Why Europe drifted into World War I

by Kay Koenig

We all know how World War I began. On 28th June 1914 Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian terrorist. The Austrians were sure that Serbia was behind the assassination and they used the murder as an opportunity to crush the young state. On 28th July 1914, with the support of Germany, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The plan was to defeat Serbia before its ally, Russia, had time to enter the fray. However Russia was ready and able to fight. On 29th July the Russian army mobilized. Germany supported its ally, Austria-Hungary. On the 1st August 1914 they declared war on Russia. That’s how World War I had begun.


A little too simplistic isn’t it? It is also wrong to simply say that the War was really an argument between Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. The slaughter was too great and the consequences of the War too far reaching to offer in such as simple solution.  No, to discover the reason for World War I we must look at the history of Europe because fears and antagonisms go back a long way. The causes of World War I have to do with the breakup of Empires, the rise of nationalism and the simmering rivalry between European nations, often resulting from past conflicts. Three huge empires disappeared after the War and the consequences of the conflict were felt through most of the twentieth century.


To the forefront in conflict was the Austrian Hungarian Empire which formed from the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. This empire dated from the conquests of Charlemagne. After the Thirty Year War he became the undisputed ruler of Western Europe and by 800AD his vast realm included what are now France, Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands; half of present-day Italy and Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. After Charlemagne’s death in 843, the empire was divided. The western section became France and, from 962, the eastern section became known as the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire’s territory varied over its history. It once included present-day Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as modern Italy, Poland and France. The rule of this vast empire was once shared amongst the royal houses of Europe. In 1438 the Hapsburg King Fredrick III was elected to the throne. Except for a brief interlude in the 1500’s, the Hapsburgs remained in power until the Empire was conquered and dismembered by Napoleon in 1806.


Napoleon assembled most of the German speaking states into the Confederation of the Rhine. Austria and Hungary remained independent and ruled by the Hapsburgs. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Austria gained control of the German states. By the time Hungary joined Austria after the 1848/49 revolution, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire stretched from Poland to the Balkans and from the Netherlands to Italy. In 1848 Franz Joseph came to the throne. He was to rule for sixty five years. Two years after he died in 1916, the Empire was defeated and the 500 year reign of the Hapsburgs ended.


Europe was in a constant state of unrest for much of the 19th Century. Nationalism was on the rise. Many ethnic groups sought to break away from old empires to form their own independent nations. In 1859, Piedmont, supported by France, succeeded in driving the Austrians out of the Italian state of Lombardy. In 1866 Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, provoked Austria into the Seven Weeks War. Austria lost and was expelled from the German Confederation. In 1870 the German states and Prussia joined to form modern Germany and the Italian states and papal territories became Italy.


Hungary wanted independence. A compromise in 1867 resulted in the formation of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, became King of Hungary. Both nations had separate parliaments and prime ministers whilst a common government under Franz Joseph controlled the armed forces and foreign policy.


After the loss of the German and Italian territories, ethnic unrest, especially in Bohemia and Hungary continued. Franz Joseph was determined to hold the remainder of the Empire together. At first he did this by forming alliances with other nations. Alliances were formed with Germany in 1879, Romania in 1883 and England and Italy in 1887.


The Ottoman Empire also had ancient beginnings. It dated from the break-up of a previous Turkish empire. Founded in 1299 it grew to include parts of Europe – Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary Bulgaria, Romania, and other Balkan states. In Asia it encompassed Israel, Jordon, Lebanon, Syria and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It stretched to Egypt and other parts of Northern Africa. At the height of its influence in the later 16th century, its territory was almost 20 million square kilometres.


By the 1700’s the Empire was on  the decline. Military defeats such as the conflicts with Russia and then the Crimean War in the mid 1850’s, ended the Empire’s glory days. Nationalism and revolution began to split it apart. Following a struggle of more than ten years Greece gained its independence in 1832. Romania fought for and gained its independence in 1878.


The other great Empire was Russia.  At the beginning of the 19th century The Russian Empire stretched from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the East. It even had a small foothold on the North American continent.  It was first proclaimed in 1721, but, in reality dated from the mid 1500’s.


These were the players in the build up to the First World War. Each had internal problems associated with revolution and rebellion. Each was fearful of the other. They involved other European states with alliances and conflicts.


Franz Joseph was apprehensive about Russia’s influence over the Slavs of the Balkans and accused Russia of promoting the rise of Serbia. In 1880, the Balkan Peninsula consisted of the independent countries Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro. Bosnia and Herzegovina were still part of the Ottoman Empire. Attempts were made to improve relations with Serbia and a pact was made between the Emperors of Germany, Austria and the Tsar of Russia. These moves maintained peace until the beginning of the 20th Century. With time, alliances were neglected. England was forgotten. Relations with Russia deteriorated when Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The Slavic peoples of these states had more in common with Russia than Austria. Russia was suspicious of Austria. It was nervous that Austria would prevent its fleet from sailing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus at Istanbul. After the Balkan Wars, which began in 1912, the old Ottoman Empire was largely divided between Greece and Serbia. Slavic peoples in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were agitating for representative government or independence. The Austrians saw Serbia as supporting this unrest. They thought a war with Serbia would curb its interference with the Empire’s Slavs.


At the beginning of World War I most European Countries were tied together with treaties and pulled apart with old animosities. Prussia had gone to war against France in 1870. They hoped to conquer the German speaking parts of France. Prussia succeeded and the conquered lands, together with the Rhine States wrestled from Austria, were unified into Germany.  The Franco-German war resulted in lingering French animosity towards the Germany and an ongoing desire by the Germans to invade France and capture more of its territory. France and Russia were both allied to England and, thus to the British Empire.


When Emperor Franz Joseph declared war in 1914, he had an army of approximately 1,147,000 men and 350, 000 officers organized into 53 small divisions. He hoped to defeat the 400,000 strong Serbian army before Russia entered the war. However this failed to eventuate and the Austro-Hungarian Empire found itself pitted against a well entrenched Russian army of 3,000,000. In addition to fighting the Russians and the Serbs, the Austrians needed to protect their borders with Romania and Italy. At the beginning of the war, Germany planned to leave a token force on the Eastern Front to control the Russians. It thought that the Eastern Front would be largely held by the Austrian/ Hungarian armies. Germany planned to storm through Belgium and quickly defeat Russia’s ally, France. However, the Austrian-Hungarians could not hold the Russian Front and Germany was forced to commit large numbers of troops to assist them. In addition, as soon as Germany invaded Belgium, its ally, England, declared war and entered the fray.


That was how World War I began. When all things are considered most of the nations who participated did so with enthusiasm. If Germany had not been so keen for another slice of France they would have refused to support Austria. After all, Austria’s desire to go to war was all about the fears of an old man. Franz Joseph was over 80 when the war began. If Russia had not been so eager to deflect unrest within its borders it may have thought twice about supporting Serbia.


England was not threatened by any of the European combatants and it had no argument with any European nation prior to declaring war. But England had alliances and it was a matter of honour to go to the aid of her allies. When England went to war, the independent and colonial members of the British Empire automatically fought with her.


None of the countries who entered the war thought it would drag on for four years and result is so much destruction and slaughter. Rather all thought that it would be over by Christmas. This was such a strongly held belief that the Italians, who were fighting in the Alps, did not provide its army with a winter uniform. In reality the war lasted for over four years with over 37 million casualties and about 17 million deaths. Lest we forget.

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