For nearly a century since the Great War broke out in 1914, scholars and historians were arguing and debating about the causes of the war. Some believe the war would not have started if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had stayed alive. Others say that the war was inevitable.
According to Fromkin:
The growth of an urban factory-working population in the Industrial Revolution brought conflict between that population and factory owners over wages and working conditions. It also pitted both workers and manufacturers, on the one hand, who could expand their exports only in a free-trade world, against farmers, who needed protection, and the cash-poor landed gentry on the other. Class became a line of division and loyalty-the chief line according to many. Domestic strife threatened all the countries of Western Europe (384).
The beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by the growing controversies between the two great European states (England and Germany) concerning the spheres of economical and political influence and fighting for the world division. As a result of the uneven economic development, England was gradually losing its ground to the main industrial and colonial power. Germany achieved the highest industrial development level and was aggressively fighting for the redistribution of colonies although Otto von Bismarck was skeptical of imperialism. He believed that overseas colonies drain power and wealth of the country (Fromkin), capturing new sources of raw materials at the expense of the old colonial empires and first of all – the British Empire.
In retrospect, it was clear that the problem was that Germany's “hunger for empire could no longer be satisfied except by taking overseas territories away from the other European countries” (Fromkin). As Fromkin points out,
European empires were of greatly unequal size and strength, an imbalance that led to instability; and as they were rivals, their leaders were continuously matching them against one another in their minds, trying to guess who would defeat whom in case of war and with whom, therefore, it would be best to ally (384).
Many historians believe that Russia was not ready for the war, did not want it, and used every effort to prevent it.
Russia was enfeebled by a war it lost to Japan in 1904-05, and by the revolution of 1905, it turned itself around by industrializing and arming with financial backing from France. France, despite exploiting a large empire, no longer was a match for Germany and therefore backed Russia as a counterweight to Teutonic power (Fromkin 384).
According to the military authorities, until 1910, the Russian army in general was helpless in the full sense of the word. Only during the last years before the war (1910-1914), the restoration and reorganization works raised Russian armed forces significantly, although absolutely insufficiently from the technical and material point of view.
The law on construction of the fleet was passed only in 1912. The so-called “Big Program” was approved only in March 1914. It had to strengthen the army significantly. However, this program was not that effective; corps went to war almost without heavy artillery and rifle stock having just from 108 to 124 guns against 160 German guns. As for the supply of ammunition, only old, very insufficient norm was restored in the amount of one thousand in comparison to three thousand of Germans.
The real Russian situation and the prevailing mood irrefutably show that Russia did not and could not wish the war. A completely different story was taking place in Germany. According to the assessment made by Russia and Germany, Germany was completely ready for war in 1909. In 1911-1912, Reichstag passed the laws about the emergency war taxes, increased contingent, and large formations of special units. Moreover, in 1913, another rise in the enrollment was witnessed increasing peaceful formation of the German army by 200 thousand, i.e. by 32%. “Germany sought a war to defeat Russia, her future rival for mastery of Europe, but the immediate goal was to have Austria-Hungary fight off Russia while Germany defeated France in the West” (Messenger).
“The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary ruled a variety of nationalities who were restless and often in conflict” its army strengthened itself, and according to the actual leader Gen. Conrad was “ready” in 1908-1909” (Fromkin). However, it was regarded immeasurably below the German one, and the variety of nationalities with a significant contingent of Slavs added some instability. Nevertheless, for a quick and decisive defeat of the army, the Russian plan included deployment of 16 corps against alleged 13 Austrian ones.
On July 25, 1914, the imperial council in Tsarskoye Selo made a decision not to declare the actual mobilization and “premobilization period”, which included the return of the troops from the camps to the permanent housing, verification of plans and storages. However, in order not to be caught at unawares, it was decided that in case of need (determined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), partial mobilization of four military districts will be performed in Kiev, Kazan, Moscow, and Odessa. There was no intention to raise Warsaw district, which borders both Austria and Germany, to prevent seeing these moves by Germany as a hostile act.
Russian mobilization and war plan envisaged only one combination – the fight against the united Austria-German forces. Partial mobilization plan (against Austria) did not exist. Therefore, partial mobilization was pure improvisation in the last pre-war days. Attempts to solve the conflict peacefully have not yielded positive results. It was Germany who initiated the establishment of the military-political alliances in order to solve conflicts between European countries by military means. At the end of the XIX century, the Triple Alliance was formed in the opposition to the alliance called the Entente.
It had taken a while before Russia made its choice in favor of the Entente. It is understandable that both of the opposing military blocs needed an alliance with Russia on the eve of the upcoming world war. By the end of the XIX – beginning of XX century, Russia has significantly strengthened its position in the world. In two decades before the war, Russian industry increased its capacity by four times.
Russia had significant reserves of gold, which allowed it to introduce gold currency in 1896. England, USA, Germany, and France imported industrial and transportation equipment and new technologies. The government of Germany “saw Russia's recovery from 1905, with an industrial leap funded by France, as a threat” (Messenger).
