How did the Balkan Wars cause World War I?

Age of world wars

Sönke Neitzel

Sönke Neitzel is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He studied history, journalism and political science in Mainz, where he received his doctorate in 1994 and qualified as a professor in 1998. He then taught at the Universities of Mainz, Karlsruhe, Bern and Saarbrücken before being appointed to the Chair of Modern History at the University of Glasgow in 2011. He has been teaching and researching at the LSE since September 2012.
He became known to a wider audience through his book "Abgehört. German Generals in British Captivity, 1942-1945", which was published in 2005.
His main research interests are military history and the history of international relations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Contact: [email protected]

The First World War was the result of a European crisis in which many powers played their part. At the beginning of the war, they usually had no clearly formulated goals. The crisis in the international system of power enabled the Nazi regime to begin its war of aggression in 1939.

Behind the fatal assassination attempt on the Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914, Vienna sees Serbia and gives Belgrade an ultimatum. Drawing by Felix Schwormstedt (& copy ullstein picture)
When the champagne corks popped in London, Berlin and St. Petersburg on New Year's Eve 1899, nobody suspected anything about Verdun, Stalingrad or Auschwitz. The citizens of Europe did not expect a "human slaughterhouse" in the new century - the famous book by the Hamburg reform pedagogue and writer Wilhelm Lamszus (1881-1965) with the subtitle "Pictures of the Coming War" was not written until 1912. Around 1900 Europe experienced unimagined economic prosperity in the height of the first globalization. If contemporaries were supposed to have predicted the future on December 31, 1899, they would have guessed a coming era of economic wars. Just like the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Agenor Graf Goluchowski, who said in a speech on November 20, 1897: "How the 16th and 17th centuries were filled with religious struggles, like the liberal ideas of breakthroughs in the 18th century came, as the present century is characterized by the emergence of questions of nationality, so the 20th century predicts itself for Europe as a century of struggle for existence in the field of trade policy. "

Even when news of the assassination attempt on the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand went around the world in the summer of 1914, very few people thought that a world war could break out five weeks later. In Great Britain the focus was on the impending civil war between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, which seemed hardly to be prevented. In Paris, all attention was focused on the trial of the wife of Finance Minister Joseph Caillaux, who a few weeks earlier had gunned down a investigative journalist in a spectacular operation. At the beginning of July 1914, as every year, the European aristocracy went to the spa resorts for a summer retreat. And even the Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn had nothing better to do in those days than to argue with Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg about third-rate constitutional questions. Many historians such as Michael Salewski, Holger Afflerbach or Friedrich Kießling have concluded from the many declarations of peace of those days that the outbreak of a great war in the summer of 1914 was an entirely unlikely scenario. However, something must have gone wrong then.

The assassination attempt in Sarajevo and the July crisis

The occasion of the First World War was a very amateurishly prepared assassination attempt. When the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand paid a visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 - a Sunday - during a trip to Bosnia, four young assassins were waiting for him. Only by unbelievable coincidence - the car of the heir to the throne turned incorrectly due to a communication error - the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip managed to fire two shots, which killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

In Europe, the attack was condemned as a terrorist act that gave Austria-Hungary the right to retaliate. In Vienna it was believed that Belgrade was responsible for the murder. In fact, the head of the Serbian secret service, Dragutin Dimitrijevic´-Apis, had delivered the weapons to the attackers, and Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašic´ also suspected something of the attack plans. The attitude of the German ally was of course decisive for Vienna's further course of action. Since an attack on Serbia conjured up the risk of war with its protective power Russia, one had to first secure the support of Berlin. No appeals for moderation came from there, on the contrary: on July 5 and 6, 1914, both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg made it clear that it was up to Austria-Hungary to judge what had to happen to clarify the relationship with Serbia. Vienna could "here - whatever the decision may be - count with certainty that Germany would stand behind it as an ally and friend of the monarchy".

This was the much-cited "blank check" with which Berlin let go of its ally, who was fixated on a local war and who had always been able to slow down at the decisive moment. The Reich leadership even emphasized that Austria-Hungary's immediate intervention against Serbia would be the most radical and best solution, especially since the international situation currently seems more favorable for such a step than in the future. But if there really was an attack on Serbia, it all depended on how the tsarist empire behaved. The decision on war or peace thus lay in Vienna and St. Petersburg, while Berlin had withdrawn from its direct participation through the "blank check" and only deviated from this attitude late and all too half-heartedly in the July crisis. In Vienna, however, people were in no great hurry. Numerous soldiers were on harvest leave from which they could not be recalled without great diplomatic and economic damage. An ultimatum was only handed over in Belgrade on July 23, calling for an end to anti-Austrian propaganda and the participation of Austrian authorities "in the suppression of subversive movements directed against the territorial integrity of the monarchy" and in the judicial investigation of the attack. These clauses were unacceptable as they directly affected Serbia's sovereignty.

