Was the War Inevitable?
The question as to whether war was inevitable is tantamount to asking what must have happened for the order established by the Treaty of Vienna to finally collapse in 1914. An extensive search through libraries and archives has allowed us to venture a response to this question. As it turns out, the treaty protecting Europe from war was either a spent force or was being consumed by the virus of national chauvinism to such an extent that it was unable to play its role any longer. As it happened, Europeans were longing for war, the politicians and the military yearned for it, and this war-mongering mood was growing in intensity. The artistic avant-garde did their best to meet this demand in society, providing an ideal reflection of the atmosphere of the time.
During the war and following its conclusion, it was often heard that: “things could have worked out very differently,” or “war was entirely avoidable.” It has been said that we must not be drawn into taking a deterministic view of history, claiming that if war broke out, it must have been necessary. Was peace therefore truly within our grasp, and could the war have been avoided? It soon turned out that the hope of salvaging peace was based on a few fallacious premises. The first of these was the conviction that monarchs were bound by a sense of solidarity and were therefore reluctant to go to war. Indeed, the monarchs had close blood-ties and considered themselves a single family. Emperor Wilhelm II and the Tsarina were maternal cousins, as were Nicholas and Britain’s George V, who looked like mirror images of each other. Edward VII was the uncle of the Kaiser of the Reich and the Tsarina, while Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, the cousin and sister-in-law of the Kaiser, was her sister. Almost all the monarchs ruling in both the larger and smaller countries of Europe were either distantly related to the Sachsen- Coburg-Gotha Dynasty, or sprung from it directly. Bismarck disdainfully called them the “fertile studs of Europe.” In the letters they exchanged, they called each other beloved and dear brothers, cousins, and friends. One sign of the solidarity of these “cousins,” these emperors, kings, and princes, was their joint decision to attend the funeral of Victoria, the British Queen, in 1901; for some she was an aunt, for others a grandmother. In 1914 seven of her descendants sat on European thrones. In 1910, during the funeral ceremonies for King Edward VII, the “uncle of kings,” there was a parade of monarchs, an unparalleled demonstration of royal solidarity. Ties between monarchs were based not only on family bonds, but also on shared traditions, similar values, and court etiquette. Nonetheless, quarrels, discord, and wars can even occur within a family, which is why, time and again, tension emerged in the royal family, in spite of its veneer of fraternity. As such, there was no guarantee that a Europe of related monarchs was immune to a great war. But even if the monarchs had made a joint stand against war, there still would have been no certainty that it would not have broken out, as none of the reigning European monarchs enjoyed absolute power or were able to impose their will. They were all compelled to hear out their advisers, ministers, generals, and, in this era of European constitutions, the voices of the people or the nation as well, however much the monarchs were the symbols of the state, the image of sovereign statehood, and however much their portraits adorned public spaces. Meanwhile, even if they had cared to, they would not have been able to halt the impending armed conflict. But did they want to? To this question it is difficult to find a definitive answer.
When the war had already broken out, the monarchs were forced to make a dramatic choice between the solidarity of the royal families and solidarity with their own nations. This choice was in fact made for them, as they could not oppose their subjects. This is why King George V – under pressure from his British subjects – changed his German name to the British Windsor, which British monarchs still use to this day. He deprived the Emperor of the Reich of his honorary command of the British army, and struck German and Austro-Hungarian names from the registry listing members of the officer corps. Knights of the Garter who belonged to enemy camps were also stripped of this honor. The other monarchs representing the warring parties behaved in like fashion.
Another source of faith that war could be avoided was the trust placed in diplomats who, even when the pressure had reached its boiling point, found ways to resolve disagreements without resorting to war. The diplomats traditionally sought paths to reconciliation between the restless sides, ever pursuing the difficult art of striking a compromise. Most often they merely called a conference of the states which formed the “concert of powers,” and this sufficed. “In the impending war, which shall be spurred on for no compelling reason, what is at stake is not only the Hohenzollern Crown, but the very future of Germany [...] the provocation of war is not merely foolhardy, it is downright reprehensible,” warned the German Chancellor in 1913. It turned out in 1914, however, that neither the solidarity of the monarchs, nor that of the diplomats would suffice.
