the Empire should be run. He believed that in order to save the Empire, the nation needed to be federalized in order to allow the various nations within the realm to have a voice in government. He would have given autonomy and rights to the Croats, Transylvanians, Ukrainians, Czechs and Poles of the Empire’s periphery. On the other hand, he strongly believed in the rights of the dynasty, was a conservative Catholic, and ruffled a lot of feathers. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, he was a particular foe of the army’s Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf.
Conrad was Austria-Hungary’s resident hawk. He believed that the Empire could only be saved by preemptive war that could rally the people around the Emperor. To that end, Conrad’s favorite possible target was Serbia – especially after the Crisis of 1908.
Serbia was an independent Balkan country with a fiercely proud tradition and a powerful military elite that dominated its inner circle. Having undergone centuries of oppression by the Ottoman Turks, they gained their independence in the 1870s, and in 1912 had kicked the Ottomans’ ass to regain much of their ethnic territory.
Their work, though, was still not done. Large numbers of ethnic Serbs still lived within Austrian territory, especially in the recently annexed territory of Bosnia. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia in 1908 to the fury of the Serbs, and numerous terrorist organizations had sprung up in this contentious country to throw out the occupiers and join it with Serbia. Among these was the Black Hand, secretly funded by elements within the Serbian military. It was the Black Hand that would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
When Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia in 1908, Serbia had asked for help from its closest ally in Europe – the Russian Empire. The Russia of Tsar Nicholas II was an empire full of paradoxes, with a quickly growing economy but a crumbling political structure. The Russian nobility was terrified of revolution, having just come off a very dangerous upheaval in the Revolution of 1905. With a massively volatile internal situation, the Tsar and his ministers did not base their foreign policy decisions on what made sense logically, but instead on the effect it would have at home. The Tsar was more worried about trouble inside Russia than trouble outside.
In 1908, though, Russia was still recovering from military defeat by the Japanese and the turmoil of the recent Revolution, and was in no way prepared to help Serbia in what might turn into a larger European war. They had to convince Serbia to back down in the crisis of 1908, even when Serbia was prepared to go to war to take back their Bosnian territories. Serbians viewed this as a betrayal, and so did many of the Russian people. The idea of “pan-Slavism,” a cultural and religious bond between the fellow Slavs of Russia and Serbia, had been growing in recent decades, and many Russians were furious that their Slavic brethren had been betrayed. There were mass demonstrations and protests in the streets of St. Petersburg after the Russians backed down from confrontation, enough unrest to make the Russian nobility gravely worried for their necks.
The ministers all agreed: the next time Serbia needed help, Russia had to provide it – no questions asked. It wasn’t just a matter of foreign affairs, it was a matter of Russia’s internal stability. Did they really want another Revolution?
Austria-Hungary, then, could not afford to look weak if Serbia provoked them. With the ethnic situation critical inside the Empire, any hint of weakness in the face of nationalistic upheaval could trigger a mass uprising from ALL their subject nations. Russia, too, could not look weak in support of Serbia again, since any show of weakness might lead to another round of demonstrations, public turmoil, and possibly a Revolution. (As we know now, that wasn’t a silly thing to be concerned about.)
The German Empire viewed this situation with increasing concern. At the head of Germany was Kaiser Wilhelm II, an ardent nationalist who had pushed for his country’s expansion and power. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the great political leader who had engineered Germany’s unification into the predominant power of Europe, had also set up a complex diplomatic system to keep Germany on top. France would be kept weak, Russia would be kept friendly, Austria would be a dependent ally, and Britain would remain neutral and unthreatened. With all these pieces in place, Germany could enjoy peace and prosperity.
To Wilhelm II, this beautiful system sounded like a bunch of weak sauce. Germany should not be docile; she should have her place in the sun! Wilhelm scrapped the non-aggression pact with Russia, which led Russia to seek a defensive alliance with France – exactly the outcome Bismarck was trying to avoid. He also began to build a huge ocean-going battle fleet. Since having a lot of naval power was, y’know, Britain’s THING, there was only one possible target for a bunch of battleships. Britain and Germany soon became naval rivals, which ruined any hope of England sitting on the sidelines when the inevitable boogaloo popped off.
Germany’s military leaders, though, were terrified of Russia. They saw it as a looming giant to their east, and couldn’t help but notice that every year, Russia seemed to get stronger. They built more railroads, enlarged their army, bought more artillery and set up more fortresses. The German generals began to predict that by 1916, Russia would be their equal in strength, and by 1920 they would be unstoppable. Some men began to argue that Germany should strike first and early, to keep this inevitability from eventually drowning them.
Thanks to Wilhelm’s “brilliant” diplomacy, Germany faced the prospect of a two-front war if shit went downhill. Being squeezed between Russia and France was the nightmare scenario. That resulted in what history calls the “Schlieffen Plan”. Germany’s war plan in case of a general European contest was that they would send 90% of their army hustling west as fast as they could, to crush France and capture Paris within six weeks, then send those forces back to fight Russia. This plan only worked if France collapsed…AND if Russia took a while to get ready, as everyone expected they would. Every year, though, Russia looked like they could get ready faster. Every year the timeline got narrower. Germany’s generals felt like they only had a few more years before they would inevitably lose any European conflict.
