It is commonly said that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, this act falls rather under the category of a historical accident – something which might or might not have occurred. Alan Woods asks: if the assassin had missed his mark and Franz Ferdinand had survived, would the War have not occurred?
One hundred years ago, on 28 June 1914 two pistol shots shattered the peace of a sunny afternoon in Sarajevo. Those shots reverberated around Europe and shattered the peace of the whole world.
It is commonly said that the First World War was caused by the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince. However, this act falls rather under the category of a historical accident, that is to say, something which might or might not have occurred. If the assassin had missed his mark and Franz Ferdinand had survived, would the War have not occurred?
It is true that the immediate origins of the War flowed from the decisions taken by statesmen and generals following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. But the real causes of the War are to be found, not in the haphazard realm of historical accidents but in the solid ground of historical necessity, which, as Hegel teaches us, can be expressed in accidents of all kinds.
In reality, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was not the cause but only the catalyst of the outbreak of the Great Slaughter. It was the spark that ignited a powder keg that had been prepared for decades before 1914. It immediately exposed the fault lines that had been deepening over a long period. It brought to a head a diplomatic crisis that rapidly engulfed all Europe. It was a dialectical leap, the critical point where quantity becomes transformed into quality.
The “Eastern Question”
In order to understand the causes of the First World War it is necessary to analyse the processes that developed on a world scale during the decades before 1914: the economic evolution of German capitalism and its relation to the established capitalist states of Britain and France; the tangled web of inter-imperialist diplomacy in the same period; the struggle for colonies, markets and spheres of influence; the ambitions and expansionist tendencies of tsarist Russia; the wars in the Balkans and the contradictions arising from the decay of the Ottoman Empire and many other factors.
One poisonous ingredient in this explosive cocktail was the national question in the Balkans, which was intensified by the increasingly rapid decay of the old Ottoman Empire. Throughout the 19th century, the “Eastern Question” was the dominant question for the Great Powers of Europe. Under the guise of “pan-Slavism”, Tsarist Russia desired access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean for its navy. Its support for the Bulgarians and Serbs in their struggle against Turkish rule was merely a convenient cloak for a cynical and expansionist foreign policy.
For equally cynical reasons, Britain wished to deny Russia, which threatened British India in the East, access to the Mediterranean. In the 19th century it supported the integrity of the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to Russia. But just in case the integrity of the Empire was no longer possible, the men in London took out an insurance policy by supporting a limited expansion of Greece. For its part, France wished to strengthen its position in the region, notably in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Palestine).
Austria-Hungary displayed the same signs of senile decrepitude as the Ottoman Empire. Terrified of any change in the international order that could destabilise the fragile balance between the multiple ethnic and linguistic groups that composed it, the Habsburg monarchy, in the sclerotic person of Franz Josef, fervently desired the status quo. It understood very well that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire would undermine it fatally.
The men in Vienna feared that the appeal of Serbian nationalism would have a powerful effect on Serbs in Bosnia, which was under Austrian control. Meanwhile, the German Empire had its own, quite different plans. Under the policy known as “Drang nach Osten” (“Thrust to the East”), it aimed to turn the Ottoman Empire into a German client state – a de facto colony, and it was for this sincere and entirely philanthropic aim that Berlin supported its integrity.
The Balkan Wars
The Turkish rule, which had dominated the Balkans for centuries, was shaken by the national liberation movements of the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia had achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire. However, the small and weak states that emerged from this immediately became the pawns of various foreign powers. In particular, tsarist Russia aimed to extend its tentacles into the Balkans by posing as the “defender of the South Slavs against Turkish tyranny”. This grandiose claim conveniently overlooked the small detail of the monstrous tyranny exercised by the tsarist regime over all the peoples of its own Empire.
Before 1912 large numbers of Slav-speaking people remained under Ottoman rule, notably in Thrace and the area known as Macedonia, which included not only Skopje but also Salonika (Thessaloniki). There was a sharp conflict between Bulgaria and Greece for control of Ottoman Macedonia. Greeks, once the victims of national persecution under the Turks, became the oppressors of the Macedonian Slavs who were compelled to experience the joys of forced “Hellenisation”. In the same way, the Bulgarians carried out a policy of “Bulgarisation” of Greeks. Bulgarians and Greeks sent armed irregulars into Ottoman territory to protect and assist their ethnic kindred. From 1904, there was constant warfare in Macedonia in which the Greek and Bulgarian guerrillas fought the Ottoman army in the rugged mountains of Macedonia.
