Called The Great War or “the war to end all wars” – at least until World War II some 30 years later – the first World War redrew the globe’s maps, toppled empires and ushered in new technology that would be used for good and for ill during the next century.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I. Professor of History Ross Kennedy takes a look at the tinder of Europe that led to that fatal spark of war, and the newer theories about the coming of World War I. (No, it was not all Germany’s fault.)

War guilt and other ideas

“The origins of World War I have probably been studied more than any other modern war. People come at it from all different angles, depending on the time,” said Kennedy, whose recent research has centered on the U.S. entering the war and the Treaty of Versailles signed two years later.

Kennedy noted that in the 1920s, a rush to justify the often-maligned Treaty of Versailles pushed “war guilt” on Germany. Cold War scholars in the 1950s and 60s steered away from blame and instead used the lead-up to the war as a case study in pre-emption and “the failure of deterrence,” he said. The 1960s and 70s put the blame back on Germany as the aggressor. Yet today some scholars give equal blame to France and Russia.

Readings from
the University Archives
of ISNU World War I volunteers:

image of Robert Buzzard image of Ellen Babbitt
Robert Buzzard Ellen Babbitt
image of Douglas Ridgley image of Frances Foote
Douglas Clay Ridgley Frances Foote

Learn more about the
more than 600 accounts
of WWI volunteers
in the University Archives.

“The beginning of World War I has been called the most complex event in modern history,” said Kennedy. “It was a complete breakdown of international politics.” He added that during this time period, war was viewed as a rational and legitimate policy option if vital interests were threatened. “It wasn’t like the way we view nuclear war now, as something unthinkable. There were lots of different ways countries dealt with a crisis, and war was one of them.”

Vital interests and the French “blank check”

The country that viewed its vital interests most in danger was Austria-Hungary, which was cobbled together in 1867. “This was a country made up of 21 different nationalities – Polish, Romanian, Croats, Slovakians, Serbians, etc.,” said Kennedy. “And hyper-nationalist groups were growing that were akin to the way we think of terrorist groups today.”

History books often recount the tension between Austria-Hungary and neighboring Serbia. “Growing groups of Serbian nationalists, like the Black Hand, wanted to unite all Slavic populations under the Kingdom of Serbia. Austria-Hungary had already become alarmed at Serbia’s strength during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913,” said Kennedy.

When members of the Black Hand assassinated Austria-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary was quick to blame Serbia for not preventing the attack. Once the Austrians decided to punish Serbia, the dominos begin to fall toward war through alliances and inaccurate assumptions.

While most historians point to Germany for offering ally Austria-Hungary a “blank check” of support if it declared war on Serbia, it is only recently that historians have begun to study a similar “blank check” that France gave to Russia.

“The French had supplied the Serbians with arms during the Balkan Wars, and also had Russia as an ally. Russia had been rapidly building up its armaments and improving the railroads it used to mobilize its forces. Austria-Hungary knew it was not strong enough to take on Russia alone, so turned to Germany,” said Kennedy. “It was a calculated risk meant to make Russia back down and not side with Serbia. It was a gamble.”

Ultimatums and assumptions

Austria-Hungary hoped to issue an ultimatum to Serbia in response to the assassination, but waited until visiting French officials left Russia. “But the ultimatum was leaked to the Russians while the French were there,” said Kennedy. “Though no official transcripts of the talks survive, we know through diaries and diplomatic notes that it was discussed.”

What followed was an accelerating crisis – Russia beginning preliminary mobilization steps with French support, even as it indicated some interest in negotiations; Germany at first encouraging Austria to act and then wavering as Berlin received reports of Russia’s military preparations; Austria-Hungary ignoring Germany’s vague signals of restraint and declaring war on Serbia; Russia then escalating its military mobilization.

“When Germany discovered how far mobilization was occurring in Russia, they felt like they had been had,” said Kennedy.

image of Ross Kennedy

Professor of History Ross Kennedy

In short course, Austria-Hungary began a bombardment of Serbia on July 29, and the Germans declared war on Russia on Aug. 1 and on France on Aug. 3. “They felt the Russians and French had been moving toward war while pretending to favor talks to defuse the crisis,” said Kennedy, who noted the German war plan depended upon acting quickly against France before Russia could fully mobilize. “Once the Germans perceived that Russia’s mobilization was well advanced, they felt enormous pressure to implement their attack on France.”

Though no one could have foreseen the vast devastation and casualties brought about by the advanced weapons and technology of World War I, Kennedy said some British and German leaders were originally apprehensive about what a modern war would look like. “They feared it would ruin Europe. And they were right.”

By the end of the war, Austria-Hungary would cease to exist; the Ottoman Empire would be carved up into French and British pseudo-colonies that mirror the Middle East today; the giants of Britain and France were seriously weakened; and the Russian Tsar would be overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution.

“It’s very difficult to overstate the impact World War I had on the map of Europe and the world overall,” said Kennedy. “Leaders then had a sense that this was a monumental throw of the dice that could have negative consequences. And it did.”