July 1914: Sean McMeekin on the Outbreak of World War I

Jul 10, 2014

MLADEN JOKSIC: In the decades prior to 1914, Europe was at the center of numerous diplomatic crises, none of which erupted into an all-out war between the great powers. In fact, it could be said that great-power diplomacy worked reasonably well before 1914. Yet, in your book, July 1914, you portray the high-level diplomacy during the July Crisis as inept, replete with miscalculations and diplomatic blunders by all sides. What was different about the July 1914 crisis that made the European diplomatic system incapable of resolving itself?

SEAN McMEEKIN: I'm not sure that I would speak of a system as such. There was a kind of informal tradition, going back to the Concert of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, under which the Great Powers would get together if an international crisis threatened to spiral out of control. This had happened as recently as 1912-13, with the London conference held during the First Balkan War. But London was a mixed success. Although it kept the Great Powers from entering the conflict, it failed to prevent the Second Balkan War, which broke out several weeks later. The outcome depended not on any kind of system either working or not working, but rather on the calculations of all the individual statesmen.

Likewise, what mattered in July 1914 was not any formal architecture of international relations breaking down, but rather the interests and decisions of individual statesmen. If anything was different between, say, winter 1912-1913 and summer 1914, it was in certain key policymakers who had entered or left the scene. For example, Franz Ferdinand himself, though not by temperament a pacifist, had been a voice for peace in Vienna before he was assassinated; his very death tipped the balance towards those who wanted war with Serbia. In Russia, V. N. Kokovtsov, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, had counselled against mobilizing in November 1912, at the height of tensions in the First Balkan War, and again in January 1914, during the so-called Liman von Sanders affair. In February 1914, he was ousted, and so the "war party" in St. Petersburg was strengthened.

MLADEN JOKSIC: "Had Franz Ferdinand survived his visit to Bosnia…" is one of the most vexing counterfactuals of modern history. In the 1960s and '70s, the answer to this counterfactual by most historians would have been "things would not have been different; the assassination was just a pretext, the Great War would have broken out at some later date given the structural instability of the international system at the time." But over the last decade or so, it seems that historians are changing that view. Increasingly, they question the inevitability of the war, despite the deep structural factors that existed, like imperialism, the alliance system, the arms race, etc. A major point of focus has become the assassination in Sarajevo and the subsequent diplomatic drama that resulted.

What is your take? Would Europe have gone to war had Franz Ferdinand survived his visit to Bosnia?

SEAN McMEEKIN: Almost certainly not. On the eve of Sarajevo, all the signs pointed to a Third Balkan War breaking out very soon between Greece and Turkey. In the wake of the Balkan Wars, an endless wave of Muslim refugees was pouring into the Ottoman empire from Europe; the Hagia Sofia was a cholera infirmary. Partly to make room for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, Ottoman Greeks were being forcibly uprooted from areas near Smyrna and along the Aegean coast. The government in Athens issued an ultimatum to Constantinople on June 12th, and the clock was ticking; above all the Greeks wanted to strike before the Ottomans received their first dreadnought, the Sultan Osman I, from Britain, which would immediately tip the balance of naval power in the Aegean in Turkey's favor.

A Third Balkan War between Greece and Turkey would not have been a nice thing. There would almost certainly have been a brutal new round of ethnic cleansing on both sides. But there is no reason to expect that it would have brought the Powers in. Russia, the country most directly interested in the conflict, wanted to prevent it, or douse it, so as not to allow Turkey to close the straits again (that is, naval passage between the Black Sea and Mediterranean), as she had in 1912. The outbreak of a third round of interethnic, Muslim-Christian bloodletting in as many years might even have led to a revival of the Concert of Europe, as the Powers reacted in horror.

MLADEN JOKSIC: When the Germans gave the Austrians the infamous "blank cheque"—assuring them of their support for "decisive action" against Serbia—they insisted that any action must happen fast, while popular outrage at the Sarajevo murders was strong. Yet, it would take Austria-Hungary nearly a month to dispatch an ultimatum to Serbia. Why so long? What was the road to the Austrian ultimatum?