In July 1908 the prolonged decay of the Ottoman state led to a coup d’état known as the Young Turk revolution. Taking advantage of the upheavals in Constantinople, Bulgaria declared itself a fully independent kingdom. At the same time, Austria-Hungary seized the opportunity to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878 but was in theory still an Ottoman province. This move, which frustrated Serbia’s northward expansion, provoked fury in Belgrade, but Serbia was forced to accept the annexation with gritted teeth. Bosnia remained a ticking time-bomb that was to explode and shake the world in June 1914.
In the meantime, the agents of St. Petersburg did not remain idle. In the spring of 1912 Russian diplomacy achieved a major success with the launching of the Balkan League, an alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro. Its specific goal was to wrest Macedonia away from Turkey. In the First Balkan War (1912) the Balkan League won a crushing victory against the armies of the Ottoman Empire, the most important victory being scored by the Bulgarians, who defeated the main Ottoman forces and advanced to the outskirts of Constantinople (now Istanbul), laying siege to Adrianople (Edirne). In Macedonia, the Serbian army smashed the Turks at Kumanovo and captured Bitola and together with the Montenegrins entered Skopje. The Greeks, meanwhile, occupied Salonika (Thessaloníki) and advanced on Ioánnina. In Albania, the Montenegrins besieged Shkodër, and the Serbs entered Durrës.
A peace conference opened in London, but in January 1913 the war was resumed. Again the Balkan League defeated the Ottomans: Ioánnina fell to the Greeks and Adrianople to the Bulgarians. On May 30, 1913, a peace treaty was signed in London, whereby the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including all of Macedonia and Albania. Albanian independence was insisted upon by the European powers, and Macedonia was to be divided among the Balkan allies.
The Second Balkan War was a bloody struggle for the division of the spoils. Like dogs fighting over a bone, the voracious ruling classes of Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarrelled with Bulgaria over the “liberated” land of Macedonia. The formation of the Balkan League had not eliminated the deadly rivalries between its members, and victory only served to exacerbate them. In the original document of the League, Serbia had promised Bulgaria most of Macedonia. But the ruling cliques of Serbia and Greece had a secret plan to keep most of conquered territory. Serbia and Greece ganged up against Bulgaria in a war that broke out in June 1913.
Montenegro, Romania and the Ottoman Empire joined the fight against Bulgaria which was in a very disadvantageous position. The Serbs and the Greeks had a considerable military advantage on the eve of the war because their armies confronted comparatively weak Ottoman forces in the First Balkan War and suffered relatively few casualties while the Bulgarians took the brunt of the heaviest fighting in Thrace. Defeated and betrayed, Bulgaria lost most of the ground that it had conquered with so much blood.
Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving Bulgaria with only an insignificant part of the region, while Romania seized southern Dobrudzha and Bulgaria was forced to cede Salonika to Greece. The bitterness and resentment of Bulgaria against Serbia for this betrayal was to play a fatal role later when Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in a bloody attack on Serbia.
The Balkan wars were, in essence, proxy wars mainly between tsarist Russia and Austria-Hungary. The Russians played the card of “pan-Slavism” as a means of expanding their influence in the Balkans at the expense of both the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Greatly enlarged by its conquests, the Serbian ruling class aimed at nothing less than the complete domination of the Balkans under the disguise of a union of the South Slavic peoples (Yugoslavia). This inevitably led to an open conflict with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which saw itself threatened by Serbian and Russian ambitions.
These wars appear on the surface as wars of national liberation and self determination of the peoples of the Balkans. In reality they were no such thing. Behind every one of the national bourgeois cliques stood a “Big Brother” in the shape of one or another of the Great Powers of Europe. Just as today the American imperialists constantly pose as the defenders of one or other oppressed nationality or group (for instance, the Kurds and Shias of Iraq against Saddam Hussein), just as Hitler used the Sudetenland Germans as a pretext for invading Czechoslovakia, and utilised the bloody services of Ukrainian nationalism to enslave the Ukraine, so Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Austria-Hungary used the Balkan nations as small change in their intrigues and manoeuvres.
