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Kaiser Wilhelm and July 5, 1914

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Historians furiously debate the causes and blame for World War I. Recent books continue to fuel the arguments. But all generally agree that the events leading to World War I became a runaway train that ultimately claimed nearly 20 million souls for reasons that can only be termed obscure. Basically, none of the protagonists and antagonists wanted the mad catastrophe that is World War I. Indeed, the war is widely considered the primordial catastrophe of the 20th century in that it spawned Nazism, fascism, communism and, ultimately, World War II with all its horrors.

In this post, I want to focus on Kaiser Wilhelm, who certainly contends for the dimmest bulb in the twilight of monarchies that dominated the European scene in 1914. On July 5, 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm issued the infamous “blank check” that ultimately drove Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia on July 28, 1914–triggering a virtual cavalcade of war declarations. The declaration of war was in response to Serbia’s role in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 2014. This led directly to the cataclysm of World War I.

After telling the Austrian and Hungarian authorities that Germany would support their efforts against Serbia no matter what, the Kaiser went off on a three week cruise to Norway. During his absence the Austrian Hungarian Empire issued the famous ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia complied with the ultimatum to such an extent that the Kaiser himself concluded that Austria-Hungary had no cause for war. The Kaiser stated that the Serbian response was:

A brilliant solution—and in barely 48 hours! This is more than could have been expected. A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every pretext for war falls to the ground, and [the Ambassador] Giesl had better have stayed quietly at Belgrade. On this document, I should never have given orders for mobilisation.

Nevertheless, Emperor Franz Joseph had already declared war on Serbia and all Europe was plunged into war. The irony is that Austria-Hungary was not about to got to war without German support. After giving it unconditional support and even goading Vienna into attacking, Germany’s head of state only concluded that war was not necessary when it was too late to stop it.

All that needed to be done to avoid the coming catastrophe was to more closely monitor unfolding events and to insist upon close communication between Berlin and Vienna.

In the end, the blank check backfired on the Kaiser and, unfortunately, the rest of humanity.

All of this proves the folly of a monarchy and the dangers of concentrated power insufficiently constrained by law. One man’s errors led to nearly 20,000,000 dead. The next post will discuss the further follies of monarchs leading to World War I.


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