By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the causes of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire
- Analyze the rise of nationalism among minority ethnic groups within Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire
- Explain how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered the start of World War I
- Describe the first few months of World War I
Former German chancellor Otto von Bismarck supposedly commented that the next big problem for Europe, most likely the next big war, would come out of “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” This prediction proved to be remarkably precise. The events of 1914 did not happen in a vacuum and were the result of many years of rising tensions in a volatile region of Europe, coupled with diplomatic maneuvers among the great empires of the continent. Yet even as the prelude to the war unfolded, most people did not truly expect conflict to be the outcome.
The “Sick Man of Europe”
The Ottoman Empire had always been predicated on expansion. It drew its strength from its territorial gains and the exploitation of the best and brightest from these new territories to serve the leader of the empire, the sultan. The strategy had worked for a number of centuries, even delivering an Ottoman army as far as the gates of Vienna in 1683 before it was pushed back. At its height, the empire encompassed areas of the Middle East, northern Africa, and significant swaths of southeastern Europe (Figure 11.7).
Starting in the 1800s, however, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of waning power as it grew unable to respond to nationalistic challenges. In the 1820s, nationalist leaders in Greece began fighting the Greek Civil War, and in 1830 Greece gained its independence from the Ottomans. More countries split off from the Empire in the 1870s, including Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. By the end of the nineteenth century, the demise of the empire, now known as “the sick man of Europe,” was being predicted; only the timing was in question. The Ottoman Empire was no longer strong enough to hold onto its outlying areas, and these grew ever more destabilized. The other powers in Europe watched with concern as the Ottoman Empire became weaker and other countries stepped in to fill the power vacuum, occupying and administering a region but not annexing it as Ottoman influence withdrew.
The ideology of nationalism was taking hold across Europe in the 1800s, and in the 1900s it only grew. The prospect of having a country for each nationality was tantalizingly appealing: Poland for the Poles, Serbia for the Serbs, and so on. In an empire, however, nationalism was a powerful danger. Empires were built of many different nationalities, and they would disintegrate if each group were granted its own land and nation. The Ottoman Empire had already seen such pressures develop in its eastern sections, and Austria-Hungary faced this problem as well: more than ten different nationalities could be found within its borders. The concept of nationalism threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s very survival (Figure 11.8).
The theory of pan-Slavic nationalism, which would unite all Slavic people under one rule, was a powerful one too. Slavic peoples have a shared historic culture and similar languages that include Bulgarian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovak, Czech, and Polish. They extended throughout the Balkan region and shared many of the same animosities toward the imperial powers of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Serbia had emerged as the leader of the pan-Slavic position in the Balkans. Its policy was characterized by hatred of Austria-Hungary and opposition to that empire’s forays into Balkan issues. Russia, too, was a Slavic nation and showed great interest in what was happening to its historic kin in the Balkans. Indeed, Russia saw itself as the natural leader of any potential pan-Slavic political entity that might emerge in the Balkans. Russia also saw Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans as rivals in the region and did not want either power to make any territorial gains. Russia hoped that by gaining influence in the Balkans, it could gain direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Before 1914, however, Russia was not prepared to risk war to maintain this stance.
The Balkans was a prime example of both the threat of nationalism and the threat from the weakening power of the Ottoman Empire. The region housed people of different nationalities and different religions. The Ottomans had been steadily losing power there and were certain to continue to do so. The nearby empire of Austria-Hungary looked covetously upon the Balkans, seeing an opportunity to take over more territory. In 1908, Austria-Hungary moved to block Serbian expansion in the Balkans by taking over administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its capital of Sarajevo (Figure 11.9).
Serbia continued its plan to exercise more control through the Balkans and helped found the Balkan League with Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro in 1912. The league then touched off the First Balkan War in October 1912 by attacking Macedonia, which was still held by the Ottomans. In May 1913, the Balkan League comprehensively defeated the Ottomans and forced them to give up most of their territory in Europe. Disagreements among the victors in the Balkans soon devolved into the Second Balkan War as Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece in 1913. Bulgaria was soon defeated, but this loss drove it to forge a deeper alliance with the Central powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—when World War I broke out.
