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How the War Came

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

The Coming of the War. By Bernadotte E. Schmitt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2 vols. $10.00.

It is a matter of pride to the American historical fraternity that, following Professor Fay’s comprehensive and authoritative study of the origins of the War, Professor Schmitt should give us the most detailed and intensive analysis that has thus far appeared of the July-August diplomatic crisis ending in catastrophe. Even those who cannot or will not accept all of Professor Schmitt’s conclusions regarding separate aspects of that crisis, must recognize his intimate and unrivalled mastery of the documentary sources, and the value of the imaginative impulse which led him to sharpen the conclusions he drew from documents by personal interviews with many of the chief actors. This two-volume work bears witness to his keen sense of proportion and his remarkable capacity for condensation. All except the inherently prejudiced will acclaim the breadth of judgment and the nicety of critical feeling with which he evaluates conflicting or questionable evidence. It is doubtless futile to expect that the final word on the coming of the War will ever be accepted, but Professor Schmitt’s book helps materially to reduce the issues that have divided students and it clarifies those that it does not settle.

We may regard ourselves as fortunate that so soon after the appearance of the essential documentary sources, and even before the complete publication of the French and British official documents, so many scholars have come so close to agreement upon the main issues of the problem. They themselves, of course, are by no means ready to admit anything like an approach to agreement. But the differences are those involving shades of opinion and emphasis. They are unanimous in rejecting the thesis that “Germany plotted to bring about the War,” although they differ as to whether the German Government might not have exercised such restraint upon its Ally as to have prevented a local quarrel from developing into a general war. They are willing to admit, as they were not fifteen years ago, that Austria-Hungary lay under a serious threat and suffered grave provocation from Serbia, although they differ as to whether the kind of action taken by the Hapsburg Monarchy can be justified. They are agreed that the Russian mobilization was the step which in the existing circumstances transferred the struggle from the diplomatic to the military field, although they do not agree as to whether this step was inevitable or justifiable in view of Austria-Hungary’s attitude toward Serbia, or whether in turn it justified German mobilization. Vital as such differences seem to the serious student, it is likely, that the man in the street who wants to be told who or what “caused the War” would regard as refinements the shades of opinion that characterize the conclusions of Schmitt, Fay, Gooch, Temperley, Renouvin, Lutz.

To frame a positive, brief, and comprehensive statement explanatory of the immediate origins of the War, not so qualified as to be meaningless, and capable at the same time of winning the acquiescence of these scholars, would demand almost superhuman skill in phraseology. It is probable however, if we may judge from what they have written, that with slight verbal emendations each would accept something like the following. The World War started as the immediate result of an Austro-Russian quarrel. It was primarily an affair of eastern Europe. The occasion was Austria-Hungary’s determination to utilize the assassination of the Archduke, so as to eliminate Serbia as a political factor in the Balkans, coming into conflict with Russia’s equal deterinination to protect Serbia. Germany insisted that the Austro-Serb dispute should be localized and that the other Powers should keep their hands off. The Entente Powers did not believe it possible to localize the dispute, and France, at least, felt diplomatically bound to support Russia, just as Germany was resolved to support Austria-Hungary. The British Government, impelled by all its interests to press for a pacific solution, could not exercise effective restraint upon either the one side or the other, and although disinterested in the original quarrel in the Balkans was forced into the general war by a combination of moral obligations and material interests.

In such a statement there is the recognition of a general European responsibility and at least an implied indictment against a diplomatic system that permitted a local to develop into a general quarrel. It does not, however, touch the balance of responsibility, as to which there is not yet and doubtless never will be anything like unanimity. But the zone between differing opinions begins to be defined and in the process of definition our two American historians have taken a leading role. On the whole, Schmitt represents what might be termed the right center of authoritative opinion, just as Fay represents the left center. On either side right and left stretch out until the realm of history is deserted and that of pure fanaticism reached. The conclusions of Schmitt are touched in the case of every major issue by a tendency to shift responsibility from the shoulders of the Entente, while those of Fay are equally marked by a slight but unquestionable penchant for the Central Powers. With this orientation in mind the student may not merely utilize the conclusions which Schmitt derives from the evidence he brings together, but may also recognize their general relation to the various opinions of other historians.

