The Decision for War: Triggering Violence and Chaos

  July 20, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Decision for War: Triggering Violence and Chaos
The situation was complicated when the Austrians delivered their ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914. The Austrians were determined to crush the Serbs, if necessary by using military force, and relied on their German ally to hold the Russians in check while they did so.

The Germans were confident that they could deter Russia from intervening, but even if they did not, they preferred to go to war while their army was at the peak of its strength, rather than delay while the balance of military power tipped inexorably in favour of their adversaries. The one thing they did not contemplate was letting the Austrians down. The Dual Monarchy was their only remaining ally (quite rightly they discounted the Italians), and its humiliation and likely disintegration would be catastrophic for German prestige and power. But very similar calculations were being made in Russia. For the Russians, to abandon Serbia would be to betray the whole Slav cause and lose everything that had been gained in the Balkans since the beginning of the century. Finally, for the French, to abandon Russia to defeat would be peacefully to acquiesce in a German hegemony of Europe and her own reduction to the rank of a third-rate power. All this was quite clear in Berlin. By supporting the Austrians the Germans knew that they were risking a European war, but one that they expected to win. The only question was, would it also be a world war? Would Britain be brought in as well?

This was a possibility whose implications had been barely considered in Berlin, where decision-makers were in a state of what psychologists have termed ‘cognitive dissonance’. Britain was widely seen as Germany’s ultimate enemy, the adversary who must be faced down if Germany were to attain her rightful status as a World Power. Yet Britain had been virtually ignored in German military planning. The army had left it to the navy, assuming that any expeditionary force Britain sent to help the French would be too small to worry about. But the German navy could do nothing—or believed it could do nothing—until it built up a high seas fleet capable of challenging the Royal Navy, which it was not yet in a position to do. For Germany’s Minister for the Navy, Admiral Graf von Tirpitz, the timing of the war was disastrous. Any British expeditionary force on the Continent might be caught up in the defeat of its allies, but that had happened before (as it was to happen again) in European history; but the war could still have gone on as it had in the days of Napoleon—a prolonged war of the kind for which no one had planned and which it was generally believed that no one could win.

The German government was thus gambling on British neutrality, and in July 1914 this seemed a reasonable bet. Since 1906 the hands of the British government had been full with industrial unrest at home and an apparently imminent civil war in Ireland. Ever since the Agadir crisis in 1911 British military leaders had been holding informal but detailed staff discussions with their French colleagues about the possible dispatch of an expeditionary force to the Continent, but the government had not thought it wise to reveal these to a largely pacifistic parliament. The Royal Navy had made all its dispositions on the assumption of a war with Germany, but was committed to nothing. There was widespread concern at the thrust of German policy, but left-wing and liberal opinion remained solidly neutralist. Dislike of German ‘militarism’ was balanced by hostility to a despotic Russian regime whose pogroms against Jews and brutal persecution of dissidents were equally offensive to the liberal conscience. It was still widely believed that British imperial interests were threatened more by France and Russia than by Germany. Commercial and financial links with Germany remained close. Public opinion and parliamentary support thus remained too uncertain for the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to be able to give any unequivocal assurance that, if the crisis developed into war, Britain would take her place alongside her associates of the Triple Entente. Had Germany not invaded Belgium, it is an open question whether Britain would have maintained her neutrality and for how long. But invade her she did, and we must see why.