The third source of optimism that war was impossible was the stance adopted by the socialist parties with delegates at the Second International. They expressed the conviction that armed conflict was advantageous for international capital, imperialist states, and nationalist governments, but not for the proletariat. This is why the socialist-led proletariat had to struggle for peace. The socialists threatened to organize a general strike if war were to be declared. They believed that this threat would stop the war-mongers in their tracks. This hope for peace also proved illusory, and the anti-war demonstrations organized on the eve of the conflict were unable to prevent the war. Anti-war sentiment was particularly strong in Great Britain. The prospect of dying for – as the British press worded it – “the stinking Serbs” and the “drunken Russians” was less than alluring. When the war did break out, however, the pacifist socialists, including the British, vanished from sight, declaring solidarity with their own nations. The idea of national solidarity triumphed over the idea of class solidarity, which for many came as a considerable surprise.
Fourthly, military alliances – in particular, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente – were meant to safeguard against war, serving as insurance policies of sorts. These too failed, however. Nor were the political and economic ties between the states in the antagonistic blocs of any aid. These ties, sometimes bolstered by political treaties, could have raised hope for salvaging a state of peace. Nonetheless, the desire for war turned out to be stronger than the desire for peace.
Fifthly: Pacifists gave people hope for peace. Their writing had its readership, whose numbers were not negligible. Norman Angell’s treatise entitled The Great Illusion was a publishing success; its argument was that the European integration process was already so far advanced that a war that ruptured these ties would be a disaster for one and all. No less a publishing success was a multi-volume work by one of the world’s best-known authors, Jan Bloch, a Pole of Jewish extraction, and one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs of the Kingdom of Poland. His work, published in 1898 and entitled Przyszła wojna pod względem technicznym, ekonomicznym i politycznym [The Future of War from a Technical, Economic, and Political Perspective] was translated into many of the world’s languages. In Austria and Germany it was Karl Kraus who was most frequently read. Nevertheless, neither he nor Angell, nor any of the other pacifists, were able to create mechanisms protecting against war or pacifist movements. On the whole, they were isolated and politically insignificant. The German Emperor, for example, nursed deep contempt for the pacifists, whom he called eunuchs. At any rate, it soon turned out that pacifists could most easily laud peace in times of peace.
Sixthly, a chance to salvage peace was seen in the pressure being exerted by international concerns. Indeed, they were afraid of war, as it threatened to rupture all their economic and financial ties. They preferred to negotiate for their share of the markets – such as the businessmen from Britain and Germany who, two weeks before Sarajevo, negotiated a deal to build a railway from Baghdad to Basra. Two Englishmen were due to sit on the board of the German-controlled Baghdad Railway Association. Earlier, in mid-February 1914, entrepreneurs from France and the Reich signed a similar contract. Yet the influence of big business circles interested in a peaceful resolution to the conflicts was ultimately too weak to prevent war. The arms industry, on the other hand, generally declared itself in favor of the war.
The political tension between the states and, in particular, the powerhouses, was growing from one year to the next; the issues of dominance in Europe, the recovery of lost lands or the acquisition of new ones, influence in the Balkans or the Middle East, a new division of colonies, and rule over the seas and oceans led to rearmament on an unprecedented scale, and to an arms race. Did this rearmament inevitably bring war to Europe? It might have, though it is difficult to definitively declare that it led to the war. Such opinions do abound, however. The scale of the rearmament was unprecedented. All of Europe’s large and small states, including Montenegro, increased their military budgets, which went to prove the popularity of the idea of war in parliaments, and was, at the same time, a way of making people accustomed to the real prospect of war. The inflated war budgets testified to the fact that most parliamentarians accepted the governments’ proposal to fuel the fire. In the years 1909–1914 alone the European states’ expenditure for arms rose, on average, by about 50%. In 1909 it was 3.5% of the GDP, while in 1913 it rose to 5%. Rearmament caused a serious fiscal burden for society. For the Reich the burden was so severe that several warned that the state could go bankrupt. The only chance of avoiding this glum prospect was “pressing forward,” i.e. declaring war, during which time the state could suspend the debts it had incurred from its own citizens. Budgets assigned for naval weaponry rose particularly swiftly. The construction of warships was supported by dozens, and later hundreds of associations and organizations, which created effective pressure groups.
