What Historians Get Wrong About The First World War

tags: WW I



Stephen A. Schuker is professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author, among other works, of "The End of French Predominance in Europe" and "American ‘Reparations’ to Germany, 1919-33."

World War I broke out precisely 100 years ago, in early August 1914. Late the previous June, a terrorist loosely associated with Serbian Intelligence had assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo. Not everyone grasped the event’s potential significance. The local American consul did not think it worth reporting by telegram. Yet scarcely five weeks later, Europe’s major powers embarked upon what became the most destructive war in history. Some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians perished. By 1914, Europe and its offshoots produced three-quarters of global manufacturing output. Four years later, that prosperity and the optimism it engendered around the world had disappeared.

Is it plausible that such a tragedy could develop from inadvertence or, as a current best-seller in Germany contends, that the Europeans “sleepwalked” their way into war? History suggests that few nations risk a life-or-death collision unless their leaders believe that the national interest commands it.

The spark in 1914 ignited among the atavistic blood feuds of the Balkans. Still, the animosities of client nationalities do not always escalate to wider confrontation. As the Ottoman Empire declined over the 19th century, the emerging rival Balkan states fought to extend their frontiers. Two local wars took place in 1912-13 and were temporarily resolved through intervention by the British foreign secretary. The Austro-Hungarian decision-makers correctly understood that Serbian ambitions to unite all South Slavs under their control posed an enduring menace, but they divided on how to respond. Some wanted not only to eliminate the Serbian threat through war, but also to expand into other contiguous areas. Others opposed measures that might bring more Slavs within the borders of the empire.

The German government broke the deadlock in Vienna. Not only did it issue a “blank check”; it insisted that Austria’s credibility depended upon its willingness to fight. Berlin’s aggressive stance transformed a regional quarrel into a general war. Repudiating Bismarck’s cautious diplomacy, the elites of Kaiser Wilhelm’s generation thought that their Reich deserved a place in the sun on a par with Britain and America. Given the country’s explosive economic growth, they felt entitled to dominate the Continent. Opinion leaders embraced the Social Darwinist view that the “races” stood in conflict. If they failed to engage in the struggle, supposedly they would decline.

The Germans also believed in the supremacy of military to civilian authorities. Once the army decided, the politicos would have to follow. The generals had worked up the Schlieffen Plan for a two-front war. That plan required invading neutral Belgium and defeating France before Russia could mobilize. The army pressed for action: five years hence the Russians might have built a railroad system that made execution of the Schlieffen Plan impossible... 



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list