To what extent is it fair to say Europe “Stumbled” into a war in 1914?

The so-called ‘great war’ of 1914-1918, also referred to as the First World War, came about through a complicated and amalgamated mass of different causes.

There are those who now contend that the war was indeed inevitable, and yet others who maintain that it came about through a mere stroke of luck, or rather, misfortune. What the question put forward now is, whether or not the European powers, in 1914, actually “stumbled” into war. This would mean that the war was indeed an ‘accident’, brought about by ineffectual diplomacy and inept political governance.Undoubtedly the war’s causes were deep-rooted, going back to the times of Otto Von Bismarck and the unification of Germany itself. One often-cited ’cause’ of the War is the alliance system initiated by Bismarck: many assert that this divided the European Powers into two armed camps (that of France, Russia, and perhaps Britain, against that of Germany, Austria, and perhaps Italy), something that actually made war inevitable. However, Bismarck’s initial goal was not to ensure future German world-domination, in fact he was content with merely being a continental power: his treaties were meant to isolate Germany’s most dangerous potential enemy, France, and actually prevent any further wars from taking place.

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Also, the treaties formulated were such that, had countries wished so, they could very well wriggle out of their terms and not join in an eventual war, as was very well demonstrated by Italy in 19141.However, one could just as easily argue that the powers, especially Germany, were preparing for war long before it came about. First of all was the multitude of extremely detailed military plans against possible enemies, of which the notorious Schlieffen plan is a perfect example. Next were the many assurances, using martial language, of Germany to Austria, with the Kaiser, for example, saying to Franz-Joseph “You can be certain I stand behind you and am ready to draw the sword whenever your action makes it necessary..

.whatever comes from Vienna is to me a command”2. Such language was sure to reflect in the policies of both states, pushing them further to contemplating war. In this aspect a European-wide war was carefully contemplated and put in place, especially by the Central powers and above all by Germany.Yet another argument in favor of a planned, premeditated, and deliberate war is the fact that Germany knew every year after1914, France’s on-alert force would increase dramatically, due to conscription being increased from two- to three- years. In addition, Russia’s military was undergoing a massive overhaul, partially aided by French money, which would mean, among other things, that Russia would be able to mobilize in 18 days, effectively rendering the Schlieffen plan useless and meaning Germany’s destruction at the hands of the Entente powers. To them, the time for war was ‘the sooner the better’ as put by the Kaiser and Von Moltke in 19123.

And also with Bethmann Hollweg, the chancellor at the time, saying to the Austrian ambassador: “if war must break out, better now than in one or two year’s time, when the Entente will be stronger”4In spite of all this, and more, evidence, however, there are still very strong cases to be made in favor of the anti-thesis: that the war was not planned, and that it in fact came about as a coincidental mismatch of events and policies.The arms and naval race is quoted as an example of how war was in fact decided long before 1914. However, saying if there was no arms race there would not have been a war is mere speculation. On the other hand, it is completely true to say that the ‘naval race’, that is to say the build-up of naval forces by Germany and Britain, contributed to the tensions between the two countries.

Britain, intent on keeping a gigantic lead over its next ‘competitor’ in terms of sea-power, felt threatened by the Kaiser’s Weltpolitik, or World Policy, which necessitated a large naval presence for Germany. It was perhaps this that really pushed Britain and made her firmly entrenched in the Entente camp of powers, but it hardly made a war necessary.Almost the same thing could be said about the arms race, in which the different powers were competing to amass the largest and most effective offensive arsenal. Having such an arsenal would not necessitate war, however: as demonstrated by the Cold War, an arms race does not unavoidably lead to conflict. It can in fact be used as a deterrent. Nevertheless, one must take into account that first of all, the only way a country could learn about another’s military capability was through mainly spying. And if there was a lack of information, countries might get over-confident, and perhaps feel more ready to spark a conflict.

This scenario actually came to pass in the First World War, with each country so confident in its own prowess that many thought the war was going to be over ‘by Christmas’. As it happened, each side was pretty much evenly matched with the other and the war was a long, drawn-out affair. An affair that no-one would have expected, and if they had, an affair that no-one would have let happen.Certainly, the French leadership did not expect war to break out: when the most important events were happening, they were at sea, going back to France from a trip in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Poincare (the French Premier) and his ministers, ‘clearly believing’ (Origins5) that the Sarajevo assassination would be forgotten, set sail for Russia the 16th of July, in a trip meant to last until the end of the month. It is not believable that the French, while knowing or anticipating, such a war, would set off on such a trip. France’s actions to the war ‘could only be reactive, and its policy was mainly defensive, passive, and restraining’ (Origins).

Also, even in the last days leading up to complete war, France still was not sure what it was going to do. Even at the moment of mobilization Poincare issued a statement saying ‘Mobilization is not war’, this proves that politicians were still holding out for a peaceful settlement.One irrefutable argument in favor of the argument stating that the war was accidental is that the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand itself was completely accidental. This had most definitely not been anticipated by the great powers, and its implications were not known most probably until the publication of the Austrian ultimatum. Germany herself was also perhaps not aware of the implications of her allies’ troubles. In fact, as late as March 1914, the Kaiser had said Austria would be ‘crazy’ to start a war with Serbia.

Also, after giving his so-called ‘Blank-Cheque’ to Austria, the Kaiser left for his usual holiday cruise, with various other members of his government taking leave as well. It is hard to imagine that they knew the implications of their ‘blank cheque’, and yet decided to carry on ‘business as usual’.The power that could most likely be claimed to have the most knowledge of the consequences of the assassination would be Austria-Hungary. But this power also was very uncoordinated when it came to formulating a response to the event.

It took two weeks for Vienna to respond, and by that time, most people had thought the crisis would blow over. The place of the Habsburg Empire would be one of perhaps not knowing where it was going, but nevertheless being determined to see it through to the end.Perhaps the most vivid image of ‘stumbling’ would come of Russia’s actions at the time: the Tsar at first ordered partial mobilization, changing it afterwards to an order of full mobilization, against both Austria and Germany, after being convinced that partial mobilization would be impossible. Yet right afterwards, he tried to re-instate his order of partial mobilization again after hearing Germany was trying to restrain its ally.

Indeed she was, but Russia’s actions forced her to make a response, she sent an ultimatum to Russia demanding the retraction of Russian troops from the German border, an order which proved impossible, and so Germany was forced to declare war on Russia, bringing in France and later Britain as well.In view of all this evidence and opinion, it must be said that beyond a shadow of a doubt most major powers did not anticipate war before the July crisis in 1914 following the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand. However, it is possible to discern a train of thought in the minds of German diplomats especially that war would be beneficial, perhaps hinting that they were taking steps to ensure its coming-about. At first, no-one in Europe expected that such a local conflict would escalate into a Europe- and then a world- wide war. However, after the initial ‘stumbling’, so to speak, Germany especially pushed for war, rejecting peace attempts and guaranteeing the outbreak of war.Europe as a whole did ‘stumble’ into war, at least in its primary stages.

But nevertheless there were people who prepared for it, and took advantage of its possibility when it came about.