In the summer of 1914 capitalism tipped humanity into an abyss of barbarism that would leave millions dead. Neil Faulkner looks at the First World War.

The great powers in 1914

On 28 June 1914, a Serbian nationalist student assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne during a state visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Five weeks later, Austria, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain were all at war. Ten million would die during the four years of industrialised carnage that would follow. What had happened?

Great events have multiple causes. More precisely, immediate events trigger a series of contradictions which are related to one another rather like a set of Russian dolls – the military encompassed by the diplomatic, the diplomatic by the geopolitical, and the geopolitical by the economic.

That is why a leading historian (A J P Taylor) could claim that world war broke out in July-August 1914 because of the railway timetables.

He was referring to the fact that the belligerent powers believed that the war would be fast and short, such that the speed with which armies could be mobilised and deployed (by rail) would determine the outcome. Therefore, once one side started to mobilise, the other side had to do the same.

But this was only the most immediate – and least important – register in which the crisis played out. And a common mistake among mainstream historians when dealing with complex events is to get stuck in one register.

A shot heard around the world - the assassination at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914The quip about railway timetables reflects the fact that big wars can be triggered by small things. But big wars always have big causes. The ‘cock-up’ theory of history explains relatively little. The First World War was an imperialist war decades in the making.

Though tension was high in Europe, the assassination at Sarajevo did not at first cause general alarm: it appeared to be an internal Austro-Hungarian matter.

Austria-Hungary was a ramshackle dynastic empire in the heart of Europe ruled by the German-speaking Habsburgs. Its 39 million people comprised: 12 million Austrians, 10 million Hungarians, 6.6 million Czechs, 5 million Poles, 4 million Ukrainians, 3.2 million Croats, 2.9 million Rumanians, 2 million Slovaks, 2 million Serbs, 1.3 million Slovenians, and 0.7 million Italians.

The Austrian and Hungarian ruling classes ran the empire in tandem. The ageing Habsburg autocrat Franz Josef was both Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.

The Habsburg regime was threatened by the militancy of a growing working class and by mounting nationalist agitation among its subject-peoples. It responded with an unstable mix of repression and reform. By 1914, constitutional government had broken down, and hawks like top general Conrad von Hötzendorf had taken control.

‘Only an aggressive policy … can save this state from destruction,’ he argued. The opposition was to be cowed and the authority of the state reasserted by demonstrative military action.

The chosen target was Serbia: an independent Balkan state that acted as a beacon of resistance for Serbians living under Austrian rule. Conrad pressed for war against Serbia – ‘this viper’ – 25 times in the highest councils of state between 1906 and 1914. The assassination at Sarajevo was the Habsburg hawks’ supreme opportunity.

On 23 July, the Austrian government sent an ultimatum to Serbia, accusing the Serbs of complicity in the assassination, and threatening war if they did not co-operate fully in its investigation and in the suppression of anti-Austrian agitation on their territory.

Dissatisfied with the Serbian response, on 28 July the Austrians ordered mobilisation for war against Serbia and opened fire on Belgrade (on the opposite side of the Danube). These were the first shots of the First World War.

Serbia was an ally of Russia. The Russians and the Austrians were geopolitical rivals in the Balkans.

Russia was on the brink of revolution. The barricades had gone up in the Vyborg district of St Petersburg and the workers were fighting pitched battles with Tsarist troops.

On 30 July, the Russian Tsar ordered his army to mobilise. The hawks were in control in St Petersburg just as they were in Vienna. Hardline ministers and generals argued that war was necessary to defend Russian interests in the Balkans, and that it would engender an upsurge of nationalism and cauterise the revolutionary mood.

Industrialised imperialism produced war by railway timetableBut Russian mobilisation constituted a mortal threat to Germany. National unification and rapid industrialisation had turned Germany into the greatest power in Europe. Nervous rivals had coalesced into a hostile alliance: the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain.

Germany had been left with only one major ally, Austria-Hungary, and therefore faced the daunting prospect of ‘a war on two fronts’ against superior forces.

