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The History of the World: Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and the Treaty of Versailles

28 June 1914 and 1919


The following are brief extracts from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad.

Serbia did well in the ‘Balkan Wars’ of 1912–13, in which the young Balkan nations first despoiled the Ottoman empire of most that was left of its European territory and then fell out over the spoils. Serbia might have got more had the Austrians not objected. Behind Serbia stood Russia, launched on a programme of rebuilding and expanding its forces which would take three or four years to bring to fruition. According to Austrian thinking, if the South Slavs were to be shown that the Dual Monarchy could humiliate Serbia so that they could not hope for her support, then the sooner the better. Given that Germany was the Dual Monarch’s ally it, in turn, was unlikely to seek to avoid fighting Russia while there was still time to feel sure of winning.

The crisis came when an Austrian archduke was assassinated by a Bosnian terrorist at Sarajevo in June 1914. The Austrians believed that the Serbians were behind it. They decided that the moment had come to teach Serbia her lesson and kill forever the pan-Slav agitation, and the Germans supported them. The Austrians declared war on Serbia on 28 July.

A week later all the great powers were at war.

[...]
Europe in WWI (c) Helicon Publishing Ltd

The main concern of the [world] peace conference [after World War I] was the settlement with Germany, embodied in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919.

This was a punitive settlement and explicitly stated that the Germans were responsible for the outbreak of war. But most of the harshest terms arose not from this moral guilt but from the French wish, if possible, so to tie Germany down that any third German war was inconceivable. This was the purpose of economic reparations, which were the most unsatisfactory part of the settlement. They angered Germans and made acceptance of defeat even harder. Moreover they were economic nonsense. Nor was the penalizing of Germany supported by arrangements to ensure that Germany might not one day try to reverse the decision by force of arms, and this angered the French. Germany’s territorial losses, it went without saying, included Alsace and Lorraine, but were otherwise greatest in the east, to Poland. In the west the French did not get much more reassurance than an undertaking that the German bank of the Rhine should be ‘demilitarized.’

The most obvious non-European question concerned the disposition of the German colonies. Here there was an important innovation. Undisguised colonial greed was not acceptable to the United States; instead, tutelage for non-European peoples, formerly under German or Turkish rule, was provided by the device of trusteeship. ‘Mandates’ were given to the victorious powers (though the United States declined any) by a new ‘League of Nations’ to administer these territories while they were prepared for self-government; it was the most imaginative idea to emerge from the settlement, even though it was used to drape with respectability the last major conquests of European imperialism…

Huge hopes had been entertained of this settlement. They were often unrealistic, yet in spite of its manifest failures, the peace has been overcondemned, for it had many good points. When it failed, it was for reasons which were for the most part beyond the control of the men who made it. In the first place, the days of a European world hegemony in the narrow political sense were over. The peace treaties of 1919 could do little to secure the future beyond Europe. The old imperial policemen were now too weakened to do their job inside Europe, let alone outside; some had disappeared altogether. In the end the United States had been needed to ensure Germany’s defeat but now she plunged into a period of artificial isolation. Nor did the Soviets wish to be involved in stabilizing the continent.

The isolationism of the one power and the sterilization of the other by ideology left Europe to its own inadequate devices.

Reprinted from THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by O.A. Westad.

J. M. Roberts CBE died in 2003. He was Warden at Merton College, Oxford University, until his retirement and is widely considered one of the leading historians of his era. He is also renowned as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series ‘The Triumph of the West’ (1985). Odd Arne Westad edited the sixth edition of The History of the World. He is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has published fifteen books on modern and contemporary international history, among them ‘The Global Cold War,’ which won the Bancroft Prize.

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