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Dossier: I Guerra Mundial, Globalização e Guerra Total

The Crisis of 1914 and the Road to War

A crise de 1914 e o caminho para a Guerra
La crise de 1914 et le chemin vers la Guerre
Michael Neiberg
p. 11-27


A estrada que transformou um assassínio nos Balcãs numa guerra mundial é confusa e difícil de perceber. Se quisermos compreender esta catástrofe seminal do século XX não são suficientes explicações simples. Este artigo utiliza investigação recente para apresentar uma compreensão mais complexa e matizada das intricadas séries de acontecimentos que levaram à guerra em 1914.

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The MAIN Problem

1Understanding how the assassination of a relatively unknown archduke in a small provincial city could have resulted in the most devastating war the world had ever known is no easy task. An almost unlimited number of causes, variables, and personalities were involved in turning a comparatively minor diplomatic crisis into a world war. Looking back on it from the perspective of nearly a century what is most striking is not the inevitability of war in 1914 but the number of moments and decisions that could easily have led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand becoming a mere footnote in history. Instead it became the spark for a war whose consequences the entire world is still feeling.

2As teachers, writers, and readers we look for relatively simple explanations of complex events in order to understand them. But understanding what happened in that fateful summer of 1914 defies easy explanation. Indeed, the more one analyzes the outbreak of the war the more complex it becomes. As with any important event in history, there are no easy or straight-forward ways to explain how a global system that most contemporaries thought was strong enough to weather this small storm instead fell completely apart then destroyed itself in four murderous years of war.

3Too often we turn to historical reductivism, looking for simple solutions to complex problems. The easiest method, of course, is to look for a single cause to the great conflagration of 1914. The popular contenders are an excess of militarism, the alliance system, imperialism, and nationalism. As a student, I was taught a slightly more complex combination of these factors, forming the clever but misleadingly simple acronym «MAIN» causes. On the surface a combination of these factors seems like a logical and simple way to explain the war, and with careful selection of evidence one can build a case that is both convincing and easy to present in a limited amount of space.

  • 1 See for example Jean-Jacques Becker, Comment Les Français Sont Entrés dans la Guerre(Paris: PUF, 19 (...)

4A closer look, however, reveals the insufficiency of such an approach. Without denying the importance of nationalism for some of the people of 1914, scholars have done a thorough job of showing that the people of that year were no more nationalistic than those of 1890 or 1900. More importantly, their love of country did not translate into a hatred of others or a desire to go to war to avenge presumed slights from centuries past1. If called upon to defend their homelands, they would do so, but nationalism did not translate into widespread popular support for aggressive foreign policies or for preemptive wars. If anything, nationalism as understood in 1914 called into question the willingness of ethnic minorities (including people as different from one another as the Irish, Corsicans, Czechs, Arabs and Armenians) to fight for states with which they did not identify.

  • 2 John Cerullo, Minotaur: French Military Justice and the Aernoult-Rousset Affair (DeKalb, IL: Northe (...)
  • 3 Gerd Krumeich, Armaments and Politics in France on the Eve of the First World War: the Introduction (...)

5Militarism, too, had far less hold on Europeans than the MAIN thesis would suggest. Scandals repeatedly rocked Europe in the years before the war as Europeans protested the growing influence of soldiers and of the army as an institution. Most people know about the Dreyfus Affair in France, but there were many other such scandals. The Aernoult-Rousset Affair in 1912 brought working-class crowds numbering in the tens of thousands out into the streets to protest the harsh nature of French military justice and its insulation from investigation by the civilian justice system2. The tremendous controversy in France over an extension of conscription from two to three years was another important reminder of the weakness of militarism3. Even in Germany, supposedly the most militaristic state in Europe, the abuse of power by officers in the Alsatian garrison town of Zabern (Saverne) in 1913 led to the first vote of censure by the Reichstag of a sitting government in its history. Most observers in Germany and in nearby France thought that the humbling of the German Army as a result of the scandal would reduce the military’s appeal in Germany, much as the Dreyfus Affair had done in France. Nor was Britain immune as officers at the Curragh barracks in Ireland demonstrated when they threatened to disobey orders to disarm Protestant paramilitary volunteers in the event that Parliament passed a Home Rule act. That incident (or, depending on one’s point of view, mutiny) led to several resignations at the highest levels of the British government and sparked a debate about the proper role of armed forces in a civil society.

  • 4 Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithac (...)

