Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Could Austria Have Prevented the First World War By Moving More Quickly?

Still in the midst of "July 1914" and one of the passages made me think. Could Austria have kept the invasion of Serbia to a localized conflict if the Dual Monarchy had mobilized and invaded Serbia right after the assassination of the Archduke?

It may seem preposterous, but the approach has merits. If the Austrians had invaded immediately after, than the act would be seen as direct result of the killing of Franz Ferdinand, instead of a power grab to reduce Serbia to a client state. There were plenty of voices urging just this, most notably Conrad and other Austrian cabinet members. So why did it take almost a month to send the ultimatum to Serbia, a month in which the goodwill and sympathy of Europe had dissipated? It was the work Of Tisza, the leader of the Hungarian government that slowed down the process. Since the unique structure of the Dual Monarchy meant that the approval of both Austrian and Hungarian governments needed to approve such decisive action, Tisza put the brakes on the whole process. To be fair, there were other factors, such as the fact that Austrian divisions had been dispersed to complete the yearly harvest, but these only came into play after Tisza began to drag his heels.

Though acting with the best of intentions, Tisza did eventually cave into the demands of the more belligerent members of the government, and a series of demands were dispatched to Serbia, demands that the Austrians hoped would be rejected and provide them an excuse for invasion. Thus, he cost his government nearly a month before they could take action against the Serbs. This delay ensured that the invasion and ultimatum were seen as Austria settling old scores with the Serbs, while cynically using the killing of Franz Ferdinand to mask their objectives. Of course this was the case, and would have been true even if the Austrians had invaded in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

In my opinion, the possibility of the Entente letting Austria mobilize against Serbia, even if undertaken in anger, would have been remote. This would have challenged the balance of power in the same way that the later Austrian mobilization did, and it is unlikely that the Powers would have let this happen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Modern Terminology and History

I just downloaded "Catastrophe 1914" by Max Hastings and started listening to it. The first chapter lists how the interpretations of the war have changed over time, from the Treaty of Versailles being unjust and unduly harsh, to the Germans being solely responsible for the fighting. One of the theories holds that Austria-Hungary was justified in seeking a military solution for the murder of Franz Ferdinand, that by its terrorist activities and actions in the First Balkan War, Serbia had become a "rogue state".

I think that this is a very interesting concept of using modern terminology to describe a past event. Obviously the term "rogue state" did not exist in 1914, but it fits. Serbia used terrorism and aggressive action to achieve an enlargement of its territory and influence, desired to upset the political status quo, and even had a superpower patron in Imperial Russia. Substitute Syria for Serbia, and it is a similar situation the world finds itself in today.
This actually ties into the book "Invisible Armies" by Max Boot, a book that gives a narrative history of guerilla warfare. Boot uses terms like "insurgents" to describe, for example, the Jews fighting the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD. Another book "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt" by Toby Wilkinson compares the use of propaganda in Ancient Egypt to the level of state terror and propaganda in present-day North Korea. Wilkinson calls Pharonic Egypt a totalitarian state.

The point is, using a modern vocabulary can bring a new immediacy to historical events. When you call Egypt a centralized, authoritarian state, you picture propaganda, fear, and an oppressive government presence. Similarly, when you call Jewish rebels "insurgents", it adds texture to an otherwise abstract idea, because the word "insurgent" brings ideas to the modern mind that the word "rebel" does not. Ideas such as hit-and-run strikes instead of a standing army, relying on the population for support, a group fighting to evict an occupying power, and a group without diplomatic recognition from the outside world. These were all true in this case.