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The main causes of World War I, which began in the Balkans in late July 1914, included many factors, such as the conflicts and hostility between the great European powers of the four decades leading up to the war. Militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism played major roles in the conflict as well. The immediate origins of the war, however, lay in the decisions taken by statesmen and generals during the July Crisis of 1914 caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip, an ethnic Serb and Yugoslav nationalist from the group Young Bosnia, which was supported by the Black Hand, a nationalist organization in Serbia.
The crisis came after a long and difficult series of diplomatic clashes between the Great Powers (Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia) over European and colonial issues in the decade before 1914 that had left tensions high. In turn these diplomatic clashes can be traced to changes in the balance of power in Europe since 1867. The more immediate cause for the war was tensions over territory in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary competed with Serbia and Russia for territory and influence in the region and they pulled the rest of the Great Powers into the conflict through their various alliances and treaties.
Some of the most important long term or structural causes were the growth of nationalism across Europe, unresolved territorial disputes, an intricate system of alliances, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe, convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, previous military planning, imperial and colonial rivalry for wealth, power and prestige, and economic and military rivalry in industry and trade – e.g., the Pig War between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Other causes that came into play during the diplomatic crisis that preceded the war included misperceptions of intent (e.g., the German belief that Britain would remain neutral) and delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications.
The various categories of explanation for World War I correspond to different historians' overall methods. Most historians and popular commentators include causes from more than one category of explanation to provide a rounded account of the causes of the war. The deepest distinction among these accounts is between stories that see it as the inevitable and predictable outcome of certain factors, and those that describe it as an arbitrary and unfortunate mistake. In attributing causes for the war, historians and academics had to deal with an unprecedented flood of memoirs and official documents, released as each country involved tried to avoid blame for starting the war. Early releases of information by governments, particularly those released for use by the "Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War" were shown to be incomplete and biased. In addition some documents, especially diplomatic cables between Russia and France, were found to have been doctored.
In November 1912, Russia, which had been humiliated because of its inability to support Serbia during the Bosnian crisis of 1908 or the First Balkan War, announced a major reconstruction of its military.
On November 28, German Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow told the Reichstag (the German parliament), that "If Austria is forced, for whatever reason, to fight for its position as a Great Power, then we must stand by her." As a result, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey responded by warning Prince Karl Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador in London, that if Germany offered Austria a "blank cheque" for war in the Balkans, then "the consequences of such a policy would be incalculable." To reinforce this point, R. B. Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, met with Prince Lichnowsky to offer an explicit warning that if Germany were to attack France, Britain would intervene in France's favour.
With the recently announced Russian military reconstruction and certain British communications, the possibility of war was a leading topic at the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912 in Berlin, an informal meeting of some of Germany's top military leadership called on short notice by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Attending the conference were the Kaiser, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz – the Naval State Secretary, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, the Chief of the German Imperial Naval Cabinet (Marinekabinett), General Helmuth von Moltke – the Army's Chief of Staff, Admiral August von Heeringen – the Chief of the Naval General Staff and General Moriz von Lyncker, the Chief of the German Imperial Military Cabinet. The presence of the leaders of both the German Army and Navy at this War Council attests to its importance. However, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and General Josias von Heeringen, the Prussian Minister of War, were not invited.
Wilhelm II called British balance of power principles "idiocy," but agreed that Haldane's statement was a "desirable clarification" of British policy. His opinion was that Austria should attack Serbia that December, and if "Russia supports the Serbs, which she evidently does ... then war would be unavoidable for us, too,"  and that would be better than going to war after Russia completed the massive modernization and expansion of their army that they had just begun. Moltke agreed. In his professional military opinion "a war is unavoidable and the sooner the better". Moltke "wanted to launch an immediate attack".
Both Wilhelm II and the Army leadership agreed that if a war were necessary it were best launched soon. Tirpitz, however, asked for a "postponement of the great fight for one and a half years" because the Navy was not ready for a general war that included Britain as an opponent. He insisted that the completion of the construction of the U-boat base at Heligoland and the widening of the Kiel Canal were the Navy's prerequisites for war. As the British historian John Röhl has commented, the date for completion of the widening of the Kiel Canal was the summer of 1914. Though Moltke objected to the postponement of the war as unacceptable, Wilhelm sided with Tirpitz. Moltke "agreed to a postponement only reluctantly."
