For casual observers of history, there are often misunderstandings about the causes of World War I. World War I occurred as part of a continuum of events stemming from the Napoleonic Wars because, in the course of history, nothing happens in a vacuum. In another way, the cause could be attributed to a family squabble.
The final and most famous Kaiser of Germany was Kaiser Wilhelm II. His father, Kaiser Wilhelm I, had been a great and respected leader, but Wilhelm II did not seem to inherit his father’s talent for diplomacy. He was sometimes disrespected, even by his own family.
The leadership of Germany, England, and Russia at that time was a family affair. Edward VII of England (d. 1910) had been was called the “Uncle of Europe (Tuchman, 4).” He was the literal uncle of Wilhelm II and of Marie of Russia, who was married to the Czar Nicholas II. The term “Uncle of Europe” also defined has personality as a king among the nations of Europe. Edward VII’s mother was German. There is a long history of Germans on the English throne.
To the dismay of many people in England, Edward VII had a love for the French. There has been a long-standing animosity between England and France going back, at least, to the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. After the death of Edward’s mother, he went to France and ingratiated himself with the French leaders and people. The German ambassador suspected that this relationship between the Anglos and the French was an affront to Germany.
Indeed, the English and French formed an agreement. It was a treaty that formed the Anglo-French Entente and stated that in the event that either France or England should be attacked by Germany that the one country would come to the aide of the other. German leaders began to worry. A geographical picture of Germany in relation to the nations of Britain, France and Russia will show that Germany is almost entirely landlocked except for the area around Hamburg and Eastern Friesland. France and England are to her southwest and northwest respectively. So, France and England comprised what would later be known as the “western front” and Russia represented “the eastern front” in Germany.
France urged England to go to Russia and sign a secret treaty with them. Edward VII went to his nephew by marriage, the Czar Nicholas, and secured a treaty that stated that in the event that any of the three countries, England, France or Russia, were attacked by Germany that the other two would come to that country’s aide.
When the Kaiser learned that Nicholas had signed this agreement, he panicked. His father had mumbled fears, something about “a war on two fronts,” as he lay on his deathbed. The younger Kaiser had foolishly failed to renew a treaty with Russia that would have assured each country’s mutual defense of the other, in case of attack. And, now, the much feared “war on two fronts,” is exactly what the Treaty of the Entente could mean for Germany. The treaty was, in effect, a ticking time bomb.
The French, English and Russians had Germany surrounded. Unfortuantely, the Kaiser had signed a disadvantageous agreement with Austria stating that if either of their two countries were attacked, that one would come to the other’s aide. It had been signed under the presumption that Austrians were, essentially, Germans. It was more to Austria’s advantage than Germany’s since the Austrian military was small. Also, it was a bad decision because the Balkan situation was volatile.
The Kaiser tried in vain to get Czar Nicholas to sign a treaty with him, but it was too late – any treaties that Nicholas signed with Germany would have been invalid. The poor, bumbling Kaiser, treated cruelly, at times, by his own family members, knew that the cannons of three nations were pointed at Germany from all sides. Then, there were the slanderous articles in German newspapers against the leadership of the Kaiser. Wilhelm suffered a nervous breakdown. There was nothing he could do to save Germany from the inevitable war on two crushing fronts. It was only a matter of time before they would begin firing at Germany from all sides.
The Germans prepared themselves. It was all orchestrated and put in place. French communists had set their sights on industrious, cultured Germany some time ago. On the last page of “The Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848, Karl Marx wrote a prophetic threat to Germany. Now, the stage was set!
What follows is a quote from War Documents of World War I, by Louis L. Snyder:
For decades the Balkans had been the powder keg of Europe. On Sunday, June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Francis Ferdinand, and his morganatic [one who would not inherit the throne] wife, Sofia Chotek, were assassinated at Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia. The Archduke was on an official visit to preside at army maneuvers when Servian terrorists seized the opportunity to murder him. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a young Bosnian Serb, nineteen years of age (52-54).
What follows illustrates the folly of not understanding the significance of history. If the Archduke had known more about Serbian history, he might have delayed his visit until another day. The Serbs who assassinated the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, associated the date, June 28th with the subjugation of the Serbians as slaves under the Turks in 1389. It was also that date upon which the Serbs took revenge on the Turks. The Serbian patriots wished to show that there was still a spirit among them which would not bow to foreign rule.
This single revolutionary act sparked the flames that ignited the powder keg into an inferno. Austria was obligated to take action against the Serbian rebels or else have her authority forever undermined. Russia had treaties with the Balkan nations. This led to a dispute between Austria and Russia. With futility, the Kaiser tried to negotiate between Russia and Hungary. He and his brother-in-law, the Czar Nicholas, had corresponded closely for twenty years or so. But, nothing could help them now. Suggestions that the problems could be decided in an international trial came too late.
Austria went to war with Serbia. Helplessly, the nations of Austria and Russia slipped into war with each other, taking Germany into the fray. World War I erupted as as the terms of the various treaties, both secret and open, were invoked.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.
Tuchman, Barbara W., The Guns of August, A Four Square Book, 1964.
Snyer, Louis L., War Documents of World War I, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, NY, 1958.