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On the origins of World War I

Published on 27 July 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

World War I was unexpected, and for most, inexplicable. A hundred years later, as the anniversary looms, it has become the disconsolate symbol of “historical discontinuity.” Today’s gloomy Zeitgeist (particularly in the West) drives many pessimistic pundits to prophesize imminent doom – it is vulgar “cycles of history.” Ominous patterns and analogies are seen everywhere. “Political folly,” they say, is on the loose and will certainly strike. Japan vs. China may be. Recently, this has been superseded by the conflict in the Ukraine. The disaster is impending, inevitable, and unpredictable.

Two Italian historians[1] have chosen closely to study the events leading to WWI, rather than join the raucous choir of doomsayers. Their insights provide a logically coherent explanation – without falling prone to historical determinism. The “path-dependent outcome” makes sense. Their analysis is plausible, and worth pondering.

In 1911, “second tier” power Italy suddenly demanded of the Ottoman Empire that it relinquish sovereignty of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in its favor. The Porte refused: though it was prepared to accept “protectorates” of “permanent trusteeships” by Western powers over parts of its far-flung empire (Egypt, Tunis, or Algeria, Bosnia), including Italy in the event, it never wavered in upholding its over-lordship. The authors claim that the Porte tried to avoid “loosing face.” I suspect that it was theologically as well as politically impossible for the Caliphate to break up parts of the umma (territories with non-Muslim majorities like Serbia or Greece were another matter).

Straddled with occupying a desert region six times the size of Italy, the invasion failed. Worse: the Porte was unyielding. Fearing stalemate, Italy upped the ante: it occupied islands in the Aegean (the Dodecanese), and its fleet entered the Dardanelles. The Christian regional powers in the Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece – saw a golden opportunity to pray loose Rumelia (a territory west of Constantinople stretching all the way to Albania, and south to include Salonika) from the Porte (Greece had further ambitions in Anatolia proper). Helter-skelter these countries clobbered together all sorts of alliances as well as confused or contradictory agreements on the disposal of the spoils. They went to war and won – except for Muslim Albania, which, now detached from the Porte, became independent. After that, an unseemly squabble ensued, where Bulgaria lost part of its spoils.

From a bird’-eye point of view, the “European system” rested on two pillars, both designed by Bismarck. The first was the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which froze great power relations in the Balkans (Article XXV) but included the Porte in the system, protecting it from further grabs of its core territory (a corollary was the implicit promise not to use force to settle issues in Europe). While it allowed small regional powers to emerge in the Balkans (Romania, Serbia, Montenegro), it ensured stable relations between the major powers there, who in turn kept the regional powers within bounds. Peace of a sort ensued. The other was the 1884-1885 Conference in Berlin, which allowed the “steeple-chase” between imperial powers outside Europe.[2] Changes in their relative position were compensated – at the expense of the subject non-European nations.[3]

Long-term forces eroded the system from within: relative economic power had shifted markedly within Europe, with Germany emerging as the major economic power. Threats, however, had also come from without: the emergence of Japan as more than just an Asian regional power after its victory in 1905 over Russia had rattled the system. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had annexed Bosnia in 1908, taking advantage of Russian exhaustion, undermining the Berlin Treaty. It did not wish to go further, though, lest it upset the ethnic balance within its borders by increasing the number of Slavs. The doubling of size of Serbia in 1913 as the result of the Balkan wars, and the impending union with Montenegro – which would have given Serbia a port in the Adriatic – represented an immediate threat to the inner stability of the Twin Monarchy, for it fanned independentism. The murder of Ferdinand and his wife – ironically the champion of enhanced role of Slaves in the Monarchy – freed conservatives in Vienna and Budapest to “teach the Serbs a lesson.”

Italy’s role in destroying the Congress of Berlin balance of power seems beyond dispute to me. The authors also blame Italy for being first in Europe to use war as a means to reduce social tension in the country. Indeed, Giolitti, the Prime Minister, pulled the Libyan adventure out of its hat in order to pacify the right, whilst pushing through electoral reform and social legislation. The specific charge is probably correct, but using war as a tool of internal policy had a long history already. Bismarck waged war on the Habsburg Monarchy in 1866 and then France in 1870 in order to create a united Germany. Since Charles X, France had launched colonial adventures to buttress the regime, and so had Napoleon III. The key difference, I’d say, was Italy’s heedless if not reckless use of the instrument of war in a European, rather than colonial setting. Yet, Italy had little choice outside Europe, having lost in Abyssinia in 1896. Meanwhile, Africa had all been taken. And Italy was a European great power as an after-thought, unable directly to unbalance it, hence with no antennas warning it that it was acting like an elephant in a China shop.[4]

The further charge is that the Balkan wars provided great powers with the (false) perception that wars could be quick, and could be contained – hence that they could be anew an instrument of external policy. Indeed, war in the Balkans turned out to be short. How one might have translated this into a belief that war between major powers would be short is somewhat of a mystery to me. The US War of Secession was certainly not short – it took the Union years to gear up the industrial might to smash the south. The Boer War was long – proving that asymmetric wars could be waged successfully.

Weaponry had improved dramatically, but the tactics for their effective use had lagged behind. Throwing masses of soldiers against each other only led to endless, bloody trench warfare. It took Germany until 1917 to change its tactics from frontal assault to “infiltration” – the infantry’s precursor of the mechanized Blitz-Krieg – which aimed at puncturing the enemy front narrowly, breaking and fanning out fast, and then taking the enemy from the rear. They tested this tactic first at Riga, then at Caporetto,[5] and in 1918 in France (March 1918 in Picardy, May 1918 at Chateau Thierry; June 1918; n the Oise; the Americans saved the day in July). The Germans came within a whisker of winning World War I.

While we’ll never trace the exact chain of causality in historical events, studying the past and current events closely, and casting the net widely so as to see the “hidden” as well as the “patent” factors seems to me to be a better way to understand reality than making generalizations and using analogies on a few easy points of congruence. Unfortunately, this is not the way of the Twitter

[1] Franco CARDINI – Sergio VALZANIA (2014): La scintilla. Da Tripoli a Sarajevo, come l’Italia provocò la prima guerra mondiale. Mondadori, Milano

[2] Bismarck also hoped to dampen France’s revanchism.

[3] The last time the system operated was at Agadir in 1911. France had established a protectorate over Morocco. Germany demanded and got compensation in Central Africa.

[4] Italy’s foreign minister saw the danger and had warned Giolitti, but his convoluted risk analysis did not hit the imagination of a head-strong and self-assured PM.

[5] See e.g. Piero MELOGRANI (1998): Storia politica della Grande Guerra 1815- 1918. Mondadori, milano

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