Historians more sympathetic to the government of Wilhelm II often reject the importance of this War Council as only showing the thinking and recommendations of those present, with no decisions taken. They often cite the passage from Admiral Müller's diary, which states: "That was the end of the conference. The result amounted to nothing." Certainly the only decision taken was to do nothing.
Historians more sympathetic to the Entente, such as Röhl, sometimes rather ambitiously interpret these words of Admiral Müller (an advocate of launching a war soon) as saying that "nothing" was decided for 1912–13, but that war was decided on for the summer of 1914. Röhl is on safer ground when he argues that even if this War Council did not reach a binding decision—which it clearly did not—it did nonetheless offer a clear view of their intentions, or at least their thoughts, which were that if there was going to be a war, the German Army wanted it before the new Russian armaments program began to bear fruit. Entente sympathetic historians such as Röhl see this conference, in which "The result amounted to nothing," as setting a clear deadline for a war to begin, namely the summer of 1914.
With the November 1912 announcement of the Russian Great Military Programme, the leadership of the German Army began clamoring even more strongly for a "preventive war" against Russia. Moltke declared that Germany could not win the arms race with France, Britain and Russia, which she herself had begun in 1911, because the financial structure of the German state, which gave the Reich government little power to tax, meant Germany would bankrupt herself in an arms race. As such, Moltke from late 1912 onwards was the leading advocate for a general war, and the sooner the better.
Throughout May and June 1914, Moltke engaged in an "almost ultimative" demand for a German "preventive war" against Russia in 1914. The German Foreign Secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, reported on a discussion with Moltke at the end of May 1914:
"Moltke described to me his opinion of our military situation. The prospects of the future oppressed him heavily. In two or three years Russia would have completed her armaments. The military superiority of our enemies would then be so great that he did not know how he could overcome them. Today we would still be a match for them. In his opinion there was no alternative to making preventive war in order to defeat the enemy while we still had a chance of victory. The Chief of the General Staff therefore proposed that I should conduct a policy with the aim of provoking a war in the near future."
The new French President Raymond Poincaré, who took office in 1913, was favourable to improving relations with Germany. In January 1914 Poincaré became the first French President to dine at the German Embassy in Paris. Poincaré was more interested in the idea of French expansion in the Middle East than a war of revenge to regain Alsace-Lorraine. Had the Reich been interested in improved relations with France before August 1914, the opportunity would have been available, but the leadership of the Reich lacked such interests, and preferred a policy of war to destroy France. Because of France's smaller economy and population, by 1913 French leaders had largely accepted that France by itself could never defeat Germany.
In May 1914, Serbian politics were polarized between two factions, one headed by the Prime Minister Nikola Pašić, and the other by the radical nationalist chief of Military Intelligence, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, known by his codename Apis. In that month, due to Colonel Dimitrigjevic's intrigues, King Peter dismissed Pašić's government. The Russian Minister in Belgrade intervened to have Pašić's government restored. Pašić, though he often talked tough in public, knew that Serbia was near-bankrupt and, having suffered heavy casualties in the Balkan Wars and in the suppression of a December 1913 Albanian revolt in Kosovo, needed peace. Since Russia also favoured peace in the Balkans, from the Russian viewpoint it was desirable to keep Pašić in power. It was in the midst of this political crisis that politically powerful members of the Serbian military armed and trained three Bosnian students as assassins and sent them into Austria-Hungary.
Left-wing parties, especially the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) made large gains in the 1912 German election. German government at the time was still dominated by the Prussian Junkers who feared the rise of these left-wing parties. Fritz Fischer famously argued that they deliberately sought an external war to distract the population and whip up patriotic support for the government. Russia was in the midst of a large-scale military build-up and reform that they intended to complete in 1916–1917. Other authors argue that German conservatives were ambivalent about a war, worrying that losing a war would have disastrous consequences, and even a successful war might alienate the population if it were lengthy or difficult.