The new carving up of the world and the colonial lands was of most interest to Germany, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire was comparatively indifferent. The Germans believed that they had received less of the colonial pie than they deserved. True, they possessed around three million square meters of colonies spread over two continents, inhabited by thirteen million people, officially known as “protected territories,” but these were not generating enough profit or prestige. In his 1900 work entitled The Great Powers, Max Letz said that a war to divvy the ailing British Empire was inevitable, and in its place would come a German Empire. He argued that, in accordance with social Darwinism, the colonies should trade owners. The weak, such as the French, the Portuguese, and the British, would withdraw, while the stronger ones – the Germans – would step in. “Our future will be ensured when we conquer not only all of Europe, but also wherever we can across the ocean. Expanding our possessions is, after all, the basis of our nation,” said Heinrich Class, head of the Pan-German League, in 1913. The idea of war can certainly be traced to this mode of thinking, but thought alone was not enough to actually set it off.
Nor were the Germans satisfied with their place in Europe. Located in the center of Europe, they were constantly obsessed with the idea of being encircled by France and Russia, caught between the proverbial firing lines. In fact, these countries did not pose much of a threat, at least for the time being. This was more of an artificially generated psychosis than a real threat, but it did reinforce the pro-war mood.
The armament policy was fueled by the imperialist propaganda and pro-war rhetoric. Nationalism, which was growing into a national chauvinism, held pride of place in the nations’ preparations for the looming struggle. Apart from love of one’s country and nation and a national pride, it was composed of contempt and hostility for other nations and a national pride that sanctioned rule over others. The nationalists claimed that the path to achieving a high level of national solidarity and unity led through war. War, they argued further, cleanses a nation of its weaknesses and shortcomings, and would work like a salubrious catharsis. The Italian nationalists stressed that war was the swiftest and most heroic means of attaining willpower and wealth. “To the nationalist circles war seems akin to salvation, a hope for change,” concluded Viktor Adler, a leader of the anti-war social democrats on 29 July 1914. Nationalism did not dominate the general mindset, and the nationalist parties did not dominate the political stage. The power remained, on the one hand, with the liberal and conservative parties, and on the other, with the socialist ones, though both the former and the latter did show evidence of being influenced by nationalist ideas and ways of thinking. In particular, the liberal parties succumbed to the pressure of nationalism. The nationalists’ advantage and strength was in the comparatively few in number, yet outspoken, punitive, hierarchically structured, and well-financed organizations and associations, such as the German Eastern Marches Society, the German Army League, the Navy League, the Pan-German League, and the Pan-German Union in Germany; England’s Imperial Naval League and the National Service League; France’s Patriotic League and Action française; Russia’s Black Hundreds; and the Nationalist Association of Italy. These organizations were capable of mobilizing public opinion around their aims, for rearmament and war preparations. They influenced governments, parliaments, and rulers.
Nationalism was nourished by a confused social Darwinism, which urged the need for a decisive armed confrontation in the name of national values and glory. Social Darwinism was popularized in England by Benjamin Kidd, author of Social Evolution, which was first published in 1893. Another Briton who made his name in Europe writing on the subject was Harold Watt, a founder of the Imperial Naval League; he claimed that “war is God’s test for the soul of a nation,” and that in history “the higher and more noble nations have triumphed in war, routing the lower races.”