The Viennese ultimatum to Belgrade hit the European capitals like a bomb. While it was leaked here and there that tough demands would be made, prime ministers, foreign ministers and diplomats were now beginning to understand that Europe was moving towards a great war. In the summer heat of the capital cities, hectic activity spread. The situation escalated at breakneck speed in the last week of July. The Serbian government wrote a humble reply on July 25, prompting Kaiser Wilhelm II to comment that no state had ever crossed the line like this and that the reason for a war had probably disappeared. Since the ultimatum was not accepted unconditionally as requested, the Danube Monarchy broke off diplomatic relations, mobilized some of its troops and declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

A day later, the Austro-Hungarian artillery shelled Belgrade in order to torpedo a peaceful solution to the conflict that was still possible. A new Balkan war had broken out, the third since 1912. It was still just a local war, as there had been many in Europe since 1815. But Russia's allied with Serbia mobilized its troops on July 30th. Germany, which did not want to abandon its ally Austria-Hungary, interpreted this as a clear intention to go to war, mobilized for its part and declared war on Russia on August 1st. This was finally followed by the declaration of war on France, which was allied with the tsarist empire. The German war plan initially provided for an attack in the west, in order to turn to the east after a decisive victory. With that, the local war had expanded to become a continental war. Finally, on August 4, Great Britain, allied with Russia and France, declared war on Germany. Officially, because German troops had meanwhile also marched into Belgium. Actually, it was about not standing aside in this great war and preventing German dominance on the continent. A few days later, the British Dominions Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand declared war. The continental conflict had become a world war.

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The Balkan conflict 1912/13

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire extended far into Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Of course, it had long since passed the height of its power, and the erosion of power politics in this gigantic empire had also been a central problem in European politics since the Greek uprising against Turkish rule in 1821. This so-called Oriental question was only resolved with the smashing of the Ottoman Empire and the reduction to a Turkish core area in the Peace Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. On the one hand, the pushing back of the Ottomans was welcomed in Europe. But it also raised countless new problems, particularly in the Balkans. At the Berlin Congress in 1878, the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and, soon after, Bulgaria was recognized. The national interests of the Balkan peoples did not play a role for the great powers from then on either - they were always only concerned with protecting their own power interests and instrumentalizing the small Balkan states in doing so. Austria-Hungary and Russia traditionally viewed the region as their area of ​​influence and repeatedly got into serious conflicts over it.

When the Ottoman Empire was embroiled in a war against Italy in the autumn of 1912, the Balkan states seized the opportunity to divide European Turkey - Albania, Thrace and Macedonia - among themselves. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro formed a Balkan alliance and declared war on the Ottoman Empire in October 1912. The Turkish troops quickly suffered a series of defeats, so that a territorial reorganization of the Balkans had to be considered. But Vienna did not want to accept an increase in power from Serbia. This in turn demanded the tsarist empire, which in the meantime had risen to become the protective power of the Serbian "brother people". When Vienna and St. Petersburg began preparing for war in November, the situation threatened to escalate. Finally, Great Britain and Germany managed to defuse the situation at the London Ambassadors' Conference on December 17, 1912. Serbia was not given a port on the Adriatic - this was a demand from Vienna - and with Albania a buffer state was established on the strategically important Strait of Otranto. But the situation threatened to escalate again when Serbia and Montenegro captured the strategically important Turkish fortress Skutari on April 23, 1913, which was actually supposed to be added to Albania. Austria-Hungary threatened military intervention if the troops did not withdraw. The German-British crisis management functioned again: An international fleet demonstration, which Russia agreed to without participating in it, made clear the will of the great powers not to tolerate this provocation. In the London Preliminary Peace on May 30, 1913, Turkey finally had to agree to the loss of almost all of its European possessions. There was only a small stretch of land left around Constantinople.