6Nor does imperialism offer an easy causative explanations. By 1914 there were no imperial disputes to speak of. Two crises over Morocco in 1905 and 1911 had ended peacefully when the great imperial powers had wisely concluded that no colonial dispute was worth risking increased tensions in Europe. France and Britain had resolved their disputes in 1898 after the Fashoda Affair in the Sudan and soon thereafter Britain and Russia settled their differences over Persia and central Asia. The German Empire, generally small and unthreatening, needed trade with Britain and France to remain even minimally profitable. European colonies also needed the help of fellow Europeans if they were to maintain military dominance over the much more numerous Africans and Asians they needed to suppress in order to make imperialism work. Treaties between the great powers had settled colonial borders, and trade agreements had locked the colonies into mutually dependent relationships that needed peace far more than they needed war4.

  • 5 William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), (...)

7Nor do alliances provide much help in explaining the war. All of the alliances were defensive in nature. They encouraged restraint but did not prevent the great powers from working together across alliance lines. As Italy proved, moreover, a state could easily opt out of its alliance commitments by claiming that its ally, in this case Austria-Hungary, had been the aggressor. Nor were allies always working closely in harmony. Germany and Austria-Hungary had broken off staff talks after a 1913 spy scandal involving a senior Austrian intelligence officer’s sale of military secrets to Russia. Consequently, the two allies had stopped sharing military information and did not coordinate war planning either. As a result they made the almost unimaginable strategic error of assuming that the other ally would be the one to mobilize forces against Russia. In the event, neither did, leaving both dangerously exposed in the opening weeks of the war. Ultimately, alliances were a «means to an end,» not an end in and of themselves. Most importantly, that end was stability and deterrence, not war5.

8Finally, we are faced with the problem of understanding why war came in 1914 and not earlier. If Europe was indeed a place of white hot nationalism, rampant militarism, imperial competition, and interlocking alliances, then war should have happened much sooner. Yet much more serious crises in Morocco in 1905 and 1911, Libya in 1911-1912, the Balkans in 1912-1913, and others were resolved peacefully. In many cases, the crises led to greater stability in the system. The second Morocco crisis led not to war but to the French and German governments making accommodating gestures including French President Raymond Poincaré’s well-publicized dinner at the German embassy in Paris; no French statesman had dined there since the Franco-Prussian War. The British and German navies were making similar gestures. At the very moment of the archduke’s assassination, the two fleets were partying together at fleet week ceremonies in Kiel and planning for the Royal Navy to return the hospitality before 1914 was over. As is so often the case in history, the simple answers simply won’t do.

An Assassination in Sarajevo

9The European system had proved itself able to absorb shocks before 1914 and might well have absorbed the one of that fateful summer as well. Neither militarism, alliances, imperialism, or nationalism made war inevitable. Few people in Europe expressed any great sense of alarm at the news of the assassination. Out of respect for a fellow aristocrat, a few elegant garden parties were cancelled, but the drunken German and British sailors partying together at Kiel barely took notice of it. Most Germans, Frenchmen, and Britons could not see how another bloody incident in the Balkans had anything at all to do with them. There had been assassinations and violence in the region for centuries and there would surely be more to come in the future.

10The assassination stopped being front-page news within a few days. The Home Rule crisis in Ireland, the salacious murder trial of a French minister’s wife, and the British suffragettes combined to push the news from the Balkans to the back pages. Statesmen went on their holidays as usual. The Kaiser went on a cruise to Norway, British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey went trout fishing, and several senior military figures took vacations in the very countries they were soon to be fighting. Within a few short weeks these same men would record in their diaries and letters how little sense of the oncoming apocalypse they detected. Their vacations were pleasant, the locals friendly, and politics not a major topic of discussion. The assassination had seemingly changed nothing.

  • 6 6 Franz Joseph’s decision not to attend the funeral meant that most of the other heads of state in (...)

11The lone important exception to this indifference was in Vienna. The anger of the Austrian elite over the assassination was intense, but not at all personal. Few members of the Austrian inner circle much cared for Franz Ferdinand. He was unstable, quick to anger, and had committed the almost unpardonable sin of marrying for love. His wife, Sophie (who was killed by the same assassin) was aristocratic but not royal and the Viennese elite wasted no opportunity to humiliate her. Even at the funeral, the dead couple’s children entered the church last because they were not of pure royal blood. They were officially illegitimate and Franz Ferdinand had renounced their right of accession to the throne as a precondition for the Emperor’s acceptance of his marriage. Emperor Franz Joseph, who did not attend the funeral because Sophie’s death rendered it non-royal, even hinted that the assassin’s hand might have been guided by God as a way of restoring the principle of legitimacy to the succession of the Austro-Hungarian throne6.

12Franz Ferdinand’s politics also made him an unpopular figure. He supported a plan to make the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy a Triple Monarchy, with power given to the Slavs as well as the Austrians and the Magyars. Predictably enough, the plan horrified the political classes of Vienna and Budapest who would see their equal one vote in two reduced to one vote in three. Even those who understood that the reform was trying to accommodate the legitimate grievances of the empire’s Slavs saw the danger of the system turning into a constant series of negotiations between three parliaments that would inevitably end in gridlock and discord.

