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Blunders That Led to World War

Blunders That Led to World War

 Blunders That Led to World War

Could a third world war begin by accident? Could statesmen and their military advisers grossly miscalculate risks and cause the loss of millions of lives?

WE DO not know. But we do know that this very thing has occurred. A century ago, European leaders launched their nations into the Great War, later called World War I, unaware of the magnitude of the horrors to come. “We muddled into war,” confessed David Lloyd George, British prime minister from 1916-1922. Consider some of the key events that led to that horrific slaughter.

“None of the statesmen wanted war on a grand scale,” wrote historian A.J.P. Taylor, “but they wanted to threaten and they wanted to win.” The czar of Russia felt that everything possible must be done for the sake of peace. He did not want to be responsible for a monstrous slaughter. Somehow, though, beginning with two fateful shots fired at about 11:15 a.m., on June 28, 1914, events slipped out of control.

Two Shots That Changed the World

By 1914, long-standing rivalries among European powers had stretched nerves taut and produced two opposing alliances: the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany and the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia. Moreover, those nations had political and economic ties with a number of other countries, including those in the Balkans.

At the time, the area called the Balkans was a politically volatile region chafing under the sovereignty of the bigger powers, and it was rife with secret societies scheming for independence. There, a small group of young people plotted to assassinate Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand during his visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, on June 28. * A small police presence made their task easier. The would-be assassins, however, had minimal training. One youth threw a small bomb but missed his target, and others failed to act when the time came. Gavrilo Princip was the one conspirator who succeeded​—and only by sheer accident. How so?

When Princip saw the archduke drive by still unharmed by the bomb, he tried to get to the car but in vain. Dispirited, he walked across the road to a café. Meanwhile, the archduke, angry about the attempted  bombing, decided to change his route. However, his driver, unaware of the change in plans, set off in the wrong direction and had to turn the car around. At that very moment, Princip came out of the café and was literally presented with a sitting target​—the archduke in his open car less than ten feet [3 m] away. Princip approached the car and fired two shots, killing the archduke and his wife. * A naive Serb nationalist, Princip likely had no idea of the avalanche he had just triggered. Yet, he could not take sole blame for the horrors to come.

Ripe for War

Before 1914, most European minds had a romantic notion of war. They saw it as beneficial, noble, and glorious​—this despite their profession of Christianity. Some statesmen even believed that war would forge national unity and invigorate the people! Moreover, certain generals assured their leaders that a war could be won quickly, decisively. “In two weeks we shall defeat France,” boasted a German general. Nobody foresaw that millions of men would be mired in trench warfare for years.

Furthermore, in the prewar years, “a great tidal wave of hypernationalism swept over Europe,” says the book Cooperation Under Anarchy. “The schools, the universities, the press, and the politicians all joined in this orgy of mythmaking and self-glorification.”

Religious leaders did little to counter that ugly spirit. Says historian Paul Johnson: “On one side were ranged Protestant Germany, Catholic Austria, Orthodox Bulgaria and Moslem Turkey. On the other were Protestant Britain, Catholic France and Italy, and Orthodox Russia.” Most clerics, he adds, “equated Christianity with patriotism. Christian soldiers of all denominations were exhorted to kill each other in the name of their Saviour.” Even priests and nuns were mobilized, and thousands of the former were later killed in action.

The European alliances, which were meant to provide security against a major war, may have contributed toward it. In what way? “The security of the European powers was tightly meshed,” says Cooperation Under Anarchy. “Each power felt that its own security  rested precariously on that of its allies, and therefore felt compelled to rush to defend its allies​—even when these allies had provoked their attackers.”

Another dangerous element was Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, named after a former chief of the German general staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan, which involved a rapid first strike, was drafted on the assumption that Germany would have to fight both France and Russia. The goal, therefore, was a quick victory over France while Russia slowly mobilized and then an assault on Russia. “Once the [Schlieffen] plan was set in motion, the system of military alliances almost assured a general European war,” says World Book Encyclopedia.

The Avalanche Begins

Even though an official investigation found no evidence to incriminate the Serbian government in the assassination of the archduke, Austria was determined to end Slavic agitation in the empire once and for all. Austria was keen “to teach Serbia her lesson,” says historian J. M. Roberts.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Nicholas Hartwig​—the Russian ambassador in the Serbian capital—​worked on a possible compromise. But he had a heart attack and died while meeting with the Austrian legation. Finally, on July 23, Austria sent Serbia a list of demands that amounted to an ultimatum. Because Serbia could not accept all the demands, Austria immediately terminated diplomatic relations. At that crucial moment, diplomacy broke down.

Still, a few attempts were made to prevent war. For example, the United Kingdom recommended an international conference, and Germany’s kaiser urged Russia’s czar not to mobilize. But events ran out of control. “Statesmen, generals, and whole nations were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the events that were about to unfold,” states the book The Enterprise of War.

The Austrian emperor, backed by assurances of German support, declared war on Serbia on July 28. Russia backed Serbia and thus tried to restrain Austria’s hand by announcing the mobilization of about a million Russian troops along the Austrian border. Because that would leave Russia’s border with Germany undefended, the Russian czar reluctantly ordered a total mobilization.

The czar tried to assure the kaiser that he had no designs on Germany. Nevertheless, the Russian mobilization threw German war plans into high gear, and on July 31, Germany commenced executing the Schlieffen battle plan, declaring war on Russia on August 1 and on France two days later. Because German war plans involved marching through Belgium, Britain warned Germany that it would declare war on that country if it violated Belgian neutrality. German troops crossed into Belgium on August 4. The die was cast.

“The Biggest Diplomatic Disaster of Modern Times”

“Britain’s declaration of war put the final seal on the biggest diplomatic disaster of modern times,” wrote historian Norman Davies. Fellow historian Edmond Taylor wrote that after Austria declared war on July 28, “sheer muddle played an increasingly significant role in generating [war]. Too much was happening too fast in too many places. . . . The keenest and most orderly minds could no longer digest and assimilate the raw data that were being fed into them.”

More than 13 million soldiers and civilians paid the ultimate price for that disastrous “muddle.” Optimism about the future and human nature also suffered a mortal blow as so-called civilized peoples armed with powerful, mass-produced, newly invented weapons slaughtered one another on an unprecedented scale. The world would never be the same again.​—See the box  “World War—​A Sign of the Times?”


^ par. 7 Bosnia is now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

^ par. 8 Princip killed the archduke’s wife by mistake. He had intended to shoot the governor of Bosnia, General Potiorek, who was with the royal couple in the car, but something interfered with his aim.

[Box/​Picture on page 20]


The Bible foretold that wars would be part of the sign marking the last days of the present wicked world. (Matthew 24:3, 7; Revelation 6:4) The fulfillment of that sign today indicates that we are rapidly approaching the time when God’s Kingdom government will take full control over the earth.​—Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:9, 10.

Moreover, God’s Kingdom will remove an unseen force in world affairs​—wicked spirits led by Satan the Devil. “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one,” says 1 John 5:19. Satan’s sinister influence has contributed to many of mankind’s woes, no doubt including the disastrous events that led to World War I.​—Revelation 12:9-12. *


^ par. 30 Further information on the last days and these wicked spirits can be found in the Bible study aid What Does the Bible Really Teach? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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U.S. National Archives photo

[Picture on page 19]

Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

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© Mary Evans Picture Library