The July Crisis

1 July 2014


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:

July 18 fleet

The Escalating Crisis of July 1914

One hundred years ago the month of July became the “July Crisis.” We know in hindsight that the July Crisis culminated in the outbreak of what would become the First World War, but it was not at all clear at the time that the July Crisis would result in anything out of the ordinary. For much of July 1914, it was an open question whether the July Crisis would be just another crisis in the long sequence of crises (and small wars) that had punctuated the long peace since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. A hundred years of European peace is enough to make even the most suspicious and edgy among us complacent.

And there were many crises of the international system, especially after the Franco-Prussian War:

● 1885-1888 Bulgarian Crisis

● 1898 Fashoda Incident

● 1905-1906 Tangier Crisis (First Moroccan Crisis)

● 1908–1909 Bosnian Crisis (First Balkan Crisis)

● 1911 Agadir Crisis (Second Moroccan Crisis)

● 1912 First Balkan War

● 1913 Second Balkan War

From a contemporaneous perspective, there was no particular reason to suppose that the July Crisis of 1914 should have been any different from the almost annual series of crises that preceded it.

Moreover, these continual crises did not occur in a vacuum, but were punctuations in the dynamics of great power politics: the Ottoman Empire was the “Sick Man of Europe,” there was the “scramble for Africa,” and the naval arms race between Britain and Germany to see who could build the most Dreadnaught class battleships raged. Europeans nevertheless found a way to go about the ordinary business of life. Indeed, it seemed to be a July like any other July. There is a now-famous quote from Stephan Zweig that attributes a unique quality to that portentous summer:

“The summer of 1914 would have been memorable for us even without the doom which it spread over the European earth. I had rarely experienced one more luxuriant, more beautiful and, I am tempted to say, more summery. Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in their tender green…”

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, Chapter IX, “The First Hours of the War of 1914”

When Stefan Zweig was enjoying, “…those radiant July days which I spent in Baden near Vienna,” it was, incidentally, the July that my maternal grandmother turned 18. I mention my grandmother here because she is my personal link to the past. Being born in the 19th century, she was old enough to remember the war in its entirety, the dancing in the streets when the armistice took effect, and the Spanish flu that followed, which took one of her close friends. I often imagine what my grandmother was doing as these events unfolded in order to anchor myself in past that I know and which has personal significance to me. You could dismiss this as sentimentalism, or, if charitable, call it a thought experiment.

In 1914 a thought experiment would have been a luxury, as the events were unfolding in the real world, but in early July, still at a slow pace. Keep in mind, however, that, of these many crises that preceded the First World War, many of them did in fact erupt into wars — though these wars were short, limited, and local. Europe had not seen a continental wide war since the Napoleonic wars, and arguably the international system had not seen a global conflict since the Seven Years’ War.

From the perspective of contemporaries, even if the July Crisis erupted into a war involving one or several of the great powers, there was no reason to suppose that this war would differ qualitatively from any of the last dozen or so wars. Even when France and Germany last went to war, this too was short, limited, and local. The Franco-Prussian war perfectly conformed to “the dogma of a short war,” and even once the First World War got underway, most expected it, too, to be a short, sharp war that would either rapidly confirm Germany’s preeminence on the continent, or which would return Alsace and Lorraine to France while checking (if not humiliating) the ambitions of growing Germany.

What John Maurer (among others) has called “The Short War Dogma” was a pervasive presupposition of war planners at the time. Here is how Maurer described the outlook:

“The dogmas of political economy that then held sway — the interdependence of great power economies, the seemingly prohibitive cost of waging a modern war, the supposed limited ability of the state to intervene in a country’s economic life, and the fear of social revolution — appeared to dictate the necessity of short wars in the modern era.”

John H. Maurer, The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure, p. 3


“…military planners could not provide a neat operational solution to the strategic problems posed by a protracted conflict. Instead of dwelling on contingencies that seemed problematical, war planners before 1914 concentrated on the task of securing a knockout blow to the enemy’s armies in the first round — the decisive battle or battle of annihilation. This ‘decisive battle of annihilation’ would overwhelmingly dictate the outcome of the wars fought between continental European states. Bereft of its army, a continental state would have no alternative but to seek an armistice and negotiate for the best terms it could obtain to end the war. The essential component of the short war dogma, then, was the climactic battle of annihilation.”

John H. Maurer, The Outbreak of the First World War: Strategic Planning, Crisis Decision Making, and Deterrence Failure, p. 4

The coming four years were to send the Europeans to the school of Thucydides, in which war, “proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” However, even while war brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes, the character of newly industrialized nation-states was to prove that the presumed insuperable difficulties of economic interdependence, the cost of modern war, and the possibility of social revolution (which latter was in fact realized in Russia, as well as in the French trenches) could be borne, though at a cost. The cost was staggering, but the fact that nation-states could and did bear a staggering cost in blood and treasure had the consequence of the scope and scale of the First World War, which definitively demonstrated the falsity of the short war dogma.

. . . . .

1914 to 2014

. . . . .

A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

. . . . .

twentury century war collage small

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

4 Responses to “The July Crisis”

  1. Mike said

    Excellent post. I’m working on an entry for my blog on the July Crisis as well.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your note. Don’t hesitate to post a link to your work on the July Crisis here.

      Best wishes,


  2. Mike said

    Hi Nick,

    No problem.
    I just finished it up and posted. Enjoy. BTW, I am enjoying your entire blog, not just the July Crisis posts 🙂

    Enjoy The Weekend!


    • geopolicraticus said

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the link to your post, which I read with interest. It is great to see all the centennial interest in WWI, and I look forward to continue to comment on these anniversaries.

      Best wishes,


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