All historians recognize necessarily the fact that Austria-Hungary was threatened directly in a political sense by the development of Serb power, Whether the Hapsburg Monarchy was justified in forcing war upon Serbia because of the Archduke’s assassination is open to dispute; and it is not yet certain whether or how far the Serb Government was implicated in the plot. Schmitt’s conclusions on the latter point are cautious. He points out that there is no evidence suggesting that the Serb Government approved of the plot or assisted in its preparation. The probabilities point in the opposite direction. Pashich was at bitter odds with the Black Hand and Dimitriyevich, and he objected on various grounds to their terroristic programme. Serbian interests in 1914 caUed for delay, for the promotion culturally of the idea of Yugoslav unity, the infiltration of the Yugoslav idea into the south Slav regions of the Monarchy. What we know of the Narodm Odbrma, which was originally promoted by Pashich himself, indicates that it was a cultural society; its secretary, Pribichevich, according to evidence gathered by both Schmitt and Temperley, disapproved of terroristic methods.

On the other hand, there has never been an entirely satisfactory explanation of the statement of Lyuba Yovanovich to the effect that Pashich knew of the plot and informed his colleagues, nor of the conflicting statements regarding the warning that Yovan Yovanovich is supposed to have given at Vienna. In view of the evidence at hand, inadequate though it be, Schmitt considers it probable although not certain that the Serbian government had knowledge, “however vague,” of the conspiracy against Francis Ferdinand. In this opinion he is supported by Temperley and apparently by Renouvin, who in most matters stands distinctly more to the right than Schmitt. The last-named tends toward the opinion, although he will not state it even as a probability, that some sort of warning was given by Yovan Yovanovich to Bilinski, Austro-Hungarian Minister of Finance and Minister for Bosnian affairs; but he charges Pashich with a serious dereliction of duty in not making the warning definite, “The difficulty in which M. Pashich found himself is easily understood; but if he had knowledge of any plot against the Archduke, he would have acted more wisely if he had made sure that the information was conveyed to the Austro-Hungarian Government in unambiguous form.” The explanation of (but not the excuse for) his negligence would be found in the character of Austro-Serbian relations. As Temperley shows, Vienna would have believed that the warning represented a Serbian attempt to prevent the Archduke from going to Bosnia and might have become very irritated thereat. Moreover, if Pashich had admitted that conspirators, armed with bombs from Belgrade, had crossed the frontier, the Foreign Office at Vienna would never have believed that Pashich had tried to stop them. On the other hand, if no warningWaU were given, and the plot succeeded, Pashich would face the probability of the war which he wished to avoid. Hence warning must be given, but given informally and indefinitely. Such is the explanation that seems probable to Temperley.

Whatever caution must be observed in our conclusions regarding Pashich’s knowledge of the plot or of his warning to Vienna, authoritative opinion holds that the Serbian Government was not implicated in the preparation of the plot and knew nothing of it until the conspirators were on the point of entering Bosnia. It also holds that Russian complicity is indicated by no shred of valid evidence, and that on June 24, Hartwig, Russian Minister in Belgrade, was entirely unaware of any impending crisis. Even more certain is it that Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia was not meant to be accepted. The point is capital, although it is not always emphasized as much as it deserves inasmuch as it hjis ceased to be a matter of controversy. Upon it both Fay Sfid Schmitt are agreed. But whereas Fay believes that the Hapsburg Government counted upon a localized war and the abstention of Russia, Schmitt is categoric in his statement that the question of war with Russia entered definitely into the calculations of the Austro-Hungarian statesmen and he cites his documents in a convincing array. “Naturally they hoped that Russia would stand aside. But convinced as they were that war with Serbia was necessary, they were satisfied to know that Germany had promised her assistance; with this assistance they were prepared to face Russian intervention if that was the price of war with Serbia.” It is possible, certainly, to find justification for this determination of Austria-Hungary, threatened as her political existence was by the increase of Serbian power and by the development of the Yugoslav idea. But whatever the justification, it is impossible for the Hapsburg Monarchy, to escape responsibility for forcing a local war that led directly to the general war.