13Nevertheless, Austro-Hungarian leaders saw in the assassination a golden opportunity that they could not afford to miss. Although the evidence was far from conclusive, there was enough to make a prima facie case that the assassins had had help from Serbian government officials. In effect, then, the assassination was what we would today call an act of state-sponsored terrorism. As such, Austria-Hungary had the right to claim compensation from Serbia if it could demonstrate to the international community that Serbian government officials had indeed been involved. The assassination, moreover, made Austria-Hungary look like the victim of a senseless and violent act. Great Britain and Russia, the Austro-Hungarians figured, would not go to great lengths to defend regicide. If their leaders played their cards carefully, Austria-Hungary could profit from this crime and humble the noisy and disruptive Serbian state to their south.

14Serbia had emerged from the two Balkan wars much stronger and much more assertive. Shrill calls from Serbian nationalists to ethnic Slavs inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire frightened people in Vienna and Budapest with specters of revolution. Austro-Hungarian military officials worried about an alliance of Russia, Serbia, Romania, and possibly Italy lining up against them. More moderate voices, ironically including that of Franz Ferdinand, argued for a foreign policy that would reduce Austro-Hungarian interference in Balkan politics. In their eyes, the 1908 Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia had been a terrible mistake, antagonizing Slavs to no real purpose while at the same time making Vienna look like a bully to the other great powers.

  • 7 See Graydon Tunstall, «Austria-Hungary» in Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, eds. The Origins of (...)

15Until June, 1914 these moderate voices had dominated, but the assassination changed the balance of thinking in Vienna. Austro-Hungarian hardliners had long called for a preemptive war to finish the Serbs once and for all. Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, the head of the Austro-Hungarian Army, had presented revised plans for a war with Serbia almost every year only to be rebuffed by the Emperor and the cabinet. Franz Joseph had been on the throne since 1848 and had said repeatedly that he did not want to darken his last days with blood (he died in 1916). This time, however, the arguments of hawks like Conrad were more persuasive. Serbia had drawn first blood and in such a way that none of the other great powers would likely rise to its defense. For the first time in a very long time, moreover, Austria-Hungary looked like a victim not an aggressor. The only great power that might come to Serbia’s aid was Russia, but Russia was still reeling from its defeat to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War and was at least three years away from returning to the level of military power that it had possessed in 1904. The mythic ties of pan-Slavism were nowhere near as close as Serbian nationalists liked to proclaim; Russian diplomats had often urged Serbian politicians to moderate their positions in an effort to calm tensions in the Balkans. There was an excellent chance that Russia might do nothing more than lodge a diplomatic protest, as it had done when Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia in 19087.

  • 8 The full text can be found at:

16The German elites had come to similar conclusions. At a famous meeting between German and Austro-Hungarian diplomats in the first week of July, the Germans agreed to a strong statement of support known today as the «blank check»8. German leaders had guessed that Russia was unlikely to intervene in the crisis and risk a war for the sake of the distant Balkans. If, as expected, the Russians did nothing, then Austria-Hungary would win a diplomatic victory at little cost, the other great powers of Europe would have no reason to get involved, and Germany would gain by its association with a reenergized Austria-Hungary.

  • 9 See Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), (...)

17If, however, Russia did decide to get involved in the situation in the Balkans, then circumstances would also be reasonably favorable. German generals believed that the odds were more in Germany’s favor in 1914 than they might ever be again. Russia was still years away from completing its military modernization plan; France and Britain, unconnected to the crisis in the Balkans, might respond slowly or not at all; and Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, was already on the alert. Finally, signals from the major Balkan powers, most notably the Ottoman Empire, gave the impression that they would at least stay neutral or possibly even support Germany and Austria-Hungary9. Such a favorable combination of circumstances was alluring and held out the hope of a quick victory.

18More importantly for German politicians, perhaps, such a scheme put the onus on Russia. Germany need not go to war or mobilize its army to emerge from the crisis stronger. If Russia did not materially support Serbia, then Austria-Hungary would almost surely be able to defeat Serbia by itself. If Russia did mobilize its armies, then Germany could proclaim that its own mobilization was purely defensive. By telling the German people that they were acting to save them from the ravages of Slavic hordes, the German elites knew that they could count on almost complete support. They were not at all sure that the German people would support a war to bolster Austro-Hungarian ambitions in the Balkans. Even the German socialists, however, would have no choice but to accept as necessary a war of protection and defense from the reactionary regime of the Czar.

  • 10 The text is at (...)
  • 11 James Joll and Gordon Martell, The Origins of the First World War, third edition (London: Longman, (...)

