Who Started World War I?

August 4, as even non-history buffs now know, will mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.  Inevitably, a slew of books have appeared on the war’s origins.  Two of the most widely reviewed, going head-to-head in their interpretations, are Catastrophe, 1914 by Max Hastings and The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark.  But there’ve been other excellent entries:  Thomas Otte’s July Crisis, Gordon Martel’s The Month that Change the World, and Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe

Those who are curious, however, can decide for themselves who’s to blame. 

While a great many chapters in these and other accounts of the war’s origins explain the “long-term” causes, which can be traced back to the 1890s, 1871 (the founding of the German Empire), and much earlier, it was, in the end, the July Crisis that resulted in war.  The storm clouds had gathered in 1905-6, 1908-9, 1911, and 1912-13, but were dispersed by diplomacy.  It was decisions made in Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London between July 24 and July 31 that made a world war inevitable. 

After the war broke out, most of the combatants published editions of their diplomatic papers from July.  These were naturally very selective and highly edited, and the documents were sometimes altered.  But after the war, reputable scholars compiled multi-volume editions of the papers that were accurate and far more complete, and that included 19th century documents.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire (henceforth “Austria”) published 8 volumes.  The British series runs to 12 volumes, the Russian 13, the French 25, and the German 40.  The Serbs chipped in 3 volumes.

The best selection in English of the key documents from all the collections is July 1914, edited by Imanuel Geiss.  The British diplomatic correspondence for that month was published as vol. 11 of British Documents on the Origins of the War.  But the most revealing collection of telegrams is Outbreak of War:  German Documents Collected by Karl Kautsky, published in 1924.

Of course the issues are enormously complex, but from the documents in these three books, it’s possible to reach a provisional conclusion about the causes of the tragedy.


Diplomatic decisions, in the days of the reviled “Old Diplomacy,” were made largely by Foreign Ministers, except in Germany where, in 1914, policy was determined by the Chancellor.  There was surprisingly little consultation with other Ministers, or even with the sovereign.  The Kaiser was kept out of the loop in July; he was considered too unpredictable.  The Foreign Minister would normally communicate his government’s position on an issue to his ambassador, who in turn would present it to the Foreign Minister of the government to which he was accredited.  The ambassador would then telegraph back the response.

What the diplomatic documents reveal is clear:  proposals for conferences or mediation of any kind always come from Russia and Britain.  They are all rejected by Germany and Austria, sometimes disingenuously.

The Kautsky papers disclose the confidence game played by Berlin. 

The Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, pretended repeatedly to pass along suggestions for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but made it clear to the Austrians that they were not to take these seriously.  When he did get irritated at Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Empire’s Foreign Minister, it was over the public relations problems Berchtold’s intransigence was creating.  The Foreign Minister was not asked to accept the offers for a negotiated settlement or to modify the Austrian position on the ultimatum to Serbia, and the Germans never threatened to withdraw diplomatic or military support.

As the German papers reveal, there were three overriding goals for the Chancellor as he prepared for war.  Above all, he wanted Britain to remain neutral.  He also hoped for the acquiescence, if not the active support, of Italy, and the support, if not the enthusiasm, of the German working classes.  In effect, Bethmann Hollweg took on an additional office in July 1914, unknown at that time:  Minister of Propaganda. 


A few highlights for those who don’t want to buy or borrow the three document collections:

Britain chose to approach Austria through its ally, Germany, and first proposed extending the 48-hour time period for the ultimatum.  Berlin simply shelved the proposal until the time had elapsed.  Then, on July 26, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, proposed a conference in London to resolve the dispute. 

There was a precedent for this.

After the First Balkan War in 1912 -- pitting the (briefly) united Balkan nations against the Ottoman Turks -- Vienna had demanded that the victorious Serbs evacuate Durazzo (now Dürres), on the Adriatic.  The land-locked Serbs had wanted an outlet to the sea for their products, rather than pay the steep tariffs demanded by Austria.

Austria mobilized, and prepared to attack Serbia.  This could easily have precipitated a world war.  But the Germans were fully aware of the strategic importance Russia placed in the independence of the Balkan states, and refused to back their junior partner.

Under no circumstances will I march against Paris and Moscow on account of Albania and Durazzo,” wrote the Kaiser indignantly (his italics) in November 1912.  He refused to gamble with “the very existence of Germany…  The German Army and people could not be placed at the direct service of the whims of another State’s foreign policy.  The alliance does not pledge Germany to support Austria unconditionally in cases of friction over the possessions of others.”

And so Berlin went along with Grey’s proposal for a negotiated settlement by a conference of ambassadors.   Meeting in London over a number of months, the ambassadors to Britain from Germany, France, Russia, and Italy resolved the conflict, very much to Austria’s advantage.  The Serbs were obliged to withdraw from the Adriatic coast and to pay the Empire for the cost of mobilization.

So it’s not surprising that two years later, especially after Serbia had accepted virtually all of Vienna’s demands (“A brilliant achievement,” said the Kaiser, and “a great moral success for Austria…all reason for war is gone”), Grey expected that the same ambassadors might once again be able to mediate the dispute.  The German Ambassador, Prince Max Lichnowsky, was particularly enthusiastic, and thought the issues in question could be resolved “in one or two sittings” of a new conference.  He was convinced that a conference should not even have been necessary:  “A mere hint from Berlin would have decided Count Berchtold to content himself with a diplomatic success and to accept the Serbian reply.  This hint was not given.”

There had been a change of sentiment in Berlin.

Many historians have dated this from an important meeting at Potsdam in December 1912.  “I believe war is unavoidable and the sooner the better,” the Army’s Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke announced at the “War Council,” and the Kaiser agreed.  But Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, head of the navy, urged that war be delayed until the Kiel Canal was completed in July 1914.  Moltke conceded that it might be a good idea to prepare public opinion for the war.  A new Army Bill was introduced, increasing the number of effectives and funding new heavy artillery, and a press campaign was launched. 