This responsibility must be shared by Germany. For while Schmitt’s analysis of the documents shows Bethmann-Hollweg determined to prevent if possible the outbreak of the general war, it also shows him clearly aware of the grave possibility, if not probability, of Russian intervention as a result of the very policy to which he had pledged German support; so clearly aware that he had time in the midst of the crisis to consider how best to throw on Russia the blame for the impending war. As he telegraphed to Tschirschky on July 28: “It is simply the question of finding a way to realize Austria’s aim of cutting the vital cord of the Great Serbian propaganda without at the same time bringing on a world war; and if this cannot in the end be avoided, of improving as far as possible the conditions under which it will have conducted.” It was with the approval, rather with the encouragement, of Berlin that the Austrian policy of prompt aggressive action was developed, and for two weeks, according to Schmitt, “the German Government let no opportunity pass to urge upon its ally the prompt execution of the policy announced on 5 July.” Bethmann’s hope was that England could be kept neutral and that Austria would be permitted to go ahead with her plans. Schmitt regards the famous Szogyeny telegram of July 27 as reflecting accurately government sentiment in Berlin, and believes that Bethmann’s demarche of that date in Vienna was chiefly for form’s sake. Too late the German chancellor realized the probability of British intervention and attempted to restrain Russia while he persuaded Vienna to negotiate. But Austria, holding always Germany’s promise of support, made no concessions to Russia in time to avert its mobilization; and when on July 30 Bethmann was given an opportunity of stopping the Russian mobilization by accepting the Russian formula recognizing that the Serbian question was of European import, the formula was rejected without reference to Vienna. Its acceptance would have meant a diplomatic defeat for Germany. It is possible, following the example of both Fay and Schmitt, to recognize the desire of the German Government to avoid the general war, and the belated eagerness of Bethmann to escape from the net in which he was caught; it is possible even to regard Schmitt’s charge of insincerity as unjustified and accept Fay’s excuse of mere awkwardness. But it is not possible to free Bethmann or the German Government from heavy responsibility for the outcome, since from the beginning of the crisis Berlin encouraged Vienna to proceed upon a policy that led directly toward the general war.

This is true, it seems to the reviewer, even admitting that it was Russia’s mobilization that precipitated the catastrophe. There is no indication that even if that mobilization had been retarded, a postponement which Fay believes might have resulted from more active restraint on the part of France, Austria-Hungary would have relinquished the policy for the fulfilment of which she had the carte blanche of Germany. That Russia was resolved to protect Serbia, perhaps with less justification than permittted Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia, that France was resolved to stand by her ally, certainly involves those powers in the responsibility for the War. But it does not exculpate the Germans, peace-loving if you insist but criminally short-sighted, who permitted the crisis to develop by their complaisance on July 5. Once the policy then agreed upon by Germany and Austria-Hungary was inaugurated, it is probably true, as Schmitt points out, and most historians with the exception of the French would agree (Renouvin specifically takes exception to the statement), that a pacific outcome was impossible. No diplomacy, however skilful, could have devised a compromise between the resolution of Austria-Hungary to “finish with” Serbia and of Russia to protect her.

As a matter of fact, diplomatic efforts to avert the general war were hesitating and unimaginative, conducive to suspicion at a moment when the restoration of mutual confidence was vital, lacking the determination which, as Schmitt suggests, might “cut through the web of alliances and restore liberty of action to the states not directly interested.” The War thus is traced back, and all our authorities agree upon this, to the spirit of nationalism; the nationalism which drove Austria-Hungary to protect herself against the south Slav threat by aggressive action, which drove Russia to protect Slavdom by immediate mobilization, which inflamed public opinion in Germany and the states of western Europe. It is traced also to the vicious international situation which positively, through the alliance system, converted a local into a general dispute; and negatively, provided no means by which such a dispute could be settled except upon the field of battle.


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