Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Dr Annika Mombauer explores the opposing debates about the origins of World War One. Is it possible for historians to arrive at a consensus?
The hundred-year debate
How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible.
The need to fight a defensive war
Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy, and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to revenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands. In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war? Continue reading