Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia this day one hundred years ago. Serbian army figures had been implicated in the assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort, Sophie, in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo just one month prior. The shaky, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire had issued a list of nearly impossible demands of Serbia. Surprisingly, Serbia agreed to almost all of these stringent demands.
Nonetheless, the Austro-Hungarian military high command wanted war, needed war. And the Austrians had been given a “blank check” by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The unwavering support of Austria’s far more powerful ally was critical to Austria’s decision this day. Few could have imagined that Austria would risk war with its much smaller neighbor had it not had the German Army’s military might standing alongside.
That was because Serbia was under the protection of its huge ally, Russia. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia viewed himself as the leader of the Slavic peoples within and outside of his vast domain and Serbia was mostly a Slavic nation.
With Russia’s almost inexhaustible sources of manpower mobilizing for war against Austria-Hungary, Germany felt it had to move with lightning speed to counter this threat.
France, though republican and secularist, had aligned herself with Tsarist “Holy Russia” as a hoped-for counterweight to Germany’s 3:2 advantage in men and materièl. By threatening Germany with a two-front war -- France in the West, Russia in the East, French military and political leaders had hoped to deter the Germans from going to war.
This intricate system of alliances and often-secret treaties contained all the combustible materials for a great explosion should diplomacy and military deterrence fail. On this day in 1914, they failed with catastrophic results.
Less than a week after Austria’s move, on August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later, Germany declared war on France. Anticipating the need for a knockout blow against France before Russia’s huge manpower could be brought against the leading “Central” Power of Germany, Berlin’s High Command worked from the Schlieffen Plan.
This plan required the German Army to sweep into France and defeat the soldiers of the Republic in a lightning strike. “Let the last man on the right brush the [English] Channel with his sleeve,” they said of the great wheeling motion that would be required of their army.
The need for speed and the dictates of geography meant that Germany would have to drive her Army through little, neutral Belgium. Belgium’s independence and neutrality had been guaranteed by treaty Britain and Prussia (later Germany) since 1830.
Britain had an “understanding” with the French, what was termed an Entente Cordiale. Still, there was no formal treaty between the two historic enemies. With Belgium’s neutrality violated, however, Britain could not stay aloof from the continental struggle. No longer could she enjoy her “splendid isolation” from Europe’s quarrels.
English writer G.K. Chesterton would later write that there was never a chance that Britain would not go to war with Germany if the Kaiser’s troops invaded Belgium. But, because the ruling Liberal Party was financed largely by pacifist Manchester millionaires, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey could not issue a blunt, unmistakable warning: If you cross the border into Belgium, we will go to war. Instead, Lord Grey confined himself to euphemistic phrases, like “England expects all parties will observe their engagements.”
Years later, from his Dutch exile, the ex-Kaiser would tell diplomatic historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett that if he had known England would come into the war against him, he would never have allowed his generals to invade Belgium.
This may be a key lesson from the Great War: Pacifism doesn’t assuredly lead to peace. In the case of this cataclysm, pacifism may have led to war. When the British ambassador in Berlin brought word on August 4th of Britain’s Declaration of War on Germany to Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the civilian head of the government cried out in anguish.
Bethmann-Hollweg simply could not believe Britain would go to war with Germany. Their royal families were even related by blood. Kaiser Wilhelm II was the petted grandson of Britain’s revered Queen Victoria. All of this, cried Bethmann-Hollweg, over “a mere scrap of paper!”
Philip Jenkins’s powerful new book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, may be the most important of the writings in the ocean of ink overflowing in this Centennial of the Great War. In it, we learn that Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Chief of the German General Staff in the pre-war years, was seriously involved in the occult. And we know how Social Darwinism had seeped into the consciousness of war planners on both sides of this conflict. German planners believed in “Weltmacht oder Niedergang” (World power or decline), This belief neatly fit in with Darwin’s ideas of survival of the fittest.
We live in an age when pledges, vows, and commitments are viewed as “mere scraps of paper.” Candidates of both parties in the U.S., for example, pledged to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and move the American Embassy there. President Obama is the most recent leader who has failed to observe his engagements.
Marriage vows made before God and a cloud of witnesses are increasingly disregarded. “He betrayed his wife, he did not betray his country,” said one Congressman in voting against Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In opening himself and his country to blackmail by twenty hostile foreign powers, conducting an adulterous affair over an unsecure telephone line, Clinton betrayed his wife and his country. Before that, another president had vowed: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” When he broke that pledge, his Budget Director dismissed it, saying “those were just words some speechwriter gave him to say.” A mere scrap of paper? Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Kissinger explained in his book Diplomacy how America had had no more loyal ally than Taiwan -- and then coolly proceeded to detail how he intended to betray that faithful ally. Politicians elected on a commitment to marriage seem unfazed by breaking their vows and “evolving” on this vital matter.
The German word for such actions is Realpolitik. It stems from Chancellor Bismarck’s view that “treaties, like piecrusts, are made to be broken.” The English translation of Realpolitik is dishonor.
At London’s Royal Albert Hall recently, the Kaiser’s great-great Grandson, Prince Philip Kiril of Prussia, asked the crowd of British Christians attending an Alpha Course convention for forgiveness. In an emotional appeal, Prince Philip, a Lutheran pastor, asked his fellow Christians to pray for Germany. He expressed his profound regret that his famous ancestor, the Kaiser, had not been closer to Jesus, and stronger to resist his generals’ pull to war.
We can certainly all join in prayer for a revival of Christian faith in all the nations that one hundred years ago this day were drawn into that hellish maelstrom of dcath and destruction we know as World War I. The true cause of that war is that men had forgotten God.