Video: The Origin of the First World War

It is difficult to understate the awfulness of the First World War. It lasted four years, killed 10 million people and saw the birth of a totalitarian communist regime. Something like 5 million Britons served on the Western Front. There they experienced trenches, mud, barbed wire and shelling at a minimum. Others would have experienced gas, machine-gun fire and going “over the top”. A million never came back. And for what? Twenty years of political instability followed by having to do it all over again in the Second World War.

In Britain we tend to think of the First World War as being worse than the Second. This is because, almost uniquely amongst the participants, British losses in the First World War were worse. It is also worth bearing in mind that Britain’s losses in the First World War were much lower than everyone else’s. France lost a million and a half, Germany 2 million. Russia’s losses are anyone’s guess. For all the talk of tragedy and futility, the truth is that Britain got off lightly.

For libertarians the First World War is particularly tragic. We tend to think (not entirely correctly) of the period before it as a libertarian golden age. While there was plenty of state violence to go around, there were much lower taxes, far fewer planning regulations, few nationalised industries, truly private railways and you were allowed to own firearms. If you were in the mood for smoking some opium you needed only to wander down to the nearest chemist.

So, what caused this catastrophe? If any of you are unfamiliar with the story it might be an idea to get out your smart phones out and pull up a map of Europe in 1914. When you do so you will notice that although western Europe is much the same as it is today, central Europe is completely different. There are far fewer borders and a huge amount of it is dominated by a country called Austria-Hungary.

As most of you will know on 28 June 1914, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian throne, in Sarajevo, which at the time was part of the Austrian Empire. Although the Austrians didn’t know this at the time (though they certainly suspected it), the assassin and his accomplices had been armed and trained by Serbia’s rogue intelligence service.

Oddly enough, the Austrians weren’t that bothered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the man. Apart from his family no one seems to have liked him much and he was one of the few doves in a sea of hawks. Most of the Austrian hierarchy wanted war with Serbia. Franz Ferdinand did not and his death changed the balance of power in Vienna. Much as the hierarchy were not bothered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the man, they were bothered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand the symbol – the symbol of Austria’s monarchy and Empire, that is. The Serbs wanted to unite all the South Slavs: that is Slovenes, Croatians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians in one state. However, most of these peoples lived in Austria. Now, if the South Slavs left there was no reason to think that the Czechs, Poles, Ruthenes or Romanians who were also part of the Austrian Empire would want to stay. Therefore, it was clear that Serbia’s ambitions posed an existential threat to Austria (correctly as it turned out). The solution? crush Serbia. And now the Austrians had a pretext.

Unfortunately (for the Austrians), Serbia had an ally: Russia. Russia regarded itself as the protector of the Slavs and Serbia in particular. But Austria also had an ally: Germany. Germany had spent the previous 20 years antagonising Britain, France and Russia and so was glad to have any ally at all. The fact that Austrians spoke German at a time when racial ideas were gaining ground was also a factor.  But Russia itself had an ally: France. This was something of a marriage of convenience given that France was a democratic republic and Russia was an autocracy. But allies they were. All this meant that if Austria went to war with Serbia, Germany could find herself at war with France and both Austria and Germany could find themselves at war with Russia.

This alarmed the Germans. One of the great fears of the high command was fighting a war on two fronts. To them it seemed that the only hope lay in defeating one of their enemies before the other could act. Thus, they decided that in the event of war they would concentrate their efforts on France aiming to knock it out in 6 weeks before the Russians could mobilise their forces and hence bring them to bear. To do this they would march the bulk of their armies through Belgium. This became known as the Schlieffen Plan.

So, the Austrians approached their allies in Berlin. Would Germany back up Austria in the event of war with Serbia? They asked. “Yes they would” came the answer. This became known as the “Blank Cheque”. And so armed with the “Blank Cheque” the Austrians then proceeded to do… nothing. The best part of three weeks passed before Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia. When it was issued almost everyone agreed that the ultimatum was unacceptable – as in no self-respecting sovereign state could accept it. Oddly enough, in his book, the Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark argues that by today’s standards the ultimatum was far from being unreasonable. But this is now and that was then. Although Serbia appeared to accept most of the ultimatum – to the extent that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany thought it had averted war – it was not enough for the Austrians who declared war on 28 July.

