I finished up Decisions For War, 1914 recently. This is a compendium of essays edited by Keith Wilson, describing the diplomatic atmosphere in each country coming into the Great War. Here are some impressions and interesting ideas I got from this, with the note that Tony probably knew all of this stuff already:
Introduction – Don’t read it. The introduction is incredibly boring and I almost put the book down at that point. I am sorry, Professor Sir F.H. Hinsley, but you’re boring, at least in this.
Austria-Hungary – I’m glad that I didn’t put the book down after the introduction, and this essay rewarded me for it. Fritz Fellner described the motivations of the Austro-Hungarians extremely well: jealousy and anger at Serbia, fear of Russian retaliation, and slightly starry-eyed hope that Germany would be willing to cover for the dual kingdom as they wipe out Serbia. As it turns out, Germany’s idea of cover was to declare war on France and Russia and then tell the Austrians that they’re needed to guard the Russian front, so stop worrying about Serbia. Austria-Hungary, therefore, was responsible for the direct impetus for war—their blaming the Serbian government for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and writing the famous ultimatum to Serbia—but ultimately it was Germany who was responsible for the war, as Germany egged Austria-Hungary on, declared war on France and Russia, and tried to keep the Entente from using diplomacy to short-circuit the dispute.
Germany – As noted in the previous essay, Germany was run by jerks. The author of this esay, John C. G. Röhl, points out the two strands of thought in historiography regarding Germany. The first comes from Bernhard Prince von Bülow, who argued that they were led astray by “the ‘honest schoolmaster’ Bethmann and the ‘petty-minded Junker,’ the ‘third-rate diplomat’ Jagow,” as well as Zimmermann and von Stumm. These four men, according to Bülow, offered Austria-Hungary carte blanche and this led to war. Instead, Bülow argues, they should never have done that and instead should have forced Austria-Hungary to remove the most incendiary clauses from their ultimatum, submitted the dispute to a Hague tribunal, allowed the French or Russians to declare war on Germany, and not have violated Belgian neutrality. Thus, these four men stumbled upon war…or did they? As it turns out, Jagow and Stumm actually did all they could to force a war, afraid that the Russians would complete their modernization process by placing railroad lines in Poland and be powerful enough to knock Germany off as the undisputed land power in Europe. According to this theory, which is now much more popular, Bülow’s criticisms actually miss the point. Bülow assumed that the Germans didn’t want war, but made a lot of mistakes to stumble into it; instead, they were actually afraid that the Austro-Hungarians wouldn’t go far enough and would wimp out before war started.
Serbia – I have to admit that I knew very little about Serbia before this, so Mark Cornwall’s attempt to resurrect the reputation of Nikola Pasic was new to me. The standard belief is that Pasic was out of his league and responded by not doing anything at all, and that he was a tool of the Russians, particulary the Russian minister in Serbia Nikolai Hartwig. Cornwall, however, argues that Pasic did all that he could to avert war given the circumstances. Serbia in 1914 had just come off of a draining victory against Austria-Hungary and still needed time to recover. In addition, Pasic’s slim majority in government had collapsed, so an election was to be held later that year. Finally, the Serbian people were far too nationalist to allow their government to cave in to Austro-Hungarian demands. So Pasic tried to play down the murder of Franz Ferdinand, distance the Serbian government and citizenry from it, and get the Great Powers to keep Austria-Hungary in line. Unfortunately for him, he was in the middle of a campaign, was getting little response from the main powers, and had an incompetent staff which couldn’t stay on tune. In addition, once the ultimatum came, Serbia had only 48 hours to respond, not enough time to get any of the Great Powers (even Russia) to come to a decision, and so the Serbians jumped into the war partially out of necessity, but also in order to complete their plans to create a Greater Serbia.
Russia – The first thing that Keith Neilson does is to point out that Russia was not the economically devastated country normally portrayed, but instead was growing at approximately 3.25% a year, a figure below that of the top European countries, but still enough to mean that they were not as backwards as some may think. Their armed forces, however, were quite as bad as expected in 1905. After being beaten by the Japanese, the Russians used their bountiful harvests to completely retool their military, purchase large amounts of artillery, and develop rail lines to their west. Unfortunately for the Russian military, the people in charge of placing the 7800 guns and 7 million artillery shells were idiots, and by putting a large amount of it in their Polish territory, the Germans were quickly able to capture 3000 guns and 2 million shells…but hey, at least the Russians had it to begin with!
France – The French were caught with their pants down. While the Austro-Hungarians were threatening Serbia, the French government was in Russia, and in fact, the ultimatum was timed to guarantee that the French government was out of telegraph range while heading back to Paris. Because the government in Paris was run by people who had no experience during those first few days, the French were playing catch-up and were forced to react throughout the war. The French government, once they were all back in Paris, then had to play things strictly defensively, even going so far as to prohibit their troops from going within 6 miles of the French border, just to make sure that the French did not accidentally commit an act of war. The happiest moment for France was when Germany invaded Belgium, as that meant that France was completely blameless and would act in national unity. In addition, it guaranteed British entrance in the war, given that the UK had pledged to honor Belgian neutrality in 1870.
Belgium – The Belgians received word from the Germans that if they did not put up any resistance to a German invasion, the Germans would give Belgium parts of French territory and would reimburse the Belgians for any actions committed by German soldiers. This offer leaked out into the Belgian press and the result was shocking: a huge surge of Belgian patriotism, demanding that the government reject this Judas-style offer (as they put it). Even though the Belgian army was small and certainly could not have withstood the full might of Germany, the still told the Germans to suck an egg and fought hard in the invasion. Their downfall came primarily because the Belgians were unable to coordinate with the British and French due to the fact that Belgium had actively tried to stay neutral in the intervening 44 years.
Britain – See France, but even more fractious. The British were split into three camps: Winston Churchill (who was First Lord of the Admiralty), Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Minister), and HH Asquith (Prime Minister) demanding to side with the French and declare war on Germany; most of the Labour Party and many Liberals who were ardent pacifists; and some, like David Lloyd George (who was Chancellor of the Exchequer), who were neutral. Because the Liberals had a very slim majority in Parliament, Churchill, Grey, and Asquith had a card which turned out to be very important: if they resigned, the government would collapse. As such, the British were slowly moved toward war, but it wasn’t until the Belgian invasion that war became a popular option. Even then, however, some of Asquith’s cabinet resigned, although a couple of Liberals came back because they wanted to keep their perks.
Japan – After the British were “benevolently neutral” in 1905, the Japanese wanted to return the favor. By “return the favor,” I mean “expand their sphere of influence and take over part of China.” Thus, once war broke out, the Japanese government offered their services to the British and started gearing their population up for a big war. The British didn’t want this, though, and would have preferred that Japan do little more than protecting British assets in the Far East from German attackers. Through a series of communications to Britain and Germany, the Japanese “reluctantly” made it clear that they were going to declare a full war on Germany. After this happened, the British and Russians asked for Japanese troops to reinforce either the eastern or western fronts, but Japan outright refused the request, instead sticking to the Pacific theater. Their actions, however, made the Americans and Dutch wary, as they saw what the Japanese were trying to do.
Ottoman Empire – This is a story of intrigue, and one which I’ll save for those who want to read the book.
Overall, I would say that this was a nice book for somebody who already has a good amount of knowledge about the situation but does not quite know exactly how it all began. If you don’t know that much about the war, you should read something else first, but anybody who has a strong interest in World War I has to read this book, as it will put the diplomatic pieces together better, perhaps, than anything else, and the authors are all very good and entertaining writers.