The Balkan Wars also forced continued displacement of Muslims from the region. After Serbia’s independence decades earlier, there had been systematic efforts to force Muslims to leave. This drive spread throughout the Balkans as Christians increasingly attacked Muslims, causing hundreds of thousands to relocate to the Ottoman Empire. As the empire withdrew from the Balkans, many of these Muslims left with it, although substantial Muslim populations remained and still live in the Balkans today. The Ottoman Empire then had to cope with a substantial population increase at the same time that its standing in the world was on a decline.
The Spark That Lit the Powder Keg
Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary had no surviving son in the 1900s, so upon his death, a nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was set to inherit control of the empire. The archduke was not particularly well-liked by his uncle. For one thing, he had new ideas that actually supported more autonomy for the Balkan region within the empire. He was scheduled to travel to the Balkans in the summer of 1914 for a review of troops and survey of the region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A tour of the city of Sarajevo was planned for June 28, an important date for the Serbian people. It was a day of mourning for the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which the Serbian people had lost to the encroaching Ottoman Empire but which also marked the birth of Serbian unity. A visit on such a day by Franz Ferdinand, the symbol of another encroaching empire, was seen as a slap in the face (Figure 11.10).
Late in June, a small band of would-be Bosnian Serb (ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina) assassins armed with weapons from the Serbian military crossed the border from Serbia into Bosnia-Herzegovina. They belonged to an organization called the Black Hand. Their goal was the separation of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria-Hungary and its annexation by Serbia to form Greater Serbia, a state comprising all regions of importance to ethnic Serbs. The Black Hand’s plan was to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. On June 28, they threw a bomb at his motorcade but missed the archduke. However, that afternoon, one of them, Gavrilo Princip, found himself right next to the archduke’s touring car after it had taken a wrong turn. Princip, then nineteen years old, pulled out a gun and shot both Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Both died that day. Princip was arrested immediately.
See an animated re-creation of the route taken by Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade. After passing the bombers, it proceeded to the town hall. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were on their way to the hospital to visit victims of the first attack when the second one occurred.
Over the course of the next several weeks, a series of investigations was undertaken and ultimatums began flying from Austria-Hungary to Serbia. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbian subservience to atone for harboring the terrorist organization that planned and carried out the assassination. Austria-Hungary essentially wanted to destroy Serbia’s independence. For its part, Serbia did not want to go to war with Austria-Hungary and would have agreed to many concessions, but it could not effectively agree to give up its independence. As the situation grew more desperate, Serbia turned to its ally Russia. Appealing to the Slavic heritage of both nations, Serbian leaders extracted a promise that Russia would come to their aid if Austria-Hungary attacked.
For Austria-Hungary, the prospect of war with Russia was much more complicated than war solely with Serbia would be. Austria-Hungary turned to its longtime ally Germany for a show of support. Germany then extended a “blank check” to Austria-Hungary, asking for no details about what Austria-Hungary was planning but essentially agreed to back it no matter what. Germany expected that Austria-Hungary would make a quick move against Serbia, but as the weeks passed, its “blank check” came to look like an endorsement of Austria-Hungary’s hostile behavior.
Over the next month, what had been an argument between two nations was enveloping the entire continent. It was becoming clear that if war broke out, it would pull into it many countries bound by their treaty obligations to one another. Many people were alarmed, believing such a war would have few winners. One group that loudly protested a possible war were Europe’s socialist leaders. They were already predisposed to reject monarchial arguments in favor of a war, since the industrial masses would be the ones fighting it. Even once the war started, socialists such as Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour Party in Great Britain, were still trying to organize workers to strike in protest against it.
In France, as the war approached, the socialist leader Jean Jaurès was increasingly concerned about how it would affect the French people. Jaurès had been speaking out in favor of pacifism for many years and had opposed France’s three-year conscription law in 1913. In 1914, he continued to agitate against the prospect of a general European war. Arguing that no workers anywhere would benefit from a war of the elites, he even tried to work with German socialists in opposition to the war, attending the congress of the Socialist International in Brussels in July 1914. On July 31, however, Raoul Villain, a young man with French nationalist sympathies, shot and killed Jaurès in Paris, where he was dining after his return from Brussels. The outcry over Jaurès’s death threatened to further disrupt France’s precarious position, while other countries were already mobilizing their troops.
