Foolish Thing in the Balkans

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Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.

Otto von Bismarck,  said during the Congress of Berlin in 1878

One hundred years ago the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I, the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, the reshaping of the map of Europe, ultimately to the rise of Nazism and World War II.  The deadliest bullets fired in the course of history were those fired by Gavrilo Princip.

Looking back, one is struck by how slow contemporaries were to grasp where events were heading.  The general feeling was that this crisis would be ultimately resolved and that war would be avoided, perhaps by a meeting of the great powers.  Alas such was not to be.  Austria used the assassination as a pretext to militarily settle accounts with Serbia.  Kaiser Wilhelm, against the advice of wiser heads among his advisors, gave Austria a blank check.  Russia would inevitably enter the war on the side of Serbia, which would bring in her ally France.  Germany would quickly be fighting a two front war.  The German invasion plan of France required an invasion of Belgium which would bring Britain into the war.  All of these domino actions were clear enough at the time, but the powers that be in each of the Great Powers assumed that their adversaries would back down rather than risk a general war.  Such was not the case.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, was preoccupied, as was the rest of the British cabinet, with the issue of Irish Home Rule, which threatened to lead to violent clashes in Ireland and a possible revolt by segments of the British Army in Ireland against Home Rule.  This was a major crisis and it was not until July 25, 1914 that Churchill grasped what was coming on the Continent.  After a long discussion on the issue of Home Rule in Ireland. the Foreign Secretary read to the cabinet the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia:

“We were all very tired, but gradually as the sentences and phrases followed one another, impressions of a wholly different character began to form in my mind.  As the reading proceeded it seemed absolutely impossible that any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor.  The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately, but by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.”

In this Vale of Tears we may think we have an assured course and future, but the events of a hundred years ago today demonstrate just how illusory such beliefs tend to be, and how swiftly our world can be turned upside down.

On the idle hill of summer,

                Sleepy with the sound of streams,

Far I hear the steady drummer

                Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder,

                On the roads of earth go by,

Dear to friends and food for powder,

                Soldiers marching, all to die.

A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad XXXV-1896

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24 Comments

  1. Everyone wanted war in 1914

    1. Ever since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Austria and Germany had been determined to prevent Russian expansion in the Balkans. Austria knew that, if she allowed herself to be humiliated by Serbia, she could not keep control of her minorities.
    2. Germany saw war with Russia as inevitable and wanted it before Russia completed her rail network and gained the ability to mobilise her vast reserves quickly.
    3. With her prestige already damaged by her defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia knew if she allowed her ally, Serbia, to be humiliated, she could well face revolt in her Western provinces, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, from which she drew the bulk of her tax revenue.
    4. With her stagnant birth-rate and Germany’s growing one, France knew she could not wait another generation, if she were ever to recover the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and avenge the defeat of 1870.
    5. Italy wanted to incorporate Austria’s Italian provinces (Italia Irredenta).
    6. Tirpitz’s naval expansion and the consequent arms race with Germany was ruinously expensive for Britain and, ultimately, unsustainable.

  2. “Everyone wanted war in 1914”

    Disagree. The Brits clearly didn’t want it, and absent the invasion of Belgium I doubt if they would have gotten involved on the continent, restricting themselves to a naval war against Germany. The Serb government accepted almost all the demands of the Austrians in an attempt to avoid war. Inept, doomed Nicholas II, the last Tsar, did not want war and did his ineffective best to try to avert it. Even blockheaded Kaiser Bill, who did so much to bring on the Great War, had moments of panic and regret during the Sarajevo crisis when he realized the Great War that had been predicted for so long was really about to begin. One of the saddest aspects of Sarajevo is how few actual villains there were and how much miscalculation piled on wishful thinking there was. Easier to accept great disasters brought about by villains like Hitler, instead of great disasters brought about by bumbling mediocrities.

