Mark Collins- The Start of World War I: Focus on Austria-Hungary and Russia

I’ve read Prof. Otte’s book (more on him here) and it is excellent–an excerpt from a piece at Reviews in History:


July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914
Thomas Otte
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, ISBN: 9781107064904; 555pp.; Price: £21.25

Mr Jeff Roquen
Independent Scholar

Contrary to the accounts of conventional historians, Otte presents the Kaiser as a tempestuous yet responsible actor throughout the July Crisis due to his promotion of two peace initiatives. In a subchapter unequivocally titled ‘The Kaiser decides that there is no need for war’, Otte presents the ‘Halt in Belgrade’ plan proffered by the German Emperor as a genuine means of restraint upon Vienna (p. 343–8). Instead of an all-out attack, Wilhelm proposed that Austria-Hungary limit its military action to an occupation of Belgrade until Serbia fulfilled the demands of its 23 July demarche – an ultimatum that called for the dissolution of ‘the Narodna Odbrana and all other anti-Hungarian societies and their branches’ and for the Serbian government ‘to take measures of judicial inquiry against the accessories of the plot on the 28th of June (to assassinate Franz Ferdinand) who might be found on Serbian soil’.(8) In the process, Austro-Hungarian officials would be allowed to conduct investigations inside the country. If ‘Halt in Belgrade’ was an attempt to localize the conflict and prevent Russia from entering the fray on the side of Serbia, however, it nevertheless legitimized military action and the subordination of Serbian sovereignty. Moreover, the Kaiser’s proposal was transmitted after Vienna declared war on its recalcitrant southeastern neighbor – not before.(9)

By the end of the month, a Continental catastrophe clearly loomed. As diplomatic efforts crumbled, a sense of fear drifted across Europe. According to Otte, a series of telegrams dispatched by the Kaiser to European leaders beyond the 11th hour constituted a second attempt to contain hostilities between Vienna and Belgrade. Yet, was the German Emperor truly sincere in his second and final quest for peace? The benign interpretation offered by Otte in chapter seven – ‘Escalation: 29 July to 4 August’ – of the Kaiser’s half-hearted and hastily abandoned role as mediator fails to appreciate the possibility of a concocted ruse by the German leadership. Not only did his messages follow the war declaration of its partner in the Dual Alliance but the language employed by Bethmann-Hollweg on behalf of Wilhelm in a telegram to his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, appears contrived and disingenuous. In declaring ‘The whole weight of the decision lies solely on you[r] shoulders [and you now bear] the responsibility for Peace or War’, the Kaiser and his cohort may have been far more interested in escaping culpability than averting the impending conflict. From his responses, the Tsar may have engaged in a similar late-round of diplomatic duplicity (p. 418–9).(10)

If not the Kaiser and his provocative militaristic foreign policy, then how did the Austro-Serbian dispute develop into an all-out world war? Similar to many (if not most) historians in the early 21st century, Otte considers Russia’s mobilization of its armed forces (a partial mobilization at the outset) as the decisive act that ‘changed the direction of travel towards war’ (p. 432). Instead of skillful diplomacy, Count Berchtold of Austria-Hungary, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg of Germany, and Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov of Russia all accelerated the escalation of the crisis, according to the author, due to ‘the poor intellectual quality of [their] decision-making’ and/or their outright, reckless brinksmanship (p. 511). In shifting the Continental casus belli to Vienna and St. Petersburg, Otte has bolstered an emerging scholarly consensus that casts Wilhelm as a feckless, intemperate bystander during the slide toward a world at arms and has thus further standardized the revisionist interpretation among scholars.(11) Will the pendulum swing back toward implicating the Kaiser as the power broker in the Dual Alliance and as one of the long-determined, central plotters of a European war to achieve German supremacy on the Continent if not also the world – as famously argued by Fritz Fischer in Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1967) and World Power or Decline (1974) and in the works of his acolytes (i.e. Rohl, Mombauer)? More than likely, the last word in the debate over the etiology of the First World War has not yet arrived.(12)

Quite.  Prof. Otte’s book is also considered here:

Expanding Torrent of World War I History, Part 2

And him on another subject:

Plus ça change, or, as the Foreign Affairs World Turns

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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