The Next Page: No smoking gun on causes of WWI

With the approaching anniversary of Franz Ferdinand's death, Bob Hoover analyzes the latest research on the causes of WWI


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One hundred years of research, debate, analysis and introspection have yielded a mountain of words about the cause or causes of World War I, but very little about the origins of that cataclysm are clear to most of us today.

In front of me are nine books published recently that seek to put the causes into sharper focus as we near the centennial of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the incident that ignited Europe in the summer of 1914. This essay attempts to distill these recent studies into an overview of the circumstances that led to war.

In "Catastrophe 1914," British historian Max Hastings claims that much of the original documentation from the years leading up to war was either destroyed or altered by "all of the leading actors" to put a gloss on the facts. He singles out Germany for extensive revision of material to eliminate "embarrassing evidence."

That book and other recent works, based on contemporary research and written years after emotions have cooled, present a more objective account of the war's origins but do not simplify the forces behind then.

A majority of the books stress that, through a series of shifting alliances, international conferences and compromises, the European powers had managed to avoid conflict for more than 20 years. Pacifist movements were active in France and Germany, while public opinion in several countries ran counter to war as prosperity -- 1900s-style -- advanced.

In 1899, Russia's Czar Nicholas II convened an international conference at the Hague attended by representatives of dozens of nations, including the United States. It endorsed an international court to arbitrate disputes and called for arms limitations and the banning of attacks from aircraft. Because participation was voluntary, little came from the gathering.

War seemed a thing of the past, just a waste of the money and resources then growing across the continent. World leaders -- from the nobility in Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia to democratic leaders in Great Britain and France -- encouraged the keeping of peace.

So what happened to change those circumstances in the summer of 1914?

Christopher Clark, author of "The Sleepwalkers," said this about the search for a straightforward explanation: "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol."

But the recent literature suggests that pacifist movements failed to take sufficient root in a continent that was growing armed to the teeth with modern weapons, where military pressures in Germany and Russia trumped domestic policy and where nationalism bordering on paranoia fueled belligerence. The incompetence of three leaders -- Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary -- made matters worse.

Germany feared that it was surrounded by hostile countries. France feared another invasion and loss of territory following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Austria-Hungary, in which Austrians and Hungarians were outnumbered by Slavs, feared rebellion. Russia, chastened by the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, feared loss of access to Mediterranean trade routes if Austria-Hungary or Turkey increased its reach. Great Britain, with the smallest land army but a powerful navy, feared it would be dominated by Germany if Wilhelm's forces rolled over France.

The dominoes started tipping on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, a city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which then was part of Austria-Hungary.

Franz Ferdinand was set to succeed his 84-year-old uncle, Franz Joseph, who had ruled Austria-Hungary since 1848 and was near death just months before his nephew's ill-fated visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Franz Ferdinand had kept a locomotive under steam at his castle ready to dash to Vienna to take over the throne, but his uncle improved quickly -- not because of treatment but "by his keen desire to spite his nephew and delay his accession ... as long as possible," Jack Beatty wrote in "The Lost History of 1914."

The two obviously were not close. The emperor was a reactionary militarist while Franz Ferdinand, although a largely despised autocrat, wanted to impose an American-based federal system on the empire's unwieldy collection of ethnically diverse countries, including hard-to-handle Hungary.

His proposal angered Serbians living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which bordered independent Serbia, because they believed that a federal system would thwart their desired unification with Serbia. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the population of which was more than 40 percent Serbian -- from Turkey in 1908.

Perhaps by now you're getting a sense of the complexity of connections in 1914 Europe. Just spelling "Herzegovina" is a workout, especially when using it in the same sentence with Austria-Hungary.

There's a sadder side to the relationship between uncle and nephew -- love. Franz Ferdinand married Sophie Chotek, a lady-in-waiting at the emperor's court even though she was of "minor" nobility. Franz Joseph, who wanted real Hapsburg heirs, declared their union a morganatic one after he coerced Ferdinand to sign an "oath of renunciation" on June 28, 1900. Their children could not inherit the throne.

Sophie was shunned by the court and barred from full participation in official ceremonies, so when Austria-Hungary staged military exercises in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ferdinand decided to include her in the related social events.

Ferdinand became next-in-line when the emperor's only son, Rudolf, and his teenage mistress committed suicide at a hunting lodge called Mayerling. The tragedy inspired two films, a television show and a ballet. Franz Joseph's brother, Maximilian, was executed by Mexican insurgents after they deposed him as emperor of Mexico, and his wife, Elisabeth, was stabbed to death by an anarchist in 1898. She died slowly because her tight corset restricted the flow of blood, Margaret MacMillan reported in "The War That Ended Peace."