  3. Donald M McClarey
    Ever since 1886, people like General George Boulanger, the Ligue des patriotes led by Paul Déroulède and supported by Maurice Barrès, Godefroy Cavaignac, Marcel Habert and Barillier had been campaigning relentlessly for war with Germany – « La Revanche. »

  4. Yep, and they had been ignored, as the time between 1886 and 1914 would indicate. French desire for revenge for Alsace and Lorraine had not overcome realization that in a one on one fight they would doubtless be trounced by the Germans again. It was fear, and not desire for revenge, that led France into its alliance with Russia.

  5. particularly Poland and the Baltic states, from which she drew the bulk of her tax revenue.

    About 11% of the population of Tsarist Russia resided in Poland or the Baltic states. Some how I tend to doubt the revenue generating potential in those provinces exceeded that of the rest of Russia by a factor of 8 or more.

  6. “Cum enim dixerint pax et securitas tunc repentinus eis superveniet interitus sicut dolor in utero habenti et non effugient.” Prima Epistula Sancti Pauli ad Thessalonicenses, Caput V, Versus III.
    .
    I have a feeling that the First World War never ended, but had mere brief lulls of low-level fighting and bloodshed. What Putin is doing in addicting Europe to natural gas while it de-nuclearizes itself and welcomes in Muslim immigrants is a setup for another powder keg.

  7. The total death toll in all 20th century wars prior to Sarajevo was 1.5 million, or about 100,000 persons a year. If the assassination in Sarajevo never happened and the course of the 20th century was different, one could extrapolate that the 20th century would have killed about 10,000,000 persons (of course, one cannot really say that the trends of 1900-1914 would have continued indefinitely. Perhaps it would have gone the other way, Irish Home Rule would have been granted and become the pattern for the rest of the century, with even less conflict and death as a result).

    Instead we got Sarajevo, and the number dead “by human decision” amounted to at least 231,000,000. People who read the Apocalypse of St. John should realize that the Horsemen have been riding for quite some time already.

  8. The total death toll in all 20th century wars prior to Sarajevo was 1.5 million, or about 100,000 persons a year.

    I’d be quite skeptical of these sorts of contentions. Follow the citations rearward and see if they come to a serious piece of historical demography. One minor personal project I’d like to undertake is to find out the origins of the seven digit death tolls attributed to King Leopold’s troops in the Congo Free State.

  9. I have a feeling that the First World War never ended, but had mere brief lulls of low-level fighting and bloodshed.

    The principals in the 1st World War were Britain & her Dominions, France, Germany, the Hapsburgs, Italy, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and Japan. I am trying to figure who among them you anticipate will be fighting whom. The bloodshed of note in Europe in the last 60-odd years has been confined to Yugoslavia (bar the brief intramural violence in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Roumania (1989). Latin America has seen one interstate war since 1895. There has been horrendous bloodshed in the Far East since 1945, but it’s hard to see much of that as derivative of the World War I era conflicts.

  10. Casualties in war are notoriously squishy, and the closer you examine them the squishier they get, often involving fairly loose guestimates. A prime example is our Civil War, studied more than any other conflict, with the exception of World War II. For over a century, fatalities were accepted as around 640,000. Recently a higher death toll is being bruited about of 750,000. I have always thought the death toll of 640,000 was probably too low, based on the large amount of skirmishes and raids fought where record keeping was none too good, and general problems with the destruction of a fair amount of Confederate records during and immediately after the War. However, the new estimate is largely based on demographic extrapolations from the 1860 census, and that puts us squarely in guestimate territory.

  11. I sometimes wonder what would have happened, if Germany had gone to war with France in June 1905, during the Morocco crisis.

    The Anglo-Russian Entente was not concluded until 1907 and Britain might have stood aloof. The Schlieffen plan might well have produced a German victory within weeks.

    In 1914, even with the BEF in place, scouting parties of cavalry from von Kluck’s army reached the outskirts of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés – That is just over 11k or 7½ miles from the centre of Paris.

  12. “I’d be quite skeptical of these sorts of contentions.”

