So today I had planned to write about the origins of the war that ended peace – ‘'the "seminal catastrophe" of modern times and the calamity from which all other calamities sprang” -- the war that killed 16 millions and destroyed the health, wealth and material well-being of millions more – that ended empires four empires, bankrupted another, and sowed the seeds for a century of totalitarianism – that destroyed for all time “the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history.”*
But I’ve decided that I won’t. I might do that next week. If you ask nicely.
It’s easy enough after the fact to see who pulled the trigger. Answer: nearly everyone. The difficult question with them all is why … ?
- Serbian Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger that killed an Austrian Crown Prince.
- The German Kaiser pulled the trigger backing Austria-Hungary with a “blank cheque” in how to respond, turning a Balkan conflict into a German-Austrian one.
- Russian Ambassador to Belgrade M.Hartwig pulls the trigger of support for Serbia, turning it into a Russo-Austrian-German conflict, telling them “After the question of Turkey, it is now the turn of Austria. Serbia will be our best instrument. The day draws near when … Serbia will take back her Bosnia and her Herzegovina.”
- Austrian Commander in Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf pulled the trigger that, one month later saw his Emperor declare war on Serbia.
- The Kaiser pulled a safety catch, suggesting Austria-Hungary “halt in Belgrade” then negotiate.
- It was too late, Conrad having already pulled the trigger beginning Belgrade’s bombardment. (It would take four months more to occupy it, before being thrown out.)
- The Chairman of the Liberal Party Foreign Affairs Group insists Liberal Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey must tell Russia and France that "Great Britain in no conceivable circumstances will depart from a position of strict neutrality." Grey tells French and German ambassadors in the morning, respectively, “Don't count upon our coming in" and "don't count on our abstention." By afternoon, he has reversed the messages.
- Winston Churchill pulls the trigger without cabinet approval, sending the Royal Navy on “the exposed eastern channel” to war stations in the Channel and Scapa Flow (meaning the Royal Navy prepared to defend the French coast, on the basis of the undeclared 1905 and 1912 “understanding”s that in time of war the French Navy in return defend the Med).
- The Liberal Foreign Affairs Group, claiming nine-tenths of Liberal party support, tells Liberal Prime Minister Asquith they will withdraw their support from the government if Britain goes to war. (Asquith himself estimated around three-quarters of his cabinet and parliamentary Liberal party were “for absolute non-interference at any price,” and in his cabinet only Churchill and Grey wholeheartedly for it.)
- Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov pulled the trigger mobilising Russian troops, and pressuring their ally France to mobilise – turning it into a pan-European conflict.
- British cabinet pulls the trigger, ordering all British naval, military, and colonial stations into a prearranged “state of readiness” – turning a continental conflict into a potential global conflict
- New Zealand, Canadian, and Australian Prime Ministers make public promises of expeditionary forces to help the ‘mother country.’ (NZ was the first to make the offer. Australian PM Fisher pledges support “to the last man and the last shilling.”)
- The French cabinet pull the trigger ordering French troops to take up position ten kilometres from the French-German border.
- German Commander-in-Chief Helmuth von Moltke pulls the trigger with a telegram proclaiming “imminent danger of war, which will probably be followed within forty-eight hours by mobilisation. This inevitably means war. We expect from Austria immediate active participation in the war against Russia."
- The Austro-Hungarian Emperor pulls the trigger mobilising Austro-Hungarian troops against Russia.
- The Kaiser pulls a safety catch, asking France and Britain where they would stand in a Russo-German war?
- Conrad pulls the trigger declaring war against Russia.
- Sir Edward Grey asks France and Germany if they will respect Belgian neutrality. German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow says he can’t say; British Ambassador in France says French government will.
Are you keeping up?
- Belgium rejects the offer of a bigger British trigger, declares its neutrality and begins to mobilise.
- French General Joffre pulls the trigger mobilising French troops.