So in July 1914, Berlin flatly rejected the proposal for another conference of ambassadors.

Grey had not seen the Serbian reply when he had first begun to make arrangements for the conference.  When he did, he was amazed at how far the Serbs had gone to meet the Austrian demands.  “It could be attributed solely to the pressure exerted by St. Petersburg,” he said, and strongly urged the Germans to put pressure in turn on the Austrians to accept the reply.  Lichnowsky emphasized, and may even have exaggerated, Grey’s irritation at the intransigence of Vienna.

The German Chancellor was now in a difficult position.  As he explained to Vienna:

By refusing every proposition for mediation, we should be held responsible for the conflagration by the whole world, and be set forth as the original instigators of the war.  That would also make our position impossible in our own country, where we must appear as having been forced into war.  Our situation is all the more difficult, in as much as Serbia has apparently yielded to a very great degree.

Rather than providing Austria a great diplomatic victory, as the Kaiser himself proclaimed, Serbia’s capitulation has created a public relations problem.  It’s worth observing that while Britain and Russia were frantically offering proposals to mediate the dispute, the Chancellor was already referring, on July 27, to “the war.”

So this time the British suggestion was forwarded to Vienna, but only with the advice that the Austrian Foreign Minister “give his opinion” on the British plan.  Then Bethmann Hollweg disingenuously wired London that “we have at once immediately inaugurated a move for mediation at Vienna along the lines desired by Sir Edward Grey.”

There was more bad news for Bethmann Hollweg the next day.  He learned that military operations against Serbia would only begin on August 12. 

As a result, the Government is placed in the extraordinarily difficult position of being exposed in the meantime to the mediation and conference proposals of the other Cabinets, and if it continues to maintain its previous aloofness in the face of such proposals, it will incur the odium of having been responsible for a world war, even, finally, among the German people themselves.”

If the dilatory Viennese could not move more rapidly, at the very least they should announce that they had no territorial ambitions regarding Serbia.  The Chancellor knew this was not the case:  Austria planned to incorporate Belgrade and the surrounding countryside, and to distribute other portions of Serbia to Albania and Bulgaria.  The important thing was to lie about this.

In passing along his request to Vienna, Bethmann told his ambassador “to avoid very carefully giving rise to the impression that we wish to hold Austria back.”

The other thing irritating the Chancellor about his ally was Vienna’s unwillingness to grant territorial compensation to Italy, and he repeatedly stressed the need to bribe the third partner in the Triple Alliance.

Bethmann Hollweg always approached the question from a public relations angle.  The great concern was “to place the guilt of the outbreak of a European conflagration on Russia’s shoulders.”  The many other proposals -- including that the Austrians “halt in Belgrade” and begin negotiations, which came from both the Kaiser and Grey -- were unwelcome nuisances. 

When he did finally express his dismay to the Austrians at the prospect of a “world conflagration” on July 30, he rushed a copy to the correspondent of the British paper most sympathetic to Germany.

Austria was entirely dependent on German military and diplomatic support, and as Berlin never threatened to withdraw this, Vienna saw these statements as further efforts merely “to put Russia in the wrong,” as the Chancellor had explained.


Finally, on the morning of the 31st Bethmann Hollweg got the break he’d been awaiting for so long:  Russia mobilized.  Hugely relieved, the Chancellor dashed off a three-line cable to Vienna.  War was imminent, he told Berchtold, and “we expect from Austria immediate active participation in the war with Russia.”

Vats of ink have been spilled on the question of Russia’s mobilization and whether or not France could have done more to delay it.  But Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov knew from the moment he read the Austrian ultimatum that this time the Central Powers had decided on war.  While pretending to be interested in one-on-one negotiations with the Russians, the Austrians declared war on Serbia and then shelled Belgrade.  They refused to consider any compromise on the ultimatum, making a negotiated settlement impossible. 

The great dilemma for the Russians was that they knew their mobilization was much slower than that of the Germans.  They were not aware that the German war plan called for an initial strike to the west.  The Russians also believed that the armies of the two alliances could face each other, fully mobilized, while negotiations continued.  For Germany, mobilization meant war.

Germany was itself about to mobilize later in the day on the 31st.  Bethmann Hollweg had put off the General Staff as long as possible.  If Sazonov had had a little more sang froid, there would be no question as to who was responsible for the catastrophe.

As for the French, their top policy-makers were literally at sea:  the Austrians had waited until the President of the Republic, Raymond Poincaré, and Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rene Viviani had embarked on their return voyage after a state visit to St. Petersburg before they delivered their ultimatum to Serbia.  Acting on his own, the French Ambassador to Russia did not counsel patience and moderation.

Could Britain have done more to deter Germany?  The short answer is yes.  Grey was beguiled for too long by Bethmann Hollweg.


Nations do not stumble or sleepwalk into war.  They choose war because the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.  Bethmann Hollweg would have been happy with a Russian capitulation and the dismemberment of Serbia by Austria.  But he was OK with a European war.  What he did not particularly want was a world war -- a war involving Britain.  He was assured by the Army, though, that the war would be over before the Brits could provide effective help to the Dual Alliance.

Some readers, naturally, may disagree.  But thanks to the document collections, everyone can come to his or her own conclusion as to who wanted war and who tried to prevent it.

The diplomatic correspondence also makes for very gripping reading, particularly British Documents on the Origins of the War.  As in all tragedies, you know the outcome, but this doesn’t make any less poignant the flood of urgent telegrams arriving at London from all over Europe during the last week in July, one hundred years ago.