Pan-Slavism and the Origins of the First World War

While the growth of Slav nationalism in the Balkans can be said to have led to increasing tensions in that area, and indeed can be seen to have caused the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the designated beginning of the July Crisis of 1914, it is not the necessary condition which plunged the European continent into what Lloyd George called ‘the abyss’. Rather, other factors in the run up to war – such as the war plans of the powers and the aggression of certain states, notably Russia and Germany – were the determining factors in the eventual continental conflagration. 

Slav nationalism in the Balkans certain ramped up tensions in that region and across the continent. Pan-Slavist tendencies inflamed Russian policymakers, with the long-standing national commitment to Serbia increasingly determining a strong stance to be taken over the actions of Austria-Hungary in that region. After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, increasing attention was paid by Russian leaders to the ambitions of Austria-Hungary in that region. Serbia had enlarged itself in one direction – eastward – and the Prime Minister, Nikola Pašić, gave a speech in which he suggested that phase one of Serbian expansion was now over; phase two, it was suggested, was westward, into Austrian controlled Bosnia. Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia in 1908, a move which angered the Serbs – for they had also cherished designs on that land – and this could be said to have created the building blocks for an existential crisis between both nations; Austria-Hungary needed to hold on to Bosnia, and the Serbs felt that it was an essential part of their nation.

This nationalism on both sides escalated tensions and created the potential flashpoint for crisis. That crisis eventually came after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and Serb Slavic nationalism had an essential part in that instance of violence. The putative terrorist cell that carried out the deed had unofficial support from within the Serbian state (Christopher Clark paints Serbia as a proto-terror state in The Sleepwalkers), and those who subscribed to its tenets, such as Apis, its leader, and Princip, the man who fired the fatal shots, were motivated above all else by the desire for Serbian greatness to flower in the region. Nevertheless, despite this climactic event occurring as the result of nationalistic fervour, it merely represents a sufficient trigger for the war itself. It is not the necessary condition for war; that dubious honour falls to other instances.

Another cause which had more of an impact on the eventual shape of the war was a matter of more practicality – the nature of the powers’ war plans. Many of these were automatic and predicated upon aggressive alliances. The British army had planned in concert with the French, preparing in advance to assume responsibility for a stretch of Northern France and southern Belgium. The German war plan, the Schlieffen Plan, stipulated that the German army was to reach Paris in a period of roughly six weeks; some of its pre-designated points for mobilisation were actually over the French and Belgian borders; and its desire for a wide ‘right hook’, which envisioned German forces sweeping through Belgium, led to Britain’s entry into the war.

Similarly, the Russian war plan, worked out in conjunction with France, necessitated both sides making offensive actions into German territory. The language of these agreements was of automatic actions and guarantees; the French even offered to build railways in Russia which pointed towards East Prussia. This plan stoked German fears of encirclement, prompting even bolder military strokes; hence the wide sweep through neutral Belgium contained within the Schlieffen Plan. The rigidity of plans such as these, a fact which was known to their originators and others, made war appear inevitable. Not only did it mean that tensions were raised and allies were bound even closer together out of necessity; it also meant that, for many nations, mobilisation effectively meant war – A. J. P. Taylor referred to this as ‘war by timetable’, arguing that once the wheels were set in motion there could have been little to stop them. This was a condition which was necessary for the outbreak of war. It is therefore a more significant cause of the eventual conflict than Slav nationalism.

A third cause, and one which ties in rather closely to the aforementioned war plans, is the increasing bellicosity of nations such as Russia and Germany. Germany, fearing Franco-Russian encirclement, tied itself closer to Austria-Hungary and formulated a plan to deliver swift, crushing victory. Von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, said in 1912 that faced with those odds, war would be ‘better sooner than later’. Fritz Fischer wrote of a Germany which wanted a war, provoked a war, and got a war. In addition, the German ‘blank cheque’ to Austria-Hungary, effectively granting license for her retaliatory actions against Serbia, was prompted by similar bellicosity. Without it, it is almost impossible to imagine 1914 containing anything more than diplomatic pressure being deployed against Serbia; without the German prompt, Austria-Hungary, fearing Russia, would not have declared war on Serbia at all. Similarly, increasing Russian bellicosity – in supporting Serbia as doggedly as she did and in undertaking such actions as the Great Military Programme – ramped up tensions and created the situations whereby war could break out. Sean McMeekin addresses this in The Russian Origins of the First World War; but he does so from a different angle, one in which the primary goal of Russia’s strategic thinkers was the Constantinople and the motivation for action was increased Turkish naval strength in the Black Sea.

Germany, frightened by what was seen as the spectre of increased Russian power in the East (by 1914, Russia was spending 800 million roubles per year on arms), worried about the result of being cowed by Russian might, which could – in the eyes of pessimistic policymakers – only get stronger. This fear tightened alliances and made Germany less likely than before to back down. This collective war-like action was a more significant cause of war than Slav nationalism because it concerns military fears and resultant actions. In this case these were the actions of the two instrumental powers. For war to have broken out, Russian and German armies must have been mobilised. Both Russia and Germany supported their allies in the face of European war, and both instituted war plans for which mobilisation was virtually synonymous with continental conflict.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the two other causes presented – war plans and the increasing bellicosity of Russia and Germany – are more convincing than the notion of Slav nationalism as the proximate cause of the First World War. While Slav nationalism created the cause of a single event – one which, it could be argued, led to war in its eventual shape – the other two causes remained underlying factors, leading almost inexorably to the build up of tensions, adverse perceptions and eventual conflict. War plans and bellicosity cannot truly be disentangled; the latter created, and gave reason for, the former. And the former only justified bolder strokes and the taking of more risks in statecraft; and these were eventually taken, leading directly to the creation and institution of an international catastrophe.


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