One of the greatest tragedies of the cataclysmic event that was war in 1914 was that it could have been avoided. The war itself was to have a profound effect on the World as we now know it. It was responsible for the demise of powers such as Germany and Austria-Hungary, for revolution in Russia and the emergence of a new force on the world stage, America. More directly, it was responsible for the loss of almost an entire generation, with over nine million people killed.
It has been proposed that this event was inevitable, that it was only a matter of time before tensions in central Europe, due to the Balkans, militarism, imperialism and secret diplomacy, exploded into full-blown conflict.This essay will argue that this was far from the case, and that the conflict could well have been avoided at many key times before the point of no return was reached. Issues to be discussed include an increasing use of diplomacy, a growing feeling of anti-militarism in the general population and the growth of peace movements and the actions of Austria-Hungary regarding Serbia. These issues in particular will be analysed to show that this horrific event could have been avoided.The years prior to conflict in 1914 represented a move from all the major states in Europe towards a firm commitment to arbitration and diplomacy. “For all the obvious dangers of militarism and colonial rivalry, the formal willingness of states to accept some restraints on their behalf was probably greater than in the whole history of modern Europe”1. There had not been a major war in Europe for over thirty years, quite an achievement given that the continent had been at war almost continuously for some time. Prior to 1914 issues that previously would almost certainly have lead to war in some form were resolved through diplomacy and the pressure of alliances between powers.
During previous situations in both the Balkans and Morocco for example, diplomacy was successfully used to avert conflict in situations filled with tension2. In the case of the First World War, conflict could very well have been avoided by diplomacy in the days immediately after the assassination of the Archduke on June 25 1914. In late July Austria-Hungary sent to Serbia a list of ten demands, and had all been agreed to the war would never have happened.
Seemingly intent on war however, Austria-Hungary had as one of the ten points a demand that they supervise the judicial proceedings of the murderers, a clear violation of their sovereignty.Despite this Serbia was prepared to accept the conditions, mostly because her major ally Russia was not thought to be able to mobilise quickly enough to come to Serbia’s aid. Upon discovering that the Russian army was in fact mobilising and prepared to back her ally, Serbia rejected the one clause. As a result Austria-Hungary declared war upon them, Russia reciprocated and soon all Europe was at war due to a system of alliances between countries3. Had the diplomatic avenue been taken at the point of conflict as it had been previously, the awful war to follow could have been avoided.
Out of this international move towards diplomacy grew an international body designed to help this diplomatic process. The Russian Tsar in 1898 proposed a conference to help slow the increasingly competitive and costly arms race, to meet at The Hague in Germany4. Out of this conference came not a firm agreement on this issue, but a commitment from all parties that a permanent court of arbitration was necessary to arbitrate in disputes between countries. The result was the establishment of the International Court at The Hague in 1899. While not a huge success as far as binding agreements was concerned, the fact that an organisation existed whereby arbitration was possible between countries was a huge step forward.
Why this system was not used as a means of trying to resolve the conflict in July 1914 is one of the more regrettable aspects of the Great War. Success in brokering a peace here would have dramatically changed the landscape of Europe, both politically and literally.Another avenue by which the war could well have been avoided was the growing move towards peace movements and anti-militarist sentiment. Some historians, such as Nial Ferguson, argue that the majority of the population in Europe were very much anti-militarist, a sentiment echoed in election results in the years prior to the war5.
Peace movements were also growing in popularity and influence, in particular the Socialist movement in France and Russia. The election in France in 1914 returned a left wing majority government to power, the left of centre parties were also strong in Germany and Britain.In fact in England, the anti-militarist left party the Liberals had won the last three elections over the militaristic Conservatives and Unionists6. In addition, because of the successful moves in establishing an International Court at The Hague, many peace organisations found that their messages were becoming increasingly popular. Rather than running independently as they were traditionally, peace congresses and a new body the Bureau International de la Paix helped to pool resources and increased the collective voice of the peace movements.
