Countdown to the first world war

July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914, by TG Otte, Cambridge University Press, RRP£25/$29.99, 555 pages

The Month that Changed the World: July 1914, by Gordon Martel, Oxford University Press RRP£22.99/$34.95, 512 pages

This week, many senior diplomats and officials across Europe will be leaving their offices to take annual holidays. So it was too in early July 1914 when, outside of Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, surprisingly little thought at the highest levels was being given to the likely consequences of a recent terrorist assassination of the unloved heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

That event has long seemed like the proximate cause for a rapid descent into brutal conflict. Then, many saw it as a relatively minor skirmish. Looking back at the press coverage in Britain, for instance, quickly reminds you that it was Ulster, not Mitteleuropa, that commanded the greater attention. How the crisis in the Balkans developed and took the world to war in just over a month has remained a source of grim fascination ever since.

The role of contingency and human error in this story is perhaps the central lesson to emerge from a new book by TG Otte, a professor of history at the University of East Anglia and author of several other major studies in modern British diplomacy. As he writes in July Crisis, political Berlin was “practically deserted” in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. The state secretary in the Foreign Office was on his honeymoon, and the chief of staff of the army, Helmuth von Moltke, was taking a spa cure to deal with his liver disease, not helped by the pressures of a job he didn’t think he was up to.

Drawing on painstaking research that sheds new light on many sources, Otte illuminates the importance of timing in understanding the crisis. He wonders whether the Austro-Hungarian failure to respond rapidly to the assassination allowed things to stew for so long that global war really did become inevitable. The rest of Europe may have bristled at early unilateral action, but most would have sympathised. Instead, writes Otte, Habsburg policy “moved at the pace of an arthritic snail”. Its cumbersome qualities had much to do with tensions between Vienna and Budapest about how to respond to the broader Balkan crisis, one that had been simmering since the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and sharpened in a series of wars thereafter.

Otte’s focus on timing also allows him to make a case for the strategic intelligence of long-discredited individuals. For instance, the “studied ambiguity” of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, has often been seen as the embodiment of an upper-class Edwardian insouciance that contrasted unfavourably with the “clarity of intention” of his French and Russian counterparts. Here we are given a more flattering portrait of a man whose experience over years trying to improve Anglo-German relations became a powerful strategic compass.

Similarly, Otte suggestively reminds us that the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, was by June 16 already very well aware of the possibility of Germany being drawn into a military conflict. In an urgent telegram he wrote that “any minor odd clash of interest between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set alight the torch of war”. Knowing this, he advocated a “prudent policy” to counter domestic nationalists, arguing against sabre-rattling against a perceived Russian threat.

Here, Otte is both more and less critical of Bethmann than Christopher Clark in his recent bestseller, The Sleepwalkers (2012). Less so, in that he shows Bethmann understood the need for that prudent policy, and that he was not taken by surprise at the militancy of German nationalist pressure in response to Russia. More so, in that he shows clearly why it couldn’t be delivered. Rather than seeing Bethmann’s policy as a “calculated risk”, Otte says that Bethmann had instead “no clearly defined political objectives” and, consequently, “no notion of a crisis strategy”. As political objectives got filled in elsewhere, as they regularly did in the “Byzantine” complex of German decision-making, Bethmann became just another politician caught in a trap of his own making.

Given this, Bethmann may well have been right to note that the “status quo has very much outlived itself” and was “bereft of ideas”, remarks recorded in the diary of his aide, Kurt Riezler. The German chancellor seemed not to be able to see beyond a masculine code of honour that compelled support for Austria-Hungary in 1914. To have done otherwise in July, Bethmann wrote in 1921, would have been tantamount to an “impossible capitulation”. To understand that sort of motivation, one needs to get at the unspoken assumptions that govern the actions of statesmen, then as now.

Indeed, in a celebrated lecture from 1967 that Otte refers back to, the historian James Joll noted that only by uncovering these assumptions could we really understand the dynamics of July 1914. Joll’s point, much like the earlier arguments of John Maynard Keynes, pressed historians seeking to understand the conflict to look at the battlefield of political and economic ideas from the previous 40 years.

In his very readable day-by-day narrative of the crisis, The Month that Changed the World, Gordon Martel is explicit about this. An eminent and prolific historian of war and diplomacy, now retired from the University of Northern British Columbia, Martel notes that because it is so difficult to get at these underlying assumptions, “there is not, and there never will be, a neat explanation that ties up all of the loose ends” about the origins of the Great War. Like Otte, his sources preclude a wider or structural account, precisely because they are the ones that best allow us to recapture a sense of the importance of timing and human agency. But what they can show is how nearly the tragedy was averted. Even when the structures of statecraft looked powerless, individuals could still act decisively.

If in Otte’s reading the dual monarchy was an arthritic snail, Germany was a “giant with a brain made of clay” that had for too long failed to think about the “broader consequences of an escalating Balkan crisis”. By the time Vienna sent its 10-point ultimatum to Serbia – one to which no sovereign state could agree, because of its demand for Austro-Hungarian involvement in suppressing domestic subversive groups – the die was cast. The Germans had allowed the dual monarchy to reach its decisions behind the offer of a “blank cheque”, an implicit agreement to support their ally to the utmost, finding the ultimatum a diplomatic masterstroke precisely because they thought the consequences could be localised.

That was wishful thinking, as Russia too had long sought what its foreign minister Sergei Sazonov referred to as “hegemony” in the Balkans and could not allow Vienna to act with impunity in the region. Its military mobilisation at this moment nevertheless had to appear limited, in order not to provoke a German response, but that line couldn’t hold for very long and a collision course was set. Even then, as Martel shows, although the German Kaiser thought the Serbs needed to be made to pay, when he eventually read their diplomatic response he also thought it masterful. Apparently concessive while really conceding nothing, it allowed Wilhelm to propose a face-saving “Halt in Belgrade” policy, leaving open the possibility of avoiding war while presenting a united front against the Russians. That policy very quickly fell apart.

On the evening of July 29, with war declared on Serbia the previous day, Austro-Hungarian artillery began the bombardment of Belgrade. Grey soon warned the House of Commons of impending catastrophe. His speech, reproduced in part by Martel, looks prescient and clear-eyed on paper but in the flesh left what Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, thought of as too many “ragged ends”. It advocated the use of force to uphold British moral authority in Europe by defending Belgian neutrality, diplomatically first, and militarily if and when needed. To do otherwise would be a “sin”.

But the dissonance between Grey’s patient argument and the needs of broader political rhetoric clearly mattered, because Berlin had already responded to Russian mobilisation with its own threat of imminent war. For Otte, this pre-commitment bound his hands with iron chains, giving Berlin merely a responsive rather than a truly “independent” policy. Pacifist and internationalist opposition soon dwindled, and in just a few days the German army was in France, having rendered war between the powers unavoidable by violating the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, sacrosanct since 1839. The rest, as they say, is history.

Duncan Kelly teaches political thought at the University of Cambridge

Photograph: PA

This article has been amended since original publication to clarify the attribution of a quotation from the diary of Kurt Riezler and to correct the date given for the start of Austria-Hungary’s bombardment of Belgrade

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