The First World War: How Darkness Descended Upon Europe in 1914

Source: Associated Press

“I shall never be able to understand how it happened,” the novelist Rebecca West once said about the First World War. “It is not that there are too few facts available, but that there are too many.” Contemporary observers were likewise bewildered by the sudden outbreak of war. The call for mobilization, as someone said at the time, was like a “peal of thunder out of a cloudless sky.” The uniquely depersonalizing and enigmatic nature of the war lends itself to this kind of visceral language. Storm of Steel, based on the diaries of a “young and enthusiastic” German volunteer named Ernst Jünger, described the war not as a “puzzle or disaster,” but merely as a “primordial” force, much like a gathering storm.

A centenary has now passed since the guns fell silent for the last time, and it is still easy to imagine the war as a natural disaster that suddenly broke upon Europe in the summer of 1914. But the origins of the First World War were not the result of inscrutable or unknowable forces. The war was brought about by men who (in the words of the historian Christopher Clark) had conscious objectives, were capable of self-reflection, and formed the best judgments they could on the basis on the information they had, yet still managed to stumble through a crisis they barely understood.

While attempts to decipher its origins have filled countless book shelves, magazines pages, and newspaper columns, only a precious few writers have managed to break through the noise and capture the intricacies of the war. Two recent book, both published in the United States in 2013, take different approaches: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan and The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. While it may be said that no single person will ever write the definitive account of the war, I think that between these books Clark has the better of the two arguments.

Put simply, MacMillan’s greatest weakness is that she remains rigidly locked within a political analysis that accentuates the German-British axis of the war’s origins. Serbia is a blind spot, relegated to the periphery of the July Crisis. Clark, by contrast, offers an alternative view in which the fractious nature of Balkan politics, rather than the corrosive effects of Germany’s expansionist imperial foreign policy (known as Weltpolitik) or the Anglo-German naval rivalry, takes center stage. Only by the third chapter does he expand his scope of his analysis to encompass the rest of Europe. “Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo,” Clark writes in the introduction, “it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right.” Here I will make a meticulous case for why I find Clark’s account the more compelling one.

Clark opens his book by recounting the gruesome murder in 1903 of Serbia’s King Alexander Obrenović and Queen Draga by conspirators within the military. Even by the standards of most regicides, this one was a particularly bloody affair; the “orgy of gratuitous violence” began with an execution at point-blank range and ended with their maimed bodies being discarded into the garden. Despite the tumult in the palace, however, a mood of equanimity seemed to prevail across the country. The citizens of Belgrade, Clark writes, had good reason to welcome the assassinations. Running the country in the manner of a “tinpot dictator,” Alexander managed to unite all of Serbian society against him. The breaking point came in March 1903, when the king exceeded the limits of his authority by temporarily suspending the constitution to enact stringent new laws against freedom of the press and association; then he unleashed a torrent of violence against the protestors, killing many people in the process. Alexander‘s fatal mistake, though, was not just his constitutional manipulations, but his careless habit of aggravating tensions with a small cadre of military officers who resented his obsequious relationship toward Austria, the miserly salaries he paid them, and his policy of promoting friends and relatives to key posts over the heads of their colleagues.

At first glance, this incident may seem only obliquely related to wider European politics, but Clark deftly builds his complex and multi-faceted argument outward to connect the assassination of the Serbian monarch with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand more than a decade later. The most immediate effect of the coup was the restoration of parliamentary democracy, in which political power no longer depended on the goodwill of the crown (now inhabited by Peter I), but rather “popular support and party networks.” The assassination also severed any goodwill with Austria-Hungary and reoriented policy toward Russia. In retrospective, however, the event acquires a dark, portentous quality. The conspiratorial network that had come together to murder the royal family did not simply melt away with the coup but “remained an important force in Serbian politics and public life.” The officers used their leverage over the king (a “prisoner” one Austrian minister concluded) to secure the most desirable military and government posts for themselves.