    Yes, we should be Art. It would probably be better to express these numbers in min-max range due to uncertainties over deaths due to war-related disease and famine, especially civilian. The estimate of 1,500,000 deaths in the 1900-1914 period (another issue: is 1900 in the 20th century?) is the best I could find on short notice, especially considering these numbers:

    Second Boer War: 44,000
    Philippine revolt: 226,000
    First Balkan War: 448,000
    Second Balkan War: 34,000
    Russo-Japanese War: 157,000
    Italio-Turkish War: 18,000
    Total: 827,000

    The Russian numbers from the Russo-Japanese War are the maximum values. The minimum are half that. The Philippine insurrection likewise has a good deal of uncertainty. But these are among the best numbers we have.

    The numbers above bring us to over 50% of the 1.5 million estimate above, so the numbers are within the same order of magnitude. I’d have to do more work to better the accuracy.

  13. I sent one fellow into apoplexy by turning up a scholarly article by a military historian on the Philippine war which included some casualty estimates (the upper bound being a good deal lower than your quotation above). The notion that a modest expeditionary force was willing or able to inflict that level of carnage strikes me as incredible.

    My initial efforts at finding the source of the estimated death tolls in the Congo Free State were unsuccessful. It would not surprise me in the least if that number were just a castle in the air.

  14. There are some Philippine insurrection numbers floating around of 1,000,000 or more. Obviously we have some problems here. U.S. troops did commit some atrocities there – we know because some Americans were disgusted and complained about it, or went to the media. Camps were built and many civilians were interned in them, and disease took many lives. People were motivated to exaggerate these deaths in both directions depending on which side they were on.

    One fact that goes against the larger numbers for the Philippine insurrection is the rather harmonious relationship between the Filipinos and the Americans in the 1910-1945 timeframe. Real bitterness does not seem to have entered the picture. Perhaps it was Christian forgiveness in action, or perhaps it was just that there was less to be bitter than some accounts maintain.

  15. Thank you all for the history. Learn so much here. I wonder what they will be writing about America one
    Hundred years from now. I wonder what they will be writing about the Catholic Church? I also wonder if there will be my one left to write, or, any books to research from…..

    So sorrowful that so many died……so very sorrowful…..so many Mothers’ hearts were broken…..

  16. In a sense, World War I was a continuation of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, as well as the Polish uprisings.

    The Hapsburg Empire was not something that could have lasted much longer. The Ottoman Empire was dying. The Russian Empire was fragile and led by the weak Nicholas.

    It was some “damn fool thing in the Balkans” because there have been few times when the Balkans have been at peace with each other. Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims have always been at each others’ throats.

    Germany, the Habsburgs and Russia weren’t about to cede an inch of their empires. In the end, they all lost them.

  17. If the Kaiser had experienced a momentary flash of sanity, ignored von Moltke (and therefore Schlieffen,) decided to not invade France through Belgium but simply stand firm againt the French in the west and then send the three northern divisions eastward against Russia, how different would the world be? Certainly Poland, the Baltic States, White Russia and most if not all of the Ukraine would have become German, since that has been the Teutonic Dream since ol’ Red Beard himself.
    .
    An Imperial Germany that stretched from the North Sea to the Gulf of Finalnd and then south to the Black Sea would have precluded a Nazi Germany born of vengeance and desperation, but would it have been any better in the long run? An eventual naval showdown with Britian, who would not have entered the conflict, was a surety, as well as continued global colonial competition. Would France have temporarily granted Britain overseer status to its holdings in SE Asia, or would Japan have begun expanding earlier than it did?
    .
    Always an interesting speculation.

  18. Yes, very interesting WK
    Hard to say that your White Russia-Ukraine scenario would have played out that way, at least immediately. The Japanese question is the more intriguing. Would they have joined with Russia and gone after Germany’s Pacific possessions or joined Germany and gone after Manchuria and Siberia? Without digging into the motives of particular Japanese leaders of the day it seems hard to answer. The obvious observation is that if Japan had joined Germany then your White Russia-Ukraine scenario would have been more likely, and Germany would have retained its Pacific possessions and thus Pearl Harbor would likely not have happened.
    Of course, a Kaiser who could have said no to von Moltke could have said yes to gentlemen’s agreements to coordinate Anglo-German fleet operations and to ending the colonial competition.
    The whole idea though begs the question: would France have stood by in a Phony War had Germany attacked only Russia?

