The path that led to the Eastern front of World War I was complex and long. Imperial ambitions, coupled with ethnic and economic problems, contributed to the start of the conflict. A series of regional crises preceded the war.
Russia was the most enigmatic of the Great Powers. Possessed of staggering potential, she remained a fitfully dozing giant. Her land mass was enormous, while her armies seemed inexhaustible, fuelled by a population of some 170 million. Yet Russia was a country only slowly feeling its way into the twentieth century. Although there had been some acceleration in her slow industrialization, she was still by no means a modern state and was deeply reliant on the financial assistance offered by France to develop her infrastructure. Yet Russia was by no means just a tool of the French, and had her own distinct territorial and geopolitical ambitions.
There were, nevertheless, numerous potential time bombs in the multinational Russian Empire, which added to the political discontent. First, like its rulers, the empire was not especially Russian. In 1897 its first census showed that only 44.3 percent of the population was 'Great Russian'. Nationalism elsewhere in the empire, compounded by cultural and religious differences, was a growing problem.
That Russia should in 1914 find itself aligned with the British and French Empires against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey was neither inevitable nor accidental. Russia joined Britain and France to secure Greek independence from Ottoman rule. But for most of the next 80 years Britain and Russia were arch rivals and actually went to war once, in the Crimea. Russia sought expansion to the south and east. Stopped in its tracks by the British, Russia sought to expand its influence in Eastern Europe, in direct conflict with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Germany. Russia therefore sought to ally itself with France and her old rival, Britain.
Russia had an interest in propagating the idea of Pan-Slavism, which propounded the cultural and political unity of all Slavs. This concept was rendered problematic by the spirited objections and refusal to cooperate of several of the existing Slavic states and revolutionary movements. Such Slavs saw their future as independent countries, not as subservient elements in the Russian Empire. However, Russia had developed strong links with Serbia, which had emerged from the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire to become internationally recognized at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
While Russia was growing rapidly, there were severe internal pressures caused by her anachronistic system of government: an autocracy ruled over by Tsar Nicholas II. The social unrest boiled over in widespread revolution. Amidst a plethora of strikes and mutinies, workers’ councils were established in major centers of population. In the end Nicholas II was forced to concede with a degree of political reform, creating a central legislative body in the Duma with some voting rights, thus taking the first tentative steps on the road to a constitutional monarchy.
German General Alfred von Schlieffen believed that the Russian Army was in such poor condition that until it was fundamentally reformed it would not be capable of effective offensive operations. Yet the Russians would soon demonstrate a regenerative capacity that would utterly confound German hopes. Indeed, the ‘Great Programme’ of army reform commencing in 1913 promised to deliver a peacetime Russian Army some 2,200,000 strong by around 1918.
The Russians produced Plan 19, which boldly envisaged deploying most of their mobilized forces against Germany with just nineteen divisions left to face the Austrians, facilitated by the withdrawal from Russian Poland to a more defensible shorter border. Opponents to the plan within the Russian High Command pointed out the considerable risks of Austrian offensive operations overwhelming the forces facing them.
Stuck on the sidelines of Europe was Turkey, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks shared many of the problems faced by their old adversaries, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only half the population were indigenous Turks, the rest a conglomeration of many nationalities. Turkey had lost most of her European territories as Greece, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria had all gained their independence. There was also the long-standing threat from Russia to consider. Turkey seemed surrounded by enemies while the pressures of nationalism gnawed away at her vitals.
The Young Turks, a group of Turkish patriots, staged a revolution against the oriental despotism of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Abdul Hamid granted the constitution which the Young Turks demanded, but then staged a counter-revolution. The Young Turks rallied, ousted Abdul Hamid, and installed his brother, Mohammed V, as the new Sultan. The Young Turk revolution threatened to transform the situation in European Turkey. If the Young Turks were to apply the principles of democracy and nationalism to the Balkans, Austro-Russian control of the situation would be considerably lessened. Alternatively, a reinvigorated Ottoman Empire might try to reassert its crumbling position in the Balkans.