The conspiratorial network behind the regicide crystallized around a gifted young lieutenant named Dragutin Dimitrijević (whom MacMillan barely mentions). An obscure figure outside of the shadowy networks within which he operated, Dimitrijević created the secret organization known as the Black Hand, which thrived on a cult of secrecy, nationalism, toxic masculinity, and proto-fascist ideology. The new movement was founded on the belief that all of “Greater Serbia” (which roughly corresponded to the contours of Yugoslavia) should be unified into a single country. The Black Hand’s all-encompassing and hegemonic concept of Serbdom also elided the existence of Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and all other non-Serbian identities.

The notion that Greater Serbia was a real historical entity was, in retrospect, an obvious disaster. But at the time pan-Serbianism exerted an enormous influence on Serbian culture and identity. When Austria made the decision to formally annex Bosnia in 1908 and 1909, Serbian pan-nationalism reached a new level of fervor and intensity, poisoning relations between the two countries in the leadup to the war. A recurring preoccupation of Serbian irredentism was the struggle against alien rule, dating all the way back to Serbia’s defeat at the hands of the Turks in 1389.

Dimitrijević did more than any other conspirator to advance the cause of Serbian irredentism. He recruited a core of “ultra-nationalist officers prepared to support the struggle for the union of all Serbs by any available means.” Although he remains an obscure historical figure, Dimitrijević arguably played a critical role in the start of the war. In 1911, he founded the shadowy organization of the Black Hand to support and finance a loose network of revolutionary pan-Serb terrorists, of which Gavrilo Princip and the other assassins at Sarajevo were members.

Serbian officials do not escape culpability in Clark’s telling. While they never quite condoned Black Hand’s violent actions, they also never attempted to seriously rein them in. According to Clark, Serbia could hardly afford to pursue its objectives before the eyes of the world. Black Hand’s unresolved mixture of nationalism and terrorism therefore seemed to be a useful machine for advancing the nationalist cause. So a murky, ambiguous, and opaque relationship developed between Black Hand and the formal government. “The Belgrade political elite became accustomed to a kind of doublethink founded on the intermittent pretence” that the foreign policy of official Serbia could be insulated from the consequences of the terrorists they ostensibly tolerated.

Macedonia, which was then at the time still under the control of the Ottoman Empire, illustrates the kind of hazy geographical, ethnic, and religious quagmire in which Black Hand operated. As the staging ground for a proxy struggle between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks to promulgate the idea of national unification among the local population, Macedonia was a tinderbox of propaganda and guerilla activity. In 1907, when British officials requested that Belgrade put a stop to its clandestine activities in Macedonia, the Serbian government simply refused to accept any responsibility for the actions of a few reprobate terrorists (this was a similar strategy that Serbia pursued in response to the Austrian ultimatum in the summer of 1914). At other times it would outright deny the existence of Black Hand at all, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This tacit cooperation between the government and the terrorist networks reached its greatest height during the Balkan Wars in 1912. “The covert networks, the partisan bands, and the cabinet ministers pulled together in the national cause,” bringing a façade of unity to the fissiparous government.

This political unity would not, of course, last for long. The idea that constitutional democracy and radical nationalism could be merged together into a single political reality would eventually fray. Members of the Black Hand increasingly saw themselves as “enemies of the democratic parliamentary system and especially of the Radical Party,” whose leaders they denounced as traitors to the nation. But for a time at least, Serbian irredentism was the essential element that smoothed over Serbia’s flagrant contradictions.

Those contradictions would explode out into the open after the conclusion of the Balkan Wars. As the façade began to crack, “disputes over newly acquired areas triggered a catastrophic deterioration in civil-military relations.” Rumors of a military coup plagued the government in the opening months of 1914. The military eventually backed down, and Dimitrijević himself would be executed in 1917.

All of this political background is necessary to understand Austria’s ultimatum in the summer of 1914. This was the overbearing diplomatic letter that held Serbia culpable for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Historians have traditionally condemned the letter for greatly infringed on Serbia’s national sovereignty. Any country would be obliged to reject Austria’s over weaning demands out of hand. But here again Clark’s analysis strongly contravenes, or at least deepens, the prevailing historical narrative. He argues that Austria’s demands for Serbian supplication seem more sympathetic in light of the connection between the Serbian government and the terrorists. Although they could hardly know the true extent of this connection, Austria had good reason, its leaders believed, to hold Serbia culpable for the security threat brought about by the Balkan country’s aggressive posture toward unification. Nevertheless, the ultimatum, though occasionally suffused with an air of victimization and paranoia, was rather limited and circumspect in its conclusions. Instead of indicting the Serbian government directly in the assassination, Austria merely settled on the claim that Serbia had “tolerated the machinations of various societies and associations,” trimming their language to what could be proven beyond doubt.