The assassination in Sarajevo
What occurred in Sarajevo in June 1914 even now appears to have an almost surreal character. On June 4 reports appeared in the newspaper of a planned visit of the heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. The declared object was the Crown Prince’s wish to create a favourable impression on his first visit to the Bosnian subjects of this recently acquired territory, to attend the army manoeuvres that were planned to take place in the mountains near Sarajevo.
For almost 500 years before that Bosnia and Herzegovina had remained provinces of the Ottoman Empire, until they were occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces in 1878 and then annexed in 1908. It was an act of extreme stupidity that could only have occurred to a dynasty in a state of dotage to arrange a visit of the Crown Prince of an occupying Power to visit Sarajevo on this, of all days. For 28 June was Serbia’s national day, the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Serbian kingdom had been vanquished by the Turks.
Who in their right mind could imagine that the Serbs of Bosnia would pay grateful homage to a member of the royal family that blocked the way to uniting all Serbs in Greater Serbia? To add insult to injury, the archducal visit to Sarajevo was preceded by military manoeuvres in the mountains south of the city – provocatively close the frontier with Serbia. To even contemplate a public visit of members of the Austrian royal family in a place like Sarajevo, a hostile territory seething with intrigues, terrorist plots and dangers of all kinds, was an act akin to madness.
Many people foresaw a disaster. The Serbian minister in Vienna had suggested to the minister responsible for Bosnian affairs that some Serbs might regard the time and place of the visit as a deliberate insult. He warned that some young Serb participating in the Austrian manoeuvres might seize the opportunity to fire at the archduke. Politicians and officials in Sarajevo urged that the visit be cancelled. The police warned that they could not guarantee the archduke’s safety, particularly given the lengthy route that that the royal couple were scheduled to take along the Miljačka river from the railway station to the city hall.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. Following the old Greek saying to the letter, the Austrians disregarded all the warnings. On June 26 the Crown Prince arrived in Sarajevo under the full glare of publicity and mingled complacently with the cheering crowds, unaware that his movements were being followed by a young Bosnian nationalist, the student Gavrilo Princip, intent on ending his life.
This was supposed to be a brilliant occasion that would glorify Austrian rule in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Archduke had been eagerly anticipating for months his triumphal entry into the city of Sarajevo, resplendent in his uniform as inspector-general of the Austro-Hungarian army, accompanied by his wife, Sophie Duchess of Hohenberg in a full-length white dress with red sash, holding a parasol to shelter from the sun. Unfortunately the parasol offered no protection against bullets.
Gavrilo Princip became a member of Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia), a movement of young Slavs of different ethnic and religious persuasions dedicated to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule. Princip was inspired by a burning desire to take revenge on the Austrian oppressors in the cause of Serb national liberation. But he was something more than a Serb nationalist.
As a member of Young Bosnia, a Bosnian nationalist, not just a Serb, the son of a poor Bosnian Serb peasant, he was inclined to anarchist ideas and the “propaganda of the deed”. He believed that it was possible to change society by assassinating leading members of the ruling class, an idea that he shared with the Russian terrorists of Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will). He gave his life for that idea.
The announcement that Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were to make an official visit to Sarajevo presented Gavrilo and his comrades with a unique opportunity. While the archduke was busy attending welcoming ceremonies, a 19-year-old Danilo Ilić was meeting with six would-be assassins at a Sarajevo café to outline the plan: the assassins were to be placed at each of the three bridges crossing the river. Their best chance of success would come at these junctions, where a grenade could easily be lobbed into the car carrying the royal couple.
While handing out guns and grenades, Ilić gravely warned the others that the police may have discovered their plot. But there was no question of calling it off as such an opportunity as this was unlikely to occur again. Afterwards several of the conspirators visited the grave of Bogdan Žerajić, a young Serb who had been martyred years earlier when he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to assassinate the emperor. It is said that his dying words were “I leave it to Serbdom to avenge me”.
On Sunday, June 28 the atmosphere became even more surreal. Security arrangements seem almost to have been calculated to assist the assassins. In order to encourage as many spectators as possible to turn out to welcome the royal couple, the plans for the procession had been published in the local newspaper, the Bosnische Post. This most considerate measure enabled the group of young terrorists to station themselves at strategic points. More incredible still, the Archduke gave orders that the royal car should be open and should proceed at a slow pace so that people could get a good view of its occupants and they could get a good view of the sights.
Nevertheless, the assassination almost failed when the first attempt to throw a bomb thrown at the royal car bounced off the vehicle, injuring some of the guards. The Archduke calmly dismounted to speak to the wounded men, then continued his journey. His wife suffered a slight face wound. Her white dress was spattered with blood. An indignant Franz Josef berated the mayor: “I have come to visit you and they throw bombs at me.” The mayor’s reply is not recorded.
That ought to have been the end of the affair. The royal car was supposed to proceed at speed along the river back to the railway station. But fate took an unexpected turn. Later that day, in one of those strange accidents in which history is so rich, the driver of the car took a wrong turn and appeared unexpectedly, reversing down the narrow street outside the very cafe where Princip was standing. Scarcely believing his luck, he walked up to the carriage and fired two shots at point blank range at the royal couple. The first shot hit the archduke near the jugular vein; the second hit the duchess in the stomach. It was all over before either a doctor or a priest could be summoned.
An enraged crowd tried to lynch Princip who was rescued by the police. He tried to swallow the cyanide capsule, but vomited it up. The Austrian judge who interviewed him almost immediately afterwards, wrote: “The young assassin, exhausted by his beating, was unable to utter a word. He was undersized, emaciated, sallow, and sharp-featured. It was difficult to imagine that so frail looking an individual could have committed so serious a deed.”
Gavrilo was tried by an Austrian court and naturally found guilty. He told the court: “In trying to insinuate that someone else has instigated the assassination, one strays from the truth. The idea arose in our own minds, and we ourselves executed it. We have loved the people. I have nothing to say in my defence.”
Being only 19 years old, he was too young to be executed under Austro-Hungarian law. Instead he was effectively buried alive. In Theresienstadt prison – now in the Czech Republic – he was condemned to solitary confinement and held in the harshest conditions, denied books or writing materials. Owing to the appalling prison conditions, he caught tuberculosis, which ate away his bones so badly that his right arm had to be amputated. In May 1918 he died, his body reduced to that of a skeleton. He had scratched on the wall of his cell: “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna, and roam the Palace, frightening the Lords.”
Repercussions of the assassination
News of the assassination caused a wave of consternation and outrage. In Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns, pro-Austrian mobs attacked any Serb they could find, smashing Serb shops and businesses and entering people’s homes and throwing furniture onto the streets. The anti-Serb pogrom resulted in many murders and the state took a bloody revenge by arresting hundreds of Serbs, whether or not they were associated with nationalism. Many were executed.
All this played into the hands of the War Party in Vienna who for some time was agitating for action against the Serbs. Now they had an ideal excuse. The heads of government met in emergency session at which Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, and Conrad, the army chief of staff, discussed what action to take. The latter urged immediate military action against Serbia – something the Austrian General Staff had already been planning.
Austria placed responsibility for the assassination squarely at the door of the government of Belgrade. In fact, the Serbian military leadership, led by its intelligence chief Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the founder of the Black Hand terrorist organization, did train people in the black arts of terrorism, manipulating idealistic youngsters like Gavrilo Princip for their own sinister purposes. Terrorism is usually the weapon of the weak against the strong and Serbia used it as an auxiliary arm for its diplomatic and military manoeuvres. This time, however, the terrorist weapon had succeeded too well. The assassination in Sarajevo gave Austria the perfect excuse to attack Serbia, and Belgrade was alarmed.
For reasons that seem incomprehensible, Serbia took no action to open an investigation into the events in Sarajevo, which might have provided the Belgrade government with grounds for a denial of any complicity in the assassination by groups in Serbia. This surprising omission gave Austria a free hand to present her own version of events. Was it the result of divisions within the regime, or simple paralysis? Or did this stupefying inaction flow from fear that an investigation could have exposed facts that might prove embarrassing to the Serbian government? Either way, it invited a violent reaction from Vienna.
However, an Austrian offensive against Serbia was not yet inevitable. Such was the decayed and demoralised state of the Austro-Hungarian regime that the authorities in Vienna immediately began to vacillate. The Hungarian Prime Minister Count Tisza warned Berchtold of the dangers involved in such a military adventure. The aged Emperor himself warned of the risk of Russia intervening on the side of Serbia and expressed doubts about German support. Before acting it, was first necessary to ascertain the position of Austria’s ally Germany. The scene of the action thus moves rapidly from Vienna to Berlin.
Count Hoyos, an Austrian foreign ministry official, was sent to Berlin to sound out the Germans. The German military fervently backed early aggressive action by Austria while Russia was still unprepared for war. By the summer of 1914 the leading circles in Germany seemed prepared to run the risk of a large-scale war in the name of its alliance with the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the latter decided to take action against Serbia for the Sarajevo murder, the Kaiser came down firmly on their side.
Wilhelm’s bellicosity won the day. He urged the Austrians to teach the Serbs a lesson so that they would learn to fear them. His written note on the subject reads as follows: “Now or never … matters must be cleared up with Serbia – and that soon.” Since the monarch, together with his generals, decided all important questions, this amounted to a direct order. His Ministers accepted his demands with silent resignation and a fatal chain of action and reaction was set in motion.
The Berlin government was offering unconditional support to the Austrians, despite the risk of war with Russia. It was a dangerous gamble. Wilhelm and his generals calculated that France, and particularly Britain, might refuse to support Russia. They even saw it as a way of breaking up the Entente. They believed it would unite the nation behind the government and thus halt the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Social Democracy. In addition, the generals wished to strike against Russia before it had finished rebuilding its military might by implementing a series of reforms after Russia’s humiliating defeat by Japan in 1905.
On July 5 the German Kaiser offered Austria what amounted to a “blank cheque” – advising it not to delay in taking whatever action it considered necessary. On the strength of this, Conrad urged that the army be mobilised for war. However, the old fox Franz Josef, ever inclined to caution and fearing the breakup of his Empire, refused. An equally serious obstacle for the “war party” in Vienna was the opposition of the Hungarian leader Tisza, whom it took two weeks to persuade.
In a letter to the Kaiser, the Austrian emperor stated that Austria’s aim was to “isolate and diminish” Serbia (by giving away slices of its land to other Balkan states, so-called “territorial adjustments”) thus reducing Serb influence in the Balkans to insignificance. The Austrian government meanwhile had opened an investigation that claimed that the plot had been hatched in the Serb capital Belgrade and implicated a Serb employee of one of the government ministries as well as Serb army officers. Even if one accepts that these accusations might be true, there was no evidence that the Serb government itself was implicated in the assassination.
Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor, advised Austria that it “may be sure that His Majesty (the Kaiser), in accordance with his treaty obligations and old friendship, will stand by Austria’s side.” There could therefore be no doubt whatsoever that the German government was endorsing the Kaiser’s “blank cheque” of July 5. Austria’s hands were completely free to do whatever the government in Vienna pleased. Greatly encouraged by these assurances, Berchtold hoped that the crisis could be contained by a localized war against Serbia alone.
These illusions appear to have been shared by the people in Berlin. An indication of just how far Wilhelm was removed from reality is the fact that in such a difficult and dangerous moment, when Germany and the whole of Europe were staggering like a drunken man towards an abyss, Kaiser Wilhelm left Germany for a Scandinavian holiday. His supreme self-confidence led him to believe that neither France nor Russia would take action over the Serbian question. On July 7 the Serbian prime minister denied any foreknowledge of the plot. But it was already far too late for such denials. The machinery of war was already grinding into action.
The Austrian ultimatum
At a meeting of the Austrian Council of Ministers all but one urged military action. Fearful of Russian intervention, Tisza again advised caution. Austrian foreign minister Berchtold on the other hand demanded that any diplomatic action taken must “only end in war.” He concluded that: “a war with Russia would be the most probable consequence of our entering Serbia.” To clinch the matter, Count Hoyos, newly returned from Berlin, repeated the German promise of unconditional support to Austria.
