Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
By T. G. Otte
Cambridge University Press, 2014

Cartoon of the Period

This volume is one of the latest of several excellent new books attempting to explain why the Great War broke out in 1914. Thomas Otte is a professor of diplomatic history at the University of East Anglia. He feels that over the years, historians have tended to ascribe the war to large, immutable causes such as competing alliance systems, arms races, and national rivalries. He says that by concentrating on these causes, historians have gotten away from the real story, which is to be found in the primary sources of diplomatic exchanges, meeting notes, and diaries.

Otte contends that the July Crisis ended in war not because war was inevitable or that statesmen conspired to bring it about, but rather because of blunders and miscalculations. Governance was poor, and decision making, in the hands of old, exhausted elites, was often casual, distracted, and flawed. Statesmen failed to consider the consequences of their actions, they failed to question their assumptions, and they failed to hold open discussions among themselves where alternative policies could be developed. In many cases, information was incorrect or sometimes withheld from key decision makers.

Otte apportions the blame as follows:

A. Austria by 1914 had become the most reckless of the major powers and had developed tunnel vision. It viewed the Balkans as the only remaining venue for it to act as a great power. The murder of the royal couple in Sarajevo gave Austria the excuse it needed to crush its rival Serbia once and for all. That this action would have wider consequences for world peace was of no concern to the Austrians. That was her ally Germany's problem. Once assured of Germany's support, Austria blindly prepared for war.

B. Germany's leaders made a fatal error based on two miscalculations. The fatal error was giving Austria the infamous "blanque cheque" on 5 July and approving Austria's plan to wage war against Serbia. Germany's pledge of support removed any restraint from Austria, and Germany conceded control of its foreign policy to the hapless Hapsburgs. The first key miscalculation by Germany was that Austria would strike quickly against Serbia while public opinion was still outraged at the royal murder. Instead, Austria would proceed with the speed of an "arthritic snail". The second miscalculation was that Russia would stand aside as it had in past Balkan crises. Otte describes the German government as "a giant with a brain of clay".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov
C. Russia was in the hands of a weak tsar and a weak foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov. Sazonov did not accept Austrian claims of Serbian complicity in the murder and was convinced that Russia had to stand fast against what it saw as Austrian aggression against Serbia. He attempted to deter the Austrians, using the threat of partial military mobilization against them. He hoped Germany would not feel threatened by this limited action. Only after Russia had begun to take preliminary military steps did the Russian military leadership disclose that partial mobilization was not practical and would fatally compromise general mobilization should that become necessary later. Compounding this error, Sazonov jumped the gun by agreeing to general mobilization upon the Austrian declaration of war against Serbia. According to Otte, this move by Russia was an unnecessary escalation of the crisis. Austria was still a couple of weeks away from being able to attack Serbia. The Russian government's lack of patience undercut diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution and started the clock ticking in Germany. The success of Germany's war plans depended on defeating France before Russia could fully mobilize. To allow Russia a head start in mobilization would threaten Germany's key strategy to avoid a two-front war.

D. Germany has been criticized over the years for giving Austria a "blanque cheque", but France did the same thing for Russia. Instead of cautioning restraint, French leaders encouraged Russia to take a strong stand against Austria by assurances of French support against Germany. French actions are a mirror image of Germany's, yet France has received little criticism over the years. This is one more proof that it is indeed the victors who write the history. At the height of the crisis, the French president and foreign minister were out of touch, traveling on a French warship while leaving French diplomacy in the hands of their ambassador to Russia. Otte contends that the ambassador overstepped by encouraging strong Russian action while at the same time withholding information about Russian military measures from his own government.

E. Serbian officials, as we now know, were the source of arms and training for the assassins that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When called to account by the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia gave a reply that in Otte's opinion was "a clever concoction of acceptance and equivocation, evasion and rejections, and all dressed up in accommodating language".

British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey

If there is a hero in July Crisis, it is Sir Edward Grey. Otte believes that Grey, at first distracted by the crisis over Home Rule in Ireland, did not start paying close attention to the looming crisis until Austria issued its ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. Once engaged, Otte portrays Grey as working tirelessly to find some diplomatic solution that would satisfy Austrian honor while at the same time averting a general war. Grey is often criticized for not giving Germany firm notice that Britain would support France in any conflict against Germany. Otte disagrees with this and contends that Grey had to appear non-committal in order to maintain influence in both camps while attempting to find some diplomatic common ground as a basis to support his mediation efforts.

July Crisis is a well written, witty, and convincing account of the events of July 1914. It is meticulously researched and thoroughly documented with extensive footnotes at the end of each chapter, making them a valuable part of the book. This is a very timely book in the sense that it points out the need for clearheaded statesmanship in a world filled with daily crises involving major powers. Flexibility, patience, and willingness to compromise and question were qualities sadly lacking among statesmen during that fateful July in 1914. We should heed the lessons of this history.

I must add a word of caution to those who want to successfully navigate this book. The crisis in the summer of 1914 involved intense diplomatic activity between seven European countries. Each nation had its head of state, prime minister, foreign minister, various assistants, generals, cabinet ministers, and a network of ambassadors at each other's capitals. The cast of characters is immense. At the very beginning of the book, Otte lists some 160 of the principal dramatis personae who play a part in the story. It would be a good idea to bookmark this list in order to be able to refer back to it when confronted with some of the more obscure players. I found this difficult using a Kindle and often found myself confused as to who a particular actor was and what country he was from.

Clark Shilling


  1. This is a solid and insightful review that helps me see much more clearly what was going on in that fateful July. Let's have more reviews from Mr. Shilling--he is obviously a careful and thoughtful reader.

  2. I agree, fine review of what sounds like a solid book.

  3. Excellent review, particularly in indicating the relevance of 1914 to current affairs. I recently heard PW Singer, international relations expert and guru on 21st century warfare, make the same point that the situation that most parallels current global tensions is that which existed prior to WW1.

  4. Thank you all for your kind words.