The History You Know Is Wrong

tags: WWI, Archduke Ferdinand

Josh Marshall, a trained historian, is editor and publisher of

The shocking assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov today in Ankara, amidst a rising tide of global violence and instability, has pitched people's thoughts to events in Sarajevo, 102 years ago, when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the crown of Austria-Hungary, provided the trigger for World War I. Let me say, briefly, that I don't think this is that kind of event. But one key to understanding why today's assassination is not like that other assassination 102 years ago is realizing that our collective understanding of what happened during the so-called "July Crisis" of 1914 is basically wrong.

The received understanding of the outbreak of World War I goes something like this. A Serbian nationalist gunman, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Franz Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary demanded justice from Serbia and in relatively short order the overlapping series of alliances that strung together the various powers of Europe sucked each into a ruinous war that none of the powers actually wanted but were unable to avoid. Germany backed Austria. Russia backed Serbia. France and Great Britain backed Russia. Toss in a bunch of secondary powers bound to one of the major powers and within a matter of weeks the entire continent was at war. This portrayal is most memorably and masterfully captured in Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I.

This is probably the version of events you know. But it is almost certainly wrong. Since the 1960s, it has been widely understood among historians that far from being a collective failure of diplomacy or the result of entangling alliances, World War I was engineered deliberately by Germany. 

This may seem like a bold statement. But it is amply backed up by the available evidence of which there is a great deal. 

Of course, one may step back and say that the great power rivalry between Germany and the United Kingdom, the arms race of the first years of the 20th century, nationalism, imperialism, the decline of the multinational empires of Eastern Europe and various other isms and trends were deep causes of the war. But the actual war, which emerged from the crisis of Franz Ferdinand's assassination, happened because Germany wanted to go to war. ...

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