Great Britain was beginning to see the decline of its empire. It was distressed at the growing Germany naval power that threatened the lifelines and possessions of the island empire. It also may have been aware of the forthcoming disintegration of Eastern Europe and feared that Germany would step into the breach. Perhaps more than the others, its foreign office had a realistic vision of its objectives, if not the nature of the war that emerged. It is easy to see now that these competing and changing forces, managed by some less than competent governments, would take a terrible toll under the destabilizing impact of war.
Responsibilities Responsibility for the war must be shared by all the powers. They saw the war as an opportunity to expand or preserve their economic and political empires in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. There was also the emotional impact of the Slav factor, an easy motivation for war. The rise of Germany, and the weakness of Austria and Turkey, had upset the balance of power, and everyone was trying to adjust to or correct that. Did these leaders act responsibly? Or were they merely responsible for a disaster? In each case, we may say that they were looking out for their national interests, which is their duty.
They were, however, caught between two competing responsibilities: Wise leaders always consider the advantages and disadvantages of negotiation and compromise since half a loaf is often better than a destructive war; on the other hand, submitting to belligerence and bullying usually leads to more of the same. It seems clear in this case that if they had somehow realized that they were taking reversible steps toward an irreversible disaster, if they had been able to foresee what massive harm that would lead to, they might have found a way reach a peaceful solution before it was too late to step back.
But no, they had pride and their priorities were out of order. The relatively peaceful century they had just been through disguised the new warfare of tanks and machine guns vs. the single-shot infantry warfare of the past. The generals thought throwing tens of thousands of soldiers into the gunfire was the only way to fight, just another American Civil War. They were so successful in establishing a balance of power that the front line remained frozen throughout most of the war, just an efficient killing machine.
The emperors, politicians and generals all thought they were doing the right thing to meet their national objectives. They all thought that preserving the balance of power and supporting their allies was the central obligation of their foreign policy. They could not have been more wrong. Germany, especially, deserves blame because it was in an expansive mode, while all the others were in decline. Germany saw an opportunity to grow its empire by weakening and taking the territory of France and Russia. Their opponents did not have such motives.
One can imagine the result if Germany had won a quick victory and become the overwhelming power in Europe. Germany’s encouragement of Austria was a mild form of aggression, but it caused the situation to tip into war nevertheless. Once Austria attacked Serbia, the door was open for Germany to attack France and Russia. Instead of supporting Austria in the Balkans, it should have restrained its weak ally against such a weak component of its empire. Austria did not have to declare war against its own rebellious child.
Germany also made the mistake of expecting Britain to remain neutral. Bismark had warned about being in the minority. Austria, weak and living in the past, felt the need to act strongly, knowing it had German support. Instead of trying to hold together its empire by force, it should have seen that peaceful change was more likely to preserve at least part of what it treasured. That failure is more understandable than Germany’s subtle aggression. Russia also was on the road to collapse, with or without the war, but could not see it.
Lenin was a very bad man, but you can’t say he didn’t see things clearly. The lack of vision of their own fatal illness of the two weakest empires shows that the decline of their system went hand in hand with the decline and rigidity of their thinking. France had a right to be fearful, having just lost a war with an expansive Germany. So, it is difficult to see how it could have remained aloof and avoided the German attack. In the end, it was on the winning side, but at a terrible cost.
In the end, there were no victors. England could have remained neutral, but it foresaw the dangers of German dominance of the continent and the oceans. It paid a high price for postponing this for 20 years. Without American intervention in two wars, Germany would control Europe today. The Great Powers not only mismanaged the entry into war, they also failed to manage the peace. The harsh treatment of Germany caused the resentment that Hitler took advantage of to establish his nationalist aggression.
And, no one saw the consequences of the dysfunctional remainder of all those shattered empires, which we are still dealing with today. It is unfortunate that we must have such wars as those of the twentieth century in order to learn the penalties of failing to compromise, failing to control militarism and failing to resist appeasement. Even with those titanic examples, we still have trouble teaching how to balance those conflicting lessons and make those difficult choices to our own and newer generations. General publics, voters, are certainly more involved than they were 100 years ago.
They tend to support their governments when national interests are at stake, but they have limits to their patience when they are not immediately threatened and the war goes badly. The toleration of casualties is vastly different, and the generals wiser. The management of international relations in democracies has its limitations, but it goes better than in the hands of ambitious dictators. The rough outlines of guilt and misplaced priorities and objectives are clear. Aggression, and tolerance of aggression, are difficult to manage, but we are slowly learning. Civilization may indeed be advancing.
A new threat has emerged, and we will need all our skills to find a satisfactory compromise and accommodation rather than a war of great and prolonged magnitude. One historian summarizes: What the coming of the war in 1914 reveals is how a loss of confidence and fears for the future can be as dangerous to peace as the naked spirit of aggression that was to be the cause of the Second World War a quarter of a century later. A handful of European leaders in 1914 conceived national relationships crudely in terms of power and conflict, and the future in terms of a struggle for survival in competition for the world.
For this, millions had to suffer and die (Grenville, 1994, p. 74).
Evans, D. (2004). The First World War (Teach Yourself Series). Chicago: McGraw Hill (Contemporary Books). Gilbert, M. 1994). The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Holt. Grenville, J. A. S. (1994). A History of the World in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kagen, D. (1995). On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday. Keegan, J. (1998). The First World War. London: Random House (Pimlico).