World War I, the Great War, began with the decisions taken by the leaders of five major European powers: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain. The decision-making coteries saw “their” nation either as in decline or as seriously threatened. To halt the decline or to block the threat, the decision-makers felt that the choice of war was necessary. Our view, in short, is that those “strategic” considerations were the paramount concerns in July and August 1914.
The Major Powers
Austria, once the commanding central European presence, the state that had defeated and pushed back the Ottomans, was now tagged as the second “sick man of Europe.” An important Balkan satellite, Serbia, had been lost in 1903 as a result of a coup d'état. It appeared as if “the Serbs” were going to repeat the Italian risorgimento. A “Greater Serbia” would provide an example for others, for Croats, Romanians, Poles, and Czechs. Two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913 led senior leaders in Vienna to a now-or-never conclusion. The Dual Monarchy had to end the Serbian threat, or else, like the Ottomans, it would proceed to an ultimate decline. Thus, their decision, the first act of war, was to move their armies south, to defeat and eliminate “upstart” Serbia.
Germany's leaders also felt that their empire was threatened. Their image was one of “encirclement,” the prime concern being the Franco-Russian entente but with Britain always in mind.