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Prelude to World War I

September 7, 2012Ralph Raico

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History


With the World War mankind got into a crisis with which nothing that happened before in history can be compared.… In the world crisis whose beginning we are experiencing, all peoples of the world are involved.… War has become more fearful because it is waged with all the means of the highly developed technique that the free economy has created.… Never was the individual more tyrannized than since the outbreak of the World War and especially of the world revolution. One cannot escape the police and administrative technique of the present day.

Ludwig von Mises (1919)1

The First World War is the turning point of the 20th century. Had the war not occurred, the Prussian Hohenzollerns would most probably have remained heads of Germany, with their panoply of subordinate kings and nobility in charge of the lesser German states. Whatever gains Hitler might have scored in the Reichstag elections, could he have erected his totalitarian, exterminationist dictatorship in the midst of this powerful aristocratic superstructure? Highly unlikely. In Russia, Lenin's few thousand Communist revolutionaries confronted the immense Imperial Russian Army, the largest in the world. For Lenin to have any chance to succeed, that great army had first to be pulverized, which is what the Germans did. So, a 20th century without the Great War might well have meant a century without Nazis or Communists. Imagine that. It was also a turning point in the history of our American nation, which under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson developed into something radically different from what it had been before. Thus, the importance of the origins of that war, its course, and its aftermath.


In 1919, when the carnage at the fronts was at long last over, the victors gathered in Paris to concoct a series of peace treaties. Eventually, these were duly signed by the representatives of four of the five vanquished nations, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria (the final settlement with Turkey came in 1923), each at one of the palaces in the vicinity. The signing of the most important one, the treaty with Germany, took place at the great Palace of Versailles. Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles reads:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.2

It was unprecedented in the history of peace negotiations that those who lost a war should have to admit their guilt for starting it. The fact that the "war-guilt clause" implied German liability for unstated but huge reparations added fuel to the controversy over who was to blame for the outbreak of the war. This immediately became, and has remained, one of the most disputed questions in all of historical writing. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they gleefully opened the Tsarist archives, publishing documents that included some of the secret treaties of the Entente powers to divide up the spoils after the war was over. Their purpose was to embarrass the sanctimonious "capitalist" governments, which had insisted on the virgin purity of their cause. This move contributed to other nations making public many of their own documents at an earlier point than might have been expected.

In the interwar period, a consensus developed among scholars that the war-guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty was historically worthless. Probably the most respected interpretation was that of Sidney Fay, who apportioned major responsibility among Austria, Russia, Serbia, and Germany.3 In 1952, a committee of prominent French and German historians concluded:

The documents do not permit any attributing, to any government or nation, a premeditated desire for European war in 1914. Distrust was at its highest, and leading groups were dominated by the thought that war was inevitable; everyone thought that the other side was contemplating aggression.…4

This consensus was shaken in 1961 with the publication of Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht ("Grab for World Power"). In the final formulation of this interpretation, Fischer and the scholars who followed him maintained that in 1914 the German government deliberately ignited a European war in order to impose its hegemony over Europe.5 (Would that all historians were as cynical regarding the motives of their own states.) The researches of the Fischer school forced certain minor revisions in the earlier generally accepted view.

But the historiographical pendulum has now swung much too far in the Fischer direction. Foreign historians have tended to accept his analysis wholesale, perhaps because it fit their "image of German history, determined largely by the experience of Hitler's Germany and the Second World War."6 The editors of an American reference work on World War I, for example, state outright that "Kaiser and [the German] Foreign Office … along with the General Staff … purposely used the crisis [caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand] to bring about a general European war. Truth is simple, refreshingly simple."7

Well, maybe not so simple. Fritz Stern warned that while the legend propagated in the interwar period by some nationalistic German historians of their government's total innocence "has been effectively exploded, in some quarters there is a tendency to create a legend in reverse by suggesting Germany's sole guilt, and thus to perpetuate the legend in a different form."8

Prelude to War

The roots of the First World War reach back to the last decades of the 19th century.9 After France's defeat by Prussia, the emergence in 1871 of a great German Empire dramatically altered the balance of forces in Europe. For centuries the German lands had served as a battlefield for the European powers, who exploited the disunity of the territory for their own aggrandizement. Now the political skills of the Prussian minister Otto von Bismarck and the might of the Prussian army had created what was clearly the leading continental power, extending from the French to the Russian borders and from the Baltic to the Alps.

One of the main concerns of Bismarck, who served as Prussian minister and German Chancellor for another two decades, was to preserve the newfound unity of the this, the Second Reich. Above all, war had to be avoided. The Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War compelled France to cede Alsace and half of Lorraine, a loss the French would not permanently resign themselves to. In order to isolate France, Bismarck contrived a system of defensive treaties with Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, insuring that France could find no partner for an attack on Germany.