The situation in France was quite different from that in Germany as going to war appeared to the majority of political and military leaders to be a potentially costly gamble. It is undeniable that forty years after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine a vast number of French were still angered by the territorial loss, as well as by the humiliation of being compelled to pay a large reparation to Germany in 1871. The diplomatic alienation of France orchestrated by Germany prior to World War I caused further resentment in France. Nevertheless, the leaders of France recognized Germany's strong military advantage against them, as Germany had nearly twice as much population and a better equipped army. At the same time, the episodes of the Tangier Crisis in 1905 and the Agadir Crisis in 1911 had given France a strong indication that war with Germany could be inevitable if Germany continued to oppose French colonial expansionism.
France was politically polarized; the left-wing socialists led by Jean Jaurès pushed for peace against nationalists on the right like Paul Déroulède who called for revenge against Germany. France in 1914 had never been so prosperous and influential in Europe since 1870, nor its military so strong and confident in its leaders, emboldened by its success in North Africa and the overall pacification of its vast colonial empire. The Entente Cordiale of 1904 with Britain held firm, and was supported by mutual interests abroad and strong economic ties. Russia had fled the triple crown alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary because of disagreements with Austria-Hungary over policy in the Balkans. Russia also hoped that large French investments in its industry and infrastructures coupled with an important military partnership would prove themselves profitable and durable.
The foreign ministry was filled with expert diplomats, but there was great turnover at the top. In the 18 months before the war there were six foreign ministers. The leadership was prepared to fight Germany and attempt to gain back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine lost in 1871. It is important to note however, that France never could have permitted itself to initiate a war with Germany, as its military pact with Britain was only purely defensive. The assumption that Germany would not violate neutral Belgium, was a serious blunder in French planning.
In 1867, the Austrian Empire fundamentally changed its governmental structure, becoming the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. For hundreds of years, the empire had been run in an essentially feudal manner with a German-speaking aristocracy at its head. However, with the threat represented by an emergence of nationalism within the empire's many component ethnicities, some elements, including Emperor Franz Joseph, decided that a compromise was required to preserve the power of the German aristocracy. In 1867, the Ausgleich was agreed on, which made the Hungarian elite in Hungary almost equal partners in the government of Austria-Hungary.
This arrangement fostered a high degree of dissatisfaction amongst many in the traditional German-speaking ruling classes. Some of them considered the Ausgleich to have been a calamity because it often frustrated their intentions in the governance of Austria-Hungary. For example, it was extremely difficult for Austria-Hungary to form a coherent foreign policy that suited the interests of both the German and Hungarian elite.
As a result, there was widespread advocacy of a war with Serbia in leading circles both at Vienna and at Budapest.
Some reasoned that dealing with political deadlock required that more Slavs be brought into Austria-Hungary to dilute the power of the Hungarian elite. With more Slavs, the South Slavs of Austria-Hungary could force a new political compromise in which the Germans could play the Hungarians against the South Slavs. Other variations on this theme existed, but the essential idea was to cure internal stagnation through external conquest.
Another fear was that the South Slavs, primarily under the leadership of Serbia, were organizing for a war against Austria-Hungary, and even all of Germanic civilization. Some leaders, such as Conrad von Hötzendorf, argued that Serbia must be dealt with before it became too powerful to defeat militarily.
A powerful contingent within the Austro-Hungarian government was motivated by these thoughts and advocated war with Serbia long before the war began. Prominent members of this group included Leopold von Berchtold, Alexander von Hoyos, and Johann von Forgách. Although many other members of the government, notably Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph, and many Hungarian politicians did not believe that a violent struggle with Serbia would necessarily solve any of Austria-Hungary's problems, the hawkish elements did exert a strong influence on government policy, holding key positions.
Samuel R. Williamson has emphasized the role of Austria-Hungary in starting the war. Convinced Serbian nationalism and Russian Balkan ambitions were disintegrating the Empire, Austria-Hungary hoped for a limited war against Serbia and that strong German support would force Russia to keep out of the war and weaken its Balkan prestige.
Marxists typically attributed the start of the war to imperialism. "Imperialism," argued Lenin, "is the monopoly stage of capitalism." He thought the monopoly capitalists went to war to control markets and raw materials.
