Skip to Content

Coffee House

What really caused the world to go to war?

5 November 2019

8:09 AM

5 November 2019

8:09 AM

Armistice day this year marks one hundred and one years since the guns were silenced on the western front. Four years of commemorations of the ‘seminal catastrophe’ of modern times, the calamity from which other calamities sprang, has also meant a wave of ‘new’ accounts of varying quality, none more so than for the causes of the conflict. But a book that has ‘turned up’ on the origins of the First World War could dramatically change our thinking about what really caused the world to go to war.

Written by a Serbian history professor, Vladimir Ćorović, between 1927 and 1935, The Relations of Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the 20th Century, was denied publication by the Yugoslavian authorities for fear it might upset relations with Germany. In 1941, its author was killed fleeing the Nazi invasion when his plane was shot down. For decades, the manuscript lay in the vaults of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University until its 1992 publication in Serbo-Croat. Only now has an English translation been published.

So why is Ćorović’s book so important?

Firstly, it was written when the polemic on the Great War’s origins had subsided. Secondly, mastering six languages enabled the author to scour the archives of all the major powers. In particular, Ćorović delved through Serbian evidence and documents, some of which have since disappeared when Yugoslav archives were plundered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Thirdly, in looking at relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary over the long term, through economics, culture and politics since the late nineteenth century, Ćorović demonstrates how, rather than Austria-Hungary being the passive sufferer of Serbian irredentism, it was Vienna who sought systematically by subterfuge to keep independent Serbia down. In the words of the British counsellor at the Viennese embassy in 1906, Austria-Hungary treated her as not only a ‘negligible quantity’ but as an ‘scornful quantity’. 

Ćorović’s work details how the military, foreign ministry personnel and finally Austrian political leaders conspired to have Serbia broken up. The Sarajevo plot, of which Serbian leaders were unaware, was a divine surprise that provided the opportunity to deal with Serbia once and for all.

When the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Berchtold was asked what would happen if Serbia accepted all the demands of Vienna’s ultimatum of 23 July 1914, he replied smiling:

“If that still happened there is nothing else left to do but to provoke Serbia even after the acceptance of the demands until Austria gets her opportunity to march into Serbia”.

Ćorović demonstrates Germany’s ‘blank cheque’ for this policy, while conversely showing Russian support for Serbia in a more subdued and restrained light.

In recent years, Christopher Clark’s 2012 best-seller, the Sleepwalkers, has shaped much of our understanding about what led to the Great War.

Clark’s view is that leaders of the European great powers stumbled into conflict. His account reassigned degrees of responsibility for provoking war from Germany and Austria-Hungary to Serbia – because Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand’s assassins were Serbian nationalists – and to Russia – because she supported little Serbia against sovereignty-crippling Austro-Hungarian demands.

France also emerges badly from Clark’s book, because in backing Russia in line with the Franco-Russian alliance, Paris inevitably risked war given Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary. This revisionism relieved Germany and Austria-Hungary of some of the war guilt. It also (perhaps inadvertently) echoed the strategy adopted by the German foreign ministry in the 1920s to undermine the legitimacy of the Versailles treaty and Germany’s payment of reparations.

Not surprisingly Sleepwalkers sold in huge numbers in Germany and the author was fêted there as historians rarely are. But excellent scholar that he is, Christopher Clark recognises in his preface the weight of the present in his analysis of the path to war.

Clark was writing in the wake of the 1990s bloody Balkan civil war, where Serbian atrocities and responsibilities were metaphorically – and literally – on trial. His account is also likely to have been shaped by 9/11, when international terrorism was (and still is) the crux of western anxiety. And with Russian support for a western-vilified Syria dominating headlines as Clark’s book came out, it is perhaps no coincidence that Russia also emerges badly from Sleepwalkers; the country is at the centre of the war’s outbreak in Clark’s so-called ‘Balkan inception scenario’. It is not easy, it seems, for historians to shake off the present in assessing the past.

The Relations of Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the 20th Century is sure to change our understanding of the outbreak of the war yet again. This time, it will do so in the opposite direction to that of Clark, by highlighting the greater responsibility of Austria-Hungary and her ally Germany. Perhaps this much-needed book might also mean a temporary armistice in the war of words surrounding one of the most written about subjects in modern history.

John Keiger is a former professor of international history in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. He is co-author of Ils ont fait la paix: le traité de Versailles vu de France et d’ailleurs, Paris, 2018

See also

Show comments