The Habsburgs had struck a compromise with Hungary in 1867. Franz Joseph became simultaneously emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. Each state had its own assembly, the Austrian Reichsrat and the Hungarian Diet. Delegations of the two convened once a year, albeit in separate buildings, to approve common expenditure. Ministers for the two nations were answerable to the emperor. This duality was called the Ausgleich and, although not without its weaknesses, it functioned effectively until 1918.
Of the 20 million inhabitants of Hungary, less than half were Magyars and the remainder included Romanians, Slovaks and Croats, and Serbs. Austria was even more variegated: 10 million Germans formed the largest group in the total population of 28 million, but Poles and Ruthenes lived in Galicia, Czechs in Bohemia, and there were smaller groupings of Slovenes, Italians, Serbs, and Croats. For many of these the Ausgleich became not a stopping point, but an intermediate stage to trialism or even federalism. The major block to change, and indeed the key element in domestic politics in the decade before the First World War, was the intransigence of the Magyars.
In both the major crises triggered by Germany in the pursuit of Weltpolitik, the two Moroccan confrontations of 1905 and 1911, Germany enjoyed less than fulsome support from its major ally, Austria-Hungary. The shared Germanic traditions suggested a common identity that was in practice largely superficial. The more recent history of the two countries suggested division rather than fusion. In 1866 Prussia had summarily ended Austria's leadership of the Germanic states on the battlefield. The subsequent thrust of Germany's development highlighted differences as much as points of contact. It was thus necessity that allied Austria-Hungary with Germany.
Serbia, rather than be content with its position as a client of the dual monarchy, was touting itself as the 'Piedmont' of the South Slavs — the nation that would lead the way to the formation of a large independent South Slav state. A greater Serbia would not only draw in Bosnia-Herzegovina but also the Serbs and possibly Croats who were resident within the empire proper: external problems would be projected back into the domestic arrangements of the dual monarchy.
The plans of Austria-Hungary are of considerably less account, for although technically a great power, in reality she was incapable of affecting events outside the confines of the Balkan region. Although involved in discussions with Moltke to try to harness the Austrian divisions to the cause against Russia, a strong intent to concentrate against Serbia was evident in all the Austrian plans.
A serious crisis emerged when Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Previously, under the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, the Austrians had ruled the provinces, replacing the former Turkish administration. But this seemingly insignificant change in status provoked much angst, with almost every major power in the region taking a spirited interest, as each tried to push their own agenda. In the end Serbian protests were ignored and the annexation accepted, but a further layer of distrust had been created between the Austrians and the Russians.
The First Balkan War started when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro banded together to attack Turkey. The Turks fought a poor campaign and were soon overwhelmed. But then the alliance between her Balkan opponents spontaneously imploded over their competing territorial claims when Bulgaria attacked her former allies, Greece and Serbia, and so began the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria was hopelessly isolated and by the time the war ended, Turkey, all but unnoticed, had succeeded in regaining much of the Balkan territory she had initially lost.
The Germans were set to appoint Lieutenant General Otto Liman von Sanders as commander of the Turkish I Corps. There was a longstanding German Military Mission in Constantinople, but this move gave Liman actual command of the very unit responsible for the defence of the Straits. This jagged at exposed Russian nerves as they faced the prospect of a Turkish Army strengthened by ongoing close military cooperation with Germany. There was much sabre-rattling before a compromise was reached whereby Liman was promoted to Inspector General of the Turkish Army and hence not actually in command of the Straits.
Optimists in 1914 took comfort from the fact that the great powers had successfully surmounted a succession of crises since 1905. On the surface, it seemed that the international system could regulate itself. But none of those crises had resolved the underlying problems which had given them birth. Above all, nobody saw the Treaty of Bucharest and the end of the Second Balkan War as more than an armistice.