Britain especially with its vast worldwide British Empire was a main example, although it entered the war later than the other key players on the issue of Belgium. Britain also had an "informal empire" based on trade in neutral countries. It grew rich in part from its success in trade in foreign resources, markets, territories, and people, and Germany was jealous because its much smaller empire was much poorer. John Darwin argues the British Empire was distinguished by the adaptability of its builders. Darwin says, "The hallmark of British imperialism was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object." The British tried to avoid military action in favour of reliance on networks of local elites and businessmen who voluntarily collaborated and in turn gained authority (and military protection) from British recognition. France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all hoped to emulate the British model, and the United States became a latecomer in 1898. In all countries the quest for national prestige strengthened imperial motives. Their frustrated ambitions, and British policies of strategic exclusion created tensions. Commercial interests contributed substantially to rivalries during the Scramble for Africa after 1880. Africa became the scene of sharpest conflict between certain French, German and British imperial interests.
Rivalries for not just colonies, but colonial trade and trade routes developed between the emerging economic powers and the incumbent great powers. Although still argued differently according to historical perspectives on the path to war, this rivalry was illustrated in the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which would have given German industry access to Iraqi oil, and German trade a southern port in the Persian Gulf. A history of this railroad describes the German interests in countering the British Empire at a global level, and Turkey's interest in countering their Russian rivals at a regional level. As stated by a contemporary 'man on the ground' at the time, Jastrow wrote, "It was felt in England that if, as Napoleon is said to have remarked, Antwerp in the hands of a great continental power was a pistol leveled at the English coast, Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in the hands of Germany (or any other strong power) would be a 42-centimetre gun pointed at India."  On the other side, "Public opinion in Germany was feasting on visions of Cairo, Baghdad, and Tehran, and the possibility of evading the British blockade through outlets to the Indian Ocean." Britain's initial strategic exclusion of others from northern access to a Persian Gulf port in the creation of Kuwait by treaty as a protected, subsidized client state showed political recognition of the importance of the issue. In spring 1914 Britain and Germany resolved the issue of the Baghdad Railway and it was not an issue in the crisis that summer.
Germany's leader Otto von Bismarck disliked the idea of an overseas empire, but pursued a colonial policy in response to domestic political demands. Bismarck supported French colonization in Africa because it diverted government attention and resources away from continental Europe and revanchism. After 1890 Bismarck's successor, Leo von Caprivi, was the last German Chancellor who was successful in calming Anglo-German tensions. After Caprivi left office in 1894, Germany's bellicose "New Course" in foreign affairs controlled by Kaiser Wilhelm. Bombastic and impetuous, the Kaiser made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers, culminating in a disastrous Daily Telegraph interview that cost him most of his power inside the German government in 1908. Langer et al. (1968) emphasize the negative international consequences of Wilhelm's erratic personality:
The status of Morocco had been guaranteed by international agreement, and when France attempted to greatly expand its influence there without the assent of all the other signatories Germany opposed it prompting the Moroccan Crises, the Tangier Crisis of 1905 and the Agadir Crisis of 1911. The intent of German policy was to drive a wedge between the British and French, but in both cases produced the opposite effect and Germany was isolated diplomatically, most notably lacking the support of Italy despite Italian membership in the Triple Alliance. The French protectorate over Morocco was established officially in 1912.
In 1914, however, the African scene was peaceful. The continent was almost fully divided up by the imperial powers (with only Liberia and Ethiopia still independent). There were no major disputes there pitting any two European powers against each other.
A loose web of alliances around the European nations existed (many of them requiring participants to agree to collective defense if attacked):
This complex set of treaties binding various players in Europe together before the war sometimes is thought to have been misunderstood by contemporary political leaders. The traditionalist theory of "Entangling Alliances" has been shown to be mistaken. The Triple Entente between Russia, France and the United Kingdom did not in fact force any of those powers to mobilize because it was not a military treaty. Mobilization by a relatively minor player would not have had a cascading effect that could rapidly run out of control, involving every country. The crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia could have been a localized issue.
Note: French Prime Minister René Viviani merely replied to the German ultimatum that, "France will act in accordance with her interests." Had the French agreed to remain neutral, the German Ambassador was authorized to ask the French to temporarily surrender the Fortresses of Toul and Verdun as a guarantee of neutrality.
