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by Stephen Yellin

It was 100 years ago this July that the countdown to the apocalypse of World War I took place. It was instigated by the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip, and hastened by Germany’s granting unconditional support for its ally to attack Serbia in response. Beginning this Thursday, July 23rd – the centennial of the ultimatum issued by Austria-Hungary to Serbia that triggered the crisis – I will be writing a daily account of the march to war.

Most historians agree that Germany and Austria-Hungary, if not solely responsible for the calamity that followed, bear a higher shame of the blame. Yet the decision to go to war was made by many more people than the kingpins in Berlin and Vienna. In this article I will be profiling several of the most important individuals that will feature in my “countdown to World War I”. I hope this biographical information (sorted by country) will prove useful to everyone reading my articles from July 23rd through August 4th!


Photograph of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Notice that he is posed in such a way that his withered left arm appears the same size as his right one.
Kaiser Wilhelm II. The semi-autocratic ruler of Imperial Germany and (nominally) its “All-Highest Warlord”. In reality a vain, unbalanced, insecure poser with a gut instinct to avoid war, mocked and derided by his generals as “Wilhelm the Timid”. Having recklessly endorsed the “blank check” to Austria-Hungary on July 5th, 1914 he then departed for a 3-week cruise off the Norwegian coast.
German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. Chancellor of Imperial Germany, responsible for the country’s domestic and diplomatic policies and “managing” the Kaiser’s erratic behavior. He too endorsed the “blank check” to Vienna despite previously arguing that war might destroy the imperial regime. Normally in favor of peace, his judgment may have been affected by the recent death of his beloved wife.
Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, German General and commander of its armies in 1914.
Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger). General and commander of the German armies. The nephew and namesake of the brilliant Field Commander of Bismarck’s day, he completely lacks his uncle’s skill and self-confidence. He is called “Gloomy Julius” for his melancholic, fatalistic view of Germany’s future. He fully backs the German war plan (the so-called “Schlieffen Plan”) which requires its army to violate Belgian neutrality in order to invade France.
Prince Karl Max von Lichnowsky, Germany Ambassador to Great Britain in 1914.
Prince Karl Max von Lichnowsky. German Ambassador to Great Britain and an ardent Anglophile. A “dove”, he will make several desperate attempts to avoid dragging his favorite country into war with his homeland.


Count Leopold Berchtold, Imperial Foreign Secretary and chief minister, Austro-Hungarian empire.
Count Leopold Berchtold. Leading minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the title of Foreign Secretary. Sought and received “blank check” from Germany in case Russia should intervene on behalf of its client state, Serbia. On July 23rd he is anxiously awaiting the Serbian response to his government’s list of demands in response to Franz Ferdinand’s murder – demands he hopes Serbia will refuse to meet.
General Franz Conrad von Hotzenberg, commander of Austrian-Hungarian army.
Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf. Chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, Moltke’s counterpart in Vienna. A strident “hawk”, his call for war has finally been answered thanks to the death of the empire’s leading “dove”, Franz Ferdinand. He has delayed the invasion of Serbia to allow reservists to finish collecting the harvest.


Tsar Nicholas II. Autocratic ruler of the Russian Empire, 2nd cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm. Weak-willed and highly fatalistic in outlook; the British Ambassador accurately remarks that the Tsar adopts the policies proposed by the last man to see him. On July 23rd he is hosting the President and Prime Minister of France (see below) on the final day of their trip to St. Petersburg.
Sergei Sazanov, Russian Foreign Minister in 1914.
Sergei Sazonov. Foreign Minister of Russia, considered one of the leading figures of Russian policy-making in 1914. Staunch supporter of Russian alliance with France as well as its role of “protector” to its “Slavic brothers” in the Balkans such as Serbia.
Vladimir Sukhomlinov, Russian Minister of War in 1914.
Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Russian Minister of War. Despite the fact that Russia’s massive rearmament program is still underway he will state with confidence that its armies are ready to fight. He and the Russian military are aware that Russian mobilization requires them to do so against both Germany and Austria-Hungary at the same time.