The peace did not last long, however. The victors quickly got into a dispute over the distribution of the booty. Bulgaria in particular felt betrayed by Serbia and surprisingly took up arms on June 29, 1913. The planned coup failed, however. The Bulgarians had no chance against the overwhelming power of Serbs and Greeks, especially since Romania and Turkey took advantage of the hour and marched against Sofia. Germany, Great Britain and Italy had a moderating effect on Austria-Hungary, which originally wanted to support Bulgaria in order to prevent further territorial gains for Serbia. Vienna had to come to terms with the fact that in the Treaty of Bucharest on August 10, 1913, Bulgaria lost most of its booty from the First Balkan War. Romania received the southern part of the Dobruja, Turkey was able to gain a foothold in Europe again through the acquisition of Eastern Thrace. (see also map IV)

The real victor of the Balkan wars was undoubtedly Serbia, which had considerably expanded its position of power and had risen to become a middle power with great ambitions. It was supported by Russia, which in turn was backed by France and Great Britain. Austria-Hungary, as the Balkan Wars had shown, watched with eagle eyes what was going on in Serbia. Since the great ally Germany was behind Vienna, the Balkans were a source of fire that could quickly ignite a continental conflagration.

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Memories of the beginning of the war

Alfred Bauer in 1915, looking back after ten months
The hour came when we were faced with the decision as to whether we were ready to prove loyalty to the Nibelung for our friend to the whole world with the sword.
On June 28th, Franz Ferdinand was murdered by Serbian assassins in Sarajevo. It was the keystone of a long and carefully prepared building. At first we were not entirely clear of the immense importance of the deed; It was only when the negotiations uncovered a widespread political conspiracy, all the threads of which ran together in the Serbian government circles, that it suddenly became clear that there could be no doubt that there was Russia behind Serbia. For Austria it could now only mean, bend or break; the unworthy conditions in the Balkans had to be put to an end once and for all, if the reputation of Austria was not to be permanently destroyed. [...] Russia [...] officially declared that it could "not remain uninterested" in Austria's trade with Serbia. From the moment I read this I was firmly convinced that a peaceful solution was out of the question, because from now on Russia could not go back without losing its reputation in the Balkans; with this declaration it had pledged its word. Now fate took its course; events followed one another in rapid succession.

It was on Saturday, July 24th, when the news of Austria's ultimatum and Russia's declaration of its interest appeared in Rothenfelde. [...] The next day, Sunday, worsened the situation. Germany urged Russia to let Austria and Serbia fight their private trades alone; any interference on the part of Russia would induce Germany to make Austria's cause her own. The excitement among the people increased tremendously; everyone now realized what it was all about. [...] It was clear to me that we would not easily get another cause for war that corresponded to popular feeling like this, and popular mood is one of the most important factors of a modern war, if not that most important. But we seemed to be on the point of missing the most favorable moment out of a love of peace, as we have often done before. This time, however, I had fortunately underestimated the government's energy, and I soon saw that it was going unperturbed on its way with an admirable determination. [...]

From the diary of Dr. med. Alfred Bauer senior, "The world war as it was reflected in the brain of Alfred Bauer, staff and regiment doctor in Res. Inf. Rgt. 78 later field hospital 6", Eschau Alsace, entry from May 17, 1915 (at the field hospital), Source: private

H. V. Shawyer, No. 4142, 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, British Expeditionary Force, on his experiences marching through Felixstowe, August 5, 1914
The place was full of holiday makers lining the pavements to see us go by and come war, hell or high water they seemed determined to get a laugh out of things. Of course none of us could foresee the four terrible years that lay ahead of us, but I didn't feel too generously disposed to some of them. There were bunches of men in the doorways of the public houses holding up their foaming tankards at us as we slogged along - mocking us! And there were we under the weight of all our equipment and not a wink of sleep had we had the night before. Of course a lot of them were young - young enough to be feeling the weight of a full pack on their own backs before long. I often wondered if they were laughing then!

But most of the people couldn't do enough for us, and they were pretty loud in doing of it. Cheering, shouting, singing, waving their handkerchiefs, and showering us with sweets and packets of cigarettes.Some of the young girls were even pelting us with flowers as if we were blooming Spaniards or something. One man rushed out of a newsagent’s with his arms full of copies of the morning papers - he must have bought up the shop! He was running alongside us and the lads were grabbing the papers as fast as he could hand them out. And the cheering and yelling!

