German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5)

After a week that saw us talk about prewar crises and military planning for the big one, should it ever break out, today we dived directly into the strategy of the July Crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Rather than follow the crisis in a linear fashion, though, we tried to tackle a part of the story: German preferences over the many possible outcomes of the crisis. German goals in the war and the preceding crisis have long been a subject of debate—beginning almost as soon as the war broke out—and our goal was to use the weight of available evidence to figure out how Germany might’ve ranked the possible outcomes of its choice over backing Austria in its proposed war on Serbia; doing so will give us some tools to think about the preferences and choices of the other great powers (particularly France and Russia) when we pick up the other part of the narrative—or, more properly, flesh out the other side of the game—on Thursday.

Without rehashing the historiography, here’s what we settled on. Given Austria’s desire to crush Serbia—either dismembering it or forcing it into an alliance with the Dual Monarchy—Germany’s options were to support its ally or not, and the likely outcomes all involved some form of Russian involvement. However, contrary to some accounts, it doesn’t look like Germany was bent on provoking a war with Russia; to be sure, its leaders had been wondering whether preventive war was attractive since Russian rearmament began in 1905, but it had always used Russian assertiveness as the indicator of whether the time had come to attack before the Great Program of rearmament would be complete. In 1905, 1908, 1911, and 1913, the indicator never appeared, and preventive war was never attractive. In short, Germany would fight a preventive war when Russian assertiveness indicated that the time was right, but it was hardly bent on it from the start. As such, we came up with the following ranking, from best to worst:

  1. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene (Serbian power eliminated, Dual Monarchy secured, Russia pushed out of the Balkans, and costs of war saved, Entente might fall apart)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany fights (Russian assertiveness reveals preventive war’s time has come)
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany doesn’t fight (closest ally defeated, Russian interests ascendant in Balkans, and Russian growth continues unchecked)

Why specify these preferences? Two reasons. First, it lets us see how they “add up” and interact with Russian and French preferences to get us the World War that we had emerging from the July Crisis. (Hint: the revelation of Russian assertiveness turns out to be key in convincing Germany that it’s time to preventive war.)

Second, and more important for today, it’s a useful exercise in thinking hard about how we explain political phenomena. If Germany’s best possible outcome was “localization,” as contemporaries called it, where the threat to support Austria kept the Russians on the sidelines and ensured that the Triple Alliance would dominate the Balkans in the future, then it’s hard to assert—as a few still do—that Germany wanted a preventive war, pursued and then got its preferred outcome. It’s an easy argument to make, but it’s probably also fallacious: Germany seemed to have gotten its second best outcome, and we can’t infer from what did happen that this is what Germany wanted to happen. This means that, to understand why the July Crisis turned into the Great War, we need to know something about why localization failed—why the German threat to support Austria-Hungary was insufficient to deter Russia from mobilizing and continuing the Continent’s slide into war. If, on the other hand, we assume that what happens is exactly what people want to happen, then we can tell a nice linear story—but we also run a serious risk of mis-explaining one of the key events in world history.

Here’s a brief example: after the British indicated that they would have trouble remaining neutral, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg actually tried to convince Austria to “halt in Belgrade,” limiting its own preventive war to a punitive raid, and while this is consistent with the idea that localization was the goal (British support would certainly embolden the Russians and the French), it’s an anomaly for the idea that Germany was bent on war. Thinking hard about preferences, choice, and strategic behavior, then, can clearly improve our understanding of even the biggest, most complex of events.

Just how German preferences interacted with Russian and French preferences to produce the War, though, will be the subject of the next lecture.

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4 thoughts on “German aims in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 5)

  1. Pingback: Russian goals in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 6) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: Public opinion and the outbreak of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 7) | The Wolf Den

  3. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

  4. Pingback: The Russo-Japanese Origins of WWI (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6) | The Wolf Den

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