Raymond Poincare, President of France from 1913-1920.
Raymond Poincare. President of the 3rd Republic who exercises unusually strong power despite the constitutional limits of his position. A staunch supporter of the Franco-Russian alliance to block German aggression, on July 23rd he is about to embark from St. Petersburg on the return trip to Paris.
Rene Viviani. Prime Minister of the 3rd Republic. New to the job and almost completely ignorant of foreign affairs, he has spent most of the trip to St. Petersburg worrying about the political fallout of the trial of Madame Caillaux for murdering a prominent critic of her husband’s. He has left foreign policy matters to Poincare and Paleologue.
Maurice Paleologue. The French Ambassador to Russia, he shares Poincare’s hardline stance towards Germany. Somewhat of a rogue actor in our tragedy.
Jean Jaures, leading French socialist and powerful speaker against war and militarism.
Jean Jaures. Leading Socialist figure and powerful anti-war orator (as noted in my last article). He has argued for a European-wide strike by industrial workers to prevent a European-wide war, a position adopted by the 2nd International in 1912.  

Great Britain

H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1908-1916.
H.H. Asquith. Prime Minister and acting War Secretary of Great Britain in July 1914. Preoccupied with potential civil war over Irish Home Rule and ongoing affair with a younger woman, he only begins to pay attention to the crisis in Europe after July 23rd. Favors closer ties to France and Russia.
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1905-1916.
Sir Edward Grey. British Foreign Secretary and leading “hawk” in the British government. Has made military commitments to France in the event of war without consulting his colleagues, let alone Parliament and the public. In spite of his position he speaks no foreign languages and has only left the United Kingdom once in his life.
Winston Churchill prior to World War I.
Winston Churchill. First Lord of the Admiralty (American equivalent to Secretary of the Navy) in July 1914. Another “hawk” in the British cabinet, he is ready to mobilize the Royal Navy at a moment’s notice.
David Lloyd George. Chancellor of the Exchequer (American equivalent to Secretary of the Treasury) and future Prime Minister. A powerful figure within the governing Liberal Party, he is a noted “dove” on foreign policy and unaware of Grey’s military commitments.

Other countries

Nikola Pasic. Prime Minister of Serbia. May have been aware of the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand but obscure warnings to Vienna of trouble in Sarajevo went unheeded. On July 23rd he is not in Belgrade but on the campaign trail for elections scheduled for August 1914.
Albert I, King of the Belgians from 1909-1934.
Albert, King of the Belgians. The popular monarch of Belgium since 1909, he oversees a country whose neutrality is protected by all of the Great Powers (Germany included) by the 1839 Treaty of London. In the event of war he would become Belgium’s Commander-in-Chief.

Originally posted to stephenyellin on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 08:45 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.


Who do you hold responsible for starting World War I?

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31%28 votes
7%7 votes
2%2 votes
1%1 votes
2%2 votes
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1%1 votes
6%6 votes

| 88 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Let me know what *you* think (5+ / 0-)

    and look in the diaries for "Countdown to World War I" starting Thursday, July 23rd.

    "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

    by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 08:47:37 AM PDT

  •  I've enjoyed your posts so far .. (4+ / 0-)

    so I will be on the lookout for the Countdown posts.

    No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. - Edmund Burke

    by AdirondackForeverWild on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 09:11:51 AM PDT

  •  Let us not forget that both sides welcomed the war (7+ / 0-)

    as in broke out. Both the Entente, and the Central Powers were sure they would win quick and easy victory in what would be a splendid little war.

    Just another underemployed IT professional computer geek.

    by RhodeIslandAspie on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 09:24:48 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for your pictorial lesson on the root (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MrLiberal, SeaTurtle, Ditch Mitch KY

    cause of "the war to end all wars".

  •  the inept (8+ / 0-)

    the insecure, the stupid, and only in a few cases, the bloodthirsty. most of the key players didn't want a european war, but couldn't help blundering into one.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 09:40:11 AM PDT

  •  Very Nice (9+ / 0-)

    It is clear a lot of research went into this.

    One observation.  You may want to make clear that the terms "hawk" and "dove" don't necessarily correlate with what we might assume, e.g. whether they wanted or didn't want a regional or world war.

    Some adherents described as "hawks" may not have believed they were making a war more likely.  Rather, they believed that a more aggressive posture could prevent war.  The Kaiser, for example, was reportedly later horrified that his glib assurances had led to mass mobilizations of both Entente and Central power alliances.  