The cultural climate also favored the war. In the late 1890s Positivism and Scientism were on the decline and Neo-Romanticism was on the rise. In the early twentieth century millions of people had already been convinced by artists and intellectuals that they were leading a bland, prosaic life, a life of consumer boredom, bereft of greatness, sublimity, and spirituality. They claimed that such a bourgeois existence was senseless. Thomas Mann wrote that “war should be a cleansing, a liberation, and a vast hope,” a manifestation of the “fitness of the nation.” War, it was said, ennobled people, and taught the virtues of discipline and obedience. The hopeless life of the wage earner could only be changed by something sublime and revivifying – and this “something” was war. Wartime accomplishments and the life of the hero were important. Neo-Romantics and avant-gardists saw war as a manifestation of the strength of the spirit, as a sign of vitality and creativity. “War is a life-giving principle,” “it is an expression of the highest culture,” Friedrich von Bernhardt wrote in 1911 in a work which went through six editions in Germany in the space of two years. “When a man throws himself into the whirlwind of war it is not instincts, but virtues he rediscovers... In war everything is renewed,” stressed French painter Pierre Bonnard in 1912. In 1891 the French writer Emil Zola pointed out that “only fighting nations develop: a nation immediately perishes when it disarms. War is a school of discipline, devotion, and courage.” The Italian Futurists, headed by Filippo Marinetti, were enthusiastic about war, joyfully exclaiming that “war is the only hygiene of the world.” Generally speaking, the rebellious people of the avant-garde who roused others to rebel against the old world in order to build a new, better, and more noble one in its place, and who called for liberation from the suffocating girdle of custom, could, to a considerable degree, feel that they shared responsibility for the war.
Historian D. S. Landes has pointed out that many a war was believed to be a sort of spring break; he wrote that the tragedy of war lay “in the gullible vanity of people who thought war was a party – a kaleidoscope of handsome uniforms, masculine courage, feminine admiration, dress parades, and the lightheartedness of immortal youth. The war broke out for a lack of imagination.”1 US President Theodore Roosevelt saw the eventuality of the outbreak of war in only a slightly different light: “Europe has not fought for a very long time, and has decided to rouse in itself the spirit of action. War broke out when Europeans had subconsciously grown tired of peace. Then war became acceptable, even desirable.”
Fashionable philosophers and historiosophers added more arguments in favor of the war: “The propriety of war is simply based on the consciousness of its moral necessity. Because [...] history must be in a state of eternal movement, war is waged; it must be regarded as an order established by God,” wrote Heinrich von Treitschke in 1887. People chose to heed his words, but also those of Joseph Maistre, an early-nineteenth-century conservative thinker who maintained that “war is the normal state of the human species.” Henri Bergson’s perception of thought also aided intellectual preparation for the war, stating that Europe urgently needed a spiritual rebirth through a powerful clash of elements. Friedrich Nietzsche, who was popular in Europe, also contributed here. Nietzsche’s call to action and violence, to do battle with idleness, bourgeois narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy, spoke to many, and his statements were printed on leaflets for soldiers; his idea that “war and courage have done more good than love for those dear to you” was found in the rucksacks of soldiers from various armies. Nietzsche called on people to take risks in life and promoted the value of a revolt against liberalism, tradition, and the status quo. Ideas directly or indirectly glorifying war were distributed to millions, and to young people in particular – and it was they, after all, who had to march off to battle.
The literature of the time made a clear contribution to psychologically and emotionally preparing people for war; it often portrayed armed conflict as a joyful and fascinating adventure. Spy novels and tales of the future enjoyed popularity. Novels published in installments that depicted Germans landing on British shores or Britons organizing landing operations on the German coast also proved exciting. Boys’ adventure literature and new weeklies for young people prepared readers to slay their enemies, filled as they were with resourceful and courageous warriors ready to die for their homeland.
State history policies also contributed to preparing people for war, mainly through schools. School curriculae reminded pupils that there was nothing more valuable than a nation’s victories on the battlefield, but also reminded them of the defeats, to inspire an urge for revenge. Anniversaries of wars that were important to the nation were celebrated, along with the deaths or births of heroes who had fought for the national cause. The French commemorated the victories of Napoleon, and the Germans the Battle of the Nations, which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. In 1913, at the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, the authorities organized a great fete – a holiday of national unity – under the pretext of ringing in twenty-five years of Emperor Wilhelm II’s rule. The Russians commemorated Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and the French the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bouvines (June 1914).
Solemn celebrations and shows of patriotism were organized in schools, and negative images of enemies were widely promoted. Hate propaganda was spread by newspaper and school bulletins. Army camps were organized for children and young people, there was drill practice during physical education classes, and military preparation courses were run. All this had a major impact on mental preparation for the conflict. School textbooks taught “good patriotism,” indicating the significance of sacrifice, if the motherland should so desire it. “War is not likely, but it is possible. That is why France remains armed and always ready to defend herself. In defending France we defend the land in which we were born, the most beautiful and abundant land in the world,” we read in a French schoolbook of 1912. One way of mobilizing and educating school-age pupils was mass events, such as the Navy Days in Great Britain, or the German youth festivals.