Agreement was finally reached to present an ultimatum to Serbia, written in such a way that it would be rejected, thus preparing the ground for war. There was a slight complication when the Austrian Legal Counsellor reported on July 13 that the investigation of the Sarajevo crime revealed no complicity on the part of the Serbian government in the plot. Despite this annoying inconvenience, the ruling circles in Vienna pretended not to hear and stepped up their plans to attack Serbia.
Count Tisza confirmed to the German ambassador that the Austrian note to Serbia “is to be so phrased that its acceptance will be practically impossible.” The men in Vienna were confident that the ultimatum would be rejected, but, just in case, they issued instructions to the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade that any reply from the Serbs must be turned down. Meanwhile, in secret the Austrian mobilization was already underway.
The ultimatum was dispatched to the Austrian ambassador in Belgrade on July 20 for presentation to the Serbian government three days later. The slight delay was occasioned by the presence of a French delegation in St. Petersburg, from whence the French president Poincaré issued a stern warning to the Austrian ambassador that “the Russian people are very warm friends of the Serbians, and France is Russia’s ally.” The French delegation in St. Petersburg solemnly affirmed their obligations under the Franco-Russian alliance.
But by now matters had gone far beyond the bounds of diplomatic manoeuvres and notes. At 6pm on July 23 the Austrian ultimatum was handed to the Serbian government. The preamble referred to Serbia’s permitting the anti-Austrian criminal activities of secret societies and press propaganda to go unchallenged, a “culpable tolerance” that had presented a “perpetual menace” to the peace of Austria. The demands of the ultimatum, specifically points 5 and 6, amounted to nothing less than a complete surrender of Serbia’s national sovereignty and submission to Austria. A French newspaper said that it required from Serbia an “acknowledgment of vassalage”.
All this was nothing more than diplomatic camouflage for war. Berchtold, noted: “Any conditional acceptance [of the ultimatum], or one accompanied by reservations, is to be regarded as a refusal”. On being informed of the terms of the Austrian ultimatum, Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, declared: “It’s a European war”. Playing for time, the Russian Council of Ministers asked Austria to prolong its time limit and not to engage in hostilities. St. Petersburg advised Serbia not to oppose an Austrian invasion. At the same time the Council requested the tsar to authorize partial mobilization, that is, one confined to the Austrian border.
Partial mobilization was approved “in principle” by the Tsar, though it was not to be carried out until July. Such vacillations were vigorously opposed by the Russian General Staff, which like the General Staffs of all the other Powers was in favour of a more aggressive policy. Army H.Q. had planned for a general mobilization directed against both Austria and Germany. The French ambassador at St. Petersburg urged a “policy of firmness” on Sazonov.
Events were moving fast. The Serbian reply was rejected by Austria, which also rejected Russia’s request to extend the 48-hour time limit. Serbia ordered a general mobilization and appealed to the Tsar for help “in your generous Slav heart”. But neither generosity nor Slav solidarity, nor yet Nicolas’ heart had anything to do with the machinations in St. Petersburg, only naked self-interest and cynical Great Power calculations.
Once more the Russian Ministerial Council met in the august presence of the Tsar. The only item on the agenda: partial mobilization as a means of exerting diplomatic pressure on Vienna and Berlin, or general mobilization against both Germany and Austria that would mean war. Once again the army chiefs press for all-out mobilisation; once again the Council opts for the less dangerous alternative.
The hesitant, vacillating conduct in St. Petersburg is noted with satisfaction in Berlin. The Kaiser and his generals draw the obvious conclusion: Russia is not prepared to fight. That convinces them even more of the correctness of their hard-line stand in relation to the Serbs. On receiving a memorandum sent by the German ambassador to Russia containing Sazonov’s’ view that Austria’s “swallowing” of Serbia would mean Russia would go to war with Austria, the Kaiser notes: “All right! Let her…”
But Russia was now coming under intense pressure to act, not so much out of a philanthropic concern for the fate of her Serbian brothers, but to safeguard her prestige as a Great Power, and to attack Germany before Germany itself acted against Russia. In any case, few people were under any illusion that any decision for mobilisation, even partial would be seen in Austria and Germany as “a sure step towards war”.