19Thus did Germany not only support Austria-Hungary, the Germans encouraged their allies to take as firm a stand as possible. On July 23, the Austro-Hungarian government issued a harsh ultimatum that it knew the Serbian government could never accept with honor10. It demanded that Austro-Hungarian officials have access to the Serbian government and the right to violate the sovereignty of Serbian territory. The ultimatum gave the Serbs just 48 hours to respond or a state of war would exist between the two states. The delivery of this document, not the assassination of the archduke (itself already largely forgotten) produced the real crisis of the summer of 1914. Most diplomats who read the ultimatum immediately understood how likely it was to lead to war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sasonov saw it and said «C’est la guerre européenne»11.

Exit the Diplomats

20To understand why the ultimatum was such a bombshell we need to go back to the recent crises in Europe. There had been no shortage of them, including a Franco-British showdown over the oasis of Fashoda in modern-day Sudan; the two Moroccan crises; a war between Italy and the Ottoman Empire over Libya; two Balkan wars; and Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia, to name just a few of the most serious. All of these crises involved the interests of one or more great power and they all held out at least the possibility of spilling out into a general war.

21But they had all been resolved in the end by a process that had become quite familiar to observant Europeans. All of these crises lasted for many months, giving each side time to reassess their options and, in most cases, decide that the crisis was not worth the risk of war. In most cases, the great power least impacted by the crisis intervened to help reach resolution; thus did Great Britain host the conference that ended the Balkan Wars. And, in all cases, diplomats found some sort of face-saving trade-off of colonial territories or border adjustment that let everyone leave the table with something. Life then went on as normal.

22Such was the pattern Europeans expected in 1914. Perhaps the great powers would host a conference that would adjust the Serbian border to Austria-Hungary’s benefit or perhaps that conference would award financial damages to Austria-Hungary. A proposal even spread around European diplomatic circles that would allow Austro-Hungarian armies to occupy the Serbian capital of Belgrade while the great powers decided on a final settlement. Whatever happened, Europeans were certain that the settlement would be accomplished in a conference room in London or Paris, not on battlefields.

23Austria-Hungary’s two-day deadline in the ultimatum rendered those options impossible. This crisis would not last months, but mere hours, thus removing precious time for cooler heads to prevail. Serbia agreed to all but one of the ultimatum’s demands in the hopes of maintaining peace, but Austria-Hungary declared war anyway. Most still expected that the war would be limited to Austria-Hungary and Serbia only because the vital interests of the rest of the great powers were still not involved. Given enough time their diplomats might still have worked out a way to limit the fighting. But the time to work out such an arrangement slipped by all too quickly.

Enter the Soldiers

24To this point in the crisis, the generals had mostly watched from the sidelines. Most of them were slow to see how the assassination might lead them into war and they had little to contribute to the diplomatic discussions. The ultimatum, however, showed that the situation could quickly get out of hand. Those soldiers on vacation quickly went back to their units and began to implement readiness plans in the event that their governments declared a mobilization. At higher headquarters in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London politicians at last turned to their generals for advice. The first issue to resolve involved the question of when to begin mobilization, the period between the decision to get ready for war and the dispatch of units to their assigned location. The crisis was moving so quickly that this decision might have to made before the full outlines of the situation became clear.

25Mobilization was a complex affair. So many soldiers were on vacation and so few men had thought the crisis likely to lead to war that generals feared mass confusion in the mobilization process. Those active-duty soldiers not on vacation or helping to bring in the harvest were in their garrisons but even they had to test equipment, prepare for deployment, and ensure that their logistical and command arrangements were in place. They also had to find horses, arrange for medical and support staff, and make contact with their higher headquarters. Reserves presented an especially complex problem. Most men of military age on the continent finished their obligatory military service and entered some classification of reserves. They had papers that told them where to be and what to bring in the event that the government declared mobilization but no one knew if the system would actually work and time was of the essence.

26In the summer of 1914, mobilization of reserves meant spreading the news of the emergency through large states with relatively slow means of communication. In big cities the news spread quickly by media and by word of mouth, but in the countryside, where most people lived, the government might be reduced to sending out men with trumpets to go from village to village. In other places church bells rang in odd patterns as a signal to men in the fields to come in to town to receive important news or flags flew from lighthouses to warn fishermen to come to shore. The crisis happened so quickly that in many rural areas men learned about the mobilization before they had even learned about the ultimatum.