This meant that Germany, more and more, depended on her only ally in the world – the crumbling, limping empire of Austria-Hungary. With France as her mortal enemy, Russia as the threatening giant, and Britain as an increasingly hostile naval power, Germany was all alone in Europe – except for Austria-Hungary. German foreign policy began to revolve around keeping Austria alive, no matter what the cost. When the time came, no matter what dumb shit Austria got herself into, Germany would have to support their sickly friend. After all, if Germany DID end up fighting Russia and France, Austria was necessary to hold off Russia until Germany’s armies came rushing back east.
So that’s Germany. The German military leaders increasingly saw themselves caught between the anvil of France and the hammer of Russia, with Britain lurking in the distance, and their only friend in the world was the god-awful mess that was Austria-Hungary. Once again, insecurity – but this time from outside. The German generals were fully aware of their ally’s deficiencies; their favorite quote during the war would be, “We are shackled to a corpse.”
The other problem with Germany’s plan for a European war – besides the need to conquer France in record time, and to avoid Russia falling on them like a ton of bricks before they could accomplish that – was the strategy. *In order for* Germany to conquer France in record time (before Russia fell on them like a ton of bricks), Germany would have to go through Belgium. And the Belgians were not about that. They were a Neutral state, capital-N Neutral, because every country in Europe had signed a treaty in 1830 agreeing that Belgium would stay neutral. To attack them was like attacking Switzerland. They weren’t hurting anyone! (Well, they were doing some messed-up stuff in the Congo. But they weren’t hurting WHITE people, who mattered.) (That was tongue-in-cheek.)
Any violation of Belgian neutrality would turn world opinion against Germany – and “world opinion” meant Great Britain. Britain, who already had no reason to love and a lot of reasons to fear Germany, had been secretly coordinating with France – y’know, just in case something happened. There wasn’t an official alliance, but there was an understanding. Britain made this abundantly clear to Germany, which basically received a non-response from the German diplomats. After all, if everything went according to plan, France would be defeated in a matter of weeks.
So there you have it: the dominos are all in place. Sure, everyone has a CHOICE, and I can’t emphasize that enough – every country in Europe made a considered, firm, positive DECISION to go to war. World War I did not have to happen. Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain all made the calculated decision to enter the greatest war in human history.
Austria-Hungary believed it could not afford to back down against Serbia, or their entire empire might fall apart from the inside.
Serbia could not back down against Austria, since doing so would mean that it would virtually cease to exist.
Russia believed it could not back down in support of Serbia because its leaders were terrified of a possible Revolution.
Germany believed it could not allow Austria to fight Russia alone, since Austria was their only solid ally in Europe – and after all, they had to fight the Russians sometime soon or it might be too late to stop them from becoming unstoppable. And fighting Russia meant fighting France, and fighting France meant going through Belgium.
France believed it had to back up Russia, because if they didn’t, that would mean that sometime in the future they would face Germany alone.
Britain could not stand the violation of Belgian neutrality, and could not afford to see Germany dominate Europe while they sat aside and did nothing.
All these beliefs, fears, insecurities, and problems make sense when we see what happened.
On June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. The local Serbs viewed this as a provocation, and the Black Hand terror group assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they drove through the streets.
The death of Franz Ferdinand was seized on by men like General Conrad, who wanted a war with Serbia to bring Austria-Hungary out of her downward spiral, and just needed an excuse. Franz Ferdinand had been Conrad’s arch-rival and a constant voice for peace within the Austrian government, and with him gone there was no one to argue against their new course.
The Austrians secretly communicated with Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that he was for “settling accounts with Serbia.” Subsequent diplomatic chats granted Austria a “blank check” to go to war with Serbia, no matter what. With German backing, Austria slowly began to build up its armies.
After the initial shock of the assassination, oddly enough, the rest of July 1914 passed in Europe with little fear or concern about a possible crisis or war. As Austria’s government debated, Britain was having an intense series of debates under Irish Home Rule, and both France and Russia were taken up with political scandal and infamous court trials. No one was really paying attention to the Balkans…until July 23.
On July 23, 1914, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum. Even though they could not directly link the assassination with the Serbian government, they demanded that Serbia would comply with ten demands, including the admission of Austrian policemen to investigate the assassination within Serbian territory. All of the demands in the ultimatum were unthinkable for a sovereign nation – especially the Austrian investigators – but that night, Serbia agreed to all the terms except that one. This put the ball back in Austria’s court: it was now up to them to avoid war. The problem was that Austria wanted a war.
On July 24, Serbia and Austria began to call in their reservists and mobilize their armies. Russia, despite not being ready for war, began to call up its armies as well – the Tsar hoped it would only be a bluff, but Russia could not look weak. With Russia mobilizing, the German generals saw the clock began to tick for their plan. The Schlieffen Plan only worked if Russia took time to get ready. If Russia was already there…so Germany began mobilizing its army. So France began mobilizing.
At any point, any of the world’s leaders could have stopped this movement. Austria could have backed down on Serbia. Russia could have backed down off of Austria. Germany could have tried to reel Austria back in, which could have calmed Russia down. France could have tried to reel Russia back in. The British tried to mediate, but no one listened. They could have.
When Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, there was still time to stop the key from turning – but no one was prepared to take that step. The gears ground towards global war, and every nation thought it had too much at stake to back down now.
The irony is that Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia all thought these steps were necessary to save their empires from military defeat, total collapse, and revolution respectively; but these would all be the result of World War I. By trying to avoid the prophecy, they played into its hands.
And the world burned for it.