WORLD On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian-backed terrorist. During the crisis that followed, Europe’s leaders made a series of political, diplomatic and military decisions that would turn a localised conflict in south-east Europe into a global war.
Austria-Hungary, with German encouragement, declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Russia’s support of Serbia brought France into the conflict. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and France on 3 August. Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality and British fears of German domination in Europe brought Britain and its empire into the war on 4 August.
EUROPE BEFORE 1914
By 1914, Europe was divided into two rival alliance systems. In 1871, German unification dramatically altered the balance of power in Europe. This new power bloc at the heart of central Europe strengthened further when Germany formed an alliance in 1879 with neighbouring Austria-Hungary, which Italy joined three years later. Fear of Germany’s growing strength encouraged Russia and France to enter into alliance in 1893. German ambitions to build a battle fleet initiated a naval arms race with Britain that seriously strained relations between the two. Britain had long seen France and Russia as potential enemies, but from 1904 it negotiated agreements with them, aiming to secure its empire by settling colonial disputes.
A DISTANT CRISIS
Relations between Austria-Hungary and neighbouring Serbia had been tense in the years before the murder of the Archduke. Austria had long seen Serbia as a threat to the stability of its multi-ethnic empire. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908 and Serbian ambitions to unify south-east Europe’s Slavic people further strained relations in this volatile part of Europe. Following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, Serbia emerged as a larger and more assertive presence in south-east Europe. On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb terrorist shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.
EUROPE TAKES SIDES
The crisis which developed in the summer of 1914 was one of several that had erupted in Europe in the early twentieth century. International tensions had been mounting, but in every previous crisis a continental war had been avoided. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand stoked old tensions beyond the Balkans. The crisis spread as other powers pledged support for either Austria or Serbia. Austria knew that conflict with Serbia would likely involve Russia, which saw itself as Serbia’s protector. Austria-Hungary turned to its own ally. On 5 July, Germany promised Austria full support for a severe response against Serbia. Austria-Hungary’s aggression towards Serbia and Russian support for Serbia in the aftermath of the assassination stemmed from fears that, if either backed down, they would lose credibility and prestige as great powers.
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AUSTRIA-HUNGARY DECLARES WAR ON SERBIA
With the guarantee of German backing, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum on 23 July, intent on starting a war with Serbia. Serbia’s sovereignty would be destroyed if it accepted the terms in full, but any reply other than unconditional acceptance would give Austria-Hungary its excuse for war. Austria rejected the Serbian reply, which conceded to all the ultimatum’s terms except the involvement of Austro-Hungarian officials in an inquiry into the assassination. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It was determined to take decisive action against Serbia and, by now, knew this risked war with Russia, Serbia’s supporter. Austria-Hungary was prepared to risk war because it had the guarantee of German support. The Balkan crisis now threatened a European-wide war.