By the 1870s or 1880s all the major powers were preparing for a large-scale war, although none expected one. Britain focused on building up its Royal Navy, already stronger than the next two navies combined. Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Russia, and some smaller countries, set up conscription systems whereby young men would serve from 1 to three years in the army, then spend the next 20 years or so in the reserves with annual summer training. Men from higher social statuses became officers. Each country devised a mobilisation system whereby the reserves could be called up quickly and sent to key points by rail. Every year the plans were updated and expanded in terms of complexity. Each country stockpiled arms and supplies for an army that ran into the millions. Germany in 1874 had a regular professional army of 420,000 with an additional 1.3 million reserves. By 1897 the regular army was 545,000 strong and the reserves 3.4 million. The French in 1897 had 3.4 million reservists, Austria 2.6 million, and Russia 4.0 million. The various national war plans had been perfected by 1914, albeit with Russia and Austria trailing in effectiveness. All the war plans called for a decisive opening and assumed victory would come after a short war; no one planned for a long stalemate as actually happened in 1914–18.
As David Stevenson has put it, "A self-reinforcing cycle of heightened military preparedness ... was an essential element in the conjuncture that led to disaster ... The armaments race ... was a necessary precondition for the outbreak of hostilities." David Herrmann goes further, arguing that the fear that "windows of opportunity for victorious wars" were closing, "the arms race did precipitate the First World War." If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1904 or even in 1911, Herrmann speculates, there might have been no war. It was "... the armaments race ... and the speculation about imminent or preventive wars" that made his death in 1914 the trigger for war.
One of the aims of the First Hague Conference of 1899, held at the suggestion of Emperor Nicholas II, was to discuss disarmament. The Second Hague Conference was held in 1907. All the signatories except for Germany supported disarmament. Germany also did not want to agree to binding arbitration and mediation. The Kaiser was concerned that the United States would propose disarmament measures, which he opposed.
Historians have debated the role of the German naval build-up as the principal cause of deteriorating Anglo-German relations. In any case Germany never came close to catching up with Britain.
Supported by Wilhelm II's enthusiasm for an expanded German navy, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz championed four Fleet Acts from 1898 to 1912, and, from 1902 to 1910, the Royal Navy embarked on its own massive expansion to keep ahead of the Germans. This competition came to focus on the revolutionary new ships based on the Dreadnought, which was launched in 1906, and which gave Britain a battleship that far outclassed any other in Europe.
|The naval strength of the powers in 1914|
|Country||Personnel||Large Naval Vessels|
|(Source: Ferguson 1999, p. 85)|
The overwhelming British response proved to Germany that its efforts were unlikely to equal the Royal Navy. In 1900, the British had a 3.7:1 tonnage advantage over Germany; in 1910 the ratio was 2.3:1 and in 1914, 2.1:1. Ferguson argues that, "So decisive was the British victory in the naval arms race that it is hard to regard it as in any meaningful sense a cause of the First World War." This ignores the fact that the Kaiserliche Marine had narrowed the gap by nearly half, and that the Royal Navy had long intended to be stronger than any two potential opponents; the United States Navy was in a period of growth, making the German gains very ominous.
In Britain in 1913, there was intense internal debate about new ships due to the growing influence of John Fisher's ideas and increasing financial constraints. In early-mid-1914 Germany adopted a policy of building submarines instead of new dreadnoughts and destroyers, effectively abandoning the race, but kept this new policy secret to delay other powers following suit.
Though the Germans abandoned the naval race, as such, before the war broke out, it had been one of the chief factors in Britain's decision to join the Triple Entente and therefore important in the formation of the alliance system as a whole.
The main Russian goals included strengthening its role as the protector of Eastern Christians in the Balkans (such as the Serbians). Although Russia enjoyed a booming economy, growing population, and large armed forces, its strategic position was threatened by an expanding Turkish military trained by German experts using the latest technology. The start of the war renewed attention of old goals: expelling the Turks from Constantinople, extending Russian dominion into eastern Anatolia and Persian Azerbaijan, and annexing Galicia. These conquests would assure Russian predominance in the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean.
