Hidden Motives and World War I: A Book Review in Honor of Veterans Day

As we are approaching the centennial anniversary mark for the beginning of World War I, it might be interesting to review what went wrong in the run up to this war and why it wasn’t avoided. In his book July 1914, Countdown to War, Sean McMeekin masterfully brings out many of the underlying currents in European politics of that time. All of the major players in the war had a dog in the fight before the war began. The murder of the crown prince Franz Ferdinand presented several countries with an opportunity to settle old accounts that was too good to let slip by. Serbia had been upset with Austria for annexing Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908. Austria had been upset with Serbia for expanding its territory in 1912-13, with support of Russia, at the expense of Turkey, an ally of Germany and Austria. Russia, who had been trying to become a major player in Europe, was expanding economically and militarily. For its economy to grow, it needed land reform. For land reform to be successful, it needed a strong peasantry and unimpeded access to agricultural export markets. For that to happen it needed access to the Mediterranean, and so it needed unhindered passage through the Ottoman Straits (Bosporus, Sea of Marmara and Dardanelles). In 1912 the Ottoman Empire had already closed the Straits briefly, which had really driven home to Russia its vulnerability. But the Ottoman Empire was backed by Germany. Germany knew that Russia was gaining in power, growing faster in its population than Germany, and was growing faster economically with the help of France. German generals thought a clash was inevitable, and wanted to fight with Russia sooner rather than later, before Russia became too strong for Germany. France, which was bound by a treatise to Russia, was still smarting from the loss of territory in the 1871 war, and saw Germany as its main rival. England had made a treaty with France that in case of war, England would defend the French harbors while the French navy would take up the defense of the Mediterranean Sea. Because of a naval race with Germany, England was concerned with the growth of the German navy, which could hinder her access to her territories overseas. This is the structural background of the war.

Amiens-St Quentin Road
Cavalrymen pausing for a rest on the Amiens to St Quentin Road. It is very difficult to distinguish the road from the surrounding landscape due to the devastation. The trees lining the road are splintered and lifeless. The road is littered with tree branches and loose wire.

Many wrong judgments were made in the run up during the month of July, so let me name a few. Germany pretty much gave Austria a blank check to avenge itself on Serbia for the murder of its crown prince. Germany believed that if Austria quickly attacked Serbia, the main European powers would be faced with a fait-accompli and would leave the matter alone. But Austria dawdled and it gave the other powers time to get ready. Austria made the mistakes of issuing an ultimatum that no sovereign nation could adhere to, and of believing that Russia would not intervene if it made moves against Serbia. Then Austria rushed its declaration of war against Serbia, although it would not really be in a position to act against Serbia for another 14 days. The declaration of war closed the possibility of a diplomatic solution. Russia must be blamed for secretly starting the pre-mobilization process two days before Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia had inept mobilization plans. It couldn’t just mobilize against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but had to mobilize also in the region bordering Germany, which of course caused alarm in Berlin. France must be blamed for encouraging Russia to stand firm in its run up toward mobilization and in Russia’s desire to fight. France needed to convince the English that they didn’t want war, while at the same constantly telling Russia that they would stand by them no matter what happened. France mobilized even before Germany did. Germany had some crazy war plans of its own: it needed to knock out France within 6 weeks so it could then turn around its armies to fight Russia, which because of its vastness would take much longer to get ready for war. In order to attack France, Germany had war plans to occupy Luxemburg and march through Belgium. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by the major powers in Europe in 1839: France, Germany and England had all signed. In 1914, that guarantee for Germany was just a piece of paper. England’s fault lay mainly in its inept diplomats not giving stern warnings to Russia, France and Germany. If England had given its disapproval of the pre-mobilization process going on in Russia, of the unconditional backing of Russia by France, and of the clear intent that it would side with France and Russia if Germany and Austria didn’t back down in its desire to punish Serbia, maybe the war could have been avoided. In all fairness, Russia, Austria, France and Germany made all sins of commission while England only made a sin of omission.

The ironic part of this is that, humanly speaking, because of the war and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, a homeland for the Jews was offered, which seemed to give the hope of finally ending the never-ending suffering of the Jews. But the war was also the cause of the 2nd World War, during which Hitler wanted to set things right that had gone wrong at the end of the 1st War. He unleashed the holocaust on the still stateless Jews.

On a personal level, one has to wonder how often we are not guided by hidden motives to take one direction or another, while to the outside world we pretend we are being guided by more noble motives. The ultimate cause of this Great War is the sinfulness of man. So, also in our own personal lives, the pain and upheaval find their origin in sin: hidden or not. What we need and what this world needs is a constant reminder of our condition and the solution that God has offered in the Gospel. Only when we confess our own guilt and our need of a divine Savior can we try to tackle our own duplicity in every day life. Residing constantly at the cross of Christ, we proclaim our own fallenness and at the same time proclaim and experience the healing benefits of God’s grace.

About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.