100 years ago today, Austria declared war of Serbia, sparking the First World War, which would be the deadliest war to that point and arguably the most deadly in history. (It depends how you count the war dead for WWII.)
The first time I taught WWI, I asked how many knew how WWI started, because my own education of it was painfully lacking until well into college. More than half raised their hands. I was shocked. Then I realized I might be asking the wrong question.
“How many know something more than the archduke got shot and then everyone started fighting?”
All but five hands went down.
Yeah, that was more like my expectations.
Serbian nationalists were responsible for the assassination Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his visit to the Slavic territory of Bosnia a possession of Austria. The Serbians had been pushing for a pan-Slavic nation (dominated by Serbia, of course) and the presence of the heir to the Austrian throne was too good a target to pass up. Ironically, Ferdinand was actually relatively sympathetic toward the minorities of Austria, in part because he was married to a Czech.
Austria made a variety of ridiculous demands of Serbia, including the right to have Austrian officials enter Serbia at any time and arrest those they believed to be a danger to Austria. That would effectively demote Serbia to a non-sovereign state.
But a world war didn’t start because one guy got shot. The war started because everyone was a little bit crazy at the time.
Nationalism and Military Supremacy
There was a major arms race in Europe, and everyone expected a pan-European-wide war to come soon with many looking forward to it. It was expected to be short, with one country quickly proving itself militarily superior. Everyone expected their own side to win, and they wanted to prove that superiority to the lesser nations.
Previously, wars were largely fought by opposing sides charging each other. There were tactics to it, but ultimately the plan was still kind of “get ’em, Ray.”
However, warfare technology had evolved from cannons and rifles to machine guns, mortar shells and mustard gas. A highly trained medieval knight could kill a handful of people in a minute. A guy with minimal training and a machine gun could kill hundreds. So, rather than simply charging one another, in which case both sides would get shredded by a handful of guys with area effect weapons, people started fighting defensively, digging out trenches and piling up sandbags for protection.
And no one knew how to deal with that. There were places where the yearly movement of the front could be measured in hundreds of feet.
Germany and Austria had long historical ties, and Germany assured it would back Austria up in anything it did. They also had a mutual defense pact with Italy, although Italy never honored it because Austria was on the offensive, not defensive. That and Italy is one giant coastline with no navy of note, unlike…
Britain. This was the superpower of the world. Best navy, huge economy, and controlling 20% of the world’s landmass. And it was allied with France, which was allied with Russia.
There was a guy in Germany who knew a France/Russia team-up would be awful for Germany, which is squished between the two. His diplomatic policy had been to keep France from allying with anyone, least of all Russia. (France had resenting picked up the habit of breaking out in warfare for no good damn reason.) His name was Otto von Bismarck, and he also predicted there would soon be a world war and that it would start in the Balkans, where Serbia and Bosnia are.
He was a smart guy.
The emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, not so much. He fired Bismarck, and didn’t feel the need to continue a formal pact with Russia.
So who did Russia cozy up with? France. And who did Britain cozy up to? Well, anyone who wasn’t Germany, to be honest, as they had their own rivalries going. Mostly, Britain wanted to be left alone and let the continental powers play their reindeer games, and Wilhelm counted on that.
The Schlieffen Plan
Germany did realize the danger of a France/Russia alliance and made plans in case of war. Basically, Germany had to knock out one power fast enough to only fight a one-front war with the other. Russia was expected to take five weeks to mobilize, so the plan was to attack and subdue France first, even if France wasn’t participating.
Austria declared war on Serbia July 28. Russia began mobilization July 29 in defense of its Slavic neighbors (Russians are ethnic Slavs as well). Germany declares war of Russia on August 1, and it declares war on France August 3.
But there’s another itsy-bitsy problem with the Schlieffen Plan: in order to knock out France in five weeks, Germany would have to go through Belgium to get to Paris. This isn’t just an uninvolved country, it’s an officially neutral country, like Switzerland. Germany demanded Belgium allow German troops to march through it, which Belgium wasn’t even allowed to do as a neutral power, so Belgium told Germany to piss off.
Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4.
Which was the last straw for Britain. It probably would have come to the defense of France anyway, but attacking a neutral country is something you just don’t do. Britain declares war on Germany August 4.
And for the next four years 20 million people – one-half military and one-half civilian – died in a war that was expected to take weeks. It proved nothing, bankrupted everyone, allowed America to be the new superpower, and planted such deep resentment in the losing Germans that it contributed to World War II.