When the war began both sides believed, and publicly stated, that the war would end soon. The Kaiser told his troops that they would be "... home before the leaves have fallen from the trees", and one German officer said he expected to be in Paris by Sedantag, about six weeks away. Germany only stockpiled enough potassium nitrate for gunpowder for six months; without the just-developed Haber process, Germany might have collapsed by 1916. Russian officers similarly expected to be in Berlin in six weeks, and those who suggested that the war would last for six months were considered pessimists. Von Moltke and his French counterpart Joseph Joffre were among the few who expected a long war, but neither adjusted his nation's military plans accordingly. The new British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was the only leading official on either side to both expect a long war ("three years" or longer, he told an amazed colleague) and act accordingly, immediately building an army of millions of soldiers who would fight for years.
Some authors such as Niall Ferguson argue that the belief in a swift war has been greatly exaggerated since the war. He argues that the military planners, especially in Germany, were aware of the potential for a long war, as shown by the Willy–Nicky telegraphic correspondence between the emperors of Russia and Germany. He also argues that most informed people considered a swift war unlikely. However, it was in the belligerent governments' interests to convince their populaces, through skillful propaganda, that the war would be brief. Such a message encouraged men to join the offensive, made the war seem less serious, and promoted general high spirits.
Military theorists of the time generally held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. This theory encouraged all belligerents to strike first to gain the advantage. This attitude shortened the window for diplomacy. Most planners wanted to begin mobilization as quickly as possible to avoid being caught on the defensive.
Some historians assert that mobilization schedules were so rigid that once it was begun, they could not be cancelled without massive disruption of the country and military disorganization and so diplomatic overtures conducted after the mobilizations had begun were ignored. However in practice these timetables were not always decisive. The Tsar ordered general mobilization canceled on July 29 despite his chief of staff's objections that this was impossible. A similar cancellation was made in Germany by the Kaiser on August 1 over the same objections, although in theory Germany should have been the country most firmly bound by its mobilization schedule. Barbara Tuchman offers another explanation in the Guns of August—that the nations involved were concerned about falling behind their adversaries in mobilization. According to Tuchman, war pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour's head start. Appalled on the brink, the chiefs of state ultimately responsible for their country's fate attempted to back away, but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.
Germany, in contrast to Austria-Hungaria, had by 1905 no real territorial goals within Europe. But due to possible threats against the German Empire, it still was called for military strategical planning. Germany's strategic vulnerability, sandwiched between its allied rivals, France and Russia, led to the development of the audacious Schlieffen Plan.
In the case of a joint French-Russian attack on Germany, the chief of the German General Staff, Count & general Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905 got the task of making a German plan for a such future development. The Schlieffen Plan however, only dealt with the possibility of a war with France, ignoring the idea of a conflict with Russia.
Schlieffen anticipated that Russia would not become the initial problem since Russia would need a longer time for its mobilization (Schlieffen anticipated at least 6 weeks or longer). Hence the defensive but preemptive plan aimed to knock France instantly out of contention, just like Prussia had done during the Franco-Prussian War 1870–71. (In 1870 France declared war on Prussia at the 31st.July and French Emperor Napoleon III surrendered at 4th.September 1870)
The Plan assumed a rapid victory over France, knocking her out of the war and allowing Germany to turn her attention to the Russian threat. Although Schlieffen initially conceived the plan before his retirement in 1906, Japan's defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 exposed Russia's organizational weakness and added greatly to the plan's credibility.
The plan called for a rapid German mobilization, sweeping through the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium, into France. Schlieffen called for overwhelming numbers on the far right flank, the northernmost spearhead of the force with only minimum troops making up the arm and axis of the formation as well as a minimum force stationed on the Russian eastern front.
Schlieffen was replaced by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, and in 1907–08 Moltke adjusted the plan, reducing the proportional distribution of the forces, lessening the crucial right wing in favor of a slightly more defensive strategy. Also, judging Holland unlikely to grant permission to cross its borders, the plan was revised to make a direct move through Belgium and an artillery assault on the Belgian fortress of Liège. With the rail lines and the unprecedented firepower the German army brought, Moltke did not expect any significant defense of the fortress.