SEAN McMEEKIN: The Austrians were not notably efficient. In addition to the slowness of the investigation of Sarajevo and the preparation of a dossier on the crime, the Austrian military had, bizarrely, allowed both men and officers to take "harvest leave" in early July, which meant the army could not possibly be ready to strike Serbia before month's end (as it turned out, the Habsburg armies would not be ready to invade Serbia until August 12).

As far as the ultimatum, that, too, took time to prepare, mostly because Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Berchtold had to win over Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, who was resolutely opposed at first to any punitive action against Belgrade. This was why they called Austria-Hungary the "Dual Monarchy": effectively the Habsburg empire had two governments, and the one in Budapest was often at loggerheads with the one in Vienna. By the time Berchtold finally won over Tisza (more or less) around July 14, more than two weeks had passed since Sarajevo—and Tisza still insisted on vetting the ultimatum at full Ministerial Council that weekend on July 19. By then France's president and premier were at sea, about to arrive in St. Petersburg for a summit with Tsar Nicholas II, which meant yet more delay as Berchtold did not want to detonate his diplomatic bombshell while the French and Russians were toasting champagne together.

MLADEN JOKSIC: You argue in July 1914 that German policymakers, especially Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, firmly believed in the localization of the Austro-Serbian conflict. What underlined those calculations and why do you think they continued their policy of localization deep into July, when Russia was already beginning to mobilize?

SEAN McMEEKIN: I'm not sure "firmly believed" is the phrase I would use. They fervently hoped it could be localized, but not with unshakable confidence did they think this was possible. This is one of those vexing and controversial questions of the July crisis: Did the chancellor and Kaiser expect Russia to fight? Well, they hoped that she would not and kind of convinced themselves to put faith in their hope.

As for why they continued to push, beyond a certain point they actually stopped pushing. When the Kaiser read Serbia's cleverly worded reply to the ultimatum (which sounded a lot like acceptance, but had actually been carefully worded so as to reject precisely one clause firmly) on July 28, he immediately decided that Austria-Hungary should negotiate, though possibly occupying Belgrade (located right on the Austrian frontier) as a face-saving measure. The chancellor took a little longer to come around; but on the night of July 29 he very firmly ordered his ambassador in Vienna to force the Austrians to negotiate. Because Berchtold had declared war—by telegram!—the day before, and the Austrians had begun a desultory shelling of Belgrade hours earlier, his proposal was dead on arrival.

MLADEN JOKSIC: You call German diplomacy during the July Crisis "disastrous." What are the main diplomatic mistakes the Germans made?

SEAN McMEEKIN: First, the Kaiser and Bethmann deluded themselves into believing that Austria-Hungary would act quickly and decisively against Serbia. They should have known their ally better.

Second, given their ally's questionable competence, the Germans should have insisted on much closer oversight of the policy line Berchtold was developing on Serbia. There was nothing wrong with an ultimatum per se; but it should have delivered after, not before, Austria-Hungary had delivered its dossier outlining Serbian complicity in the crime.

German Foreign Minister Jagow also suggested, but did not firmly enough require, that Austria-Hungary win Italy's support for its line of action (Italy was nominally a member of a "Triple Alliance" with Germany and Austria-Hungary since 1882, but Rome and Vienna were rivals in the Balkans and Adriatic coast). The Italians ended up leaking the ultimatum to Entente diplomats instead, thus isolating Berlin and Vienna still further.

Finally, once it was clear the policy of localization was not working, Bethmann and the Kaiser should have insisted earlier and more firmly that Berchtold accept mediation. They did work out this policy (the so-called "Halt in Belgrade"), but it was a few days too late. In Bethmann's defense, as soon as the Kaiser returned to Berlin on July 27 he offered to resign, in light of how badly everything had been botched. The Kaiser told him, that, as he had "cooked up the soup," he would have to eat it.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Two prominent protagonists in the July 1914 diplomatic drama—the foreign minister of Austria-Hungary Leopold von Berchtold and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov—were viewed as cautious and conciliatory prior to July 1914. Why did they behave so recklessly during the July Crisis?