- The Kaiser pulls the trigger mobilising German troops, who begin invading Luxembourg, and declares war on Russia.
- Churchill pulls the trigger mobilising the Royal Navy, after cabinet rejection of mobilisation.
- Grey rejects the Belgian ambassador’s request for a British “guarantee” that “if Germany violates the neutrality of Belgium, we [Britain] would certainly assist Belgium.”
- British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey pulls a trigger suggesting British neutrality if German does not attack France.
- In response, the Kaiser pulls a safety catch withdrawing troops from Luxembourg.
- Grey reneges.
- The British cabinet pulls a trigger, announcing that even if Germany invades Belgium to attack France then the British Expeditionary Force will not be sent to the continent.
- The Kaiser pulls the trigger again, sending Moltke into France and Belgium.
- Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Prime Minister pull triggers mobilising “expeditionary forces.”
- Several British Liberal cabinet members pull the trigger, threatening resignation if Britain goes to war; Churchill pulls the trigger eliciting support from Conservative opposition who might join the cabinet to replace them.
- The Kaiser pulls a safety catch, notifying London Germany was willing if Britain would pledge itself to neutrality, to agree that its fleet would not attack the Northern coast of France.
- All this time, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey was massaging his own trigger, leaving no-one until the last minute (including his own cabinet and Prime Minister) any idea how he might use it. In the end, it was his speech to the House of Commons that pulled the final trigger, turning the continental conflict into a global war…
- The only cogent voice in opposition was that of minority Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald…
So we can see who? Barely. None of whom achieved their aims; each of whom, by their decision, ensuring only the destruction of everything they claimed to support.
The question remains why were all those important triggers pulled?
Why did a small Balkan disagreement in a place few had heard of set off a global conflagration that would end with the destruction of the known world, and an eruption of further wars.
Why were triggers pulled by leaders, many of whom knew that by doing so they would unleash their own destruction?
This, today, is not an unimportant question. Before the wars set off by this one, said Austrian author Stefan Zweig, “I saw individual freedom at its zenith, after them I saw liberty at its lowest point in hundreds of years.”
But I won’t be answering the question this week.
Instead, since this is so important, in the centenary year of NZ’s involvement, and since theories about why (and even how) the war started are legion, I’ll point you to three interesting contemporary articles making claims that are worth considering, but with which I don’t wholly agree …
- The truth behind Britain’s rush to war, 1914, by Douglas Newton
- The 100-year conflict that is the First World War, by Brian Stewart
- No Man's Land: A historian argues against the accepted wisdom about the causes and results of World War I, a review of Niall Ferguson’s Pity of War
… and remind you of the other posts in this series already causing angst among the easily challenged:
- Countdown to Anzac Day
- Q: But what were the ANZACs fighting *for*?
- Q: So why were Britain and NZ at war with Turkey at all?
- Q: So why was WWI so calamitous?
- Q: Who started the whole bloody mess? [Coming soon]
- The Horsemen of non-apocalypse
- War and Peace
PS: Few dramatised documentaries of events as momentous as this are worth watching. But, if you can get hold of it, the 2014 BBC2 dramatisation of the “July Crisis” called 37 Days is definitely worth the candle. Here’s the trailer:
* Ayn Rand’s fuller description of the world that was destroyed for ever, from her introduction to The Romantic Manifesto:
As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War One world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history … If one has glimpsed that kind of art—& wider: the possibility of that kind of culture-one is unable to be satisfied with anything less. I must emphasise that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's 'sense of life.' Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities &, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends & political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, & of man to life. … It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the Western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period…It is [certainly] impossible for the young people of today to grasp the reality of man's higher potential & what scale of achievement it had reached in a rational (or semi-rational) culture. But I have seen it. I know that it was real, that it existed, that it is possible. It is that knowledge that I want to hold up to the sight of men—over the brief span of less than a century—before the barbarian curtain descends altogether (if it does) & the last memory of man's greatness vanishes in another Dark Ages.