Europe, at the start of 1913, looked so calm, serene and peaceful. Fathers tilled fields with their sons, brothers worked hard next to brothers while mothers and daughters did the same. No one could ever have imagine how drastically life would soon change and how forgotten their old lives would become.
Yet, in a matter of years, those once ripe field would become fallow in the aftermath of artillery fire, tank tracks, and, poisonous gases. So that where once grew wheat and other grains there remained only corpses and cemeteries. What happened to Europe? What could have caused so much devastation? Why would tens of millions of people die?
Prior to 1914, the major powers of Europe were thriving. Their industries were booming and economies growing as money poured in. These were the conditions created by the Industrial Revolution that fueled the superiority of these world powers. However, there was a confluence of forces were at work that would subvert Europe’s prosperity and serenity
Imperialism was one of these forces. Imperialism meant that European powers, such as Great Britain and France, held overseas territories. These territories were excellent as sources of raw materials that were valuable in European markets and for their use as markets of European goods themselves. Imperialism caused a great deal of money to flow into Europe.
With the influx of money, countries were able to finance more and more defense spending. As one nation increased its military expenditures, others followed suit so as not be caught behind in this arms race. For instance, from 1910-1914, Germany’s expenditures rose 79% in comparison to France and Britain’s combined 23%.
Nationalism was another one of these confluent forces. Germans wanted to see a stronger Germany; Russians wanted to see a more powerful Russia; and, other nations, such as France and Britain, wanted to preserve the dominant roles they already carved out. Alas, with money, guns, and hot-heads, war was afoot in Europe.
However, no country in particular was quick to pull the trigger. Europe at this time was awash with tangled alliances. Some of these alliances had been formed since the 1870’s. Germany, Austria-Hungry, and Italy aligned forces in 1882 and would remain allies through WWI. The Triple Alliance
Concerned for its own welfare, Russia allied with France who was leery was Germany’s growing military might. And, as Germany showed increased interest in naval power in the early 1900’s, Britain in a move to preserves its own naval supremacy was quick to shake hands with Russia and France to create the Triple Entente.
France, enemy of Germany, now was allied with Britain who was allied with Russia. Meanwhile, Germany, Austro-Hungry, and Italy had all aligned their interests. If one country went to war, they all did. It was a diplomatic stalemate. Except for the feeble linchpin that held things in place.
The impetus for conflict would come from the Balkans, a collection of small countries located in southeastern Europe. For centuries, the Balkans have been a hotbed for conflict and turmoil. Ethnic and religious differences as well as territorial disputes fueled numerous wars in this part of Europe prior to WWI.
Known as the “powder keg” of Europe, the Balkans were in a tumultuous state in the early 1900’s. The once mighty Ottomon Empire which had formerly stabilized the Balkans was growing weak. And other powers both local and national were moving in to fill the power vacuum.
Not focused on filling the vacuum, Serbia simply hoped to increase its borders. Russia which was largely Slavic supported Serbian nationalism; Austria-Hungry, fearing rebellion from its Slavic population did not. Thus, these two rival world powers were at odd ends.
The final card for war was dealt on June 28, 1914 when already heated tensions in the Balkans over-boiled after the heir to the Austria-Hungry throne and his wife were assassinated in the streets of Sarajevo by a 19 year old Serbian terrorist.
Because the assassin was Serbian, Austria-Hungry now had its chance to punish Serbia. Germany urged Austria-Hungry to be aggressive as Germany offered its unconditional support. Austria-Hungry, rather than acting abruptly, offered Serbia an ultimatum it knew Serbia could never fulfill.
When Serbia failed to meet the terms of the ultimatum, Austria-Hungry was quick to mobilize its troops and declare war. However, Austria-Hungry was not the country to declare war on July 28. Being an ally of Serbia, Russia proceeded to declare war on Austria-Hungry. All the while, leaders all over Europe suddenly took alarm.
Staying true to their agreements, all parties involved in both the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente were engaged in war. Russia was quick to mobilize troops to both its Austrian border and to its German border—fearing a double attack. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, France prepared itself for its inevitable conflict with Germany.
Germany at this time put its Schlieffen Plan into effective. Under this plan, a large portion of the German army raced westward where it hoped to quickly defeat France, then redirect its troops to focus on full-scale assault against Russia, coming from the East. Yet, the war on both fronts would prove to be anything but quick.
In the end, wealth, stock piled of weaponry, tangled alliances and intense feelings of nationalism brought Europe out of a sleepy hollow into a Hell no one imagined was possible. Unprepared for what WWI had in-store, Europeans, Americans and citizens the world around vowed to make WWI the war to end all wars…