This was now no longer just another Balkan War. The French commenced secret military preparations, such as the recall of troops from overseas. Only one of the Great Powers in Europe had yet to make clear where it stood. With less than a day before the expiration of the ultimatum, the British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey urged the German ambassador to attempt mediation by Germany, Britain, France and Italy and extend the time-limit set by Austria. In a painful interview with Sir Edward in London, the French ambassador attempted to shake the British foreign minister out of his apparent complacency and accept that it would be too late for mediation once Austria moved against Serbia.
The complacency in London was only a mask for the cold calculations of self-interest that dictated Britain’s foreign policy. While Grey was assuring the British parliament that Britain was not bound by the Russo-French agreement, in private conversations, the British political Establishment agreed that it would be impossible for Britain to keep out of the coming war. Sir Eyre Crowe, a British foreign office official, noted: “Our interests are tied up with those of France and Russia in this struggle, which is not for the possession of Serbia, but one between Germany aiming at a political dictatorship in Europe and the Powers who desire to retain individual freedom.”
Needless to say, all this had nothing to do with “individual freedom” or the self-determination of Serbia, Belgium, or any other country. To come into conflict with France and Russia was unthinkable because the British Empire needed their complicity to preserve British rule in India and British colonial possessions in Africa. Even more serious was the mortal threat to Britain if Germany got possession of the Channel ports.
The German ambassador assured Sir E. Grey that his government had no prior knowledge of the Austrian ultimatum, which, of course, was a blatant lie. Grey answered that: “…between Serbia and Austria I [feel] no title to intervention, but as soon as the question became one between Austria and Russia it was a question of the peace of Europe, in which we must all take a hand.”
Everything was now in place. Individual actors in the historical drama stepped onto the stage, read their lines, played their part, big or small, and disappeared forever. The role of individuals, of course, cannot be eliminated from the complex interplay of historical factors. By their actions or omissions the powerful currents of history can either be hastened or retarded. But in the last analysis, it is these unseen but irresistible forces that determine the outcome, sweeping all before them.
For a few weeks the name of Gavrilo Prinkipo loomed large in the headlines of the world’s press. But even if his revolver had failed to fire, even if his hand had shaken in the decisive moment, even if he had never been born, that terrible cataclysm they later baptised as the Great War would have broken out anyway. On another pretext, with other names and other headlines, the unbearable contradictions between the imperialist states of Europe would have expressed themselves in the Great Slaughter.
Throughout history it has been the common illusion of every period that history is made by the conscious decisions of kings, statesmen, politicians and generals. Needless to say, such decisions have always played a part in determining events. Yet it frequently occurs that the end results are very different to the original intentions and even in flat contradiction to them.
Every one of the chief actors in the drama of 1914 miscalculated. Gavrilo Prinkip’s courageous but misguided action did not lead to the liberation of the South Slavs but only to the bloodbath of a World War. His mortal enemies in the House of Hapsburg hoped to save the Empire by waging war on Serbia, only to bring about its complete destruction. Their ally Kaiser Wilhelm who appeared to be the most powerful man in Europe was swept away like a man of straw by the German Revolution.
In 1914 his cousin Tsar Nicolas had hoped to avoid a repeat of 1905 by going to war, only to prepare the ground for an even mightier proletarian Revolution in November 1917. Thus, through all the complex cross-currents of events, the rise and fall of individual leaders, parties and governments, the laws of the dialectic assert themselves with iron inevitability. Long ago that great dialectical thinker Heraclites said: “War is the father and king of all, and has produced some as gods and some as men, and has made some slaves and some free.” These words are profoundly true, and we should remember that the class struggle is itself a kind of war.
The same Heraclitus discovered that wonderful dialectical law that says that, sooner or later, things change into their opposite. The Great Slaughter in the end gave birth to the greatest Revolution in history. Out of all the savagery, slaughter, fire and destruction, deep beneath the surface of society, in the trenches and factories, in the fields and towns, in the peasants’ huts and soldiers’ barracks a new spirit was struggling to be born: a spirit of revolt against the existing order: the spirit that was determined to make such horrors a thing of the past, to raise humankind above the level of the animal struggle for existence and create a world fit for human beings to live in.