1914: ‘I Got Your Back!’

By Dr. Timothy Heinrichs

Before 1914 a few observers foretold a general European war. There were obvious scenarios as to where and how it would start. The first blow of this war could arrive at sea, where British and German fleets competed for dominance. Or maybe along the unhappy border between Germany and France; or possibly in Africa, where competing claims of Germany and France almost propelled Europe to war in 1905. Then, it could happen along the dangerous border between the German and Russian empires…

The answer was none of these. The first blow was struck in of all places Sarajevo, in Austrian-controlled Bosnia, in June 1914.

In June 1914, the heir to the throne of the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, visited Sarajevo in Bosnia. It wasn’t the climate or local cuisine that brought the archduke and his wife, Sophie, to this location. For centuries, the survival of  the Austrian empire had depended on the ability  of its government, representing the minority  German-speaking population, to squash the aspirations of other minorities–whether Poles, Slovaks, Italians , or Serbs–to self-rule. (The Hungarians were co-opted into power in the 1860s.) To protect themselves from a hornet’s nest of ethnic nationalisms in strategic Bosnia, the Austrians had recently annexed the province. By coming to Sarajevo, in fac, Franz Ferdinand was performing the equivalent of a touchdown dance right in front of the other team’s fans

That would be the Serbs.  With an awesome memory for old grievances, ethnic Serbs in both Bosnia and the country of Serbia fumed over the Austrian theft of land they felt should belonged to them. Militants formed a terrorist group, the Black Hand, and dedicated it  to the  violent removal of Austria’s presence. The archduke’s visit spelled opportunity for the Black Hand, who took advantage. On June 28 Black Hand’s Gavrilo Princip jumped onto the royal couple’s automobile with a pistol. Within minutes Franz and Sophie were dead.

The Austrian government was furious. It blamed the murders on Serbia itself and demanded the right to send troops into that country to track down Princip’s fellow conspirators. Thus began the unraveling of Europe; in July and August 1914 governments bumbled amidst a web of “got your back” agreements and the lure of war. Broadly speaking, the powers were ranged in two hostile camps: the “Triple Alliance”(German-Austria-Italy) and the “Triple Entente” (Britain-France-Russia).

The Austrians sensed that now was the time to crush troublesome  Serbia once and for all. It didn’t matter that Serbia had a close ties to Russian government, fellow Orthodox Christians by religion and fellow Slavs by blood. Russia promised to watch their backs. For the Austrians had a big brother, too, and they obtained a promise from their German ally for full support should Russia back Serbia.  Germany had their backs Then Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. When three days later the Russians began the endless process of mobilizing their disorganized military for war, the two German-speaking allies confidently declared war on Russia–and on France!

For, German war plans were based on the assumption that France had Russia’s back, that it would honor its alliance with Russia. So the inevitable  two-front war would  begin with an invasion of France; Russia would come later. Of course, this meant launching war against Belgium, since the German plans required  the use of that country as a road into France. So then, as spike-helmeted German infantry prepared to pour  into Belgium, this led Britain into the war because of its long-standing commitment to Belgium’s security. In other words, Britain had Belgium’s back.

Populations rallied to their flags, hoping that war would bring national unity and regeneration while terminating certain annoying sociopolitical problems. One of these was class struggle; the Socialists were influential in Europe and actually dominated Germany’s parliament ( Reichstag). When  the Reichstag socialists turned against their own legacy of rallying the world’s worker together, and voted war credits so that German workers could kill British and French workers, Kaiser Wilhelm II  celebrated the moment. He proclaimed: “I see no parties; I see only Germans!” It doesn’t get much better than this.

…Unless you take into account that the Kaiser’s Italian allies would soon throw  him and the Austrians under the bus. They refused to join the “Central Powers” in the war, and in 1915 joined the other side, the “Allies.” This was in return for Allied support in obtaining some Austrian territory. The Allies had their backs.

Other powers got into it. Japan, Britain’s ally  since 1902, declared war on Germany and Austria in August 1914. During the war, the Japanese would seize German territories in Asia; they would also support British naval operations in the Pacific and the Mediterranean. In October 1914 the Ottoman (Turkish) empire joined the Central Powers out of their traditional distaste  for Russia. They were also annoyed at Britain’s high-handed treatment of them. British diplomacy turned this into a plus, however, by recruiting a prominent Arabian family for an “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Turks

It wasn’t until April 1917 the United States entered the war. This was due to Germany’ renewal of its campaign of unrestricted sub warfare,  plus the discovery by the British of the Zimmermann telegram. This promised Mexico that the Germans would have their backs if they tried to   recover territories lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Fundamentally, as in 1812 (and in 1941), the President discovered the nation’s stake in upholding international law and in  preventing any one power from dominating the dangerous continent of  Europe.


Last Updated November 10, 2014