Organisations such as the Institute if International Law, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Nobel Committee further enhanced this growing move and influence internationally of peace movements.7The event that is concentrated on more than any other as the catalyst of war is the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist. This act and the actions in the days immediately following by individuals in the Austria-Hungarian government directly lead to the escalation into war, actions that had they been different could have avoided the devastation that was to follow. In the days following the murder, Austria-Hungary wrote to Germany asking for her support in eliminating the Serbian problem.Germany responded that they would do whatever was needed, in effect handing Austria-Hungary a ‘blank cheque’ to do whatever they saw fit to resolve the situation knowing they would have the full backing of Germany8. This was a dangerous action for both sides to take, as Germany must have been aware that Austria-Hungary was intent on a war. It appears that the Germans were confident that the Russian army would not be able to mobilise quickly enough following their embarrassment at Manchuria against the Japanese. In addition, Russia had stood by while Bulgaria, also a Slavic nation, had been defeated in 1913 and it was realistic to assume that they would do the same in this instance.
At this stage most of Europe was unsure of where Britain’s allegiances would lie. Russia knew that without their support, they would be unable to defeat the German army. According to historian John Keegan in his work The First World War, it was “Austria’s unwillingness to act that transformed a local into a general European crisis”9. By asking for the support of Germany, Austria-Hungary dragged Russia and France into the conflict, both sworn enemies of Germany. This eventually forced the hand of the English to show their commitment to the Entente, making the issue a truly world affair.While most of the attention and blame following the war focused on Germany and its actions, some historians argue that the choices made by England had perhaps a more profound effect on the war.
It is argued that had Britain stayed out of the war, it would have remained an isolated internal European conflict rather than the total war it became as Britain and her colonies waged war on the side of the entente10. In fact, for some time England had been more likely to enter into a treaty with the Germans than anyone else.That they did not seems to be because England did not consider the Germans much of a threat to their colonial strength when compared to Russia, France and the United States. As such, Britain chose to enter into alliances with them, based on the keep your friend’s close and enemies even close theory it appears. During the naval race between Germany and England, there were many opportunities for a treaty or even a formal alliance between the two, but England was unwilling due to being apprehensive about staying neutral in event of a conflict between Germany and France11.
Had such an agreement been reached then there is no way that the war as it was could have occurred.”The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict…the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crises”12. While historians disagree on many aspects of the war and its underlying causes and degree of inevitability, the vast majority agree that it was a horrific and avoidable conflict. A series of no doubt regrettable actions and decisions by a number of individuals in key states, notably Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Germany and England, meant that a situation not dissimilar to others that had occurred previously blew up into the first total war.
Despite the growing nationalist movements in Europe, the push for imperialism and colonies and the move of governments towards militarism, war in Europe was far from inevitable in July 1914. The growth and influence of peace movements, a firm international commitment to arbitration and diplomacy through the International Court at The Hague for example show that the war was more avoidable than inevitable. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and there is little doubt that had the people involved in the decision to fight seen the utter devastation that their actions would cause, the war would and could not have occurred. It is the greatest tragedy of an event that changed the world forever that the whole thing could so easily have been avoided.BIBLIOGRAPHY:Fay, S.B.
, The Origins Of The World War, Vol. 1. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929.Ferguson, N., The Pity Of War, London: Penguin Books, 1998.Gilbert, M., First World War, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994.Hart, L., History Of The First World War, London: Pan Books Ltd, 1972.Keegan, J., The First World War: An Illustrated History, London: Hutchinson, 2001.Roberts, J.M., Europe 1880-1945, 3rd Edition, Longman, Singapore, 2001.1 Roberts, JM, Europe 1880-1945, 3ed, Longman, Singapore, 2001, pg 200.2 Roberts, J, pg 2133 Keegan, J, The First World War, New York, Alfred Knopf inc, 1998, pg 534 Roberts, JM, Pg 2015 Ferguson, N, The Pity of War, London, Penguin Books, 1998, Pg 206 Ferguson N, Pg 217 Roberts, JR, Pg201.8 Hart, L, History of the First World War, London, pan Books Ltd, 1972, pg 209 Keegan,J, The First World War, New York, Alfred Knopf Inc, 1998, pg 52.10 Ferguson, N, Pg 39.11 Fay SB, The Origins of the World War, New York, the McMillan Co, 1929, pg 36212 Kauffner,Peter, Trenches on the Web-Timeline:1871-1914 Origins of the Great War,1998, accessed 26 march 2003.