Germany’s war plan was a carefully crafted response to this peril. The ‘Schlieffen Plan’ – named after the Chief of Staff who devised it – envisaged a six-week lightning war to knock out France in the west before shifting the bulk of German forces east to face ‘the Russian steamroller’.

Timing was everything. When the Russians ordered mobilisation on 30 July, the clock of the Schlieffen Plan began ticking. Consequently, the German government declared war on Russia on 1 August and on France on 3 August.

The British hesitated only momentarily. They feared German domination of Europe and a direct threat to the security of the British Empire. The crisis now revealed its primary structure: the imperialist competition between Germany and Britain.

In the middle of the 19th century, Britain, the original ‘workshop of the world’, had been the only industrial superpower, producing 50% of the world’s cotton, 60% of its coal, and 70% of its steel. By 1914, Britain’s shares in these industries had fallen to 20% for cotton, 20% for coal, and just 10% for steel. Both Germany and the USA had overtaken Britain as industrial powers.

Britain still had the largest empire. It peaked in the early 20th century when Britain held authority over one-fifth of the world’s land-mass and one-quarter of its people. But the relative industrial power needed sustain global hegemony was waning.

At the same time, imperialist tensions generally were rising. National economies were increasingly dominated by mere handfuls of giant monopoly firms in each sector. These firms were engaged in a relentless search for raw materials and new markets, bringing them into conflict with foreign rivals on a global scale.

Traditional geopolitical conflict between nation-states thus fused with economic competition between blocs of capital. The great powers engaged in an arms race powered by their imperialist rivalry.

On the eve of war, Europe was a continent of conscript armies of unprecedented size. Industrialised supply of food, clothing, arms, equipment, and munitions meant that some six million men of Europe’s active field armies would immediately march to war, and some 13 million reserves would be mustering behind them.

Between 1906 and 1912, the Germans had pursued a policy of weltpolitik (‘world power’). It was an assertion of rising German imperialism in opposition to the established empires of the British and the French. Its main expression was a naval arms race with Britain.

German weltpolitik challenged two historic principles of British statesmanship: the need to maintain a balance of power on the continent; and the need to prevent the Channel ports falling into the hands of a hostile power. Both principles were rooted in Britain’s island position, commercial interests, and traditional maritime supremacy.

Britain and its shipping lanes were well protected by a large navy. A divided Europe left the British ruling class free to exploit its empire and profit from overseas trade. A Europe united under the hegemony of a single power, especially one in control of the Channel ports, was a threat.

My fleet's bigger than yours - the Anglo-German naval arms race was a countdown to warHerein lay the significance of the naval arms race. To maintain its lead over Germany, Britain had increased its fleet from 29 battleships in 1899 to 49 in 1914. It had also came out of ‘splendid isolation’ and formed an alliance with the French and the Russians.

This had imposed an unsustainable military burden on Germany. The French and Russian armies had been growing at the same time as the British fleet. Germany was a continental power with enemies on two sides. It had therefore been forced to abandon the naval arms race and switch its main effort to army expansion. Germany could not both defend itself in Europe and challenge Britain at sea.

By late 1912, German leaders were convinced they were losing the European arms race and the balance of forces was tipping against them. They came to favour a pre-emptive war sooner rather than later. The leader of the German Army, Helmuth von Moltke, argued that ‘a war of nations’ was unavoidable.

The First World War, then, was caused by military competition between opposing alliances of nation-states. And these nation-states represented the interests of rival blocs of imperialist capital.

The centralisation and concentration of capital – a long-term process which had accelerated rapidly after the mid 1870s – had created a world of global corporate rivals. The spread of industrialisation had also created major new centres of capitalist industry.

Traditional rivalries between the great powers of Europe were thus re-energised by competitive capital accumulation.

These were the deeper contradictions reflected in the arms races, alliances, and war plans which marked the countdown to war. These were the underlying tensions triggered by the July-August crisis.

But industrialised imperialism had not only given rise to conflicts that plunged Europe into war. It had also created means of destruction on a scale that would make the war the most terrible in history.

In 1914, capitalism tipped humanity into an abyss of barbarism.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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