On June 28, 1914, the archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were on an official visit to the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Serb-dominated province of Austria-Hungary. During the visit, Serbian militants, seeking independence for the territory, made two separate attempts on the archduke’s life. In the first attempt, they threw a bomb at his car shortly after he arrived in town, but the bomb bounced off the car and failed to kill or injure the intended victim.
Later that day, while the archduke was en route to a hospital to visit an officer wounded by the bomb, his driver turned down a side street where Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old militant Bosnian Serb who had been part of the assassination attempt that morning, happened to be standing. Seizing the opportunity, Princip stepped up to the car’s window and shot both the archduke and his wife at point-blank range.
The archduke’s assassination had an incendiary effect throughout Central Europe. Tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, which had already been rising for several years over territorial disputes, escalated further. Despite limited evidence, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the assassination. Furthermore, it blamed Serbia for seeding unrest among ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a province of Austria-Hungary that shared a border with Serbia.
Austro-Hungarian leaders decided that the solution to the Serbian problem was an all-out invasion of the country. However, there was a major obstacle to this plan: Russia, which had close ethnic, religious, and political ties to Serbia, was likely to come to its defense during an invasion. Though poorly armed and trained, Russia’s army was huge and capable of posing a formidable threat to Austria-Hungary.
Aware of the threat from Russia, Austria-Hungary held off on its attack plans and turned to its well-armed ally to the north, Germany. On July 5, 1914, Austria-Hungary sent an envoy to meet personally with the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to convey Austria’s concerns about Russia. The kaiser felt that Russia was unlikely to respond militarily, as its forces were utterly unprepared for war. He also had a close personal relationship with Tsar Nicholas II (the two were cousins), so he hoped to smooth things over diplomatically. Nevertheless, the kaiser pledged that if Russian troops did in fact advance on Austria-Hungary, Germany would help fight off the attackers. This guarantee is often referred to as Germany’s “blank check.”
On July 23, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian government issued an ultimatum to Serbia containing ten demands. The ultimatum insisted that Austria-Hungary be allowed to participate in Serbia’s investigation of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and, in particular, to take direct part in the judicial process against the suspects. The demands also required Serbia to stamp out all forms of anti-Austrian activism and propaganda emanating from the country. The ultimatum, written by members of the Austrian Council of Ministers, was specifically intended to be humiliating and unacceptable to Serbia.
On July 25, however, Serbia accepted Austria-Hungary’s demands almost entirely—aside from just a few conditions regarding Austria’s participation in the judicial process against the criminals. Austria-Hungary’s response was swift: its embassy in Serbia closed within a half hour of receiving Serbia’s answer, and three days later, on July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia. On July 29, the first Austrian artillery shells fell on Serbia’s capital, Belgrade.
After this first military action, a series of events followed in quick succession. With news of Austria’s attack on Belgrade, Russia ordered a general mobilization of its troops on July 30, 1914. Germany, interpreting this move as a final decision by Russia to go to war, promptly ordered its own mobilization. Although the Russian tsar and German kaiser were communicating feverishly by telegraph throughout this time, they failed to convince each other that they were only taking precautionary measures. Britain made an attempt to intervene diplomatically, but to no avail. On August 1, the German ambassador to Russia handed the Russian foreign minister a declaration of war.
On August 3, Germany, in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan (see Terms, p. 11 ), declared war on France as well. Germany made clear its intention to cross the neutral nation Belgium in order to reach France’s least fortified border, in violation of its own treaty in respect to neutral countries. Therefore, Britain, which had a defense agreement with Belgium, declared war on Germany the next day, August 4, bringing the number of countries involved up to six. There would soon be more.
Some early accounts of World War I treat its start as a chain of almost coincidental events: a mix of unfortunate lapses in judgment on the part of political and military leaders, combined with a tangled web of alliances and defense treaties that triggered declarations of war between countries that really had little reason to be at war with each other. Although these factors were crucial, a number of other important factors were involved.
After all, most of the countries that came to be involved in World War I had enjoyed relatively friendly interrelations right up to the start of the war. For the most part, they shared strong economic interdependencies, and trade between them was brisk, making the prospect of a large-scale war highly unattractive.
Moreover, though several treaties in force at the time did compel certain countries to join the war, it is a mistake to assume that any of them joined the war “automatically.” Leaders in each country debated whether to enter the war and generally made their decisions only after evaluating their own concrete interests and risks. Many of these countries had hidden motives and, at the same time, mistakenly assumed that some of the others would stay out of the conflict.
Though Germany had little interest in Austria’s problems with Serbia, it had significant ambitions regarding its other neighbors. In recent years, Russia had become increasingly involved in European affairs, while simultaneously modernizing and expanding its military. German military leaders felt that war with Russia was inevitable at some point. Therefore, they argued, it would be far better to fight Russia now, while its army was still poorly armed and untrained, rather than to wait until it could pose a greater threat. Some historians claim that Germany deliberately encouraged Austria to go to war with Serbia in order to set off a war with Russia.
Furthermore, German military leaders believed there was a good chance that Britain would remain neutral and that France also might stay at arm’s length, despite its treaty with Russia. This wishful thinking helped the German military leaders convince themselves that the war would be winnable and also helped them to sell their plan to the kaiser.
For centuries, Britain had been the greatest naval power in the world and also had the largest collection of colonies. In the first years of the twentieth century, however, Germany made a massive and costly effort to build up a comparable naval fleet of its own, with the specific goal of matching Britain on the high seas. Germany also had recently shown a stronger interest than before in acquiring new colonies. Britain, seeing these developments as a dangerous threat to the balance of power in Europe, argued to Germany (through diplomatic channels) that the country had no need for a large navy or a large number of colonies. Germany ignored Britain’s rebuffs and continued as before. Just as some German leaders favored an “anticipatory” war against Russia, some British leaders felt similarly about Germany.
In 1871, France had lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in a war—a bitterly humiliating blow that left France desperate to regain these lands. While fearful of an all-out German invasion, some French leaders felt that if Germany were distracted by a war with Russia, France might have a chance to seize Alsace and Lorraine.
Russia’s motives for entering the war are less clear-cut. The period just prior to the war was a time of great instability in Russia: never before in the nation’s history had the tsar’s grip on power been so fragile. On the other hand, there was support in Russia for the Serbian cause, and a military victory would likely help the tsar politically. Nevertheless, war was a risky proposition given the poor state of the Russian military at the time. Tsar Nicholas II, who was personally hesitant about joining the war, briefly flip-flopped over ordering mobilization. Ultimately, however, he caved under pressure from overly optimistic Russian military leaders and advisers who had strong nationalistic leanings.