At this point the Russians, under Tsar Nicholas II, mobilised their army. This was a bit of a mess involving a partial mobilisation followed by a full mobilisation, followed by a partial mobilisation, followed by a full mobilisation.

Russia’s mobilisation endangered Germany’s plans. Germany’s plans you will remember, depended on there being a delay between the outbreak of war and Russia being able to act effectively. Germany was now facing the threat of there being no such delay. It is not quite true to say that Germany had no Plan B but she had no doubt (correctly in my mind) that war with Russia would mean war with France. It was now or never. Germany put the Schlieffen Plan into practice and declared war on Russia and France.

So, why was France involved? Alsace-Lorraine. France had lost the two provinces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. They wanted them back.

The now-activated Schlieffen Plan called for a rapid advance through neutral Belgium. That’s neutral as in: all countries including Germany accept that Belgium will not be attacked. Germany’s invasion of Belgium incensed the British although it has been pointed out that had Germany only invaded the South East corner of Belgium the British probably wouldn’t have been that bothered.

But Britain had other reasons to go to war with Germany. Since 1900 Germany had been building up her navy. Britain, the pre-eminent naval power, dependent on sea-borne trade for its livelihood was not surprisingly deeply disturbed by this development. So, given this uneasiness and the pretext, Britain declared war on Germany. The First World War had begun.

So, whose fault was it? Who was to blame?

What I have just outlined is the short version. Christopher Clark’s version stretches to over 600 pages with 100 pages of footnotes. University libraries groan with books on the subject. There are even books on the history of the history. They are certainly fascinating. You learn that during the July crisis the Russian ambassador to Serbia called on the Austrian ambassador to Serbia and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack; that Britain had a secret deal with France to protect the Channel in case of war; that in its declaration of war Germany made the entirely fictitious claim that France had bombed German cities and that the French ambassador to London believed that French was the only language capable of “articulating rational thought”.

Perhaps more pertinently you learn that there is good evidence that the German government was planning for a war in 1914. Which is great until you learn that France and Russia were also pretty keen on war at the same time and made no efforts to diffuse the crisis that arose after Sarajevo. Indeed, Britain found itself in the uncomfortable position in that it could not deter Germany without encouraging France and Russia.

The fact remains that after a hundred years there is still no consensus on who or what was to blame.

Explaining the Second World War is easy. You have a bad guy with bad ideas who started a war of conquest. But you look in vain for such a character in 1914.

Sure, the German government of the time has to bear a lot of the responsibility for the war but Kaiser Wilhelm is no Adolf Hitler. He was not a man espousing a foam-flecked, hate-filled, land-grabbing ideology. Sure, he had his moments but he quickly backed down and had a reputation for so doing. Similarly, the Tsar was no Stalin. He may have done stupid things like banning vodka and banning Jews from the boards of public companies but he wasn’t in the business of killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The truth is that the statesmen of Europe were acting rationally in the pursuit of limited objectives. And yet despite that disaster happened.

The conundrum gets worse. By November 1914, Germany had to all intents and purposes lost the war. The Schlieffen Plan had failed and they had been held at the Marne. Austria had suffered similar disasters in Serbia and Galicia. So, why did it take them another 4 years to make peace?

Part of the reason the origins of the First World War are so controversial is that for a long time the history itself was a matter of contemporary politics. After the inclusion of the War Guilt Clause in Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, the German government spent a great deal of effort in attempting to vindicate its predecessor’s actions. In a similar vein the communist movement spent a great deal of effort trying to prove that it had something to do with capitalism and imperialism.

The very fact that the debate is still ongoing and still so confused makes me think that there must be something missing.

One thing that tends to be missing from the debate is morality (although as I will explain that’s not going to do us an awful lot of good.) What I mean by that is a sense of right and wrong. What is reasonable for a state to do and what is unreasonable.

This poses some pretty obvious difficulties for libertarians. Violence is wrong. States are the institutions that claim a monopoly of violence. Therefore states are wrong. But states exist and some states do more violence than others. Secondly, you are allowed to defend yourself and others. (At least, I think you are.) The problem is that if you are British in 1914 and wish to defend Belgians the only way you can do that is through the British state.

Does any of this help us? Certainly, we can say that in 1914 the UK and France were the most liberal states, Germany and Austria slightly less so and Russia a long way behind (but still a long way ahead of what followed it). So, from a libertarian point of view the good guys, or at least the less bad guys won.