Vienna’s ultimatum was drawn up on the assumption that the Serbs would probably not accept it, as it was an unacceptable infringement on another nation’s sovereignty, but neither did Austria demand the complete prostration of the Serbian state. Austria’s leaders certainly saw it as a more modest document than its reputation suggests. But whether or not Austria was actually justified in its ultimatum, Serbia’s dissembling response conceded absolutely nothing of value either. It was, in Clark’s estimation, a “masterpiece of diplomatic equivocation,” offering a subtle cocktail of “conditional acceptances, evasions, and rejections.” The Serbian government flatly denied any form of involvement in the assassination and rebuffed Austria’s high-handed demand for cooperation in the investigation. It was evident from Serbia’s response that no one would be held responsible for the assassination.

Even though Austria could not know the extent of Serbia’s complicity, it might have felt more justified in its actions had it known how deeply enmeshed the conspirators had become in the government and the bureaucratic apparatus. Serbia’s prime minister wasn’t involved in the plot directly, but there is good reason to suspect, as Clark argues somewhat convincingly, that he possessed detailed and timely knowledge not only of the plot to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, but of the persons and organization behind it. Clark believes that a warning about the plot was sent to the Austrian government, “but not one that was adequate to the situation. In retrospect, it has the look of a covering manoeuvre.” This points to a troubling reality. Even Serbia’s moderates, though not necessarily committed to a war of aggression, nevertheless believed that the redemption of Greater Serbia necessitated the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a fact that weighed heavily upon Austria’s decision-makers in the summer of 1914.

How had Europe reached the point at which it was willing to risk war for the sake of Serbian sovereignty? Many valid reasons have been posited. But the turning point in both Balkan geopolitics and wider European affairs was arguably the Bosnian annexation crisis. The crisis, oddly enough, began in a spirit of mutual cooperation. Austria had occupied Bosnia in 1878 from the Ottoman Empire and finally attempted to incorporate it into their territory in 1908. In order to forestall any complications from the annexation, Austria agreed to meet in secret with the Russian foreign minister Alexander Izvolsky, “upon whose acquiescence the whole project depended.” Together they hashed the details of an agreement: Russia would support Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in exchange for Austrian support of improved Russian access through the Turkish straits.

Despite careful preparations, the announcement of the deal triggered a major European crisis. Britain refused to support it. The Russian public was hostile to it. Italy demanded compensation for their support. And Serbia contested Austria’s claim to Bosnia. Once international opinion turned against it, Izvolsky reneged on the deal, claiming that he had been hoodwinked and duped by the slippery Austrian minister. This incident “devastated what remained of Austro-Russian readiness to collaborate on resolving Balkan questions; from this moment onward, it would be much more difficult to contain the negative energies generated by conflicts among Balkan states.”

Russia’s Balkan policy evolved in the shadow of the crisis. From 1909 until the outbreak of war, Russia attempted to limit and weaken Austria’s influence in the Balkans, even as it increased the risk of armed conflict. Given the exigency of the dangers from Serbian terrorism, Russia essentially denied Austria the right to defend itself against external security threats.

Amazingly, both France and the United Kingdom accepted the logic of Russian intervention in the Balkans. This was an attractive option precisely because “it seemed the most likely way of securing full Russian support” for their own diplomatic initiatives. French leaders believed that if they ever showed reticence in their support for the “necessity” of Russian hegemony in the Balkans, then Russia (which many feared at the time might eclipse everyone as a great power) would lose interest in the alliance and abandon it. Even Britain had forsaken a policy of careful diplomatic balance for a policy that increasingly focused on maximizing the security of the Entente.

This was not just a failure of imagination. For all their flaws, both nations saw the situation clearly. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray sketched out a scenario in December of 1912 that predicted precisely how an Austria attack against Serbia would precipitate a general European war. But since each nation viewed its own actions as “entirely defensible and ascribed aggressive intentions solely to the enemy,” they inadvertently made war more likely.

