History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: The Great War and Russian Revolution

The Assassination and Alliances click here for audio

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
When Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, went on vacation to Sarajevo in Bosnia, it was no simple vacation. To Austria-Hungary, Sarajevo was in a portion of their empire, and thus the heir was entitled to a royal welcome. Instead, he and his wife Sophie were assassinated shortly after getting into their car (the picture at left was the last one of them alive). The assassin was a teenager from a group of Bosnian revolutionaries, those who believed that Bosnian nationalism was superior to Austria's claims.

Austria-Hungary insisted that the nation of Serbia was harboring Bosnian terrorists and assisted them in assassinating the Archduke. There had been two previous Balkan Wars since 1900, and Serbian support of their fellow Bosnian Serbs was well-known. As Serbia hesitated to accept responsibility, Austria-Hungary attacked.

What followed should have been a short war. Austria-Hungary had the second-best army in Europe, and Serbia had only some mountain fighting units which had been rivals for years.

1914 Map

But what followed was the Great War. Why? Because the Balkan Wars and uncertainties of the new century had sent most European nations into secret alliances to protect themselves. Thus Serbia had a secret treaty with Russia, which declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary had a secret treaty with Germany saying if anyone declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany would come in on her side. Since Germany had the best army in Europe, and the second-best navy, it still should have been a short war. But when Germany declared war on Russia, a secret treaty between Russia and France went into effect, and France had to declare war on Germany.

Germany's plan was to crush France quickly in the west (as she had in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871). That meant she could then turn all her energy toward Russia, who would take longer to mobilize. But France had spent the intervening years building defenses on the border with Germany, so the only possibility for easy victory was to go through Belgium. When Belgium refused Germany access, Germany marched through anyway. And Belgium had a secret treaty with Britain, which had the best navy in the world.

The Great War became a World War because the main players (Britain, Belgium, Germany and France) had global colonies, all of which fought each other. Victorious parties could gain valuable colonies through their participation, but only if those lands had been conquered. In addition, the Ottoman Empire joined the side of the Central Powers (Germany/Austria-Hungary), guarding the Bosphorus against assistance between western Allied Powers France/Britain and eastern Ally Russia.

Africa 1914This map gives you an idea of the stakes in Africa, where Germany held 3 colonies in ideal locations: Cameroon, Southwest Africa, and German East Africa. Britain longed in particular for German East Africa, which would make a continuous British path from north to south. A German victory could similarly mean German colonial expansion.

2. The Technology and Trench Warfare ->