The significance of the Schlieffen Plan is that it forced German military planners to prepare for a pre-emptive strike when war was deemed unavoidable. Otherwise Russia would have time to mobilize and crush Germany with its massive army. On August 1, Kaiser Wilhelm II briefly became convinced that it might be possible to ensure French and British neutrality and cancelled the plan despite the objections of the Chief of Staff that this could not be done and resuming it only when the French refused to remain neutral.
It appears that no war planners in any country had prepared effectively for the Schlieffen Plan. The French were not concerned about such a move. They were confident their offensive (Plan XVII) would break the German center and cut off the German right wing moving through Belgium. They also expected that an early Russian offensive in East Prussia would tie down German forces.
In explaining why neutral Britain went to war with Germany, Paul Kennedy, in The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914, claimed that it was critical for war that Germany become economically more powerful than Britain, but he downplayed the disputes over economic trade imperialism, the Baghdad Railway, confrontations in Eastern Europe, high-charged political rhetoric and domestic pressure-groups. Germany's reliance time and again on sheer power, while Britain increasingly appealed to moral sensibilities, played a role, especially in seeing the invasion of Belgium as a necessary military tactic or a profound moral crime. The German invasion of Belgium was not important because the British decision had already been made and the British were more concerned with the fate of France. Kennedy argues that by far the main reason was London's fear that a repeat of 1870—when Prussia and the German states smashed France—would mean Germany, with a powerful army and navy, would control the English Channel, and northwest France. British policy makers insisted that would be a catastrophe for British security.
Some of the distant origins of World War I can be seen in the results and consequences of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71, over four decades before. The Germans won decisively and set up a powerful Empire, while France went into chaos and military decline for years. A legacy of animosity grew between France and Germany following the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The annexation caused widespread resentment in France, giving rise to the desire for revenge, known as revanchism. French sentiments wanted to avenge military and territorial losses and the displacement of France as the pre-eminent continental military power. French defeat in the war had sparked political instability, culminating in a revolution and the formation of the French Third Republic.
Bismarck was wary of French desire for revenge; he achieved peace by isolating France and balancing the ambitions of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. During his later years he tried to placate the French by encouraging their overseas expansion. However, anti-German sentiment remained. A Franco-German colonial entente that was made in 1884 in protest of an Anglo-Portuguese agreement in West Africa proved short-lived after a pro-imperialist government under Jules Ferry in France fell in 1885.
France eventually recovered from its defeat, paid its war indemnity, and rebuilt its military strength again. But it was smaller than Germany in terms of population, and thus felt insecure next to its more powerful neighbor.
One night between 10/11 June 1903, a group of Serbian officers assassinated unpopular King Alexander I of Serbia. The Serbian parliament elected Peter Karađorđević as the new king of Serbia. The consequence of this dynastic change had Serbia relying on Russia and France rather than on Austria-Hungary, as had been the case during rule of the Obrenović dynasty. Serbian desire to relieve itself of Austrian influence provoked the Pig War, an economic conflict, from which Serbia eventually came out as the victor.
Austria-Hungary, desirous of solidifying its position in Bosnia-Herzegovina, annexed the provinces on 6 October 1908. The annexation set off a wave of protests and diplomatic manoeuvres that became known as the Bosnian crisis, or annexation crisis. The crisis continued until April 1909, when the annexation received grudging international approval through amendment of the Treaty of Berlin. During the crisis, relations between Austria-Hungary, on the one hand, and Russia and Serbia, on the other, were permanently damaged.
After an exchange of letters outlining a possible deal, Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky and Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Alois Aehrenthal met privately at Buchlau Castle in Moravia on 16 September 1908. At Buchlau the two agreed that Austria-Hungary could annex the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Austria-Hungary occupied and administered since 1878 under a mandate from the Treaty of Berlin. In return, Austria-Hungary would withdraw its troops from the Ottoman Sanjak of Novibazar and support Russia in its efforts to amend the Treaty of Berlin to allow Russian war ships to navigate the Straits of Constantinople during times of war. The two jointly agreed not to oppose Bulgarian independence.
