The Magazine

How It All Began

A historian assigns the blame for World War I.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By HENRIK BERING
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While the Second World War is considered the necessary war against Nazi evil, World War I is widely seen as a pointless tragedy, an impression first shaped by the British trench poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, then reinforced by Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August (1962). That book, which was on John F. Kennedy’s mind during the Cuban Missile Crisis, held the Great Powers equally responsible, and blamed the outbreak of war on mobilization timetables spinning out of control. Many readers came away convinced that wars are mainly caused by accident, as no rational person would want them—a fallacy that still persists.  

French troops en route to the front, August 1914

French troops en route to the front, August 1914

uig / getty images

Max Hastings does not buy any of this. What he sees as “the poets’ view” of the Great War has been accepted uncritically by historians for much too long, and though he admires Barbara Tuchman’s narrative power, in his view, her arguments do not hold up. Rather, World War I happened because somebody wanted it and worked hard to bring it about. Rich in detail, Catastrophe 1914 covers both the diplomatic lead-up to the struggle and its first five months, when the battlefields were still fluid, until stalemate set in around Christmas 1914.  

The trigger was the assassination in Sarajevo (on June 28, 1914) of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. But with their patchwork empire suffering from internal strains,  Austria’s military leaders had long been itching for an excuse to attack their pesky Serbian neighbor: The murder of the archduke provided the perfect occasion. So the Austrians presented the Serbians with an ultimatum they knew the Serbs could not accept, as it included the right of the Austrians to conduct investigations on Serbian soil. The Serbs agreed to all of the demands except that one. 

Whatever the Serbs had done, however, it would have made no difference, as proved by this message from Vienna to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Belgrade: “However the Serbs react to the ultimatum [then being prepared] you must break off relations and it must come to war.” Hastings also quotes the Austrian count of Hoyos, the official who handled relations with Germany, as a typical example of parochial Austrian recklessness: “It is immaterial to us whether world war comes out of this.” If the Russians, who were the Serbs’ security guarantor, intervened, the Austrians trusted their ally, Germany, to back them up. 

But in their alliance with Germany, the Austrians were very much the junior partner: The Germans could have stopped them had they wanted to, notes Hastings. But as victims of a self-induced paranoia, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his High Command’s chief of staff, Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke, had their own reasons for war. Believing that the strategic balance in Europe was about to turn against them, they felt it imperative to strike while their empire was at its peak. In 1912, Moltke had stated, “a war is unavoidable; the sooner the better.” 

Compared here to an amateur actor struggling with the monarch’s part in a Shakespeare drama, the kaiser, in between his bloodcurdling posturing, had moments of hesitation—but always too late to make up for his rashness: “The exclamation mark was his favored instrument of policy making,” writes Hastings.  

Instead of acting as a brake on the Austrians, the Germans urged them to hit the accelerator. “What happened was not ‘war by accident’ but war by ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support,” Hastings writes. Afterwards, of course, the Germans pretended not to have seen the Serbian ultimatum before it was published.    

Neither the Russian czar, Nicholas II, who feared for the future of his dynasty, nor the British government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was eager for war. The Manchester Guardian memorably reflected the British mood: “If it were physically possible for Serbia to be towed out to sea and sunk there, the air of Europe would at once seem cleaner.” Though the British cabinet knew that it could not afford to let a victorious Germany dominate the continent, it did not fully commit itself until Germany broke Belgium’s neutrality.  

The German war plan was a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, named for Moltke’s predecessor as army chief of staff, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen. It envisaged a two-front war, first hitting the French, and then dealing with the Russians. On the Western Front, Moltke’s idea was to pin the French down with a defensive force in Alsace-Lorraine, while the main German armies would pour through Belgium and hit France from the north in a great flanking movement.