The war to end all wars? It lasted 75 years

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


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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable