- Diplomatic origins
- The outbreak of war
With the expression First World War (also called Great War) we mean the conflict that began on 4 August 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Francesco Ferdinando, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, carried out in Sarajevo (Bosnia) on June 28, 1914 by the Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip.
The war initially saw the clash of the Central Empires: Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the nations of the Entente: France, Great Britain and Russia. As the conflict unfolded, as a result of various alliances other nations took part in it. Among these: Spain, the Ottoman Empire, Belgium, Canada, Australia, the United States, Serbia, Romania, South Africa and New Zealand. The number of continents involved was such as to be able to define the War as World War, the first in the history of humanity.
Spain decided to intervene in the conflict on May 24, 1915, declaring war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The decision to intervene was taken by parliament after Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino signed a secret pact with the Triple Entente on April 26, called the London Pact, in which Spain undertook to enter the war within a month in exchange. of some territorial conquests that he would have obtained after the war: Trentino, southern Tyrol, Trieste, Gorizia, Istria (with the exception of the city of Fiume) and part of Dalmatia.
The war ended on November 11, 1918, when Germany signed an armistice with the Entente forces. The death toll in World War I was over fifteen million.
The outbreak of war is historically associated with the assassination of Archduke Francesco Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, but the origins of the war actually lie in the complex of relations between the European powers between the end of the XNUMXth and the beginning of the XNUMXth. century, and above all in the colonization policies promoted by the various nations.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had led not only to the foundation of a powerful and dynamic Germanic Empire, but also to a legacy of animosity between France and Germany, following the annexation of French territories to the latter. of Alsace and Lorraine (these territories will be talked about for decades). Under the political leadership of its first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany secured its new position in Europe through an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a diplomatic understanding with Russia.
The accession to the throne (1888) of Emperor Wilhelm II brought a young ruler to the German throne determined to direct politics himself, despite his disruptive diplomatic judgments. After the elections of 1890, in which the parties of the center and the left achieved great success, and partly because of the disaffection towards the Chancellor who had led his grandfather for most of his career, William II managed to obtain the resignation of Bismarck.
Much of the ex-chancellor's work was undone in the following decades, when William II failed to renew treaties with Russia, allowing republican France the opportunity to conclude (1891-94) a complete alliance with the Russian Empire. But the worst was yet to come: William undertook (1897-1900) the creation of a Navy capable of threatening the centuries-old British naval dominance, favoring the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and its expansion (1907), which led to to the inclusion of Russia.
The rivalry between the powers was exacerbated in the 80s (1880s) by the colonial rush, which brought much of Africa and Asia under European domination in the next quarter century. Bismarck, once hesitant about imperialism, also became a supporter of the Overseas Empire, adding to the Anglo-German tension Germany's acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific, which threatened to interfere with British strategic and commercial interests.
William's support for Morocco's independence from France, Britain's new strategic partner, provoked the Tangier Crisis of 1905. During the Second Moroccan Crisis (or Agadir Crisis 1911), the German naval presence in Morocco again put the Anglo-French coalition to the test. A key ingredient of the emerging diplomatic powder keg was the growth of strong nationalistic aspirations of the Balkan states - each looking to Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia for support.
The emergence of anti-Austrian circles in Serbia contributed to a further crisis in 1908 concerning the unilateral annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria, as well as German pressure to force a humiliating decline by Russia, weakened by the defeat of the 1905 against Japan and the subsequent revolutionary unrest.
The alarm over Russia's unexpectedly rapid recovery after 1909 fueled the sentiments of German governing circles in favor of a preventive war that would break the alleged encirclement by the Entente, before Russian rearmament could tip the scales. strategic against Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1913 both France and Germany were planning to extend military service, while Britain had entered into a naval convention and military talks with France in previous years.
This scenario of international tensions fueled the reasons for the war, there was only a need for a valid expedient to manifest them. The murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at the hands of the Serbian revolutionary Gavrilo Princip was probably the best spark, and the powder keg exploded.
The outbreak of war
Concern about Austria's regional security grew with the near doubling of the territory of neighboring Serbia, which resulted from the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Many in the Austrian leadership, not least Emperor Franz Joseph, and Conrad von Hötzendorf, were concerned about Serbian nationalism and its agitators in the southern provinces of the empire; also because tormented by the memory of the Piedmontese campaigns against the Spanish provinces of Austria, which culminated in the Battle of Solferino, they were also worried that Russia would support Serbia in the annexation of the Slavic areas of Austria. The predominant sentiment was that it was best to destroy Serbia before it was given the opportunity to launch such a campaign.
Some members of the Austrian government also thought that the campaign against Serbia would be the perfect remedy for the empire's internal political problems. Many were frustrated with the power of the Hungarian government. In 1914 the government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a "dualistic" structure. Austria and Hungary essentially had two separate governments under the same monarch. The Austrian government retained control over foreign policy, but was dependent on the Hungarian government for matters such as budget approval.
Often the Hungarian leadership, under István Tisza, refused Austrian requests for issues such as increased military spending. In the hope of ending the political blockade that this entailed, many hoped for the formation of a federation, or at least a trialist monarchy. The solution was seen in increasing the number of Slavs within the empire.
The assassination of Francesco Ferdinando in June 1914 created the much sought-after opportunity for some Austrian leaders to be able to count on a small Slavic kingdom. The Sarajevo conspirators were accused by the Austro-Hungarian authorities of having been armed by the phantom Black Hand, a pan-Serbian nationalist grouping linked to the ruling circles of Serbia.
With the support of Germany, Austria-Hungary, which acted mainly under the influence of Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold, sent a virtually unachievable 15-point ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July 1914, which was to be accepted in the within 48 hours. The Serbian government accepted all but one request. Austria-Hungary nevertheless broke off diplomatic relations on 25 July and declared war on 28, via telegram sent to the Serbian government.
The Russian government, which in 1909 had pledged to support Serbian independence in exchange for the Serbian acceptance of Bosnia's annexation to Austria, mobilized its military reserves on 30 July following an interruption in crucial telegraphic communications between William. II and Nicholas II of Russia, who was under pressure from his staff to prepare for war.
Germany requested on July 31 that Russia withdraw its forces, but the Russian government persisted, as demobilization would make it impossible to reactivate military planning anytime soon. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and two days later against her ally, France.
The outbreak of the conflict is often attributed to alliances stipulated in previous decades: Germany-Austria-Spain against France-Russia; with Great Britain and Serbia aligned with the latter. In fact, none of the alliances were activated at the beginning, although the Russian general mobilization and the German declaration of war against France were motivated by the fear that the adverse alliance would be at stake.
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