Month of Madness – BBC Radio 4

BBC radio has just broadcast a series of five 15 minute episodes about the Month of Madness that led to the First World War. It was presented and written by Professor Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, an acclaimed history of the causes of the war.

The programme is available on the BBC i Player from this link. Unlike TV ones, radio programmes appear to remain available indefinitely, and I do not think that there are any geographical restrictions on listening to them.

Episode one, Sarajevo

This covered the impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who wanted to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a United States of Greater Austria, consisting of 15 or 16 federal districts, each dominated by a different ethnic group: the Empire had 11 official nationalities. Clark argues that he was assassinated because he was a moderate: extremists fear moderate opponents more than hardliners, because moderates offer the possibility of peaceful change.

The assassination succeeded by luck. An attempt earlier in the day failed, other assassins lost their nerve and Princep got his chance only because Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn.

Serbian nationalists wanted to incorporate Bosnia-Herzegovnia into a Greater Serbia because Serbs were the largest of its national groups, although at 43% they were still a minority. Princep and his fellow Bosnian Serb assassins were ‘abstinent’ young men, with little time for alcohol or women. Clark notes that they were the type of ‘sombre’ young men who join terrorist groups today.

The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist meant that Austria-Hungary would take action against Serbia. However, whether a Balkan conflict became a European war depended on the decisions taken by other countries in the next few weeks.

Episode 2, Vienna

This explores how the Austro-Hungarians reacted to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There was widespread shock; as with the assassination of JFK, people were able to remember years afterwards where they were when they learnt the news. Emperor Franz Josef did not get on well with his heir, but it is a myth that he received the news coldly. Eye witnesses stated that he was clearly upset.

The assassins were trained and equipped in Serbia, with backing from the Black Hand, a shadowy network whose objectives included the liberation of Bosnian Serbs from Austrian rule. It was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as Apis, the head of Serbian Military Intelligence. The civilian Serbian government was unable to act against the members of the Black Hand because they were too well connected.

A consensus emerged quickly in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and General Staff that action must be taken against Serbia. As a minimum a very harsh ultimatum should be sent, but most wanted a war that would settle their issues with Serbia.

Two days after the assassination Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, told Emperor Franz Josef, that Austria-Hungary could no longer be patient with Serbia. The Emperor agreed. In previous Balkan crises Franz Ferdinand had urged caution, but nobody did so now that he was dead.

Clark says that the ultimatum prepared by Berchtold was a very firm one. He thinks that it can be questioned whether it was really completely unacceptable to a sovereign country, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly intended it to be rejected. They wanted ‘war on a neighbour that they saw as as impossibly turbulent and provocative.’

The Austro-Hungarians concentrated almost all of their attention on Serbia. They had no exit strategy, did not have clear objectives for their action, did not consider the risks involved and were not prepared for the major war that followed. They did realise that they needed support from their ally Germany, since Russia might come to the aid of Serbia.

Episode 3, Berlin.

This discusses Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary for war against Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm II got on well with Franz Ferdinand and agreed with him on many issues. Until now, the Germans had been urging the Austro-Hungarians to try to find peaceful solutions to their difficulties with Serbia; this now changed.

On 5 July the Austro-Hungarian ambassador presented letters from Franz Josef and his foreign minister to the Kaiser. The Kaiser and his general staff realised that Austro-Hungarians wanted war with Serbia, and promised to support whatever Austria-Hungary did, the so-called blank cheque. This came without conditions, so Germany was agreeing to support Austria-Hungary even if Russia intervened. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador told his government that the Kaiser thought Austria-Hungary should not delay if it wanted military action against Serbia.

The Germans did not think at this stage that Russia would intervene against Austria-Hungary, but knew that there was a risk that it would. If Germany stood by its ally, Russia’s ally France would join what would then be a continental war. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg said that if Germany advised Austria-Hungary to act, it would say that Germany pushed it into war. If Germany urged caution, Austria-Hungary would claim that it had been abandoned and Germany would lose its only reliable ally.

Russian military power was also growing. It and France had one million more soldiers that Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. Russia had embarked upon a massive rearmament programme, which was financed by France, but it would take time to complete. Germany and Austria-Hungary might win a war now, but not one in three years time.

However, the Germans thought that the Russian would not go to war. Tsar Nicholas II would surely not support regicide, Russia had no formal alliance with Serbia and why would Russia go to war now when it would be much stronger in three years time.

The Germans stuck to a policy of localisation. Nothing should be done that would escalate the crisis. Political and military officials, including the Kaiser went on holiday. When he returned on 27 July, he said that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian note meant that a war was now unnecessary. He now urged peace, something that did not surprise his critics in the German army, who regarded him as somebody who talked aggressively but would argue for peace in the end.