As Europe’s great powers solidified into discreet alliance blocs, something significant had changed in European foreign policy. The western powers had traditionally viewed Austria as the fulcrum of stability in central and eastern Europe. But by 1913, the view had taken hold, even in France and Britain, that Austria-Hungary was an anachronistic and doomed entity. This narrative of Austrian decline was potent. The belief still persists to this day that the fractious Austro-Hungarian Empire simply lacked the will, the ability, or the clout to manage its restive population — and its loose patchwork of different cultures and polities.

This assessment, Clark insists, while not entirely wrong, is at least incomplete. Most inhabitants of the empire associated the Habsburg state with “the benefits of orderly government: public education, welfare, sanitation, the rule of law, and the maintenance of a sophisticated infrastructure.” The continuation of the Habsburg state was by no means guaranteed, but its reformers hoped that “the system might eventually produce a comprehensive mesh of guarantees for nationality rights within an agreed framework.”

Russia’s Balkan policy had a destabilizing effect on the Habsburg empire. Surrounded by a hostile Entente on one side and its ambivalent allies, whom it could not entirely trust, on the other side, Austria began to act unilaterally in an aggressive manner to secure its security situation. And the target of Austria’s unilateral action was, more often than not, Serbia. This set the stage for the crisis to come.

Up until now I have focused almost exclusively on Clark’s account of the crisis and mostly ignored The War That Ended Peace. To MacMillan’s credit, she devotes entire chapters to the Bosnian annexation crisis and the Balkan Wars, and her discussion of the situation is very good. In many ways, her book furnishes more details about the pivotal crises that engulfed Europe in the early 20th century. But I think Clark provides a useful counterargument to the conventional thinking of WWI.

Whereas MacMillan spends two chapters covering Weltpolitik and the Anglo-German naval race, Clark devotes only a few pages to these subjects — and then only to attack the generalizations that underpin the otherwise resilient theory of an Anglo-German naval race. Clark makes a compelling case that the British fears of a German invasion were driven not by the actual threat of German naval power, which never came close to challenging British naval supremacy, but by “campaigns launched by the [British] navalists to fend off demands for funding from the cash-starved British army.”

As for the policy of Weltpolitik, Germany’s ability to achieve colonial supremacy was often more modest than its goals. Clark claims it was “little more than the old policy of the ‘free hand’ with a larger navy and more menacing mood music.” He concludes that Weltpolitik was designed above all with domestic consumers in mind: “as a means of strengthening national solidarity, saddling the national parliament with long-term budgetary commitments, muting the appeal of dissident political creeds such as social democracy and thereby consolidating the dominance of the existing industrial and political elites.”

MacMillan writes that “it is curious in retrospect how little attention the German leadership paid to alternatives to war as a way of breaking the encirclement.” And certainly the first Moroccan crisis was a deliberate provocation designed to isolate France and force Britain into accepting better relations with Berlin. On both counts it gravely miscalculated. But Clark argues that these crises weren’t the proximate cause of Germany’s isolation. “The once widely held view that Germany caused its own isolation through its egregious international behavior is not borne out by a broader analysis.”

In Clark’s view, many of the factors that precipitated Germany’s diplomatic isolation were at least partially outside of its control — a consequence of sudden shocks to the international system. In particular, events in the east, including Russia’s defeat against Japan and the Russian-British rapprochement over Central Asia, were devastating to German interests over the long term. Together these events closed off Russia’s Asian expansion and redirected its foreign policy to the sole remaining theater in which it could still pursue an imperial vision — the Balkans, where conflict with Austria was almost inevitable.

In a way, the intensity of the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia made the logic of a treaty seem appealing. By clearly delineating the lines between British and Russian influence, Britain closed off the one major threat to its imperial periphery in a single stroke, which was of greater value to Britain than any concessions it could extract from Germany. That does not absolve the German leaders for choosing to alienate Britain and allow the Russian alliance to lapse. But it was also an unfortunate coincidence for German foreign policy at the time that the British and Russian governments both favored good relations with each other over good relations with Germany.