27As the crisis evolved, generals demanded that their governments order mobilization as quickly as possible. From their professional standpoint they wanted to get the cumbersome process underway so that they could gauge their problems and assess the response to the call to the colors. At a July 31 meeting of the French cabinet the chief of the French Army, General Joseph Joffre warned the government that every 24 hours it waited to order mobilization meant the loss of 15 to 20 kilometers of French territory. He reminded the politicians of the problems of French mobilization in 1870 and warned that a repeat of that fiasco could cost France the war before its armies had even had a chance to fire a shot. Such considerations put tremendous pressure on civilian and military leaders alike.

28These pressures were perhaps nowhere as acute as in Russia, a state that had few non-military ways to influence the growing crisis. The military options, however, were all fraught with dangers. Haunted by the nightmare of the chaos of their mobilization in 1904 and with forces spread out over thousands of kilometers, Russian military leaders needed to move quickly or risk disaster. They had in fact written an elegant mobilization plan that organized the massive Russian army in stages. The plan promised to put millions of men in the field without overwhelming the inadequate Russian rail and road networks. But it would take time to complete and it would require careful coordination.

29On July 25 the Russians fatefully decided to warn their Kiev, Odessa, Moscow, and Kazan districts to prepare to mobilize if given the order. The next day Russian Army headquarters ordered reservists to report to their units as a precautionary measure. Russia had made similar moves in 1912 in response to the Balkan Wars but had not then proceeded to war. The Russians publicly proclaimed that they were not preparing for war this time either but merely taking reasonable precautions to back up their diplomatic efforts. When Austria-Hungary ordered mobilization against Serbia, however, the Russians responded by mobilizing the four districts noted above.

30Russian generals, worried that the mobilization of only four districts would throw their plans into confusion, urged upon their politicians a full mobilization. On July 29, the Czar seemed ready to approve the idea, but then he returned to the original concept of a mobilization of districts on the Austro-Hungarian border region only. He did not authorize the mobilization of the Warsaw district, even though the army thought it essential, because he did not want to send a threatening signal to Germany. Frustrated by the indecision and fearing that the Germans were even then mobilizing in secret, the Russian generals appealed to the Czar to order a full mobilization. Confused and unable to see any other way forward, he reluctantly agreed and on July 31 ordered a full mobilization of Russian forces on both the Austro-Hungarian and German frontiers.

  • 12 Quoted in Hew Strachan, The First World War, To Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 90.

31The Russian mobilization changed the face of the crisis in a flash. German leaders now knew that they could mobilize their armies and claim that they were only responding to an unprovoked act of aggression by the Russians. The Kaiser’s well-publicized telegram exchange with his cousin, Czar Nicholas II, was carefully and cynically constructed to send the message that Germany sought peace and was only responding to Russia’s threats. The ploy worked. As predicted, the German people supported this decision as essential to the defense of German soil. The devil, of course, was in the details. With France showing signs that it might be willing to stay neutral, the Kaiser ordered a mobilization in the east only. To his shock and dismay, his senior military officers told him that the mobilization plans did not allow for variations. If he ordered mobilization in the east only, General Helmuth von Moltke warned, Germany would have «not an army prepared for the attack but a barren heap of armed men disorganized and without supplies»12. Germany must mobilize in full, Moltke argued, or not at all.

32In order to defend against Russia on behalf of Austria-Hungary, therefore, Germany had to fight both France and Russia. This incident reveals both the disconnect between military and political leaders (discussed below) and how misguided German calculations had been. Diplomatic support for Austria-Hungary had now evolved into a two-front war alongside an ally whose own war plans were largely unknown in Berlin. The Germans did know, however, that Austria-Hungary was likely to direct its main effort to the south against Serbia while their own war effort would head west toward France. If they continued to move quickly, the rapidly mobilizing Russians would face relatively light opposition all the way to Berlin. Not surprisingly, Moltke was on his way to the nervous breakdown that led to his dismissal in September, 1914 and the rapidly deteriorating heart condition that killed him two years later.

War Plans

33As the process of mobilization showed, the political leaders of Europe had a far from complete understanding of how their own militaries functioned. None of the great powers had what modern militaries would recognize as serious national security structures wherein politicians and senior officers meet to coordinate and share information. In most cases, the soldiers looked at the politicians as unscrupulous and untrustworthy. The politicians saw the generals as uneducated technicians whose power posed a threat to proper governance. There were, of course, exceptions, but it is safe to say the relationship of statesmen and generals was rarely warm and never as functional as it should have been.

34As a result, the statesmen did not understand what the armies were designed to do and the generals never fully understood the political purpose of the wars they were planning. Generals focused on operational and technical problems rather than political ones. They designed war plans to win campaigns, not to achieve political objectives. As armies had grown larger and more sophisticated they also became harder to manage and war planning became more rigid. The more detailed and specific the war plan, the less variation was possible. In military lexicon, the less variation, the less «friction» to complicate the process. War planning thus sought to produce a more predictable environment for the men responsible for the security of the state.