In 1890, the old Chancellor was dismissed by the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II. In the same year, Russia was suddenly freed of the connection with Germany by the expiration and non-renewal of the "Reinsurance Treaty." Diplomatic moves began in Paris to win over Russia to an alliance which could be used to further French purposes, defensive and possibly offensive as well.10 Negotiations between the civilian and military leaders of the two countries produced, in 1894, a Franco-Russian military treaty, which remained in effect through the onset of the First World War. At this time it was understood, as General Boisdeffre told Tsar Alexander III, that "mobilization means war." Even a partial mobilization by Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Italy was to be answered by a total mobilization of France and Russia and the inauguration of hostilities against all three members of the Triple Alliance.11

In the years that followed, French diplomacy continued to be, as Laurence Lafore put it, "dazzlingly brilliant."12 The Germans, in contrast, stumbled from one blunder to another; the worst of these was the initiation of a naval arms race with Britain. When the latter finally decided to abandon its traditional aversion to peacetime entanglements with other powers, the French devised an Entente cordiale, or "cordial understanding," between the two nations. In 1907, with France's friendly encouragement, England and Russia resolved various points of contention, and a Triple Entente came into existence, confronting the Triple Alliance.

The two combinations differed greatly in strength and cohesion, however. Britain, France, and Russia were world powers. But Austria and Italy were the weakest of the European powers; moreover, Italy's unreliability as an ally was notorious, while Austria-Hungary, composed of numerous feuding nationalities, was held together only by allegiance to the ancient Habsburg dynasty. In an age of rampant nationalism, this allegiance was wearing thin in places, especially among Austria's Serb subjects. Many of these felt a greater attachment to the Kingdom of Serbia, where, in turn, fervent nationalists looked forward to the creation of a Greater Serbia, or perhaps even a kingdom of all the South Slavs — a "Yugoslavia."

A series of crises in the years leading up to 1914 solidified the Triple Entente to the point where the Germans felt they faced "encirclement" by superior forces. In 1911, when France moved to complete its subjugation of Morocco, Germany forcefully objected. The ensuing crisis revealed how close together Britain and France had come, as their military chiefs discussed sending a British expeditionary force across the Channel in case of war.13 In 1913, a secret naval agreement provided that, in the event of hostilities, the Royal Navy would assume responsibility for protecting the French Channel coast while the French stood guard in the Mediterranean. "The Anglo-French entente was now virtually a military alliance."14 In democratic Britain, all of this took place without the knowledge of the people, Parliament, or even most of the Cabinet.

The dispute over Morocco was settled by a transfer of African territory to Germany, demonstrating that colonial rivalries, though they produced tensions, were not central enough to lead to war among the powers. But the French move into Morocco set into motion a series of events that brought on war in the Balkans, and then the Great War. According to a previous agreement, if France took over Morocco, Italy had the right to occupy what is today Libya, at the time a possession of the Ottoman Turks. Italy declared war on Turkey, and the Italian victory roused the appetite of the small Balkan states for what remained of Turkey's European holdings.

Russia, especially after being thwarted in the Far East by Japan in the war of 1904–5, had great ambitions in the Balkans. Nicholas Hartwig, Russia's highly influential ambassador to Serbia, was an extreme Pan-Slavist, that is, an adherent of the movement to unite the Slavic peoples under Russian leadership. Hartwig orchestrated the formation of the Balkan League, and, in 1912, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece declared war on Turkey. When Bulgaria claimed the lion's share of the spoils, its erstwhile allies, joined by Romania and Turkey itself, fell upon Bulgaria the next year, in the Second Balkan War.

These wars caused great anxiety in Europe, particularly in Austria, which feared the enlargement of Serbia backed by Russia. In Vienna, the head of the army, Conrad, pushed for a preventive war, but was overruled by the old Emperor, Franz Josef. Serbia emerged from the Balkan conflicts not only with a greatly expanded territory, but also animated by a vaulting nationalism, which Russia was happy to egg on. Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Minister wrote to Hartwig: "Serbia's promised land lies in the territory of present-day Hungary," and instructed him to help prepare the Serbians for "the future inevitable struggle."15 By the spring of 1914, the Russians were arranging for another Balkan League, under Russian direction. They received the strong support of France, whose new President, Raymond Poincaré, born in Lorraine, was himself an aggressive nationalist. It was estimated that the new league, headed by Serbia, might provide as many as a million men on Austria's southern flank, wrecking the military plans of the Central Powers.16

Russia's military buildup was commensurate with its ambitions. Norman Stone has written, of Russia on the eve of the Great War:

The army contained 114½ infantry divisions to Germany's 96, and contained 6,720 mobile guns to the Germans' 6,004. Strategic railway-building was such that by 1917 Russia would be able to send nearly a hundred divisions for war with the Central Powers within eighteen days of mobilization — only three days behind Germany in overall readiness. Similarly, Russia became, once more, an important naval power … by 1913–14 she was spending £24,000,000 to the Germans' £23,000,000.17

And this is not even to count France.

