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Origins of the Great War

A lot of ink has been spilled concerning this subject and a lot of conflicting opinions expressed, some of them too narrow in focus. The Great War, which became World War I, was rooted in the past that preceded it, but not inevitable. It was more than a product of any one person, devil or nation state. Most broadly, the war was the product of an age of empire in conflict with nationalism – people not wanting to be ruled by foreigners. .

The Great War was preceded by a conflict between Austria-Hungary's Roman Catholic emperor, Franz Joseph, in conflict with a lot of Europeans who didn't accept his rule: Poles, Slovaks, Slovens, Czechs and Serbs, who were religiously Eastern Orthodox.

As an emperor, the elderly Franz Joseph in his palace in Vienna thought he was following a course of honor. His imperialism was accorded respect by the Vatican. His neighboring emperors saw honor in imperial rule over other peoples. Franz Joseph was not a lone wolf aggressor.

The spark that ignited the Great War was Franz Joseph's reaction to a group of Serb teenagers acting out what they saw as their patriotic duty. They assassinated Austria-Hungary's Archduke Franz Ferdinand while he was visiting their city: Sarajevo. The archduke had recklessly disregarded security considerations with the claim that "all was in the hands of God." Another link in a series of events was the bullet fired from the shaky hand of Gavrilo Princip. The assassin happened to hit his target. But it would be fallacious to say that the assassination caused the war. More decisions would be needed if there was to be another war between the nations of Europe.

Franz Joseph and supporters around him, including his military leaders, believed that Serb resistance to his rule had to be crushed, otherwise his empire would unravel. The assassination was an opportunity to go to war against Serbia, on whom they blamed the event. .

The government of Franz Joseph believed that international conditions would allow them their war. It wanted the support of Germany. Germany's emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, believed the Serbs to be an inferior people – Asiatics – who needed to be punished. The Kaiser believed that Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, would surely understand the need to punish the Serbs, given the experience that the tsar's family had with regicide. The Kaiser was not the brightest of men. His poor grasp of realities was another ingredient in the coming of a major European war.

The Kaiser's cousin, tsar Nicholas, and his military advisors decided to send their military against Franz Joseph's forces to support their fellow Slavs and Eastern Orthodox co-religionists, the Serbs. To mobilize an army in those days amounted to a declaration of war. Like a quick draw shoot out in the American West, military security depended upon getting one's fire power out and active first. And because Austria-Hungary was allied militarily with Germany, the men around the tsar thought it necessary to mobilize also against Germany so as not to muddle train schedules should Germany enter the war.

With Russian troops on the move against Germany, the German public favored a war to defend their nation. Military concerns now trumped diplomacy. Germany declared war against Russia to defend itself. Kaiser Wilhelm didn't want war against his cousin and it was he who had the power to choose between war and peace.

Russia had a defensive alliance with France – rising out of French fears of German power. Fear was playing its role. France joined the Russians against Germany. Britain also feared German power and had a military agreement with France and joined the war on the side of France and Russia. Not wanting war with France or Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm stopped the march of his armies toward France, shaking up his generals, until he learned that France was indeed launching a war against him. Germany would not have made war on France in 1914 if France had chosen not to make war on Germany. It was Kaiser's Wilhelm's decision whether to war against France, not the decision of any conspiracy of German generals. Kaiser Wilhelm was outraged, saying he regretted that his grandmother, Queen Victoria, were not alive. She, he said, "would not have allowed" the war.

The best thing Germany could have done for itself was to stand on its borders – defensive warfare. In the first month of the war it defeated France's invasion through Lorraine, and it defeated the Russians at Tanneberg and at Masurian Lakes in September and January. Warfare at this point in history gave advantage to defensive warfare over the offensive warfare – hence the stalemate and trench warfare that developed in France. The Germans made it worse for themselves and altered the character of the war by wanting a military victory to give meaning to the deaths of the many young Germans who had been killed in the first months of the war. Instead they could have acknowledge the mistake of their offensive into France and negotiated a pull back to their border and an armistice. Germany had been the most successful in the offensive warfare that had been pursued by both sides in the war, but bogged down and fighting on French territory made the Germans appear to many as the aggressor and most responsible for the war.

Copyright © 2005-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.