Can a small country start a big war? We have the example of the First World War, which was caused by Serbia—or rather by advocates of a Greater Serbia who saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire standing in their way. The empire had to be destroyed, and its destruction could come about only through a major global conflict.
This reasoning was not wrong. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was not about to fall apart on its own, or even through a minor war. Its survival was backed by Germany, which preferred having a stable, undivided neighbor. Within the empire itself, the Austrians were opposed to breakup, knowing they would become a rump state of little importance. The Hungarians were afraid that any breakup would give their own national minorities ideas of secession. The various Slavic peoples—Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians—seemed the most secession-minded but were coming around to “trialism”—the idea that the empire should be reorganized as a federation of Austrians, Hungarians, and Slavs. One proponent was the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent. When he was appointed inspector-general of the armed forces in 1913, this move was seen as paving the way for his accession to the throne. Two years later his father died at the age of 86, at which time the new emperor would have begun putting his plans into effect:
Franz Ferdinand had planned to redraw the map of Austria-Hungary radically, creating a number of ethnically and linguistically dominated semi-autonomous “states” which would all be part of a larger confederation renamed the United States of Greater Austria. Under this plan, language and cultural identification was encouraged, and the disproportionate balance of power would be corrected. (United States of Greater Austria, 2015)
History played out differently. The Archduke’s dream was a nightmare for Serbia’s rulers. Today, few of us know just how much that country was viewed as a rogue state in 1914. About a decade earlier, a group of army officers had staged a coup d’état, killing the king, the queen, her two brothers, the prime minister, and the minister of the army (May Coup, 2015). The coup outraged the international community, with most countries freezing diplomatic relations and imposing sanctions. Great Britain restored relations only three years later, after the senior conspirators had been removed from office. Nonetheless, they and like-minded people continued to exercise much authority through a secret society called The Black Hand. More importantly, nothing was done to change the radical shift in Serbian foreign policy, which was now anti-Austro-Hungary and pro-Greater-Serbia:
After the coup, life in Serbia continued as before, however now with King Peter exerting minimal interference in politics, not wishing to oppose the Black Hand which had become increasingly powerful. The turnaround in the external policy between Serbia and Austria-Hungary led to the Customs or Pig War from which Serbia emerged as the victor. With senior conspirators forced into retirement, Dimitrijevic was the de facto leader of the conspirators. In 1914, the Black Hand would order the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, carried out by members of Mlada Bosna launching World War I. (May Coup, 2015)
The Archduke was assassinated to provoke a war that would soon escalate into global conflict. When it was all over, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, and the dream of Greater Serbia had come true … at a terrible cost, of course.
The above account may seem too simple. How can we blame a big war on a small country? Surely, there were other reasons.
There were. The Germans feared Russia’s growing military strength and rapprochement with France—a country that had never forgotten or forgiven her loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. A growing consensus was forming in the German high command on the need for a pre-emptive strike against Russia and France. Either that or let those two countries strike at a time of their choosing.
This fear was real but had been stronger earlier, in the decade following the signing of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1894. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the Revolution of 1905 made Russia look more and more like an unreliable ally. By 1914, the risk of a pan-European war was in decline, admittedly from a high level. If peace had lasted a few more years, domestic troubles would have overwhelmed some of the major powers, making them less inclined to engage in foreign military adventures.
Russia for one. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was not just due to war weariness. For some time already the country had been sliding into a pre-revolutionary crisis. The abolition of serfdom had made the peasants financially responsible for their own lives at a time when population growth was making their plots smaller and less viable. Masses of peasants roamed the countryside in search of work, creating a ready pool of people for uprisings. Others left for the cities, where they formed a growing working class that could be mobilized for collective action (strikes, street demonstrations and processions, mass meetings, etc.). This was new for the authorities, who responded with the old tactics of repression. Such tactics did work at first, such as during the Revolution of 1905, but nothing could stop the radicalization of urban workers or their linking up with opposition in the countryside.
This situation had parallels in other European countries, but Russia was unique in the speed of her industrialization, proletarianization, and urban radicalization; all this under a government that had been the one most committed to upholding the post-Napoleonic conservative order:
Indeed, it was precisely the government’s ability to maintain order through coercion, while restricting progress and upholding autocratic rule, that allowed so many social and political sores to fester, thereby promoting maximalist visions of social and political change. (Zelnik, 1977, p. 230).
In 1914, Russia was already heading toward revolution—a bigger and better organized one than the Revolution of 1905. The First World War just helped the process along.
And if 1914 had never happened?
There would eventually have been some kind of European conflict, but without the same effect of one country after another joining in. By the late 1910s, this bandwagon effect would have run into several obstacles:
- The Austro-Hungarian Empire would have been tied up with internal problems, specifically the task of reorganizing itself as a trinary state in the face of resistance from Hungary.
- An increasingly strife-torn Russia would have probably sat out any larger European conflict and, in any case, would have been a doubtful ally for a France intent on getting Alsace-Lorraine back from Germany.
- With Russia as a weak ally, France would probably not have risked going to war with Germany. At the very least, she would have waited to assess the strength of her warming relations with Great Britain (The Entente Cordiale).
- The Ottoman Empire would admittedly have been more willing to join Germany in a war against a weak, strife-torn Russia (and thereby win back land formerly lost to that country). On the other hand, if Russia had chosen to sit out any European conflict, the Ottoman Empire would have likewise remained neutral.
By the late teens or early twenties, military planners would have had their eyes on the worsening situation in Russia, eventually organizing joint interventions to assist the Tsarist government and keep revolutionary upheaval from spilling over into other countries. Such interventions actually did take place between 1918 and 1920 but proved ineffective because of divided objectives, war-weariness, and lack of public support at home (Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, 2015).
Can a small country deliberately cause a big war? Yes, in the right context, especially one of relative peace when the major powers have their hands free to engage in war (or think they do). A small country may exploit this potential for global conflict if it sees no other way to achieve its national aims and if the alternatives seem humiliating or intolerable. This mental calculation would also include the costs of global conflict … which are borne overwhelmingly by the citizenries of other countries.
Serbia paid dearly for the First World War, but the payback was considerable. When the spoils were divided up in 1918, Serbia more than doubled in land area, becoming comparable in size to the large states of Western Europe. The dream of Greater Serbia had come true.
May Coup (2015). Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Coup_(Serbia)
Russian intervention in the Russian Civil War (2015) Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_intervention_in_the_Russian_Civil_War
United States of Greater Austria (2015). Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_of_Greater_Austria
Zelnik, R.E. (1997). Revolutionary Russia 1890-1914, in G.L. Freeze. (ed.) Russia. A History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.