For socialists across Europe, the war became a defining moment. Their shared ideal of international socialism came up against their nationalist sympathies and love of country. Once the war did break out, they came out in support of it and endorsed funding it. Russian socialists were less likely to support the war effort, though later they played a role in the war as the Russian monarchy collapsed. In Italy, factional splits among the socialists helped lead to the rise of Benito Mussolini. Unlike other Italian socialists, Mussolini supported Italy’s entry into the war because he believed it was the spark needed to launch a socialist revolution. He was expelled from the party as a result. Mussolini’s support for the war made him appealing to Italian nationalists who later formed the backbone of the postwar fascist movement.
Emboldened by support from Germany’s “blank check,” Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, after Serbia failed to meet the demands of the Austrian ultimatum. Russia ordered mobilization of its troops on July 30 in response. Germany now found itself pulled into the fight whether it wanted to be or not, declaring war on Russia on August 1 and ordering full mobilization. France then ordered its own general mobilization, partly because it was bound to by treaty terms with Russia but also because it feared what a mobilized Germany might do to it, with memories of the Franco-Prussian War in mind. As it turned out, France was right to be apprehensive.
The military planners in Germany had been readying for war for many years in the absence of any actual combat. The Schlieffen Plan for fighting a short, two-front war had been continuously amended after its initial development, but in 1914 its basic form still rested on the belief that Russia would be slow to mobilize and unable to field troops for many weeks after a declaration of war. Since Germany was prepared for immediate mobilization, it would use these weeks to attack France and capture Paris, causing France’s surrender (as it had in 1871), and then it would turn its troops to fight Russia.
The expectation of a short war was not just on Germany’s side. Other countries also believed in 1914 that even if a war broke out that summer, the troops would be home by Christmas. Some even saw war as a catharsis for all the tension in Europe and felt it would be a welcome event. Many young men, not having experienced a war in their lifetimes, excitedly followed news of the diplomatic wrangling and the early calls of mobilization.
See a map of Europe in 1914 and a list of the countries/territories. Click on a country to access an overview of it, various aspects of its participation in the war, and primary source documents relating to it. Take some time to explore several countries and learn about what happened to them during the war.
Germany’s plan for war on France called for moving westward and then sweeping south to head for Paris. To do this, the German armies would need to march across the country of Belgium. On August 2, 1914, they reached the Belgian border and asked for permission to enter and cross to France. Belgium was a small country, with a small military and no way to successfully fight a German advance. The German military leaders and their troops believed it would quickly agree to let them through. But the King of Belgium declined. In 1839, the German Confederation (the predecessor of Germany) as well as other countries in Europe had been signatories to a treaty that guaranteed the independence of Belgium. The king believed that allowing Germany entrance would undermine its independence, and he could not allow that. He ordered the Belgium military to begin blowing up bridges to prevent an easy German crossing.
The German armies entered anyway but were immensely frustrated by their slow progress and Belgium’s obstinacy. As they made their way, they took their revenge on the Belgian civilians. For weeks they laid siege to the fortress town of Liège, demolishing the dozen forts that surrounded it. In some cities, believing they were being shot at by civilians, German troops rounded up some of the men in the community and executed them. Ultimately, hundreds of civilians including women and children were killed. The German army wrought wholesale destruction, burning more than a thousand buildings, including the library in Louvain.
The Burning of Louvain
The following is an eyewitness account of the burning of the city of Louvain during the 1914 German invasion of Belgium, written by a professor at the local university who describes the fire and a subsequent encounter with German soldiers.
Wednesday, 26th August, 1 o’clock in the morning. Awakened by the glare of burning houses. Went up to the roof of the College. Several houses in succession broke into flames. By the Old Market Place, on which the University Library building abuts, houses blazed up and collapsed one after another. Watched the progress of the fire anxiously.
1.30 a.m. The houses next to the Library were on fire.
1.45 a.m. The first flames darted through the roof of the Library. The Library was entirely consumed. [. . .]
We then saw, brought between two soldiers with fixed bayonets and accompanied by two officers, Father Eugène Dupiéreux. He held in his clasped hands his crucifix and rosary. We understood. [. . .]
[The following is the text of a paper found on Father Dupiéreux and read aloud at the scene.]
