World History 2 174 - 11.2.2 The Spark That Lit the Powder Keg

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary had no surviving son in the 1900s, so upon his death, a nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was set to inherit control of the empire. The archduke was not particularly well-liked by his uncle. For one thing, he had new ideas that actually supported more autonomy for the Balkan region within the empire. He was scheduled to travel to the Balkans in the summer of 1914 for a review of troops and survey of the region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A tour of the city of Sarajevo was planned for June 28, an important date for the Serbian people. It was a day of mourning for the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which the Serbian people had lost to the encroaching Ottoman Empire but which also marked the birth of Serbian unity. A visit on such a day by Franz Ferdinand, the symbol of another encroaching empire, was seen as a slap in the face (Figure 11.10).

A man and a woman walk side-by-side down a path that is lined by men, several of whom are saluting. The wears a military style uniform, and the woman wears a white dress.
Figure 11.10 This photo shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg in Sarajevo shortly before their assassination on June 28, 1914. (credit: “Franz Ferdinand & Sophie Leave Sarajevo Guildhall” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Late in June, a small band of would-be Bosnian Serb (ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina) assassins armed with weapons from the Serbian military crossed the border from Serbia into Bosnia-Herzegovina. They belonged to an organization called the Black Hand. Their goal was the separation of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Austria-Hungary and its annexation by Serbia to form Greater Serbia, a state comprising all regions of importance to ethnic Serbs. The Black Hand’s plan was to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. On June 28, they threw a bomb at his motorcade but missed the archduke. However, that afternoon, one of them, Gavrilo Princip, found himself right next to the archduke’s touring car after it had taken a wrong turn. Princip, then nineteen years old, pulled out a gun and shot both Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Both died that day. Princip was arrested immediately.

Link to Learning

See an animated re-creation of the route taken by Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade. After passing the bombers, it proceeded to the town hall. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were on their way to the hospital to visit victims of the first attack when the second one occurred.

Over the course of the next several weeks, a series of investigations was undertaken and ultimatums began flying from Austria-Hungary to Serbia. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbian subservience to atone for harboring the terrorist organization that planned and carried out the assassination. Austria-Hungary essentially wanted to destroy Serbia’s independence. For its part, Serbia did not want to go to war with Austria-Hungary and would have agreed to many concessions, but it could not effectively agree to give up its independence. As the situation grew more desperate, Serbia turned to its ally Russia. Appealing to the Slavic heritage of both nations, Serbian leaders extracted a promise that Russia would come to their aid if Austria-Hungary attacked.

For Austria-Hungary, the prospect of war with Russia was much more complicated than war solely with Serbia would be. Austria-Hungary turned to its longtime ally Germany for a show of support. Germany then extended a “blank check” to Austria-Hungary, asking for no details about what Austria-Hungary was planning but essentially agreed to back it no matter what. Germany expected that Austria-Hungary would make a quick move against Serbia, but as the weeks passed, its “blank check” came to look like an endorsement of Austria-Hungary’s hostile behavior.

Over the next month, what had been an argument between two nations was enveloping the entire continent. It was becoming clear that if war broke out, it would pull into it many countries bound by their treaty obligations to one another. Many people were alarmed, believing such a war would have few winners. One group that loudly protested a possible war were Europe’s socialist leaders. They were already predisposed to reject monarchial arguments in favor of a war, since the industrial masses would be the ones fighting it. Even once the war started, socialists such as Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour Party in Great Britain, were still trying to organize workers to strike in protest against it.

In France, as the war approached, the socialist leader Jean Jaurès was increasingly concerned about how it would affect the French people. Jaurès had been speaking out in favor of pacifism for many years and had opposed France’s three-year conscription law in 1913. In 1914, he continued to agitate against the prospect of a general European war. Arguing that no workers anywhere would benefit from a war of the elites, he even tried to work with German socialists in opposition to the war, attending the congress of the Socialist International in Brussels in July 1914. On July 31, however, Raoul Villain, a young man with French nationalist sympathies, shot and killed Jaurès in Paris, where he was dining after his return from Brussels. The outcry over Jaurès’s death threatened to further disrupt France’s precarious position, while other countries were already mobilizing their troops.

For socialists across Europe, the war became a defining moment. Their shared ideal of international socialism came up against their nationalist sympathies and love of country. Once the war did break out, they came out in support of it and endorsed funding it. Russian socialists were less likely to support the war effort, though later they played a role in the war as the Russian monarchy collapsed. In Italy, factional splits among the socialists helped lead to the rise of Benito Mussolini. Unlike other Italian socialists, Mussolini supported Italy’s entry into the war because he believed it was the spark needed to launch a socialist revolution. He was expelled from the party as a result. Mussolini’s support for the war made him appealing to Italian nationalists who later formed the backbone of the postwar fascist movement.

Emboldened by support from Germany’s “blank check,” Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, after Serbia failed to meet the demands of the Austrian ultimatum. Russia ordered mobilization of its troops on July 30 in response. Germany now found itself pulled into the fight whether it wanted to be or not, declaring war on Russia on August 1 and ordering full mobilization. France then ordered its own general mobilization, partly because it was bound to by treaty terms with Russia but also because it feared what a mobilized Germany might do to it, with memories of the Franco-Prussian War in mind. As it turned out, France was right to be apprehensive.

The military planners in Germany had been readying for war for many years in the absence of any actual combat. The Schlieffen Plan for fighting a short, two-front war had been continuously amended after its initial development, but in 1914 its basic form still rested on the belief that Russia would be slow to mobilize and unable to field troops for many weeks after a declaration of war. Since Germany was prepared for immediate mobilization, it would use these weeks to attack France and capture Paris, causing France’s surrender (as it had in 1871), and then it would turn its troops to fight Russia.