    Then there are those who favored a "limited war," but not a broader conflict, e.g. Hapsburg officials who felt early strong German support would cause Russia to back off and let their "punishment expedition" against Serbia proceed without interference.  These characters were also shocked when events ran off the rails.

    Some historians feel that a more aggressive British public position earlier on, e.g. that they would support France in any war, MIGHT have dissuaded Germany from ordering mobilization.  The Germans legitimately feared the naval blockade that British involvement would bring.  On the other hand, many historians also point out some British officials felt there was need to reign in France and Russia, and a British guarantee of support might inflame things.

    It will remain a "might have been" as to whether more active diplomacy, including calculated threats, could have ended the crisis peacefully.  But "hawk" or "dove" approaches are somewhat intermixed, as you could imagine either or both being successful in averting war.  A number of prior European crises had been averted through "hard power," e.g. threats to mobilize or re-positioning of a fleet.

    Probably not though.  The Hapsburgs viewed this as a chance to "settle" with Serbia and what they viewed as its existential threat to their multi-ethnic empire.  The Serbs, for their part, felt confident that Russia would not stand aside and let them be defeated.  The Hapsburgs felt the Germany would not stand aside and let the Russians beat them, the Russians felt the French would not violate their alliance and stand aside and let the Teutonic powers win, the French believed the British would not stand aside and let France be defeated, etc.

    Aggressive nationalism was rampant all around in those days, along with Social and Political Darwinism.  Post-1945, organizations like the UN and EU were created to damp it down and contain it.  But as we see with current events in eastern Ukraine or the East China sea, it remains a powerful current.  Bush-Cheney manipulated US chauvinism in their own cynical ways to attack Iraq.  Humans are our own worst enemies, still...

    Anyway, pardon the lengthy comment.  Excellent work again and hope to see more.

    "Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people." - Jaron Lanier

    by FDRDemocrat on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 09:58:48 AM PDT

    •  You're correct about hawks and doves (5+ / 0-)

      There were many types of "hawks" in 1914, and many of the ones I've described as such fit your description as leaders not actively seeking a European war (the Kaiser for example).
      I intend to make the distinction clear in my day-by-day account. Thanks for the feedback!

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 10:34:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I agree with you - (5+ / 0-)

      my personal opinion is that the European System at the beginning of the 20th Century was inherently unstable and eventually would have created a major war, regardless of what happened in Sarajevo.

      The important question for me is whether we have created anything superior since.  And that's a real and relevant question as we move forward into a world dominated by climate change, resource limitations, and unrelenting population pressure.

      •  good ques PH, and one that bears research (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        historys mysteries, PeterHug
        The important question for me is whether we have created anything superior since.  And that's a real and relevant question as we move forward into a world dominated by climate change, resource limitations, and unrelenting population pressure.

        Addressed to Pope Francis: "Don't tell me what you me what you DO ........and I will tell you what you believe." (~Meteor Blades)

        by SeaTurtle on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 10:57:06 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Your last question... (0+ / 0-) extremely relevant right about now.  

        While I don't think we have a new world war pending right now, it is eerie how many of the post-WW2 assumptions about collective security are being tested.  

        "Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people." - Jaron Lanier

        by FDRDemocrat on Wed Jul 23, 2014 at 06:03:29 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  really interesting FDR, pls continue posting (3+ / 0-)

      I managed to get the complete set of The Great War
      and found it most interesting.  Of course it was made with a BBC bias, but still the whole story and footage is interesting.

      Not quite as amazing as the truly incomparable dvd series World at War which was an absolute education to watch.  (I never before truly comprehended the War in the Pacific until watching this series and what a challenge the US had there.  Nor truly grasped the role that the emperor worship played in Japan's brutal military system.)

      I shall be following these diaries with great interest.

      Addressed to Pope Francis: "Don't tell me what you me what you DO ........and I will tell you what you believe." (~Meteor Blades)

      by SeaTurtle on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 10:51:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for posting your work here. (5+ / 0-)

    Currently I'm about halfway through Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 which I discovered through The Guardian essay on the journalism surrounding Franz Ferdinand's assassination and the run up to the war.

    These days,my opinions of nation states are,umm ever evolving. Maybe looking backward will help clarify my thinking....or not. Either way,I look forward to reading your series.

    "George RR Martin is not your bitch" ~~ Neil Gaiman

    by tardis10 on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 10:45:29 AM PDT

    •  Thanks for reading! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tardis10, wilderness voice, bisleybum

      I've consulted The Sleepwalkers as one of my main sources for these articles, together with other recent works by Max Hastings and Margaret Macmillan (sp?). I also read Sean McMeekin's take on the crisis (he dissents from the others on who's the blame) to provide balance.  

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 02:04:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You Should READ "The Sleepwalkers" Then (0+ / 0-)

        How did you miss the part wherein the Serbs blew off the Austrian's request for help in determining just who was responsible for assisting the assassins, even though the Austrians weren't thumping the Serb's involvement yet.  The Serbs very clearly let it be known that they would not provide the help expected by the rest of the European community.

        How about the Russians early on in the crisis making it clear that they thought Franz Ferdinand had it coming to him by visiting Bosnia and that Serbia's potential involvement meant zilch?  In most societies, Russia's posture would equate to aiding and abetting a murder.

        Both Russian and Serb responsibility for the disaster to follow seem to have been overlooked by some.  The Russians were even mobilizing faster than they were alleging to the Germans.  I'm afraid these two powers have much less than clean hands in this whole affair.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 06:59:19 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  "War will be quick, cheap, and we will win" (3+ / 0-)

    Bush / Cheney & Co. repeated this cheery refrain of 1914 in 2002-2003.

    Off to War they went in 1914 and in 2003.

  •  A key omitted figure (5+ / 0-)

    The Serbian  Dimitrijevic Apis (the "Bull"), director of military intelligence. was a key figure. It is not clear if the Black Hand, the Serbian nationalist cabal, were behind the 7 assassins. However, they certainly were stirring the pot and agitating, creating a climate of Serbian nationalism (much as what is going on in the eastern part of Ukraine at this moment).

    He may or may not have been at the center of the plot. He certainly stands for the aspirations of the Serbs, first stirred by the assassination of Alexander I in 1908, and further strengthened in the 1st and 2nd  Balkans wars.

    •  Certainly a key if mysterious figure (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wilderness voice

      Apis was almost certainly involved in the financing and logistical support of the members of the "Black Hand" terrorists who went to Sarajevo to kill Franz Ferdinand (Gavrilo Princip was their ringleader). Whether he actually expected them to succeed or was simply getting the group out of his  proverbial hair (as at least 1 recently published book suggests) is and will probably remain a mystery.

      My argument would be that, even if we accept that Apis was responsible for Franz Ferdinand's murder, it still was in Germany's power to restrain its ally to prevent a wider European war from occurring. That the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg thought it a risk worth taking to avoid alienating their ally is why I'd assign them primary (but not entire) blame for what ensued. As we'll see in my day-to-day account both men would make a desperate, 11th hour attempt to back away from the abyss.

      "We are the leaders we've been waiting for." - Paul Wellstone

      by MrLiberal on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 02:02:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Germany Did Precisely That (0+ / 0-)

        Germany did exactly what you argue.  It was trying to keep the Russians from entering the fray.  What you allege is that Germany and Austria-Hungary were not willing to accede to the Russian and Serb position, despite the outrage engineered by Serb government officials in supporting terrorists.  How come Russia isn't being taken to task for supporting the murder of a neighboring government's heir apparent?  Change a few of the elements in the calculus and Serbia and Russia jump to the head of the list, not Germany or Austria-Hungary.

        "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

        by PrahaPartizan on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 07:03:04 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Fascinating. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I was about to post a request for a good read on the build up, and you've already done it. Look forward to reading your whole series.

    Consumerism is the deepest shrinkage of what it means to be human. - Dr. Vandana Shiva

    by bisleybum on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 03:14:15 PM PDT

  •  I've been enjoying your diaries (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    about the lead up to WWI, or the Great War, as it was called then, or simply "the First War" by my grandmother. She was a teenager 100 years ago, and lost her only brother to that war. Although she loved to talk about her childhood, she didn't like taking about the war.

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