Clark argues that the failure of the Kaiser’s last minute attempt to prevent a war shows that he was not as powerful as many have claimed. The Germans did not have a plan for continental war, but were willing to risk one, something in which they were not alone.

Episode 4, The French in St Petersburg 

This looks at the dangerous impact of the extension of the Franco-Russian alliance. By chance, Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was on long planned state visit to France’s ally Russia for much of the crisis, arriving on 20 July. The minutes of the summit have been lost, but the meetings can be reconstructed from the notes and diaries of those present, including Count Louis de Robien, a young French diplomat. He was appalled by the bellicose tone of the meetings. On his return to France on 28 July, Poincaré was greeted as if the country was already at war.

The France and Russia had been allied since the early 1890s, but both had urged caution on the other until the beginning of 1912. Poincaré then assured Russia that France would support it if it took action against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, even if Russia was not itself threatened with attack. The French were becoming concerned that they could not rely on British help, so felt that they had to remain close to Russia. This was a defensive strategy, with the object of never having to fight Germany alone, but it carried serious risks.

Russia had no serious conflicts of interest with Germany, but Austria-Hungary was a long-standing rival of Russia in the Balkans, which were becoming more important in Russian thinking because of their proximity to the Turkish Straits. All sea traffic to and from the Black Sea had to pass through them, including 80% of Russia’s grain exports, a vital source of revenue. Russian nationalists also felt close to other Orthodox and Slavic nations, such as Serbia.

This encouraged Serbian leaders to believe that they could afford to have poor relations with Austria-Hungary, because Russia would support Serbia in a conflict. Clark does not believe that France and Russia wanted or planned a war, but they increased the risk of one by linking their strategy to the uncertain Balkan situation.

During the Franc0-Russian summit Poincaré urged Russia to be firm; Clark says this was ‘enthusiastically received.’ Poincare’s policy of closer relations with Russia ensured that France would not have to fight Germany alone, but made the situation more complex. The French had to assure the Russians of their support, but also had to make certain that the British did not think that France was escalating the crisis.

By the end of July it was difficult to see how a war could be avoided, but the question of whether or not Britain would enter it remained. Both France and Germany acted cautiously, the former hoping that Britain would support it, the latter that Britain would remain neutral. Neither considered backing down or putting peace ahead of prestige. De Robain said that both sides had determined to ‘hold firm…in a tragic poker game.’

Episode 5, London

This explores how British decision-makers reacted in the July Crisis of 1914. Britain was more concerned by the threat of civil war in Ireland, where the Protestant Unionists of the north opposed the government’s intention to grant the Catholic Nationalists of the south demand for Home Rule.

The key player was the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Although a Liberal MP, he favoured what Clark calls ‘a secretive, even conspiratorial’ way of operating, believing that foreign policy was too important to be decided by Parliamentary debates. He knew little of foreign countries, spoke no foreign languages and felt uncomfortable in the company of foreigners.

For much of the crisis the British did not consider the possibility that they might be drawn into war. Grey did not raise it in Cabinet until 24 July. Over recent years he had allowed the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France to deepen into something close to a strategic partnership, but the majority of the Cabinet strongly opposed any binding commitment to France, and thus Russia. The French wanted the Entente to be a British commitment to stand by France, but for Grey it had to be a looser agreement that did not bind Britain, which did not know the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance.

On 3 August Grey justified British entry into the war on three grounds: the moral obligations resulting from the Anglo-French friendship, especially the strategic partnership between the two navies; if Germany won, Britain would face a Continent dominated by one power, whilst a Franco-Russian victory would mean a Russian threat to Britain’s Asian empire; and the German breach of Belgian neutrality.

Clark says that the German invasion of Belgium was:

‘a gross offense against international law which endowed the Entente war effort with a lasting sense of moral superiority, but it was not the true reason for British intervention…the decision was made on a cool calculation of national interest.’

However, public anger over the invasion of Belgium helped to win support for the declaration of war.

Clark’s conclusions was that the men who made the decisions ‘were walking in watchful steps’ towards war. There was an ‘intricate structure of..interlocking commitments’, which became mixed up with ‘the volatile politics of a region inflamed by repeated conflict.’ There was an atmosphere of distrust and provocation. No one power was to blame for a war that resulted from ‘a shared European political culture.’

A very interesting a thought provoking programme. Clark does not attempt to blame any one country or alliance for the war. I have just started reading his book, where he says that he is more interested in question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ the war began.

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Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

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