Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
About this time of month one hundred and one years ago the armies of Europe were beginning a four-year bloodletting that killed over ten million soldiers and resulted in twenty million other deaths. That war spawned other wars and conflicts the world over, some of which still go on today. Since I have been to war in Iraq, a war that if we took international law and war crimes seriously would be considered illegal under the codes that we tried the major German and Japanese war criminals under at the end of the Second World War, I take war, and going to war very seriously.
The beginning of the First World War provides an example for us of how out of control things can get when leaders opt for war when doing the hard work to keep the peace is much more in their interests.
The Austrian Declaration of War against Serbia
One of the premier military and political theorist who has ever lived, Carl von Clausewitz “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Sadly, few political leaders take his advice.
It was a war that should never have happened. It was a war for which the belligerent powers could boast many causes but for which few had any real objectives. One hundred and one years ago this week the armies nations of Europe were beginning clashing on the frontiers of France, Germany, Belgium and Russia. Their leaders were hell bent on waging a war that all thought would be short, decisive and end in victory for their side. The leaders were wrong and nearly a century later the world still pays the price for their misplaced beliefs and hubris of those men.
It was a war in large part brought on by the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fears. Fear of neighbors, ethnic minorities and its place among regional and world powers led the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to decide for war when the very unpopular heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 28th 1914.
Conrad von Hötzendorf: War was the only means of politics
It was a series of decisions by those in the government of the Empire that brought Europe and the world to war, a war which we still feel the effects of today. In particular it was the decisions of the Austrian Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Foreign Minister Leopold Berchtold and the aging Emperor, Franz Joseph which plunged the world into a world war which spawned revolutions, regional wars, a second world war, a cold war and countless other wars. The decisions were based on the belief, still common today that war is the only means of politics.
Emperor Franz Joseph: “If we must go under, we better go under decently”
Hötzendorf had been a continual advocate of war in every situation. He lobbied for war in 1907 against Italy and Serbia, in 1908 against Serbia, Russia and Italy, in 1909 against Serbia and Montenegro, in 1910 against Italy and the list increased in the years leading up to the war. He fervently believed that “the use of armed force alone could retard the centrifugal forces of nationalism in the ‘multinational empire’; war was the only means of politics.” The Emperor, Franz Joseph was of the same mindset by 1914 and in the days following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand he gave his approval to the actions of Hötzendorf and the diplomacy of Berchtold that doomed the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would destroy and remake Europe within a span of four years.
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg: The Blank Cheque
The leadership of the Empire had decided on war within days of the assassination. Berchtold dispatched an emissary to Kaiser Wilhelm who decided in counsel with his Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg gave the Austrians a “blank cheque” of unconditional support for war against Serbia. Berlin was confident that “the Balkan crisis could be localized” and “advised Vienna to “proceed with all means at its disposal” and that Germany would support Austria-Hungary “come what may.” In doing so they willingly ignored the wise counsel of Otto Von Bismarck who considered the Balkans “not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
After they received German support the Austrians did everything that they could to ensure that war would occur. Their demands of Serbia were intentionally designed to be unacceptable to that country and they held key information from their German allies in the three weeks after they received the unconditional German support.
Helmuth Von Molkte: “no alternative but to fight a preventive war…”
German militarists, particularly the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth Von Molkte the younger saw the coming conflict in racial and cultural terms. Von Molkte said that the coming war would come “sooner or later” and be a war “primarily a struggle between Germans and Slavs” and compared Serbia to an “abscess.” As the war cloud built Von Molkte told the Foreign Secretary von Jagrow that there was “no alternative but to fight a preventive war so as to beat the enemy while we could still emerge fairly well from the struggle” ignoring the advice of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck who counseled “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”
Austrian Reservists going to war
The Austrians felt that the threat from Serbia combined with internal political factors related to the Hungarian and other Slavic regions of the Empire, and the increasing influence of Russia and Germany in the Balkans was an existential threat. At the same time they were poorly prepared for war. Their military was large but poorly trained and equipped. Their national infrastructure, industry and railroads were ill prepared for the demands of war. Their German allies had not planned for war either and were critically short of the required stocks of ammunition needed for a general war in Europe.
Cheering crowds in Petersburg
The Russians were heavily invested in the Balkans linked to other Slavic people by culture, language and religion. The French were bent on revenge against the Germans for the debacle of 1870 and had no stake in what happened in the Balkans. The British a few years prior to the war had told the Belgians not to expect support if they were invaded by Germany, but declared war to “protect Belgian neutrality.”
German wives and girlfriends walking alongside the Landser…
The Austrians thought that with German support that even if Russia intervened that the war could be limited to Serbia. They were wrong. Just as the Germans had given the Austrians a “blank cheque” the French, both officially and unofficially were giving the Russians their own blank cheque. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue assured Russian Foreign Minister S.D. Sazonov of the “complete readiness” of France to fulfill her obligations as an ally in case of necessity.
French Soldiers being cheered
Austria declared war on July 28th, Russia followed by a partial mobilization to support Serbia on the 29th. Kaiser Wilhelm attempted to avert war at the last minute but Czar Nicholas II wrote, “An ignoble war has been declared on a weak country. The indignation of Russia, fully shared by me, is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by pressure to which I am exposed and compelled to take measures which will lead to war.” This was met with German mobilization on the 30th and the French on August 1st. Declarations of war were exchanged and on August 4th in response to Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of Belgium Great Britain declared war against Germany.
A final kiss from a British Soldier at Victoria Station
They were fateful days. Only the Austrians entered the war with any positive objectives, military or political goals. Every other power lurched into the war without clear objectives or end states. One writer noted that the war had “causes but no objectives.”
The world again finds itself perched at the edge of the abyss of war. There are people, smart and otherwise reasonable people who believe that they can wage “preventive wars” and rely on brute military force to solve nearly any problem. There are others that suggest that we should not criticize “allies” even when their decisions could be disastrous to them and the world, much as the Germans gave their Austrian brothers a “blank cheque.” I wish that they would just look at the consequences before they commit nations and the world to more war that can only result in calamity and great suffering without benefit for anyone or any nation involved.
Those that counsel “preventive wars” need to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”