The Anglo-French Entente was another blow to Germany’s foreign policy. For British policy makers the alliance had the desirable effect of muting colonial tension with France. Although not conceived primarily as an anti-German initiative (at least from Britain’s perspective), it did narrow Germany’s options substantially. Germany had to look for more aggressive ways to end its isolation. Its leaders initially seized on the Moroccan crisis as a means of pushing open the door that had been shut to it, but this policy was a resounding failure. It had the effect of strengthening the Anglo-French alliance further rather than tearing it apart.

I keep using the word “policy” to describe the decision-making that played out at the highest echelons of government, but one major complicating factor is that “policy” assumes a degree of unity that didn’t exist. Monarchical governments had an opaque power structure that embedded the powers of the monarchy within the framework of a modern administrative state. According to Clark, the king or emperor was the sole point at which separate chains of command converged. If he failed to perform an integrating function, if the crown failed to compensate for the “insufficiencies of the constitution,” then the country’s foreign policy would appear to be incoherent.

Wilhelm’s famously mercurial personality offers a good example. Febrile, tactless, and panic-prone, the German Kaiser “picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next.” At various times he mused about pursuing different alliance projects: with Russia and France against Japan and Britain; with Russia, Britain, and France against the United States; with China and America against Japan and the Triple Entente; with Japan and the USA against the Entente, and so on. Wilhelm wasn’t only content to fire off notes and missives to his ministers, who frequently attempted to cut him out of the decision-making process, but also “broached his ideas directly to the representatives of foreign powers.” There is little evidence that these scenarios had much effect on Germany policy-making, except to make allies and foes alike more suspicious of its aims. When the July Crisis came, this indecision at the highest echelons of government certainly had the effect of preventing a truly coherent response.

As for the question of guilt, MacMillan mostly avoids casting moral aspersions on the nations involved in the crisis, but it’s hard not to get the sense that she believes primary responsibility for the war lay with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Despite acknowledging the fact that Austria viewed Serbia as an existential threat to its continued existence, she seems to ascribe more menacing intentions to Austria’s foreign policy. The destruction of Serbia was the “first step to asserting Austria-Hungary’s dominance in the Balkans and bringing the empire’s own South Slavs under control.” Austria’s leaders used the crisis to crush Serbia, she writes, just as Bush and Blair used 9/11 as a pretext for the Iraq invasion. But even beside the fact that her analogy doesn’t quite fit (the Serbian government did share a real, albeit opaque, relationship with the terrorists in a way that Iraq did not), Austria’s decision to declare war was rooted in a different set of imperatives than those that motivated the Bush administration. Austria’s leaders believed that only quick and decisive action would contest the “widely held conviction that this was an empire on its last legs.”

Clark isn’t much interested in the question of guilt either. There is no smoking gun in the story, he writes; or rather, there is one in the hand of every major character. Nevertheless, by virtue of its argument, The Sleepwalkers does offer a useful corrective to the typical historical understanding of the First World War. Clark argues that every major power in Europe was willing to take risks and exploit the situation to its advantage. The rivalry and antipathy between France and Germany drove Europe from one crisis to another, first in Tangiers and then in Agadir. Austria and Russia clashed over Balkan policy and entangled the rest of Europe in it. Britain abandoned its traditional role as the guarantor of peace in Europe in favor of a policy that maximized its own position. The impression that Clark creates is a failure of decision-making at every level of government. Russia’s foreign minister Alexander Izvolsky exercises particularly egregious judgment. During the Bosnian annexation crisis, he “lied in the most extravagant fashion in order to save his job and reputation.” Clark’s analysis sometimes verges on speculation, which is probably its greatest weakness. I suspect that scholars will spend years debating the finer points, and I look forward to reading those arguments. Nevertheless, it is a landmark work of both WWI and history in general. In the foreword of her book, MacMillan quotes Elizabeth Bowen: “War is not an accident; it is an outcome.” But WWI was both a consequence of conscious actors and the result of unforeseen failures. That is perhaps its greatest tragedy.

Originally published at on September 16, 2017.

I am a freelance writer based in Michigan. You can contact me at jstutsman21 at

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