This is the first of four guest blogs from Hans Fenske, Professor of Contemporary History at Freiburg University from 1977-2001 and author of Der Anfang vom Ende des alten Europa. (The Beginning of the End of Old Europe; The Allied Refusal of Peace Talks, 1914-1919.)
A War Germany did not want.
When handing over the peace treaty to the German delegation on 7 May 1919, French Prime Minister Clemenceau stated very brusquely that the most horrible war had been foisted on the Allies, and that now the time of reckoning had come. There would be no spoken negotiations; only remarks concerning the treaty in its entirety would be accepted if submitted in writing within two weeks. In his answer, German Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau rejected the accusation of exclusive responsibility and demanded that an impartial commission investigate the amount of guilt of all parties concerned.
The victorious Allied powers were not prepared to concede forming an impartial commission to look at the facts, but there were a number of neutral scholars who in their academic work reached a view appropriate to the facts. As early as 1914, the renowned American Professor of Law, John William Burgess declared – after having studied the Blue Books presented by the warring parties – that the Entente held a far greater share of responsibility for the war than Germany and the Danube Monarchy. The Swiss scholar Ernst Sauerbeck confirmed this view in 1919. According to his findings, the Entente had unleashed the war without need and turned it into what it became – the tomb of entire nations. He also accused the victorious powers of having, by means of the Versailles peace treaty, allowed the 1914-1918 war to grow into the direst doom that has possibly ever threatened the world; that is the War that began in 1939.
In addition, experts from Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, who in 1927 presented their expertise in a volume published by a Norwegian committee investigating the issue of war guilt, assessed the share of guilt of the Central Powers as low. According to Hermann Aall, the committee’s secretary, Russia had provoked the war, and Great Britain played a decisive role in its outbreak. Axel Drolsum of the University of Oslo stated that Germany in 1914 had been the only nation to have tried everything it could to keep the peace, but that it failed due to the will of the other powers to make war.
Moreover, please let reference be made to one voice from a victorious country. In 1924, the French journalist and former diplomat Alcide Ebray recommended a thorough revision of the Treaty of Versailles. He claimed that the Czarist Regime held the decisive share of war guilt, while Germany acted in favour of a conciliatory position in Vienna and St. Petersburg in 1914.
In Serbia, the radical party had been the decisive power since the bloody officers’ putsch back in 1903, during which the Royal couple had been murdered. This party pursued a decidedly anti-Austrian foreign policy which demanded that all Serbs be united within one state. The problem here was the fact that there were about as many Serbs living outside the country as within, particularly in the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although they nominally still belonged to the Ottoman Empire, they had been under Austrian-Hungarian administration since the Congress of Vienna in 1878. When the Habsburg Empire annexed them in 1908 following an arrangement with Russia, there was a severe international crisis. When this was settled in March 1909, Serbia had to sign a treaty pledging to again maintain good neighbourly relations with the Danube Monarchy. But this did nothing to change Belgrade’s keen antagonism towards Vienna. First, however, Serbian activities were directed towards the South. The war against the Ottoman Empire started by Italy in 1911 to conquer Libya triggered Serbian talks with Bulgaria about whether to join arms against the Turks. After entering into an alliance, the two states started the campaign in the autumn of 1912. Together with Montenegro and Greece, they took away from the Ottoman Empire nearly its entire possessions on the Balkan during the First Balkan War.
This took place with the full assent of Russia, which wanted to get the Bosporus and the Dardanelles under its control and which therefore had a strong interest in effecting changes on the Balkans. Serbia enlarged its territory considerably towards the south. In November 1912, shortly after the beginning of the war, the French ambassador in Belgrade reported to Paris that Serbia was set on bringing down Austria at the first possible occasion. King Peter asked the Russian ambassador whether to enact the downfall the Habsburg Empire now, or whether to still wait. The Russian ambassador relayed this question to St. Petersburg, from where in February 1913 came the answer that Russia was not yet ready for a war against Austria-Hungary. Serbia should content itself with the present increase in territory for now, so that it could later, once the time was ripe, lance the Austrian-Hungarian abscess. Later, more statements of this kind were issued from St. Petersburg: Serbia would find its promised land in Austria-Hungary and should prepare itself for the inevitable battle.
When, in the summer of 1913, Serbia – together with Greece and Romania – turned against Bulgaria in a struggle over the recently conquered land, Russia backed Serbia; it clearly was a satellite of Russia.
At the beginning of 1914, the leadership in St. Petersburg saw Russia far better prepared for a war than the previous year. During a council of war, a decision was taken to use the upcoming war for occupying Constantinople and the Straits. The Russian military gazette expressly declared the Czarist Regime’s readiness for war, and in late March, the head of the military academy declared in front of officers that a war with the Triple Alliance was inevitable and would probably break out in the summer. The Belgian ambassador in St. Petersburg reported to Brussels at the beginning of June that it was to be expected that Russia would soon put its war tools to use. At the same time, Foreign Minister Sazonov exerted pressure in London to quickly conclude the marine convention about which negotiations had been going on for some time. Soon after, he travelled to Romania together with the Czar. There, he asked the Prime Minister how Romania would react should Russia see itself compelled by the events to start hostile actions.