SEAN McMEEKIN: It is always difficult to penetrate the psychology of statesmen. My own explanation is that, precisely because they had been attacked by more belligerent critics as weak and vacillating during the Balkan Wars, they were all the more keen to show strength and not back down in July 1914. It is often the "small dogs" who bark the loudest.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In The Russian Origins of the First World War, you write that "the war of 1914 was Russia's war even more than it was Germany's." How so?

SEAN McMEEKIN: What I mean by this is not that Russia alone bears responsibility for the outbreak of the war in 1914; obviously the German "blank cheque" and the Austrian move against Serbia were critical, as was, though a bit less obviously, France's own "blank cheque" to Russia. Rather, I mean something specific about the actual war which resulted in August 1914. The ideal Austro-German scenario was, of course, a localized war against Serbia. Failing that, the Germans hoped to limit the conflict to a "continental" one pitting the Central Powers against Serbia, France and Russia, with Italy at least neutral and hopefully more supportive than that. What happened instead—a war in which Britain joined Serbia, France, and Russia, and Italy left her allies in the lurch—was obviously not the war desired in Berlin. It was Russia's war: the war with a coalition line-up Russian statesmen, above all Sazonov, worked to bring about. In diplomatic terms, the July crisis was a rout. Sazonov simply wiped the floor with his opponents.

MLADEN JOKSIC: You argue that it is naïve to assume that Russia went to war on behalf of Serbia. Maintaining Russian prestige in the Balkans was simply an excuse. What then, was Russia's true motivation for mobilizing first and risking war?

SEAN McMEEKIN: Prestige in the Balkans did matter to Russia; I just do not believe that it mattered more than the Ottoman Straits. This is clear not only from the evidence of what Russian statesmen were talking about before Sarejevo, but from what they focused their attention and energy on after the First World War broke out. Strategically if not symbolically, Serbia was an afterthought.

MLADEN JOKSIC: What about French strategic thinking during the July Crisis? What prompted France's "blank cheque" to Russia in mid-July?

The French case is actually one of the easiest to explain. President Raymond Poincaré, born in "occupied" Lorraine, wanted to avenge the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. As he once wrote, "I saw no other reason to live than the possibility of recovering our lost provinces." The Russian alliance was the vehicle through which France could achieve this. Poincaré was always going to offer full support to Russia in July 1914, up to and including encouraging her early mobilization. The only trick was to win over René Viviani, the leftist and far less belligerent premier. In the end Viviani was sort of browbeaten into supporting Russia against his own better judgment.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In July 1914, you reserve a fair amount of criticism for Great Britain, especially Foreign Secretary Grey. What did he get wrong during the July Crisis?

SEAN McMEEKIN: First, Grey failed to keep abreast of events. He paid the crisis little attention until Austria-Hungary dispatched the ultimatum to Belgrade. He paid absolutely no attention to what the Russians were doing, dismissing the whole matter of Russian mobilization as irrelevant. Even before the July crisis, he had kept the Commons, and even most of the Cabinet, in the dark about Britain's secret military cooperation with France. As recently as June 1914, Grey had denied that such cooperation was taking place to the German ambassador. By feigning a phony neutrality, Grey played all sides a bit false.

My own view is that Britain had no compelling reason to fight alongside France and Russia. But even if we agree with the Francophile interventionists in the Cabinet—Grey, Prime Minister Asquith, and Winston Churchill (the still more belligerent First Lord of the Admiralty)—that Britain should have pursued a pro-Franco-Russian line to either deter Germany or defeat her, then she should have been open about this and warned Germany much earlier that Britain would stand by her quasi-allies. When Grey finally so much as hinted this on July 29th, Bethmann immediately panicked and warned Vienna to back down (a day or two too late). Of course, Grey had no support in the Cabinet or Commons—especially in his own Liberal Party—for a firm pro-Franco-Russian line, which is why he felt he could not honestly tell the Germans that was his policy. But this begs, in turn, the question of why Grey could not be honest about his policy with his own party and people.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In your opinion, what was the single most momentous decision of the July Crisis resulting in the point of no return for the outbreak of World War I? And, what was the biggest "missed opportunity" that might have changed the course of the crisis, had it been seized?

