Today, July 28, is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. On this day in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia when Serbia refused to accept a series of demands made by Austria-Hungary in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (June 28, 1914). The demands themselves were clearly unacceptable, threatening Serbia’s sovereignty as an independent nation, and had been calculated by the Austrians to be so, thereby creating a pretext for war. Tensions between the two nations were very high during the early 20th Century and can be traced to Serbian ambitions to unite all of the South Slavic peoples, many of whom lived under Austro-Hungarian control. The radical pro-unification Black Hand (made up of Serbian Army officers) had supported the assassins responsible for the Archduke’s murder. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Joseph, had seized upon the assassination as a pretext to neutralize the Serbian threat to Austrian authority in the Balkans.
However excessive and unjust, Austria-Hungary’s actions (a Great Power using threats and military force against a weaker opponent for imperialistic purposes) were not particularly unusual. The other Great Powers (including Russia, France, and Britain) had all used similar tactics over the past century, which had contributed to the growth of their vast empires. The conflict could have remained a “little war” like so many that had been conducted around the globe before it. But in this case, Serbia had another Great Power as a protector: the Russian Empire, which had its own Balkan ambitions and which had no intention of abandoning Serbia.
In response to the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war, Russia began a partial mobilization of its forces on July 29
. In response to Russia, Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally, who had already given Austria-Hungary a virtual “blank cheque” of support in its dealing with Serbia) began its own mobilization, which in turn provoked Russia to begin full-scale mobilization and preparation for war. Germany demanded Russian demobilization or face a declaration of war, and when this was not done, Germany declared war.
The declaration of war against Russia provoked French mobilization (Russia and France were allies), which in turn provoked Germany’s declaration of war against France. At this point, the conflict in the Balkans was transformed from a local war into a pan-European war the likes of which had not been seen since the Napoleonic Wars. The Great War had begun.