While Izvolsky moved slowly from capital to capital vacationing and seeking international support for opening the Straits, Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary moved swiftly. On 5 October, Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The next day, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. On 7 October, Austria-Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. Russia, unable to obtain Britain's assent to Russia's Straits proposal, joined Serbia in assuming an attitude of protest. Britain lodged a milder protest, taking the position that annexation was a matter concerning Europe, not a bilateral issue, and so a conference should be held. France fell in line behind Britain. Italy proposed that the conference be held in Italy. German opposition to the conference and complex diplomatic maneuvering scuttled the conference. On 20 February 1909, the Ottoman Empire acquiesced to the annexation and received ₤2.2 million from Austria-Hungary.
Austria-Hungary began releasing secret documents in which Russia, since 1878, had repeatedly stated that Austria-Hungary had a free hand in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novibazar. At the same time, Germany stated it would only continue its active involvement in negotiations if Russia accepted the annexation. Under these pressures, Russia agreed to the annexation, and persuaded Serbia to do the same. The Treaty of Berlin then was amended by correspondence between capitals from 7 April to 19 April 1909, to reflect the annexation.
The Balkan Wars in 1912–1913 increased international tension between the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. It also led to a strengthening of Serbia and a weakening of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, who might otherwise have kept Serbia in check, thus disrupting the balance of power in Europe in favor of Russia.
Russia initially agreed to avoid territorial changes, but later in 1912 supported Serbia's demand for an Albanian port. An international conference was held in London in 1912–1913 where it was agreed to create an independent Albania, however both Serbia and Montenegro refused to comply. After an Austrian, and then an international naval demonstration in early 1912 and Russia's withdrawal of support Serbia backed down. Montenegro was not as compliant and on May 2, the Austrian council of ministers met and decided to give Montenegro a last chance to comply and, if it would not, then to resort to military action. However, seeing the Austrian military preparations, the Montenegrins requested the ultimatum be delayed and complied.
The Serbian government, having failed to get Albania, now demanded that the other spoils of the First Balkan War be reapportioned and Russia failed to pressure Serbia to back down. Serbia and Greece allied against Bulgaria, which responded with a preemptive strike against their forces beginning the Second Balkan War. The Bulgarian army crumbled quickly when Turkey and Romania joined the war.
The Balkan Wars strained the German/Austro-Hungarian alliance. The attitude of the German government to Austrian requests of support against Serbia was initially both divided and inconsistent. After the German Imperial War Council of 8 December 1912, it was clear that Germany was not ready to support Austria-Hungary in a war against Serbia and her likely allies.
In addition, German diplomacy before, during, and after the Second Balkan War was pro-Greek and pro-Romanian and in opposition to Austria-Hungary's increasingly pro-Bulgarian views. The result was tremendous damage to Austro-German relations. Austrian foreign minister Leopold von Berchtold remarked to German ambassador Heinrich von Tschirschky in July 1913 that "Austria-Hungary might as well belong 'to the other grouping' for all the good Berlin had been".
In September 1913, it was learned that Serbia was moving into Albania and Russia was doing nothing to restrain it, while the Serbian government would not guarantee to respect Albania's territorial integrity and suggested there would be some frontier modifications. In October 1913, the council of ministers decided to send Serbia a warning followed by an ultimatum: that Germany and Italy be notified of some action and asked for support, and that spies be sent to report if there was an actual withdrawal. Serbia responded to the warning with defiance and the Ultimatum was dispatched on October 17 and received the following day. It demanded that Serbia evacuate Albanian territory within eight days. Serbia complied, and the Kaiser made a congratulatory visit to Vienna to try to fix some of the damage done earlier in the year.
The conflicts demonstrated that a localized war in the Balkans could alter the balance of power without provoking general war and reinforced the attitude in the Austrian government. This attitude had been developing since the Bosnian annexation crisis that ultimatums were the only effective means of influencing Serbia and that Russia would not back its refusal with force. They also dealt catastrophic damage to the Habsburg economy.
During the period immediately following the end of hostilities, Anglo-American historians argued that Germany was solely responsible for the start of the war. However, academic work in the English-speaking world in the later 1920s and 1930s blamed participants more equally.
Since the 1960s, the tendency has been to reassert the guilt of Germany, although some historians continue to argue for collective responsibility.
Discussion over which country "started" the war, and who bears the blame continues to this day. 
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