Was a world war inevitable in 1914?

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Feb 10, 2018


Anyone who answers this question with 'yes' or 'no' is just voicing their opinion. There's simply no way to know for sure. (Warning: this is a complicated question so it's a long answer)



In my opinion, no. The politics of the time were so complicated and volatile that whether there was war, and especially whether or not it became a world war (if Britain hadn't gotten involved, which was largely because of one man, it would have almost definitely been short and confined to Europe), was basically up to chance, and even though historians like to have certainty and they list all the reasons why there were no reasons how WW1 could have been avoided, it's simply impossible to say.

There had been plenty of crises before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (the two Moroccan Crises, the Jameson Raid, the Naval Arms Race), and in all of them war looked pretty inevitable, but either through luck or through skillful diplomacy war was avoided each time. In the summer of 1914 war actually looked less likely than it had in 1912 and 1913, when the Balkan Wars were going on, and had statesmen made different choices then it's very possible the war would either have been avoided completely or become a local conflict.

We take the fact World War 1 happened for granted because, well, it's history now. But we need to remember that for the people of 1914, every major European power declaring an all-out conflict that lasts four years (which is what happened) was their equivalent of the US and the Soviets nuking each other in the cold war; it was Armageddon, unthinkable, and people at the time were convinced that it would destroy the world (and in a lot of ways it did, because the world now is immeasurably different from the world 100 years ago, and a lot of that change for better or worse is directly the result of WW1)

Statesmen of all nations were aware of this and war was the last thing they wanted (even Germany, though they get a lot of blame as being warmongers), and they worked hard throughout July of 1914 to stop it from happening; it was only when leadership passed to the military (around the end of the month) that it really did become inevitable, but until that point there were so many opportunities to stop it.

If Austria had attacked Serbia quickly, for example, Russia might not have tried to stop her, because it would have been seen as justified revenge. If Bethman Hollweg, for another example, had agreed to Britain's offer to mediate between them, Austria, and Russia (or if he never gave Austria the carte blanche, which he didn't have to do) war would probably have been stopped. Even simple things, like if the Russian war minister hadn't lied when he told the Czar that the Russian military was ready for another war, might have had serious impact (Russia might have backed down from trying to check Austrian advances on Serbia).

This is a fascinating question that people then and now have agonized over trying to solve, and really it can't be answered in a few paragraphs, but YouTube has plenty of great videos talking about the buildup to the war (and The Sleepwalkers is a great overview if you want a thorough explanation). Hope this helps!

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