“At the beginning of the war we laughed when French newspapers spoke of the invasion of barbarian hordes. Those who, like us, have seen the conduct of Germans at Louvain, now know what to expect. . . . After the burning of the Library and the University, the barbarians can no longer have a word to say against Khalif Omar for burning the Library at Alexandria. And all in the name of German culture!”
When the paper had been read and translated there was silence for a moment. Father Dupiéreux asked to be allowed to receive absolution. “Absolution! What is that?” was the brutal reply. He answered “To see a priest.” They assented. A priest advanced. Father Dupiéreux knelt down, and the priest heard his confession and give [sic] him absolution. When the Father arose his confessor grasped him by the hand, and after a few words had been exchanged, Father Dupiéreux advanced alone in the direction of the wood. He was pale but quite calm. [. . .]
Thirty yards from us Father Dupiéreux was ordered to halt. Four soldiers came and lined up ten yards in front of us. The order to fire was given by a non-commissioned officer. Father Dupiéreux fell. There was silence for two minutes. The Father’s arm still moved. We were made to turn round. The victim was despatched by a bullet in the temple and buried.
We do not know whether Father Dupiéreux was tried. In any case, it may be calculated that the trial cannot have lasted ten minutes. Moreover, the officers present had an imperfect knowledge of French and Father Dupiéreux did not know German. Nobody can have helped him in his defence.
While this was going on it was explained to us that we were hostages and that if anyone fired on the troops we should all be shot.
—Author unknown, “Brief account of the events that took place at Louvain on the 25th, 26th and 27th August, 1914”
- What type of destruction did the writer witness?
- What happened to Father Dupiéreux?
- What happened to the writer on this day?
These weeks, more than any others, shaped the world’s perception of the war and of Germany. The “Rape of Belgium” cast Germany as an aggressor nation that behaved inhumanely in war. It fed the propaganda machines of the Allies, the nations that united to oppose Germany and Austria-Hungary and originally consisted of Russia, France, and Britain.
Britain was carefully monitoring events and news at the beginning of August. Foreign Secretary Edward Gray delivered a speech on August 3 describing what was at stake in failing to react to the threat hanging over Belgium. Germany and France went to war with one another on August 3, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force of close to a quarter of a million soldiers arrived in France and helped support the French troops as they tried to withstand the German war machine.
The combatants rushed to begin recruiting more troops for their militaries. Conscription laws in some countries meant that adult men had already received some military training and were assigned to reserve units, so there was a straightforward means to organize and deploy these troops. Other places, such as Great Britain, had a volunteer military. Either way, there was mass enthusiasm as the war broke out, and men thronged to recruiting stations (Figure 11.11).
The World at War
Some German units never made it out of Belgium, and fierce fighting there continued for the duration of the war. Other units swept south and continued their advance through northern France. French troops moved swiftly to block them. The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 created front lines where a stalemate lasted several years as both sides dug a trench system from which to fight. German armies were moving toward Paris when the French were able to exploit a gap between two of the divisions. A series of flanking maneuvers ensued as the French and Germans both raced to the sea. Additional French troops were called up, and at one point the French reserves even commandeered the taxicabs of Paris to ferry themselves to the front. The Battle of the Marne went on for a week before the German advance was stopped. The battle was fought so close to Paris that civilians could hear the sounds of the fighting. Given an information blackout due to government censors, rumors about the threat to Paris were rampant. Approximately 800,000 people left the city, anticipating a German invasion.
Examine sheet music covers for the popular songs of World War I, such as “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” at the Smithsonian. What do they tell you about the way these songs sought to inspire people on the battlefield and the home front?
In the east, Germany found itself facing the Russians in battle much earlier than expected. Due to its size, the potential of the Russian military was great, but the reality was quite different; the troops were poorly equipped and poorly trained. At the Battle of Tannenberg, for example, communication problems developed among the Russian high command, while the troops suffered from lack of supplies; the country’s limited rail lines could not keep up with their needs. The Germans decimated them. They took more than 90,000 prisoners, and another 50,000 Russians had become casualties in the week of fighting. The Germans suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties in comparison. The general in command of the Russian army committed suicide.