35Military planners had to prepare for contingencies they could not foresee. Allies notwithstanding, they did not always know who their friends would be and they did not know who their enemies might be. The alliance system was designed to introduce more predictably to this environment, but nothing was ever as certain as the military men hoped it would be. Governments changed, alliance friendships waxed and waned, and domestic politics forced officers to rethink what they could expect from their own societies. Military planners had to take into account their state’s geostrategic situation, its possible alliances, and the resources it had to draw upon. Almost all military planners, moreover, understood the need to devise offensive war plans in order to seize the initiative from the enemy and to force the fighting onto the enemy’s soil. No two diplomatic crises were ever the same, but the nature of military planning required more generic schemes to meet a variety of possibilities. In the environment of 1914, this kind of planning was a recipe for disaster.

  • 13 The debate over German war planning has generated a lot of heat without much light. Gerhard Gross’s (...)

36The most famous of the war plans remains Germany’s so-called Schlieffen Plan, named after the man who put its main components in place in the late 1890s. The plan and its history are far too complex for a detailed analysis here, but several points are worth highlighting13. First, German planners made a number of assumptions that proved to be faulty. They assumed that any war they fought would be a two-front war and that therefore they would need to fight both France and Russia. They then assumed that a quick victory over one of the two would be necessary and, based on the size of Russia, they ruled out any possibility of repeating Napoleon’s mistake of hoping for a quick victory in the east. They should have taken the lesson from their own war of 1870-1871 that a war against France might not end quickly just because they wished it so. They nevertheless assumed that with audacity, the proper use of a modern railway system, and the inclusion of reservists in front-line formations, they could defeat France in just six weeks.

  • 14 Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, removed Holland from the invasion plans in (...)

37They further assumed that in those six weeks the slow-footed Russians would still not have fully mobilized. Whatever Russian forces did find their way onto the battlefield would be temporarily handled by one German field army and the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian army. The plan envisioned that after the rapid defeat of France, railways would rush German troops east before the Russians could invade German soil in large numbers. Everything thus depended on a quick victory in the west. The only way to defeat France so quickly, however, was to outflank France’s impressive fortifications and move through neutral Belgium and Holland14. Powerful German armies moving along the English Channel coastline might force the British to declare war, but in a short war the Royal Navy would not play much of a role. As to the relatively small British Army, Moltke once quipped that if it did dare to deploy to the continent, he would send the Berlin police department to arrest them.

38Although the plan has its defenders, it had the fundamental failure of needing everything to go just right. Reservists had to be capable of long, difficult marches; Russia had to mobilize slowly; and Belgium had to be either cooperative or easy to conquer. Moreover, the British had to stay neutral, the French had to make just the right mistakes, and Germany’s allies had to provide significant help. As it happened none of these assumptions proved valid and, fatally, there was no backup plan. Regardless of the diplomatic crisis that led the German Army into the field, it would follow the Schlieffen Plan.

39While it is too simple to lay all of the blame for the carnage that followed on the Schlieffen Plan, its consequences still need to be appreciated. By threatening Belgium and a German takeover of the northern European coastline, it made the entrance of Great Britain into the war almost certain. Great Britain’s entry meant that the Royal Navy could initiate a blockade and begin to slowly but surely strangle Germany from the sea. It also meant that all of the resources of the British empire – from Canada to Africa to India to Australia to New Zealand – were at London’s disposal. Britain’s ally, Japan, also moved quickly to attack and conquer Germany’s Pacific colonies in the Shandong Peninsula and its island colonies north of the equator. If the Germans had managed to win a war in the west in six weeks these factors would not likely have mattered much. In a war of four years, however, they vastly increased the scale, scope, and cost of any German victory.

40The Schlieffen Plan also put France in the crosshairs. France, however, had no connection to the crisis set off by the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum and was probably the continental great power least affected by the events in the Balkans. As those mobilizations were happening, the French public remained riveted to the murder trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of Joseph Caillaux, a notable and controversial French politician who had been linked to a financial scandal and who had also been among those who had argued for building better relations with Germany. He was also a close friend of French President Raymond Poincaré who testified at the trial. An editor at a conservative French newspaper had published numerous documents embarrassing to Joseph Caillaux, revealing both his duplicitousness as a politician and his weakness as a husband. When Joseph refused his wife’s pleas to challenge the offending editor, Gaston Calmette, to a duel, Henriette went to a gun store, bought an automatic pistol then had the shop owner teach her how to load and fire it. She then went to Calmette’s office, shot him dead and calmly waited for the police to arrive.

41As the continent was inching toward war, the French public was anxiously awaiting the verdict. On July 28 the all-male jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, the first successful use of that defense in French history. The jurors concluded that Mme. Caillaux had been thrust into the unnatural «male» role of protecting the honor of her family because her husband had refused to do it himself. She was, therefore, not of her right mind and not responsible for her actions. Even news of Russia’s mobilization had trouble competing with the trial for front-page news.

42The trial, even though it occurred at the height of the July Crisis, did not distract France’s leaders as much as it distracted people in cafés. As the verdict of Mme Caillaux was being read out in a Paris courtroom, Poincaré and Prime Minister René Viviani were on their way back from a previously scheduled state visit to St. Petersburg. Exactly what they discussed with their Russian counterparts remains a matter of conjecture because surviving records are both incomplete and contradictory. The circumstantial evidence suggests that they promised Russia their full support if Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary because the French deeply feared entering into war with Germany without the full support of their principle ally. The fact that Russia mobilized shortly after the French leaders headed home has reinforced this conclusion. It also increased the level of anxiety in Berlin and Vienna.

  • 15 See Eugenia Kiesling «France» in Hamilton and Herwig, eds. The Origins of World War I, 248 and Jean (...)

43But once again we should be careful not to simplify too much. Poincaré and Viviani both returned to France believing that there would be no war; Poincaré even went ahead with his summer vacation plans15. He saw a clear difference between making a statement of support for Russia and going to war on her behalf. Viviani publicly proclaimed that France sought a peaceful resolution of the crisis, and French public opinion continued to be opposed to war. French leaders were aware of a moral commitment to support Russia for fear of weakening or losing the alliance that was the cornerstone of French security, but many among them concluded that nothing in the alliance required them to mobilize or go to war unless Russia were attacked. Even after he ordered mobilization, Poincaré was careful to note that mobilization was not to be confused with a declaration of war.

44Primary among those French politicians trying to avoid a war were the socialists who had long argued that if French relations with Germany improved, then France would have no need for an alliance with the reactionary Russians. The French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, saw no reason for France to do anything in response to the current crisis unless German forces invaded France, a circumstance he thought unlikely because France had nothing to do with the events unfolding in the distant Balkans. On the night of July 31, as tensions were heating up, Jaurès told a Parisian crowd that he had read the text of the treaty with Russia and had seen nothing in it that would drag France into a war. He then went to a café in the newspaper district to discuss with his political allies the wording of an editorial he wanted to write to calm tensions and head off a war. As they talked, a deranged French nationalist walked up to the window next to Jaurès’s table and shot him dead.

45Jaurès had been technically correct in concluding that France had no legal reason to prepare for a war. He did not know, however, that even as he was speaking German armies were setting their sights on Paris in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. But Joffre, the commander of the French Army, did. He and his staff officers had guessed that the Germans were unlikely to challenge the powerful French fortification belt that ran along the line Verdun – Toul – Épinal – Belfort. South of that line ran the Vosges mountains and north of it the Ardennes forest. The only logical approach was through Flanders, but in order to have enough room for maneuver of their massive armies the Germans would need to invade Belgium and perhaps Holland as well.

46But if Joffre had logically divined the general outlines of the German approach he misjudged many of its key details. Most importantly, he underestimated the number of men the Germans would use in the invasion. He did not expect them to leave just one of their eight field armies to block the Russians in the east. Nor did he think that the Germans would use their reserves in the invasion itself. As a result, the Germans entered France and Belgium with far more men under arms than Joffre had thought possible.

47Joffre was also hamstrung by political realities. Although French and British generals had for years been working out plans for the deployment of British troops onto the continent in the event of war, politicians in Paris and London had been more circumspect. The entente cordiale between the two long-time enemies was, as its name was meant to show, a friendly arrangement only. It committed neither side to any specific course of action, although there was a joint naval agreement that divided areas of responsibility in the event of war. The bottom line for Joffre was that he could neither count on the British Army taking part in the defense of Belgium and France nor could he be assured that even if it did deploy it would do so on the left wing of his own army where he wanted it.

48There was also the tricky political issue of Belgium itself. Belgian leaders had seen no benefit in joining one of the two alliances. Instead they opted for neutrality and invested heavily in a system of fortifications designed to deter France, Germany, and Britain from violating Belgian sovereignty. That all three were willing to do so if it were in their interests was evident to the Belgians. The French government, however, was adamant that its troops must not enter Belgium unless and until the Germans had already done so. Thus even as evidence mounted that the Germans were prepared to invade Belgium and even though Joffre was convinced of the military utility in meeting the German thrust on Belgian soil, the French government refused to be the first to invade a state that threatened no one. French politicians also ordered French forces to move back ten kilometers off the German frontier in order to reduce the chances of a border incident accidentally sparking a war.