But were the good guys acting justly? Or less unjustly might be a better way of putting it. To the best of my knowledge, while the UK may have had the largest navy in the world it was not using it to deprive anyone of their freedom. Similarly, Belgian and Frenchmen were under attack and Britain had the right to come to their defence. So a Briton exonerates the British. What were the chances?

What about the French? Pretty much their only concern was Alsace-Lorraine. But from a libertarian point of view the only thing that matters is the freedom of the people of Alsace-Lorraine. Now, it is true, a fact demonstrated by the Zabern Affair, that Alsace-Lorrainers were not as free as the French French but it is difficult to agree that their potential gain in freedom justified the sort of effort the French were planning and indeed did put in.

As for the rest of them Russia was not going to be liberating anyone and if Germany was really worried about the Russians then first it should have made up with Britain and France and secondly, it should have waited to be attacked.

And then we’re left with Austria and Serbia. It’s difficult to pick a libertarian winner but my money’s on Austria. On the plus side it’s got waltzes, schnitzels, fancy uniforms and Ludwig von Mises. On the down side it’s just closed down the Bohemian Parliament. As for Serbia, the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 as with the 1990s had seen their fair share of ethnic cleansing but on the plus side in July 1914 they were holding an apparently free and fair election.

Well, that didn’t help much. We shall have to look elsewhere.

Could the outcome provide a clue? Four monarchies: Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey were swept away by the First World War.

When I say monarchy I am not talking about the wishy-washy monarchy we currently have in the UK. I am talking about real monarchies, monarchies red in tooth and claw, monarchies that can at minimum hire and fire ministers and start wars.

Now, I can almost hear the pedants shouting “But those are precisely the powers the Queen has” To which I say “Only in theory”. Should the Queen or any of her successors ever attempt to actually exercise those theoretical powers they would be out of office in a matter of nano-seconds. Britain is a republic.

When did it become one? I think we can be pretty precise with the dates: sometime between 1642 and 1694. 1642 is the date of the outbreak of the English Civil War, when Charles I tried to impose his idea of absolute monarchy. 1694 is the date William III accepted that his powers were extremely limited. Since then it has been Parliament that makes the laws and votes funding – without which making war becomes extremely difficult.

But think of what happened in that period: four civil wars, one military dictatorship and a foreign invasion.

You think that was bad? Try the French. Between 1789 and 1871 they saw four monarchies, three republics, three foreign invasions and a 20-year war with the rest of Europe.

And now look at what happened in the 20th century. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, China, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all made the same transition from monarchy to republic. I need not dwell on the German or Russian experiences – they are well enough known but all the others follow a similar pattern. China saw a 20-year civil war followed by Mao’s communist regime; Spain, a monarchy, followed by a republic followed by a civil war followed by a dictatorship followed by a monarchy followed by a democratic republic. Even Portugal saw two revolutions, a dictatorship and a series of bloody colonial wars.

The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.

There is an exception and that is Japan. Japan is odd because in the middle of the 19th Century it had two monarchies. The one we know about – which was as powerless then as it is now – and the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The downfall of the Shogun was remarkably swift and afterwards, as I understand it, Japan was remarkably stable up until the 1920s. That’s about 40 years. But assuming Japan is an outlier and we have a pattern, then why the bloodshed?

My guess is that once a monarchy looks vulnerable and anachronistic thoughts turn to a future blank slate. This blank slate is an invitation for idealistic, Utopian and statist ideas to fill the vacuum. And so they do. Even England got the Puritans (and, I might add, the Levellers).

This process was in full swing well before the First World War broke out. The Revolution of 1905 had forced the Tsar to call a parliament. The largest party in the Reichstag, the German Parliament, was the Socialists.

There were two basic majoritarian ideas knocking about Europe at the time: socialism and nationalism. Monarchs can’t do much with socialism but it is just possible for them to embrace nationalism (unless they’re Austrian, that is). And so we see Europe from about 1890 on divide on nationalist lines. Russia and Germany started to become hostile. German politicians began to talk of a coming racial struggle.

Ultimately, no one is to blame for the First World War as such. The First World War is principally a chapter in the story of central Europe’s transition from monarchy to republic. As such the principal actors were subject to forces that were way beyond their ability – or indeed anyone’s ability – to control. Although, this does not entirely absolve them of blame it absolves them of a lot.



Text by Patrick Crozier

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