Like so many decisions that followed, the one that sent Ferdinand and Sophie to the ethnic tinderbox of Sarajevo on June 28 was wrongheaded, an act of stupidity, poor judgment or pure ignorance.

A terrorist group called the Black Hand and funded by Serbia targeted Ferdinand and succeeded -- accidently -- in killing him and Sophie. One terrorist threw a hand grenade at the archduke's motorcade, but it bounced off the limousine and exploded under another car, injuring several. The bomb-thrower then attempted to drown himself in the Miljacka River, which was barely 2 feet deep. He was captured.

Despite the attempt, Ferdinand insisted on continuing his visit. One of the terrorists, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, was loitering along the street when the archduke's limo stopped in front of him. He fired twice, killing the royal couple. Arrested, he was sentenced to prison rather than death because he was only 19. He died in prison four years later.

The Black Hand -- fanatical, puritanical and idealistic -- was similar in some respects to al-Qaida. These ethnic Serbs hated Austria-Hungary much as their Islamic counterparts hate the United States. Their weapons and encouragement came from the Serbian military intelligence agency, so that was why, in the wake of the archduke's assassination, Austria-Hungary demanded retribution from Serbia.

Its neighbor and ally, Germany, was all too happy to give Austria-Hungary the "blank check" -- more than one historian has used the term -- to declare war on Serbia. Germany also was a monarchy, led by the military-minded Wilhelm II, who had the final say on all of his country's decisions. Like Franz Joseph, he loved uniforms, parades, horses and autocratic behavior.

A deformed left arm had left Wilhelm emotionally scarred and afraid of confrontations. However, his nation, only formed in 1870, was Europe's economic and cultural powerhouse with a modern army and a growing navy, both of which had significant influence on Wilhelm and his ministers.

Germany's pledge to support Austria-Hungary emboldened the latter to press ahead with an invasion of Serbia, once Serbia rejected Austria's demand to conduct part of its investigation into Ferdinand's death on Serbian soil -- a demand designed to lead to war. At this point early in July, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Serbia stumbled toward a conflict, which, as often has been the case, might have been settled by cooler heads and international intervention. Neither emerged.

Hundreds of miles away in St. Petersburg, Czar Nicholas II isolated himself from his vast, troubled country in a walled estate where he devoted his days to the minutiae of government while missing the big picture. The czar still believed in the divine right of kings, that God had chosen him to rule and that his Christian religion governed all of his decisions.

And, like his counterparts in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the czar had the final say in military decisions.

After the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War, Nicholas II sought peaceful solutions for Russia, which, despite its slowness to modernize, had raised the standard of living to European levels and was the largest source of grain and other foods for the continent. However, its best sea route to ship that grain went through the Dardanelles Strait near the troubled Balkans.

Despite the czar's peaceful intentions, Russia viewed war as a threat to its own commerce. Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, spurred Russia to initiate a complex troop mobilization plan -- after czarist dithering. The large-scale mobilization at the borders of Austria-Hungary and Germany -- a mistake at that point, given the conflict was still confined to the Balkans -- spurred Germany and France to call up troops.

Great Britain, on the other hand, professed neutrality during July and urged all sides to delay action until peace talks could be organized to defuse the tension. Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey slowly moved to France's side while his diplomatic efforts were rejected by the other parties. Historians believe that had London made it clear early on that it would defend France, Germany might have hesitated long enough to see the start of peace talks.

Even the czar got into the act, cabling his second cousin, the Kaiser, July 29, urging de-escalation of the drive to war. Wilhelm refused to act. They were to exchange 10 more telegrams before the two countries went to war.

Efforts continued to stop the headlong rush to war, but came to naught. On Aug. 4, Germany invaded Belgium on the way to France, forcing Great Britain into the conflict under treaty obligations. The guns would not be silenced for more than four years.

Recent books on the origins of World War I

• "The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began" by Jack Beatty. Walker and Co. (2012)

• "The Month That Changed the World: July 1914" by Gordon Martel. Oxford University Press (2014)

• "July 1914: Countdown to War" by Sean McMeekin. Basic Books (2013)

• "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" by Max Hastings. Knopf (2013)

• "The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914" by Margaret MacMillan. Random House (2013)

• "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" by Christopher Clark. HarperCollins (2013)

• "The Great War and Modern Memory" (Illustrated edition) by Paul Fussell. Sterling (2009)

• "The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade" by Philip Jenkins. HarperOne (2014)

• "Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew" by Max Egremont. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2014)

Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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