The immediate cause of the Great War was the series of diplomatic decisions and maneuvers conducted by European governments in the month following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that are known collectively as the July Crisis of 1914. Back when we were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the July Crisis of 1914, I picked out three quotes that—to me—showed how confused the situation was then and how perplexing it still is today that the best diplomats of the great powers managed to turn a manageable diplomatic crisis into a world war. I stumbled across them recently and thought they might be worth a revisit. I've also added a fourth, one that I discovered while researching my special issue of Over the Top on the July Crisis.
None of the leading European statesmen either wanted or expected that the July Crisis would lead to a world war involving all of the great powers. Each preferred a negotiated settlement to avoid a world war, and none expected at the time of the assassination that the conflict would escalate all the war to a world war.
Jack S. Levy, Letter, International Security, Summer, 1991
The tragedy of political decisions derives from the fact that again and again politicians find themselves in situations in which they are constrained to act in ignorance of the consequences and without being able to assess calmly the probable results, the profit or loss which action may bring. . . Men are not motivated by a clear view of their own interests; their minds are filled with the cloudy residues of discarded beliefs; their motives are not always clear even to themselves.
James Joll, The Origins of the First World War
The Russians felt they must act, not simply protest, and it was they who began the militarization of the July Crisis. Yet all the Powers understood that military precautions [e.g. partial mobilization initiated 26 July] could be misinterpreted as signalling an intention to fight. Even after the delivery of the ultimatum [to Serbia] Germany and Austria-Hungary did little to raise their preparedness, hoping this would help them contain the conflict. . . The Russian measures dramatically accelerated the tempo of the crisis and wrecked their antagonists' localization strategy.David Stevenson, The Outbreak of the First World War
Evidence of the guilt of the German government, namely the Kaiser, and Austro-Hungarian government, namely Graf Berchtold, is based on documents that both governments suppressed and falsified. This proves commission of a breach of the peace in three cases.
Finding. Evaluation of German War Guilt—Opinion of the Legal Consultant to Germany's Weimar Government