The situation in the Balkans and the Middle East strengthened the conflict between Russia and Germany. Germany tried to build a railway from the Balkans through Turkey to the Middle East. This situation was a real threat of depriving Russia of the Mediterranean Sea and could strategically isolate it from the potential allies. Russia simply could not allow such developments to take place.
However, Russia was not ready to openly refute its economic and political cooperation with Germany. Russia had common political and economic interests with Germany and Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In 1905, Russian and German emperors even had agreed for a military alliance. However, as a result of the policies of the Austria-Hungary Empire in the Balkans supported by Germany and its attempts to expand its interests in Asia, the alliance fell apart within two years.
England, like France, was in need of a military alliance against Germany more than Russia. Therefore, the old Russian-English disputes were settled in the face of a common German aggression. With the assistance of Britain, its ally Japan signed an agreement with Russia in 1907 concerning the status quo in the Far East on the division of the spheres of influence.
Meanwhile, after the accession of Russia to the Entente, the English-Russian relations became not brilliant. Russia’s protest in spring 1909 against the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina did not find the expected support from England. This dual policy aroused the indignation in the Russian society.
During the Bosnian crisis, the obligation of England to support Russian claims to the Bosporus and the Dardanelles was first called into question as well as the creation of the Great Slavic empire under the leadership of Russia, which had been the Russian nobility and the bourgeoisie dream. Policies of Britain and France in relation to Russia, as it turned out during the war and after it, did not provide for the possibility of any strengthening of Russia's position in Europe and the world. On the contrary, along with the United States, Russia’s allies hoped to use the potential of Russia for the protection of their economic and political interests as much as possible to weaken both German bloc and Russia with the aim of bringing them down to the role of minor powers. This “pragmatic” policy is well within the capitalist rivalry when there is a struggle of all against all, and allies are only temporary to protect their selfish interests.
Considering the above mentioned, it is doubtful that Russia’s political leadership understood all the intricacies of the pre-war international politics and proper behavior in line with the national interests of the country concluding certain contracts and entering into military alliances. We even can recall Russia's geopolitical position. Occupying a vast territory both in Eastern Europe and Asia, Russia had natural boundaries in the North and partly Far East. The rest of the land border was under constant pressure from a number of states, ready to detach any part of its territory under any pretext at the slightest weakening of Russia. This danger could come from both evident enemies and “friends”.
However, while being in the Entente, the Russian government has tried to avoid the worsening of relations with the countries of the Triple Alliance. Thus, during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, Russia has not acted on the side of Serbia being encouraged by Britain and France, as well as provoked by Germany.
In general, before the war, Russia sought to conduct a balanced realistic policy in the international relations without compromising its own national interests. Another thing is whether implementing this goal in practice was always possible. Russia had to juggle constantly between the hostile nations and their allies to avoid being internationally isolated and combating stronger opponents. Hence, it laid a series of compromises, unilateral concessions to its allies in order to preserve a unified military coalition on the eve of an inevitable war. Considering the outlined development, Russia insisted on organizing general mobilization within its borders believing that even a delay in its announcement will be less dangerous than an impromptu partial mobilization.
On July 28, the news came of the declaration of war on Serbia by Austria. Then, Berchtold refused to have direct talks with St. Petersburg. Therefore, Foreign Minister Sazonov issued an order for the General Staff on organization of mobilization. After the meeting of the Chief of the General Staff and General Yanushkevich with the heads of the departments and due to the insistence of the latter, two drafts of Supreme decrees concerning general and partial mobilization were comprised and sent together with an explanatory memorandum to Tsarskoye Selo.
On the morning of 29th July, the decree of general mobilization was signed by the Emperor and sent back. On this day, when Russia did not start any mobilization yet, the German Ambassador, Count Pourtal?s, presented Sazonov with an ultimatum statement about its government decision. It was stated that the continuation of Russian military preparations would force the Germans mobilize and then a European war would become inevitable.
At 9 p.m., when the central telegraph office was ready to transmit the Supreme decree to all parts of Russia, a cancellation came. Emperor Nicholas II decided to make another attempt and offer Emperor Wilhelm to pass the conflict to the Hague Conference for review. William Hague said nothing about it in his reply, but did point to the “serious consequences” of the Russian mobilization. On 30thJuly, the Minister Sazonov made another desperate attempt to avoid conflict. A few hours later, an answer came from Berlin – flat refusal.
After another meeting, Sazonov reported to the Emperor about the need for immediate announcement of general mobilization. All of this confusion points not only to the excessive carelessness of the main offices in St. Petersburg, but also proves that the war was unexpected for them despite the fact that 33 days passed since the Sarajevo shot. At that time, Europe was in a violent social and political strife. Not only Russia but all the European nations felt their weakness in economical, political, and military stance. The war was the most evident solution at that time. It had to give the answer to the questions of mastery in Europe and the world.