Nationalists in Serbia, whose independence from the Ottoman Empire had been recognized by the Congress of Berlin in 1878, hoped to make their country the center of a large Slavic state. The Serbian nationalists especially wanted the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina because Serbia was landlocked and these two provinces would provide an outlet on the Adriatic Sea.
The decision of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to make the two provinces protectorates of Austria-Hungary severely disappointed the Serbs. After Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, infuriated Serbian nationalists increased their agitation against Austria-Hungary.
Russia, the largest Slavic country, saw itself as the protector of the Balkan Slavs and supported Serbia’s goals. The nationalist movement that pressed for the political and cultural unity of all Slavs under Russian leadership was called Pan-Slavism. The British distrusted Russian influence in the Balkans, however. They were very concerned with Russian access to the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire seemed too weak to block Russian aggression.
Instead of taking advantage of the Anglo-Russian rivalry, Germany’s Kaiser William II pursued policies that created shared interests between the British and the Russians. To reinforce the Triple Alliance and make up for the weakness of Italy, the kaiser began negotiating to bring the Ottoman Empire, an old enemy of Russia, into the Triple Alliance and thereby extend German influence into the Balkans.
Germany also planned to build a railroad from Berlin through the Balkans to Constantinople and on to Baghdad, near the Persian Gulf. This plan aroused many fears. The British regarded the proposed railroad asa threat to the sea route through the Suez Canal, their Mediterranean-Red Sea “lifeline” to India. It also seemed to endanger British interests in the Persian Gulf. The Russians feared that Germany would become a strong protector of the Ottoman Empire. This would diminish Russia’s chances of securing access to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles.
Germany’s actions in the Balkans worsened an already dangerous situation. They resulted in what Bismarck had tried to avoid-the strengthening of ties between Great Britain and Russia. Both countries wanted to resist German expansion in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, feared Pan-Slavism and gained Germany’s support in its opposition to Slavic nationalism. Assassination at Sarajevo The spark that touched off the explosion of the Balkan “powder keg” and led to war came on June 28, 1914. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife were visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As they rode in an open automobile, a young man fired a revolver at them, killing both the archduke and his wife.
The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, belonged to the Black Hand, one of the many secret societies of Serbian nationalists opposed to Austro-Hungarian rule. Although Princip had acted without the authority . of the Serbian government, some Serbian leaders were aware of his plans and had furnished arms and ammunition to Serbian terrorists.
The assassination brought to a head the ness between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian government was determined to use it as a reason to punish the Serbs. Before Austria-Hungary acted, however, it wanted to make sure of German support in case the Russians should try to help Serbia. Germany promised to back Austria-Hungary in anything the nation did. Encouraged by this so-called blank check, the Austro-Hungarians presented an ultimatum to the Serbian government. In an ultimatum, one party threatens harmful action to another if the other party rejects its proposals.
War Between Austria-Hungary and Serbia In its ultimatum, Austria-Hungary made the following demands:
(1) The Serbian government would condemn all propaganda against Austria-Hungary and suppress publications and societies that opposed Austria-Hungary.
(2) Serbia would ban from its schools books and teachers who did not favor Austria-Hungary.
(3) Serbia would dismiss any officials who had promoted propaganda against Austria-Hungary.
(4) Austro-Hungarian officials would participate in the proceedings against those accused of the crime at Sarajevo. If Serbia did not agree to these terms, Austria-Hungary would resort to military action.
The Serbian government replied by accepting the first three terms and rejecting the last, but it offered to submit the fourth point to the International Court at The Hague. Assuming, however, that Austria-Hungary would not accept this offer, the Serbian government ordered mobilization of its troops. Ignoring the positive aspects of Serbia’s reply, Austria-Hungary, assuming that it could quickly achieve victory, declared war on Serbia on July 28, after the time limit of the ultimatum had expired.
Attempts to persuade Austria-Hungary to continue negotiations proved futile. Germany continued to support Austria-Hungary. Russia prepared to defend Serbia by mobilizing troops along the Russian-Austro-Hungarian border. Expecting Germany to join Austria-Hungary, Russia also sent troops to the German border.
Germany immediately demanded that Russia cancel its mobilization or face war. When Russia ignored this ultimatum, on August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Convinced that France was prepared to side with Russia and hoping to gain a military advantage by swift action, Germany declared war on France two days later.
The great powers had guaranteed Belgian neutrality in 1839, shortly after Belgium gained its independence. Under the terms of this guarantee, Belgium agreed to stay out of any European war and not to help any belligerents, or warring nations. In turn, the other powers agreed not to attack Belgium. However, Belgium’s location and flat terrain was of great importance to Germany’s military plans. The German strategy called for the German army to mobilize, strike, and knock France out of the war before the Russians could attack from the east. Because the Franco-German border was hilly and well fortified, the Germans planned to attack through Belgium on the coastal plain between France and Germany. This attack through Belgium by Germany was in direct defiance of the 1839 guarantee.
After the German government declared war on France, it sent an ultimatum to Belgium, demanding that German troops be allowed to cross Belgian territory. The British protested, insisting that Germany observe Belgian neutrality. The German foreign minister, referring to the 1839 guarantee, replied that surely Great Britain would not fight over “a scrap of paper.” German soldiers marched into Belgium on August 4, 1914. The kaiser had promised them, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” As a result of the invasion of Belgium, Great Britain declared war on Germany later that day. Later in August, Japan entered the war on the side of Great Britain and France. Japan hoped to gain German possessions in China and the Pacific.
In Europe all the nations of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente except Italy were now at war. The Italian government took the position that the Austro-Hungarians had acted as aggressors when they declared war on Serbia. Thus, the Triple Alliance, which was a defensive treaty, did not require Italy to give aid to its allies.
Italy remained neutral for nine months. Finally, it signed secret treaties with Great Britain, France, and Russia that guaranteed Italy a share of the spoils after the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In May 1915, Italy entered the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, which had been’ its former allies under the Triple Alliance.
In the meantime, Germany had been trying to gain other allies. In November 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Turks, although not a strong military power, occupied a strategic position. Their control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles bottled up Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It also prevented Russia’s allies from sending supplies to Russia through the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Germany also persuaded Bulgaria, a rival of Serbia, to enter the war in October 1915.
The soldiers who marched enthusiastically off to war in the summer of 1914 thought they would win a quick and decisive victory and come home as heroes in time to celebrate the New Year. They were wrong-tragically wrong. This war would in fact go on to last for four years.
Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire became known as the Central Powers. Notice on the map on this page that the Central Powers formed an almost solid block of territory extending from the North Sea to the Middle East. This geographical proximity gave the Central Powers the advantages of easy communication and rapid troop movements. Another advantage that the Central Powers enjoyed was Germany’s very well trained and well-equipped army.
Great Britain, France, Russia, and their partners in the war became known as the Allied Powers, or the Allies. Although they did not have the geographic unity of the Central Powers, they had more soldiers and a greater industrial potential. The British also had the world’s largest navy. Therefore, the Allies could obtain food and raw materials more easily and could blockade and attempt to starve the Central Powers.
As a result of diplomatic maneuvers, Greece and Romania joined the Allies in 1916. Eventually, 32 countries made up the Allied side. Many of them, however, joined late in the war and made only token contributions to the war effort.