SEAN McMEEKIN: I would frame this a bit differently. I think the greatest avoidable mistake of the July Crisis was Berchtold's decision to declare war on Serbia, by telegram—in French!—on July 28. The Austrians had just informed the Germans they would not be ready for war with Serbia until August 12. It was madness to declare war, thereby isolating Berlin and Vienna and giving perfect cover for the early mobilization the Russians were undertaking anyway. The only explanation I have come up with for this suicidally stupid action is that Berchtold was sick of receiving peace entreaties from all over Europe; basically he did not want to have to answer his phone and could now say, "Sorry! Don't have to listen! War's begun." His own chief of staff, the supposedly über-belligerent Conrad, thought Berchtold's move was crazy.

MLADEN JOKSIC: What was the role of the public in the July Crisis? Were the hands of the decision-makers really tied by popular opinion, as is often suggested?

SEAN McMEEKIN: Not really. A few statesmen thought about this in the abstract, and in England there was a kind of pretense of testing the public mood before Grey's August 3 speech in the Commons, but it did not really affect anyone's key decisions. The exception to the rule, ironically enough, was in the least democratic of all the powers, Tsarist Russia, where the senior member of the Council of Ministers, A. V. Krivoshein, argued that Russia needed to fight in order for the government not to appear weak before the public.

MLADEN JOKSIC: Did the key decision-makers of the July Crisis understand how high the stakes were? Did they posses enough moral imagination to feel a responsibility for what they were doing?

SEAN McMEEKIN: Yes and no. There is abundant evidence in the written record that many of the key statesmen realized they were playing with fire, that a European war would "annihilate European civilization" (in Moltke's words). The Tsar even changed his mind after ordering general mobilization in order, he said, not to be "responsible for a monstrous slaughter." But of course no one could have foreseen the full extent of the carnage of 1914-1918.

MLADEN JOKSIC: In July 1914 you write that "when we examine the key moral question of 1914—responsibility for the outbreak of World War I—it is important to keep degrees of responsibility in mind." Can you explain this further?

SEAN McMEEKIN: I explain this at great length in the book! Briefly, this is to say that statesmen in all of the countries involved in the initial clash bear responsibility for the outcome, but not equal shares of responsibility. Some decisions matter more than others; and those who initiate or catalyze events bear more responsibility than those who respond to them.

MLADEN JOKSIC: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the July Crisis?

I would go back to your first question, and this premise that there was some kind of "international system" which broke down, or conversely, a notion that the war was inevitably brought about by alliances, an arms race, or other long-term structural factors. Alternatively, some of the more vociferous partisans of the German war-guilt school insist that the Germans knew and planned all along for a "preventive war." History just does not happen that way. Structural factors condition possibilities, but they do not determine outcomes. Not unlike the period before 9/11, no one in Europe or elsewhere in the world—except the perpetrators—had any inkling that an avoidable act of terrorism was about to radically reshape the international landscape. Even afterwards, there was still no general understanding of the ultimate consequences—of what would be wrought by, say, the "blank cheque" or by Russian mobilization. No one knows the future in advance.

MLADEN JOKSIC: How should the Centennial of World War I be commemorated in a manner that is both meaningful and relevant to our times?

SEAN McMEEKIN: I pass. I am a historian, not a statesman. I do think people should read the history, visit war memorials, pay homage to the fallen, and so on. But I have never believed that history should be shaped or used for specific contemporary purposes. History should be appreciated on its own terms. We can learn from it, but only if we study it very carefully.

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