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The July crisis of 1914

Why do you think the First World War started?

Some of the answers you or others may have thought of might have been:

  • the couple depicted here are the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, who were both assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia
  • the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a trigger for war
  • Germany and/or Austria–Hungary were responsible for starting the war
  • the alliance system made a European war inevitable once any one country was willing to risk one
  • imperialism and rivalries between Europe’s great powers was responsible for tensions that led to war
  • the arms race that pitched European countries against each other.

All of these, and many more, are legitimate and valid answers to why war broke out in 1914.

The immediate cause of the war can be found in the summer of 1914, during the so-called ‘July crisis’. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. In the summer of 1914, he and his wife Sophie travelled to Bosnia, a province of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. On Sunday, 28 June, the couple were assassinated in the capital, Sarajevo, by Bosnian-Serb nationalists.

To understand the importance of this event, imagine the current heir to the UK throne, Prince Charles, and his wife being assassinated while visiting Northern Ireland. The assassination threatened the integrity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Emperor, and potentially weakened the country in the eyes of others.

This outrageous act of brutality aimed to undermine Austria–Hungary, which had annexed Bosnia into its multi-ethnic empire in 1908. The assassination is often seen as the spark that would set light to a continent riddled with international tensions.

However, a European war was not inevitable. Right until the last moment, some European statesmen, such as the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, were desperately trying to avoid an escalation of the crisis by advocating mediation. Others, including the German and Austrian Chiefs of the General Staff did everything they could to ensure that a war would break out.

This assassination precipitated the July crisis: five weeks of diplomacy and decision-making across the continent – far away from Bosnia – that ended in the outbreak of the First World War. But quite how and why the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie would lead to the deaths of millions has always been a difficult question.

One reason why the crisis escalated was that Europe’s so-called Great Powers were in alliances that pitted one side against the other. Germany, Austria–Hungary and Italy formed one alliance; France and Russia formed another. More complicated still, France, Russia and Britain were also in an ‘entente’, a more informal agreement to support each other in times of war. The map illustrates the alliance system that existed in the summer of 1914. Why do you think Germany might have considered itself ‘encircled’ by hostile powers?

Map of the European alliances in 1914. The Great Britain, France and Russia alliance are coloured blue. The Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy entente are coloured red. The other neutral countries in Europe are coloured brown The alliance system that existed in the summer of 1914. © Publisher unknown

The map shows Germany in the centre of Europe, with potential enemies on either side. This is why Germans felt ‘encircled’ by hostile powers. Only Austria–Hungary was a reliable ally. When the heir to Austria–Hungary’s throne was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb, its government called on its friends in the German government for support. They suspected – but could not prove – that Serbia was behind the assassination and wanted revenge. When Germany promised to support its ally Austria–Hungary, this meant that France and Russia would become their enemies. This was mainly because:

  • Russia saw itself as the defender of Serbia and would fight to defend it against Austria–Hungary
  • Russia was allied to France
  • Germany’s only military strategy (called the Schlieffen Plan) would send German troops west to try to defeat France before the German army could then turn east to defeat Russia. So Germany’s plan for defeating Russia meant it had to declare war on France as well!

Look at this contemporary cartoon and consider how what you’ve learnt of the alliance system is reflected by the cartoonist:

A cartoon image of a row of men in different uniforms, each with a right hand raised with fist clenched, apart from the first one. The small person at the front of the line has a sash with Servia on it and has his fists on his waist. There is a speech bubble over his head that reads 'If you touch me, I'll...'. The next man in line is holding the first man's shoulder and has a speech bubble that reads 'If you make a move, I'll...'. The next man has hold of the second man's shoulder. He has a sash that reads Russia on it and a speech bubble that reads 'If you hit that little feller, Ill...'. The next man has his hand on the Russian man's shoulder. His sash reads Germany and a speech bubble that reads 'If you strike my friend, I'll...'.  There are two more men in the background that are rushing up to join the back of the line. The first has a speech bubble that reads 'If you hit him...' and the second has one that reads 'Hi there, if you chaps...'. ‘A chain of friendship’, published in 1914. © Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

This cartoon is a humorous take on how a conflict between Serbia and Austria–Hungary (on the left) escalated to involve all the major European powers, with the actions of one triggering the reactions of another. The cartoon attempts to depict the confusing circumstances that meant that nobody quite knew why their country was at war in 1914. For example, why did the assassination in Serbia and the resulting conflict between Austria–Hungary and Serbia lead to Britain going to war against Germany in August? It was as difficult to fathom for contemporaries as it is for us today.

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This article is from the free online course:

World War 1: Trauma, Memory, Controversy

The Open University