The priming of nations for war was also crucially affected by a series of crises, beginning with the one caused by the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was followed shortly afterward by the Moroccan Crisis in 1911 (the “Panthersprung” in Agadir). When this concluded, anti-French and pro-war hysteria erupted in Germany. The mob called for the Emperor to abdicate, calling him a coward, and demanded that the Chancellor resign from his position. Tensions were further stoked by Belgrade’s “Pig War” with Vienna, Italy’s war with Turkey over Libya in the years 1911–1912, and finally the Balkan War, which infringed upon the existing power structures. The fact that every war brought a new crisis meant that the atmosphere grew increasingly electric and ways of thinking feverish. Biases and mutual grudges intensified, along with mistrust and nationalist phobias. The constant tension was akin to a tightrope walk over an abyss. Each new crisis overlapped with the one before, building the tension until it all reached a climax. At any moment an armed conflict on a greater scale was expected to erupt. This led to a “dry” (today we would say: “cold”) war. The consecutive crises inclined nations to arm themselves on an even greater scale, to “try out” the militarization of their economies and to forge more “defensive alliances.” The disquieted populaces began asking questions about the coming war. “I always thought about the looming war. If it could be avoided,” wrote Daisy Hochberg von Pless in 1911. “In the early winter of 1912/1913 there was increasing talk of the possibility of war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia... There was quiet turmoil hidden in our country. The wheels of independence were turning feverishly,” recalled the Polish Princess Matylda Sapieżyna. Due to the tension, volunteers swiftly arrived for the Polish and Ukrainian rifle units in 1912–13 in Galicia. When the immediate threat of war seemed to subside, recruitment diminished.
And yet, even all of the above factors need not have sealed the outbreak of a world conflict. Further crises could have come and gone, resolved through established procedures, and the world could have kept on arming itself, continuing to train and parade its armies while war plans reposed in carefully guarded safes. Even with all this going on, it would have been possible to live in peace, though a life of constant tension, from crisis to crisis, from conflagration to conflagration, was certainly not a source of comfort. How many years can one live on a powder keg? Not very long. This is why it should come as no surprise that it was often concluded that, in spite of the risk of war and the lack of certainty as to how things would turn out, an attempt needed to be made. “War [...] was inevitable and unstoppable, as a result of motives that drive states and peoples, like a storm which nature itself must release,” wrote Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski. Thus, if war is unavoidable, there is no point in delaying it. A surgeon would make a similar argument: an operation is the only chance to salvage the health of a patient, and the chance of its success depends on the speed with which it is conducted. “A just and necessary war is no more brutal than a surgical operation. It is better to give the patient pain and get blood on your fingers than to let the illness spread to such an extent that it becomes a threat to you and the world,” wrote British journalist Sidney Low on the eve of the war. War is, after all, simply another means of gaining political aims. Meanwhile, there is what might be called the compulsion of war. All that remained was to choose the date. The bloody attack in Sarajevo of 28 June 1914 appeared to fulfill these expectations, setting off a chain reaction.
Andrzej Chwalba. Born on 11 Dec. 1949; he specializes in the social and religious history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has been a professor since 1995. He has 380 publications to his name, including twenty-two books. He once served as Vice-rector of Teaching Affairs of the Jagiellonian University. He has received many awards for his books, including The History of Poland, The History of Krakow 1939–1945; The History of the World in the Nineteenth Century; The History of the World 1989–2011. He has also published six books in foreign languages: Polen und der Osten, Suhrkamp, 2005; Kurze Geschichte der Dritten Republik Polen 1989 bis 2005, Harrassowitz, 2010; Collegium Maius. A History, 2010; Polsko 1989–2008. Dejiny soucasnosti, Brno 2009; Poljska Nakon Komunizma (1989–2011), Zagreb 2011; Istorija na Trietaja Polska Republika, Sofia 2013.
1 David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1999), p. 465.
This article has been published in the second issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the European memory of the First World War.