  • 16 Robert A. Doughty, «French Strategy in 1914: Joffre’s Own,» Journal of Military History 67, 2 (Apri (...)

49With so many variables, Joffre, who had made his name as an engineer rather than a tactician, tried to design a system with a number of contingencies16. He expected that the attacking German armies would need to leave themselves weak somewhere. If it was on the right wing of their attack, he would meet them in Belgium. If the Germans strengthened the right, Joffre would hit them in the center. As events happened, the Germans mobilized quickly enough and with enough force to threaten to overwhelm the French despite Joffre having predicted the chain of events somewhat better than his German foes did. By the time he divined exactly what he was facing, it was very nearly too late.

War Without End

50In large part because the war plans aimed at winning battlefield victories instead of political objectives, there was nothing to negotiate once hopes of a quick triumph had evaporated. The statesmen of Europe did not really know what they were fighting for and therefore had nothing to negotiate. Had they gone to war for territorial or narrow state interests, they would have had a basis for negotiation. Instead, as events in 1914 transpired, they believed that they had gone to war for the most just reason of all, self-defense. As a result, there was nothing to negotiate. The mindset of total war had set in.

  • 17 Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London: Blooms (...)

51Consequently, as the killing went on and as the war grew more and more gruesome, total war demanded total victory. Something had to come out of the war to justify the costs and sacrifices. Merely restoring the status quo ante would not make the war worth fighting. Thus did the Germans envision a grand Mitteleuropa encompassing Belgium, Poland, the Baltic states, as well as large swaths of the French and British empires under their control. Thus, too, did the Russians inform their allies in early 1915 of their expectations to acquire the Dardanelles and Armenia17. France and Britain were less acquisitive when it came to Europe, but they both envisioned seizing the remains of the Ottoman and German empires and redrawing the boundaries of eastern Europe. The impact of the July Crisis, and the inept responses to it by European statesmen, were soon to be felt in every corner of the globe.

52The events following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand need not have led to war. They certainly do not prove the inevitability of a general war in Europe. Instead a confluence of events and contingencies combined to elevate a relatively minor crisis into a world war whose aftershocks have not abated even now. The proper lesson to learn from 1914 is the ease with which misjudgments and hasty decisions in favor of war can leave behind the seeds of future conflicts.

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1 See for example Jean-Jacques Becker, Comment Les Français Sont Entrés dans la Guerre(Paris: PUF, 1977), and for Russia, Sean McMeekin, Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). See also my Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

2 John Cerullo, Minotaur: French Military Justice and the Aernoult-Rousset Affair (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011).

3 Gerd Krumeich, Armaments and Politics in France on the Eve of the First World War: the Introduction of Three-Year Conscription, 1913-1914 (Warwickshire: Berg, 1984).

4 Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) sees imperialism as important in bequeathing a murderous military ideology to the German army.

5 William Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 49.

6 6 Franz Joseph’s decision not to attend the funeral meant that most of the other heads of state in Europe also did not attend. Their seeming indifference sent a signal to Europeans that the assassination was unlikely to lead to major consequences.

7 See Graydon Tunstall, «Austria-Hungary» in Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig, eds. The Origins of World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 112-149.

8 The full text can be found at:

9 See Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 93-96.

10 The text is at

11 James Joll and Gordon Martell, The Origins of the First World War, third edition (London: Longman, 2007), 18.

12 Quoted in Hew Strachan, The First World War, To Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 90.

13 The debate over German war planning has generated a lot of heat without much light. Gerhard Gross’s recent discovery of documents on the Schlieffen Plan prove conclusively that there was indeed such a plan. His forthcoming book should be a major addition to the scholarship. For now see Gerhard Gross, «Development of Operational Thinking in the German Army in the World War Era,» Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 13, 4 (2011) available online at:

14 Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, removed Holland from the invasion plans in order to give Germany a neutral country through which it could trade with the outside world. Some scholars argue that this change indicated that Moltke knew the plan would not work and would lead to a longer war.

15 See Eugenia Kiesling «France» in Hamilton and Herwig, eds. The Origins of World War I, 248 and Jean-Jacques Becker, Comment Les Français Sont Entrés dans la Guerre (Paris: PUF, 1977), 125ff.

16 Robert A. Doughty, «French Strategy in 1914: Joffre’s Own,» Journal of Military History 67, 2 (April, 2003).

17 Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 76.

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Referência do documento impresso

Michael Neiberg, « The Crisis of 1914 and the Road to War »Ler História, 66 | 2014, 11-27.

Referência eletrónica

Michael Neiberg, « The Crisis of 1914 and the Road to War »Ler História [Online], 66 | 2014, posto online no dia 26 abril 2015, consultado no dia 25 novembro 2020. URL:; DOI:

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Michael Neiberg

United States Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA

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Ler História está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

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