The Russian program underway called for even more imposing forces by 1917, when they might well be needed: "Plans were going ahead for seizure by naval coup of Constantinople and the Straits, and a naval convention with Great Britain allowed for co-operation in the Baltic against Germany."18


Russia regarded Germany as an inevitable enemy, because Germany would never consent to Russian seizure of the Straits or to the Russian-led creation of a Balkans front whose object was the demise of Austria-Hungary. The Habsburg monarchy was Germany's last dependable ally, and its disintegration into a collection of small, mostly Slavic states would open up Germany's southern front to attack. Germany would be placed in a militarily impossible situation, at the mercy of its continental foes. Austria-Hungary had to be preserved at all costs.

Things had come to such a pass that Colonel Edward House, Woodrow Wilson's confidant, traveling in Europe to gather information for the President, reported in May, 1914:

The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad.… There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.19

  • 1. Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time, Leland B. Yeager, trans. (New York: New York University Press, 1983), pp. 215–16.
  • 2. Alan Sharp, The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 87. The Allied Covering Letter of June 16, 1919 filled in the indictment, accusing Germany of having deliberately unleashed the Great War in order to subjugate Europe, "the greatest crime" ever committed by a supposedly civilized nation. Karl Dietrich Erdmann, "War Guilt 1914 Reconsidered: A Balance of New Research," in H. W. Koch, ed., The Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalries and German War Aims, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 342.
  • 3. Sidney B. Fay, The Origins of the World War, 2 vols. (New York: Free Press, 1966 [1928]).
  • 4. Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I, 1871–1914, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt, Brace, 1995), p. 131.
  • 5. See Fritz Fischer, Germany's Aims in the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967 [1961]); idem, War of Illusions: German Policies from 1911 to 1914 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975 [1969]), Marian Jackson, trans.; Imanuel Geiss, July 1914: The Outbreak of the First World War, Selected Documents (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1967 [1963–64]); and idem, German Foreign Policy, 1871–1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975). The work by John W. Langdon, July 1914: The Long Debate, 1918–1990 (New York: Berg, 1991) is a useful historiographical survey, from a Fischerite viewpoint.
  • 6. H. W. Koch, "Introduction," in idem, Origins, p. 11.
  • 7. Holger H. Herwig and Neil M. Heyman, eds., Biographical Dictionary of World War I (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 10.
  • 8. Fritz Stern, "Bethmann Hollweg and the War: The Limits of Responsibility," in Leonard Krieger and Fritz Stern, eds., The Responsibility of Power: Historical Essays in Honor of Hajo Holborn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967), p. 254. Cf. H. W. Koch, "Introduction," p. 9: Fischer "ignores the fundamental readiness of the other European Powers to go to war, but also their excessive war aims which made any form of negotiated peace impossible. What is missing is the comparative yardstick and method." Also Laurence Lafore, The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I, 2nd ed. (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1971), p. 22: "Fischer's treatment is very narrowly on the German side of things, and a wider survey indicates clearly that the Germans were by no means the only people who were prepared to risk a war and who had expansionist programs in their minds."
  • 9. The following discussion draws on Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, Isabella M. Massey, trans. (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1980 [1952]), 3 vols.; L. C. F. Turner, Origins of the First World War (New York: Norton, 1970); James Joll, The Origins of the First World War, 2nd ed. (Longman: London, 1992); Remak, Origins; and Lafore, The Long Fuse, among other works.
  • 10. George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 30.
  • 11. Ibid., pp. 247–52.
  • 12. Lafore, The Long Fuse, p. 134.
  • 13. In February, 1912, the chief of the French Army, Joffre, stated: "All the arrangements for the English landing are made, down to the smallest detail so that the English Army can take part in the first big battle." Turner, Origins, pp. 30–31.
  • 14. Ibid., p. 25.
  • 15. Albertini, Origins, vol. 1, p. 486.
  • 16. Egmont Zechlin, "July 1914: Reply to a Polemic," in Koch, Origins, p. 372.
  • 17. Hew Strachan, The First World War, vol. 1, To Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 30, 63: "In the summer [of 1913] the French government intervened in Russian negotiations on the French stock market for a loan to finance railway construction. The French objective was to bring pressure to bear on the speed of Russian mobilization, so as to coordinate mutually supporting attacks on Germany from east and west.…" "By 1914, French loans had enabled the construction of strategic railways so that Russian mobilization could be accelerated and the first troops be into battle within fifteen days."
  • 18. Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1914–1917 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), p. 18.
  • 19. Charles Seymour, ed., The Intimate Papers of Colonel House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), vol. 1, p. 249.

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