Military strategists often exaggerate their ability to control events. World War I is the paradigm example of military events that totally escaped control. The basic cause of World War I, a conflict that ultimately killed 10 million soldiers, was competition between empire-building capitalist nations for imperial domination. The principal contestants were England, France, Germany and Russia. In the late 19th century, the imperial pecking order was decisively altered by the rapid growth of German power. Imperial competition resulted in rabid pursuit of foreign colonies, costly arms races, elaborate military mobilization plans and complex military alliances.
France and Russia, fearful of German power, became allies. England, upset by German acquisition of formidable warships, entered informal military associations with both France and Russia. Germany allied with multiethnic and unstable Austria-Hungary. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a region that contained numerous Slavs. This annexation infuriated Serbia, which hoped to unify the Slavs in southern Europe. It also angered Russia, a country posing as the protector of Balkan Slavs.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist. The assassination was facilitated by rogue elements of the Serbian government. Austria-Hungary, outraged by the murders and determined to chastise Serbia, delivered a harsh ultimatum — and had the backing of Germany in doing so. Meanwhile, Russia declared that it would support Serbia. Moreover, all countries believed that striking first gave an enormous military advantage.
Serbia accepted most but not all conditions in the ultimatum. Unsatisfied, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia came to Serbia's defense and mobilized its forces against Austria-Hungary. Russia soon decided it must also mobilize against Austria-Hungary's ally Germany.
Confronted by the Russian mobilization on its eastern border, Germany prepared for a two-front war (Russia in the east and Russia's ally France in the west). To avoid a catastrophic defeat, offensive action was imperative. Hence, Germany put into effect its long-standing "Schlieffen Plan" calling for a rapid and overwhelming invasion of France through neutral Belgium. The Schlieffen Plan expected that France would be vanquished within six weeks, after which the German army would wheel about and crush Russia. Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium brought England into the war on the side of France and Russia.
Almost all military strategists thought the European war would be fierce but short. Kaiser Wilhelm II assured German soldiers they would be home by Christmas. As it turned out, the German offensive was halted at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The war subsequently devolved into murderous, immobile and seemingly interminable trench combat, something none of the military planners had anticipated. All initial participants in the war — Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Russia, and Serbia — believed they were victims of aggression and attacking defensively.
The Smithsonian history of World War I summarizes it in this way: "World War I fractured history. The world before 1914 was dominated by confident, wealthy, and forward-looking Western ... imperial states, the products of a century of progress. After 1918, the Western world comprised destroyed or shaken polities, war-ravaged economies, the shards of empire, and dispirited citizens haunted by the ghosts of dead millions. From the wreckage left by the war grew the Great Depression, totalitarian dictatorships, and a second world war — all preface to the modern world."
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