  19. Pan-Slavism and the determination of the other Great Powers to curb Russian influence in the Balkans meant it would be the flash-point for any conflict.

    It was only the naval arms-race that convinced GB of their folly in seeing Russia as the prime threat, ever since the Crimean War. The policy of HMG was well, if crudely, summed up in the words of the popular song
    “We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
    We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
    We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

  20. “Of course, a Kaiser who could have said no to von Moltke could have said yes to gentlemen’s agreements to coordinate Anglo-German fleet operations and to ending the colonial competition.” Perhaps, but then again, maybe avoiding conflict with England while taking land in the east would have been solely to ensure a greater ability to do so after accomplishing that goal – and employing the coal, iron and industrial expansion it afforded. Then perhaps a Hapsburg-Hollenzollern merger?
    A “Zweites Reich” that had close to half the size of the US in land mass? A Mediterranean port would have emerged within a decade and pretty soon that sea would have been be a German lake. Then, accord with whatever cousin sat on King Edward’s Chair would have been at Willie’s whim. Or not . . .
    .
    “The whole idea though begs the question: would France have stood by in a Phony War had Germany attacked only Russia?” That’s a good one. Whether the French would have breathed a sigh of relief when no spiked helmets came tromping towards Metz, or would have found the opportunity to attach an otherwise-distracted Germany too much to resist is a great 3- or 4-round tavern talk.
    .

  21. W K Aitken asks, “would France have stood by in a Phony War had Germany attacked only Russia?”

    France would never have missed a heaven-sent opportunity to retake the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

    One has only to think of the public reaction to the Saverne incident, of the march of the Strasbourg students past Kléber’s statue, of the crowds that flocked to the frontier to watch the Bastille Day parades at Belfort and of those young men, who, year by year, left home and family behind them to perform their military service in France, knowing they would be forbidden to return.

  22. “France would never have missed a heaven-sent opportunity to retake the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.”
    .
    Actually, TomD posed the precipitating query earlier and I’d replied, basically, “Good question.”
    .
    That said, I think our host Don puts the other side of that debate nicely when he posits, “French desire for revenge for Alsace and Lorraine had not overcome realization that in a one on one fight they would doubtless be trounced by the Germans again.”
    .
    At least three rounds at the tavern, I’m sure.

  23. WK Aiken
    “French desire for revenge for Alsace and Lorraine had not overcome realization that in a one on one fight they would doubtless be trounced by the Germans again.”
    Of course, but a war between Germany and Russia would have been the signal for an attack and France, with her 30,000 km of railways could mobilise her massive reserves much more quickly than Russia. That was the whole rationale of the Schlieffen plan: Germany knew that war with either France or Russia inevitably meant war with both and that she needed to knock out France quickly, before Russia could mobilise, in order to move her forces eastwards.

  24. MP-S

    “That was the whole rationale of the Schlieffen plan: Germany knew that war with either France or Russia inevitably meant war with both and that she needed to knock out France quickly, before Russia could mobilise, in order to move her forces eastwards.”
    .
    Indeed. The Plan was devised to pull a quick “one – two” in the west and then be in place in the east by the time the cumbrous Bear finally gained any traction.
    .
    One of the “cheats” in the speculation of counterfactual history is that we know what really happened, and so we can compare that against our own imaginations – an advantage that real people in their own times do not have. So we know the right flank was not strong enough and Moltke’s implementation fell victim, ironically, to his uncle’s dictum: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” This means we can see that it was Moltke der Jüngere who caused the whole mess. Willie wanted to go east on the promise of British neutrality absent a German attack on France, but the general would not have any of it. Yet how close did it come?
    .
    If Kaiser Bill had shown a shred of kingliness, stood up to Moltke Jr, gone east with the bulk of the German offensive forces, grabbed as much territory as possible before the Russians responded while simply holding the line in the west against the inevitable French attacks, taking advantage of superior German firepower entrenched in the naturally defensive geography along the French border and knowing that the French Plan XVII depended upon a then-nonexistent British intervention . . . it is to wonder. “For want of a nail . . .”

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