I was on the outside of a flank of four. I turned up my head and found myself inches away from a woman who was staring straight into my face. Beeing nineteen and bashful I was terrified that she was going to kiss me - some fellows were surrounded by women kissing them! - but she didn’t. She just put her hand up to her mouth and as I went by I could see that she had tears in her eyes. [...]

Lyn Macdonald, 1914. The Days of Hope, Penguin Books / Random House, London 1989, p. 48 f.

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Mood at the start of the war in 1914 ...

[...] Saturday, August 1st. [...] There was no doubt that the declaration of war was coming, it was just not known today or tomorrow. [...] [At the shop window of the] editorial staff of the Osnabrücker Tageblatt [...] the latest telegrams were posted, and the crowd was standing in front of it in anticipation of a special event. My eyes also hung as if spellbound on the window [...] and suddenly shortly after 6 o'clock [...] the short but heavy-handed words appeared in hand-sized letters: "S. M. the Emperor and King have ordered the mobilization of the army and navy.
I. Mobilization Day Sunday, August 2nd. "
So now the time had come; The crowd received the message quietly and seriously; and one saw excitement among the young people, which would have liked to vent in cheers. [...] Yes, now we had the war, the world war, at that minute it was known even in the most remote post office in Germany that it was unchangeable. Everyone knew that it had indeed been inevitable, that was evident from all the people who now hurried home with firm resolve to order their house, to put their affairs in order, and then with a clear conscience flocked to the flags to take their place and do their duty. [...] I had a feeling of liberation, of being released from an immense tension; Now that there was no "going back" for us, our way was clearly ahead of us, and that gave me the feeling of calm and security. [...]
With threefold roaring hurray, waving our hats and the sounds of the watch on the Rhine, we drove out of the station, and now a triumphal procession began. [...] As we drove through the jubilant cities and landscapes, people were standing at every window and every hedge and waved to us, enthusiasm welled up in our hearts, and we uttered the same thoughts at the same time : "If you could still experience that, that you could come back and talk about these wonderful impressions". [...]

From the diary of Dr. med. Alfred Bauer senior, "The world war as it was reflected in the brain of Alfred Bauer, staff and regimental doctor in Res. Inf. Rgt. 78 later field hospital 6", Eschau Alsace, entry from May 17, 1915 (at the field hospital), Source: private


Wilhelm Dettmer, born 1898:
I remember when the war was declared I saw my father cry for the only time in my life. He was a soldier and knew what war meant. He was no longer a soldier, firstly because he had a break in the military and secondly he was too old. He was born in 1871, so 43 years old at the time. But it shook him so much and took him away that he cried. As children we shouted hurray. [...]

Wolf-Rüdiger Osburg, thrown in. The First World War in the memories of its participants, Osburg Verlag Hamburg 2009, page 101


... and 1939
Berlin, September 3, 1939
I was standing on Wilhelmplatz when the loudspeakers suddenly announced around noon that England had declared war on Germany. About 250 people had gathered in the sun. They listened intently. When the announcement finished, there wasn't even a murmur. They stood there unchanged. Stunned. The people still cannot believe that Hitler led them into a world war.

Wiliam L. Shirer, Berlin Diary. Records 1934-41, A. d. American and ed. by Jürgen Schebera. Aufbau-Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin 1994, for the translation


September 3 [...]
[...] Popular mood absolutely certain of victory, ten thousand times more arrogant than 14. This either gives an overwhelming, almost non-fighting victory, and England and France are castrated small states, or else a catastrophe, ten thousand times worse than 1918. And we in the middle, helpless and probably in lost both cases. [...] And yet we force ourselves, and we manage to continue our everyday life for hours: reading aloud, eating (as best we can), writing, gardening. But as I lay down I think: Will they come for me tonight? Will I be shot, will I be sent to a concentration camp? [...]

September 4th [...]
[...] This morning confirmation from the postman. The man horrified: "I was buried in 1914 and now I have to get out again as a soldier. Was that necessary, is that human? You should see the gloomy faces of the troop transports - unlike 14. And did we 14 start with a shortage of food? We have to succumb, it cannot take another four years "- In the Bienertpark the shopkeeper Berger, soldier from 1914, now radio operator:" You have it good now! " - "Me? I expect to be beaten to death." - "You are out of it all - we poor dogs have to work again!" [...]

Victor Klemperer, I want to bear witness to the last. Diaries 1933-1945. Ed. Walter Nowojski with the assistance of Hadwig Klemperer. Construction Publishing House, Berlin 1995

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