The Russians’ dearth of supplies also featured in a major engagement with the Austro-Hungarian forces as Russia laid siege to Przemyśl in modern-day Poland. As the siege continued from the summer into the fall and then the winter, Russian soldiers lacked coats and boots to withstand the plummeting temperatures, though Russia ultimately took the city in 1915. The Austro-Hungarian forces bore the brunt of the siege and fighting in the nearby mountains to relieve the fortress, experiencing well over 900,000 casualties—an astronomical number.
The naval power of Great Britain was soon brought to bear. The British instituted a blockade of German ports that made it exceedingly difficult for Germany to import the goods it needed. The country’s industrial strength helped it survive this blockade for a good portion of the war, but by its last year, shortages were being felt by every German family. Its navy was not large enough to implement a retaliatory blockade against Britain, but Germany did consider the North Sea a war zone and used mines and submarines to sink ships sailing there.
In Asia, the coming of the war caused nations to take sides. The Japanese Empire, emboldened by its success against Russia less than a decade earlier in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), saw the opportunity to increase its standing in the world and sided with the Allies. Japanese forces attacked the German colonial port at Qingdao (Tsingtao), a city on the Chinese coast that Germany had held for less than twenty years as the planned headquarters of its Asian empire. In mid-August 1914, Japan demanded that Germany abandon Qingdao. When it refused, Japan blockaded the port and began bombarding it. The attacks continued for two months until Germany surrendered the city in November. Japan was able to cement its relationship with Great Britain and give its modernizing military another victory that increased its pride.
The Allies rejected offers of military troops from China at the beginning of the war. By 1916, however, the situation had changed, and Britain and France allowed Chinese laborers to come to Europe. China had been willing to send combat troops, hoping to gain leverage in treaty negotiations after the war and support for ousting Japan from its borders, but Japan, which had taken control of Qingdao and hoped to establish itself as the unquestioned military power in Asia, would not permit it. Thus, approximately 130,000 Chinese laborers arrived in Europe, to repair equipment and dig trenches but not to fight.
Other combatant powers entered the war after the summer of 1914. In October, the Ottoman Empire engaged in combat on behalf of the Central powers by attacking Russia’s fleet on the Black Sea. For the Ottomans, entering into the war was a calculated risk. The empire hoped to regain some standing in the world and even possibly more territory, and clear bonds had developed between the Ottoman leadership and that of Germany over the past years. Other countries soon followed suit. Bulgaria entered the war via secret agreement in 1915 on the side of the Central powers, also hoping for territorial acquisition at the conclusion of the fighting. On the other side of the spectrum, Italy had announced its neutrality when the war broke out, but many Italians harbored a dislike of Austria-Hungary, and there had been many disagreements about the border between the two countries over the years. In May 1915, Italy declared war against the Central powers, having first secured Allied support through a secret agreement in April. The hope of reclaiming land lost to Austria-Hungary was paramount in its decision.
Isolationism had been a consistent practice of U.S. foreign policy, and the United States planned to maintain it, while at the same time selling products to both the Allied powers of Britain and France and the Central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was clear from the outset, however, that “the vast majority of American trade went to the Allies,” partly because of Britain’s substantial role in U.S. naval, merchant, and credit operations but also because the British blockade made it difficult for anyone to trade with Germany. U.S. banks were soon extending loans and lines of credit to both sides as well, although approximately $2 billion had been extended to the Allies by the spring of 1917 and a mere $27 million to the Central powers.
Among the American public, there was little support for or interest in entering this European war. Not hampered by censorship of the news as the combatant powers were, American readers could easily learn about the casualty numbers and the horror of the war. They congratulated themselves that they were not party to this insanity and showed little desire to enter it.
There were additional complicating issues for the United States. The country’s volunteer army was quite small and would have little impact on the war if it entered at this time. While businesses and banks were siding with the Allied cause, a substantial number of Irish immigrants were vehemently anti-British because of ongoing conflicts in Ireland, and it was questionable how they would react to the United States entering a war on the British side. There was also a significantly large German population in the United States that could oppose siding with the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson had shown little interest in foreign policy in his previous career as a professor of government and history; instead, he saw domestic reform as his administration’s main focus when he came into office. He had been willing to intervene in Latin America as a neighboring region but did not have that same approach regarding Europe. However, his commitment to the freedom of the seas and the rights of neutral nations in times of war soon put him on a collision course with Germany.