The forthcoming 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “war to end all wars”, i.e. WWI, is a good opportunity to have a sober assessment of “who did what, when”. David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer” (Why the World Went to War in 1914. Vintage Books London, 2005) makes a number of interesting points in this respect. However, as a warning to readers, Austria is not coming out well in his account. Fromkin follows in large parts Fritz Schneider’s authoritative assessment of Germany’s and Austria’s “culpability” in starting WWI. This is in contrast to the new book by Cambridge historian Christopher Clark (The Sleepwalkers, 2012) which just has been published in German (Die Schlafwandler) who puts the major blame on Serbia’s nationalism, quasi exonerating Germany and Austria.
Fromkin portrays vividly the outwardly peaceful and creative atmosphere at the beginning of the last millennium, and behind this happy façade, the power struggles among the great powers of Europe for supremacy, Germany’s ascension and ambition to overpower especially Russia, and Austria’s obsession with Serbia, especially after the Balkan wars and settlements of 1908.
Let us just recap a few facts closer to home. Austria had to yield significant powers to Hungary in the 1866 “Ausgleich” which resulted in the “Dual Monarchy”. It had been pushed out of Germany at Königgrätz in 1871 and been left to its own devices. It had occupied Bosnia in order to contain Serbia and maintain and safeguard its foothold in the Balkans and feebly attempted to hold the 11 nations of its empire together, always threatened by nationalistic freedom movements and attempts by Russia to pry loose and attack its flanks. The two Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 left Serbia’s ambitions as the leading Balkan power unfulfilled.
According to Fromkin, there was a close personal connection between Wilhelm II and the Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand who admired each other and felt close kinship. Fromkin states that Wilhelm was probably the only person in Europe who appreciated Franz Ferdinand, while everybody, from the north of the Hapsburg empire to the South, and not least in Vienna itself, saw his Sarajevo assassination as a relief, including the Emporer. This close personal connection of two “difficult monarchs” may have been responsible for the “blank check” the Germans gave to Austria, guaranteeing support in case of Austrian action against Serbia.
Months before the assassination, Germany and Austria had agreed on a plan which in theory helped both their interests: Austria would strike at Serbia pre-emptively, moving into Belgrade within 2 days and wiping Serbia off the map as a political entity, before any other power (Russia) could come to Serbia’s aid. The presumption was that the other Great Powers would take this as a fait accompli and acquiesce. Behind that veil, Germany would strike at Russia and thus again create faits accomplis, before the French and British who were also weary of Russia, would maybe come to their help. However, the German government, knowing that the German population was against war, needed Russia to set an aggressive act, in order to gain public support. They finally got that when Russia partially mobilized its military on July 30 – as a result of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, a concerted, but nearly bungled attempt by Gavrilo Princip, an Austrian/Bosnian citizen of Serb roots and Serbian connections, was seen by both Germany and Austria as the signal to create a new political landscape in Europe, Austria dominating East and South, Germany the predominant continental European power. Austria would be able, by smashing Serbia, to annihilate some of the results of the Balkan wars 1912-13, Germany would be the undisputed hegemon of Europe.
A plan agreed, but not executed. In Fromkin’s book, the main culprit for starting the war is Austria, especially Conrad (Hötzendorf), the long-term chief of staff of the Austrian army, an influential policy maker in Austria until he was removed by the new emperor in 1916.Conard, who for years railed in favor of a preemptive strike against Serbia, suddenly got cold feet when the “opportunity arose”, i.e. after the assassination. He procrastrinated, proclaimed he did not have enough resources, waited with the ultimatum to Serbia, etc., etc. To today’s Austrians, this way of policy making sounds eerily familiar.
However, Germany surreptitiously hedged slightly different plans. They (especially Chief of Staff Moltke) concluded to use Austria for their own purposes, because they realized that their own ascendancy aspirations would create problems with France, at least. Recognizing that they – in spite of their industrialization and armament efforts – could not wage a two/front war, they wanted Austria to hold Russia at bay, while they would sweep through Belgium and Holland into France, capture Paris and then return back towards Russia, which up to then had been engaged by Austria. Austria was not aware of these plans and still thought that they could pursue their own aims – using all their military might – to put down Serbia.
It came as it had to come: Hötzendorf procrastrinated, hoping to further strengthen his army. He hesitated and then engineeered the Austrian (purposely unacceptable) ultimatum and made it public, until all of Europe knew that something really significan was in the bush. Thus, the original plan, that Austria would sweep into Serbia, subdue it and be done with it, while Germany had a free hand, failed. Wilhelm and Moltke ordered the Austrians (why did they comply?) to abandon their belated Serbian campaign and put most of their manpower and weapons Eastward to the Russian front – not very successfully. Germany, at the same time, violated Belgium and Holland’s neutrality and got bogged down in the horrendous trench warfare.
The results are known: 20 millions of Europeans died, a non-intended world war ensued, Europe was destroyed, hunger, misery, and eventually the rise of fascism with its devastating humanitarian costs which changed the whole civilizatory outlook of the world, showed barbarism in the most “developed” part of the world.
What can one learn from this book? That Austria had a bungling and inept military, political and social policy, that infighting existed inside the government, that the Emperor did not have a grasp of what was happening, that duplicity between the protagonists of the Great Powers was an everyday experience. Reading Fromkin, I am tempted to see many of these traits as a “genetic” defect of Austria which persists until today. (Of course, I do not agree that there are fixed cultural or genetic traits in nations or countries: I rather believe in adaptation and the ability to change with circumstances). Fromkin debunks the heroic and victim narrative, which Austria still celebrates, of some dark Serbian forces who prevented the benevolent Crown Prince’s attempts to pacify Bosnia. Most Austrians do not know that Gavrilo was an Austrian subject, not a Serbian citizen. But official Austria did hold Serbia responsible for his and his conspirators’ deeds.
Some of Fromkin’s analyses may seem far-fetched. His “proof” that Serbia, in spite of its anti-Austrian political forces who aspired to leadership on the Balkans, was not responsible for starting WWI is that Hoetzendorf’s staff started on developing a “put down Serbia” strategy fully 2 (!) weeks before the assassination, to me seems very weak. Two weeks is equivalent to concurrent. Development of a real strategy takes a bit longer. It may well be that nobody wanted a “world” war, but obviously individual actors, from France, to Germany to Austria to Russia and Serbia, all played their own “personal” gain, attempted to increase their own power, without regard to the larger context. In the end, all of us paid very, very dearly for it.
There is no reason to “celebrate” the outbreak of WWI. It should be a day of mourning. It changed Europe thoroughly. This had been initiated by the botched attempt to reorganize Europa after the Napoleonic Wars (Congress of Vienna 1815), went through the unification of Germany and Austria’s expulsion from German speaking countries, the Balkan Wars as a result of pushing the Ottomans out of Europe and create fiercely nationalistic successor states – and Twenty years later caused the unimaginable, another 50 million deaths, mainly civilians, the final proof that the veneer of civilization and the humanitarian layer is very, very thin, indeed. For me, there is only one good thing that came from all this posturing, this striving for supremacy, this power and economic game: today Austria is so small and politically insignificant a country that it can no longer threaten neighbors and cause, maybe involuntarily, a world war. The ineptitude, infighting, sloppiness, incapacity for strategic thinking, let alone acting, exhibited by Conrad, by Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph and his government, however, seems to live on forever in the “genes” of the leading personnel of this country.