The war to end all wars? It lasted 75 years

The Austro-Hungarian empire was a sort of central European union

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For Britain, the First World War began on 4 August 1914 when we declared war on Germany. It is a date of such gravity that it will be marked by a series of commemorative events when the exact 100th anniversary is reached next year. But when did the conflict really end? The official date is 11 November 1918. But that was followed by 21 years of rising tension between the former combatants until finally Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. This set off a second bout of fighting involving the same countries, Britain, France and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria in the opposing camp. Italy had switched to the loser’s side.

Again there is an official date for the end of this Second World War, at least as far as fighting in Europe is concerned, 8 May 1945. But by now, Russian troops were sprawled across much of Eastern Europe and they weren’t going to leave soon. Before many months had passed, the Cold War had begun. This pitted the US and its Western European allies against the Russian Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe. Churchill delivered his famous warning in 1946 when he accused the Soviet Union of establishing an “iron curtain” from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought this bout of “cold” as opposed to “hot” war to an end.

So looking back over a whole century, we can see that what really took place in August 1914 was the start of vicious, cruel, futile, civil war in Europe, which, with interludes, lasted 75 years. It started out as a contest between monarchies with the exception of France, a republic. Indeed, the German emperor, the Austrian emperor and the Russian tsar were leading participants in forming policy. Another feature was that Britain and France were colonial powers. The Austro-Hungarian empire was a sort of central European union with a common currency. It contained 11 official nationalities – Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians. They all demanded more independence, but hardly anyone wanted full separation. Does that remind you of anything?

Nationalism was thus bottled up until 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian empire was dismantled. Then to nationalism was added in the 1920s and 30s a fight to the death between liberal democracy, fascism and communism. From 1939 to 1989, the European civil war was, partly at least, an ideological struggle.

It began with an assassination. On 28 June 1914, the Crown Prince of Austro-Hungary and his wife were killed in the provincial town of Sarajevo – the “clap of thunder in the summer sky”. The three Serb youths who comprised the assassination team had been radicalised by the very same processes that we find today. They had a preoccupation with sacrifice. They read nationalist poetry and newspapers devoted to Serbian revenge against the Austrian occupiers of so-called Greater Serbia. And they were carefully groomed for their murderous task. One of them fired at point-blank range into the royal car. Five weeks later, as a direct result of the lethal shots, the major European powers were mobilising for all-out war. Without understanding the consequences, they had contrived to lay a tripwire along the border between Austro-Hungary – prosperous and well governed by the standards of the day – and the Balkans, the continent’s most violent and unstable region.

What was at stake was the retreat of the Ottoman empire from the European mainland. Who would fill the vacuum thus created? Would it be Austro-Hungary, which could count on German backing, or would it be Russia, the traditional protector of the Slavs? Serbia, to whom Austro-Hungary had issued an ultimatum deliberately designed to be unacceptable following the Sarajevo murder, was Russia’s client.

France and Britain found themselves involved at one remove. France and Russia had formed a defensive alliance against Germany in the 1890s. Just as France is today terrified of German power and has since the 1950s used the project of European union to bind Germany to her, so she was similarly alarmed in the opening years of the 20th century. The Franco-Russian alliance was even foolishly extended in 1912 to cover armed intervention in a purely Balkan setting.

Meanwhile, Britain concluded the entente cordiale with France in 1904. This treaty of mutual support was all very sensible and normal until Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, found that, as the powers began to mobilise in the summer of 1914, a purely Balkan quarrel could precipitate a European war. He hesitated, but finally realised he had no alternative but to honour the terms of the alliance with France.

As well as the Balkan tripwire, there was a second extraordinary feature of the events of the summer of 1914. Until the last minute, hardly anybody perceived what a disaster was in the making following the Sarajevo assassination. Sir Edward Grey took his usual fishing holiday in Scotland. General Foch, the commander of the French troops on the German border, went to his estate in Brittany for relaxation. In Kiel on the German coast, ships from the Royal Navy made a fraternal visit to celebrate Fleet Week.

Upon what was this overconfidence founded? Partly it was a knowing shrugging of the shoulders. Weren’t the Balkans an unstable region anyway? Unfortunately, too, assassinations had become quite common across Europe. And people wrongly thought that the assassin acted alone and was mentally unstable.

More to the point, international relations had gone through numerous crises in the previous 20 years and the peace was always preserved. It was clear what Austro-Hungary had to do. First, Serbia’s involvement must be proved. Then compensation should be agreed in money or in territory. And then move on. But Austro-Hungary did not move on. On 28 July, Emperor Franz Joseph signed the declaration of war against Serbia. Russia mobilised her armed forces. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, France’s ally – and the rest is history.

‘Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I’, by Michael S Neiberg. ‘The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914’, by Christopher Clark

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