St. Petersburg was well aware that in the case of a big European conflict, Russia would be firmly backed by France and Great Britain. A Russian-French alliance had been in effect since 1894. The British-French understanding about Egypt and Morocco of 1904 was amended from 1905 by firm military agreements made by the General Staffs, about which the Belgian military was kept informed. During his visit to England in September 1912, Sazonov was assured by the British Foreign Minister Grey that in the case of a German-French war, Great Britain would support France by sea and by land, and try to deliver as destructive a blow as possible to German predominance. For Grey, Germany’s strong economic growth presented a grave threat; its weakening was thus a definite necessity for him.
When the Serbian secret society “Unification or Death” planned the murder of Austrian heir apparent Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the head of the Serbian intelligence service, Dragutin Dimitrijević, leader of the putsch of 1903, asked the Russian military attaché, whether this plan was convenient. St. Petersburg sent its consent, although they should have been aware that the Danube monarchy would have no choice but to react harshly to the murder of their heir to the throne. Apparently, Russian leadership thought the moment had arrived to lance the Austrian-Hungarian abscess.
In mid-June, German Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg asked the German ambassador in London to talk with Grey about securing European peace. If another crisis was to erupt in the Balkans, Russia might react more decisively than before due to its comprehensive rearmament. Whether this would result in a European clash would depend entirely on Great Britain and Germany. If both states were to act as guarantors of peace, then war might be prevented. If not, any arbitrary marginal difference might light the war torch between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Grey’s response to the ambassador was placatory, but of course he did not tell him the truth.
After the Sarajevo murder on 28 June, Austrian Foreign Minister Berchtold and General Chief of Staff Hötzendorf argued for an immediate strike against Serbia. The Hungarian Prime Minister prevented this. They agreed to demand of Serbia absolute clarification about the crime, but to hand over the respective note only after the end of the impending French state visit to Russia. They were sure about German allegiance to Austria in case of complications; a high-level public servant had been given this assurance when visiting Berlin on 5 and 6 July. The relevant German decision makers agreed that Russia would not intervene, so that the conflict could remain localised. That was a crass misjudgement.
During their stay in St. Petersburg on 20 through 23 July, the French guests, President Poincaré and Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Viviani, repeated the assurance of absolute French solidarity in a war against Germany, often given before. Sazonov and Viviani agreed on 23 July that everything must be done to counter the Austrian demand as well as any request which might be construed as a meddling with Serbian independence. The Austrian note to Serbia called for an unequivocal condemnation of propaganda directed against the Danube Monarchy, and lodged claims as to how this should occur. It also asked for the participation of Austrian delegates in suppressing any subversive efforts directed against the Habsburg Empire, as well as in investigating the murder. An answer was expected within 48 hours, i.e. by the evening of 25 July.
At first, the Serbian council of ministers showed a strong penchant to accommodate this request, and maybe it might have been even more pronounced, had Vienna made reference in its note to the fact that after the murder of Serbian ruler Duke Michael Obrenović in 1868, a Serbian prosecutor had conducted examinations in the Danube Monarchy. A call back to St. Petersburg was answered with the admonition to remain firm, which caused a change in opinion. Thus Serbia mobilised its forces on the afternoon of 25 July and handed over a rather conciliatory answer three hours later. Only the Austrian involvement in suppressing the subversive efforts and in investigating the murder was denied. At once, the Danube monarchy cancelled its diplomatic relations with Serbia. On the same day, Berchthold had it stated in St. Petersburg that should a battle with Serbia be foisted on Austria, this would not be about territorial gain but about defence, and that Serbian sovereignty would not be touched.
Czar Nicholas II had informally started mobilisation directly after the departure of his French guests on 24 July; the respective measures did not go unnoticed by German observers. The British navy was made ready for war on 26 July, and France called back all vacationers to their respective units. Formal Russian mobilisation against Austria-Hungary was ordered on 29 July, complete one day later. The German Empire tried to mediate until the last minute. On 28 July, the day of the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia, Emperor Wilhelm II. advised Vienna to stop in Belgrade, and even on 31 July, he urgently asked the Czar to avert the doom now facing the entire civilised world. Peace in Europe might still be kept if Russia stopped military actions threatening Germany and Austria-Hungary. Since Nicholas II. did not cancel the mobilisation order, the German Empire informed Russia on the evening of 1 August that it regarded the state of war to have occurred. On 3 August, it also declared war on France, after efforts to receive a declaration of neutrality from France had remained unsuccessful.
This was intended as a pre-emptive measure. France could not be left to choose the moment for attack; after all, German plans for a war on two fronts envisaged first turning west. The breach of Belgian neutrality by Germany, which at that point was only nominal, gave Grey the welcome opportunity to lead Great Britain into war on 4 August. Up to that point, public opinion had predominantly been in favour of steering clear of the strife on the Continent. During the crisis, Grey had been very insincere about his intentions towards German diplomats, misleading most of his cabinet colleagues, the House of Commons and the general public.