The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 117th installment in the series.
May 12, 1914: Moltke Calls for War Without Delay
One of the great ironies of the First World War was the fact that policies intended to help keep the peace had the exact opposite effect. This was especially true of military buildups like Russia’s Great Military Program and France’s Three Year Service Law, which were supposed to deter Germany and Austria-Hungary—but instead simply encouraged them to strike before it was too late.
On May 12, 1914, the chief of Germany’s general staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (above, right), met with his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf (above, left), at a hotel in the Bohemian resort town of Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic. Over tea the generals discussed the tense international situation, the increasing likelihood of conflict, and their plans in case war should war break out.
According to Conrad’s account of the meeting, Moltke reiterated Berlin’s fear of encirclement, pointing to evidence including new French loans to Russia and Serbia that would be used to build new military railroads and purchase weapons, respectively. Conrad warned Moltke that Serbia was a growing menace to Austria-Hungary, meddling in Albania, threatening to merge with Montenegro, and stirring up nationalist feeling in the Dual Monarchy’s Slavic peoples.
In light of Russia’s plans for military expansion, Moltke emphasized that the balance of forces in Europe would soon begin tilting against Germany and Austria-Hungary, so if there was going to be a continental war, it needed to happen soon: “If we delay any longer, the chances of success will be diminished; as far as manpower is concerned we cannot enter into a competition with Russia.”
Of course, war with Russia would mean war with Russia’s ally France as well, confronting Germany with a two-front war—and leaving Austria-Hungary to face Russia largely unassisted by Germany while the latter was busy with France. Thus Conrad inquired about Germany’s strategy and schedule for the western campaign, and Moltke confided that per the Schlieffen Plan, Germany counted on “making an end of France six weeks after the opening of hostilities, or at least being far enough advanced to transfer the bulk of our forces to the Eastern front.” Conrad replied, “Then, during at least six weeks we shall have to hold our backs to Russia.” Critically both men assumed that Russia would take at least that long to get ready, giving Germany time to finish off France before the Russians began advancing in the east—but they were seriously mistaken.
Moltke was closer to the mark in his prediction about the likelihood of British involvement, but noted that key members of the German government were unduly optimistic: “Unfortunately our people expect a declaration from England that she will stand apart. This declaration England will never give…” This foreshadowed the disastrous miscalculation by German diplomats just over two months later, when Berlin tried to fob off the British with empty promises and ignored British warnings until it was too late.
A week after his meeting with Conrad, Moltke again gave voice to mounting anxiety about the shifting balance of power, telling German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow that “there was no alternative to waging a preventive war in order to defeat the enemy as long as we could still more or less pass the test.” Similarly in May 1914, Moltke’s deputy, General Georg von Waldersee, wrote that Germany had “no reason whatever to avoid” war and in fact a very good chance “to conduct a great European war quickly and victoriously.”
With this mindset the Germans and their Austrian allies were primed to seize on any excuse for war; a suitable pretext wasn’t long in coming.