This is a woefully inadequate brief summary of the events leading up to 1914, a subject on which billions of scholarly words have been written from a vast range of perspectives. It helped me, though, to get my head around a sequence of linked but disparate historical moments
1. Warning Signs and Portents.
The balance of power in 18th and 19th Century Europe was held by the great powers: Russia; Prussia; France; Britain; and Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) empires. To the East the Ottoman empire covered much of Eastern Europe (Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, then Asia Minor extending to the middle east.
- Multiple small European states especially prior to the unification of Italy after Napoleonic wars; and of Germany by Bismarck later in 19th century.
- Creation of Germany as a super power - especially after the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, which weakened France - led to a change in the equations of power, with a rising, ambitious Germany as the greatest new influence. Other changes, tensions and hotspots:
- Gradual weakening and eventual crumbling of Ottoman empire creating instability in the east
- Weakening of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Hungary wishing to be free of Habsburg rule
- Ethnic and nationalist tensions in the Balkans, with Serbia in particular wishing to be independent of Austria-Hungary. Balkan league v Ottomans; 1st Balkan War 1912; 2nd Balkan War 1913
- Developing alliance between Russia and France (traditionally enemies viz 1812) as balance to ‘central’ European power of Germany / Austria
- Developing entent cordiale (1906) between Britain and France, traditionally enemies.
- Global power of the British Fleet unchallenged since Trafalgar 1805 envied by many, but particularly by Germany
The Agadir crisis of July/August 1911 was the first diplomatic incident with flexing of muscles by Germany to test out France’s resolve re empire in Africa and supremacy on the sea. Agadir is a small port on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. German ships put in there, and high ranking Germans visited triumphantly. Lots of diplomatic activity calmed things down, but people looked seriously at likely military aspects of a war between the great powers. Agadir ended in November 1911, with the usual imperialists' carve-up, and self protection, but it made people think seriously about how war would impact. Churchill’s (WSC) memo at the time on likely 20 day and 40 day positions of opposing forces in Europe proved remarkably accurate when it actually transpired in 1914.
In 1908-09 Kaiser Wilhelm II (KW2) and Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand became close friends, mainly because KW2 was very friendly and welcoming to FF’s wife, the Countess Chotek, who was ostracized and unpopular in Austrian high society.
FF held power in the AH empire from around 1890, though his elderly uncle, Franz Joseph was the emperor. In 1906 FF appointed Conrad von Hotzendorf to modernize the Austrian army. They pursued war with four natural enemies: Italy, Rumania, Russia and Serbia. The strategy was to take them on one at a time. WSC said of von Hotzendorf “he dwelt year after year at the very centre of Europe’s powder magazine, in special charge of the detonators”.
From 1909, Sukhomlinov was Russian minister for war. He made huge improvements following disastrous defeats in Manchuria in 1908, but in 1915 was scapegoated for defeats and was imprisoned for life, until rescued by Lenin after the Revolution in 1917. Sagonov was the influential Foreign Minister
In France, Joffre came to power as Vice-President for war in July 1911.
In December 1913, Russia unsheathed its diplomatic sabres again when General Otto Liman von Sanders took command of a Turkish army corps in Constantinople. But the Ottoman navy already employed a British admiral, Arthur Limpus. Neither France nor Britain felt very much alarmed.