The expectation of a short war was not just on Germany’s side. Other countries also believed in 1914 that even if a war broke out that summer, the troops would be home by Christmas. Some even saw war as a catharsis for all the tension in Europe and felt it would be a welcome event. Many young men, not having experienced a war in their lifetimes, excitedly followed news of the diplomatic wrangling and the early calls of mobilization.

Link to Learning

See a map of Europe in 1914 and a list of the countries/territories. Click on a country to access an overview of it, various aspects of its participation in the war, and primary source documents relating to it. Take some time to explore several countries and learn about what happened to them during the war.

Germany’s plan for war on France called for moving westward and then sweeping south to head for Paris. To do this, the German armies would need to march across the country of Belgium. On August 2, 1914, they reached the Belgian border and asked for permission to enter and cross to France. Belgium was a small country, with a small military and no way to successfully fight a German advance. The German military leaders and their troops believed it would quickly agree to let them through. But the King of Belgium declined. In 1839, the German Confederation (the predecessor of Germany) as well as other countries in Europe had been signatories to a treaty that guaranteed the independence of Belgium. The king believed that allowing Germany entrance would undermine its independence, and he could not allow that. He ordered the Belgium military to begin blowing up bridges to prevent an easy German crossing.

The German armies entered anyway but were immensely frustrated by their slow progress and Belgium’s obstinacy. As they made their way, they took their revenge on the Belgian civilians. For weeks they laid siege to the fortress town of Liège, demolishing the dozen forts that surrounded it. In some cities, believing they were being shot at by civilians, German troops rounded up some of the men in the community and executed them. Ultimately, hundreds of civilians including women and children were killed. The German army wrought wholesale destruction, burning more than a thousand buildings, including the library in Louvain.

In Their Own Words

The Burning of Louvain

The following is an eyewitness account of the burning of the city of Louvain during the 1914 German invasion of Belgium, written by a professor at the local university who describes the fire and a subsequent encounter with German soldiers.

Wednesday, 26th August, 1 o’clock in the morning. Awakened by the glare of burning houses. Went up to the roof of the College. Several houses in succession broke into flames. By the Old Market Place, on which the University Library building abuts, houses blazed up and collapsed one after another. Watched the progress of the fire anxiously.

1.30 a.m. The houses next to the Library were on fire.

1.45 a.m. The first flames darted through the roof of the Library. The Library was entirely consumed. [. . .]

We then saw, brought between two soldiers with fixed bayonets and accompanied by two officers, Father Eugène Dupiéreux. He held in his clasped hands his crucifix and rosary. We understood. [. . .]

[The following is the text of a paper found on Father Dupiéreux and read aloud at the scene.]

“At the beginning of the war we laughed when French newspapers spoke of the invasion of barbarian hordes. Those who, like us, have seen the conduct of Germans at Louvain, now know what to expect. . . . After the burning of the Library and the University, the barbarians can no longer have a word to say against Khalif Omar for burning the Library at Alexandria. And all in the name of German culture!”

When the paper had been read and translated there was silence for a moment. Father Dupiéreux asked to be allowed to receive absolution. “Absolution! What is that?” was the brutal reply. He answered “To see a priest.” They assented. A priest advanced. Father Dupiéreux knelt down, and the priest heard his confession and give [sic] him absolution. When the Father arose his confessor grasped him by the hand, and after a few words had been exchanged, Father Dupiéreux advanced alone in the direction of the wood. He was pale but quite calm. [. . .]

Thirty yards from us Father Dupiéreux was ordered to halt. Four soldiers came and lined up ten yards in front of us. The order to fire was given by a non-commissioned officer. Father Dupiéreux fell. There was silence for two minutes. The Father’s arm still moved. We were made to turn round. The victim was despatched by a bullet in the temple and buried.

We do not know whether Father Dupiéreux was tried. In any case, it may be calculated that the trial cannot have lasted ten minutes. Moreover, the officers present had an imperfect knowledge of French and Father Dupiéreux did not know German. Nobody can have helped him in his defence.

While this was going on it was explained to us that we were hostages and that if anyone fired on the troops we should all be shot.

—Author unknown, “Brief account of the events that took place at Louvain on the 25th, 26th and 27th August, 1914”

  • What type of destruction did the writer witness?
  • What happened to Father Dupiéreux?
  • What happened to the writer on this day?

These weeks, more than any others, shaped the world’s perception of the war and of Germany. The “Rape of Belgium” cast Germany as an aggressor nation that behaved inhumanely in war. It fed the propaganda machines of the Allies, the nations that united to oppose Germany and Austria-Hungary and originally consisted of Russia, France, and Britain.

Britain was carefully monitoring events and news at the beginning of August. Foreign Secretary Edward Gray delivered a speech on August 3 describing what was at stake in failing to react to the threat hanging over Belgium. Germany and France went to war with one another on August 3, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force of close to a quarter of a million soldiers arrived in France and helped support the French troops as they tried to withstand the German war machine.

The combatants rushed to begin recruiting more troops for their militaries. Conscription laws in some countries meant that adult men had already received some military training and were assigned to reserve units, so there was a straightforward means to organize and deploy these troops. Other places, such as Great Britain, had a volunteer military. Either way, there was mass enthusiasm as the war broke out, and men thronged to recruiting stations (Figure 11.11).

This is a map of the world which highlights the allied nations, central powers, and neutral countries during World War I. Central powers include: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Ottoman Empire, Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Namibia, and Papua New Guinea. Neutral countries includes: Mexico, Greenland, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Suriname, Western Sahara, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, part of China, and Indonesia.
Figure 11.11 This map shows all the countries that ultimately participated in World War I and their allegiances. (credit: modification of work “BlankMap-World” by CIA World Factbook/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax