How close did the world come to peace in 1914?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Slithering over the brink

On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist in the city of Sarajevo. At first, British diplomats dismissed the assassination as a minor incident in a troubled part of Europe. But as the weeks passed, the crisis began to grow at a frightening pace.

In the final days of July and first few days of August, the five Great Powers of Europe – Austria-Hungary and Germany on one side; Britain, France and Russia on the other – declared war on one another. The First World War had begun. Even at the time, the full horror of what was to come was clear to many. The British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, argued forcefully for war in Parliament on 3 August. That evening he is reported to have said that ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

After the war, Grey was one of many politicians and diplomats in the so-called July crisis, who felt the events of summer 1914 made war unavoidable. But looking back at what unfolded in those 37 days, it seems there were moments when events could have taken a different course. If they had, could war have been avoided?

2. Assassination in Sarajevo

Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, one of seven Bosnian nationalists supported by Serbian terrorist organisation, ‘the Black Hand’. But for an extraordinary sequence of events that day, the assassination might have been avoided.

Images courtesy of Getty Images, Mary Evans and TopFoto.

3. Harvest Leave

Russia’s support for Serbia against Austria-Hungary was critical in turning the July crisis into a full-blown war. If Austria-Hungary had struck quickly against Serbia, Russia might not have responded. Farming needs in Austria-Hungary may have delayed a response against Serbia – and in doing so allowed Russia to harden in its determination to support Serbia.

A quick, simple war

The Austro-Hungarian leadership blamed Serbia for Franz Ferdinand's death. Encouraged by their ally, Germany, they wanted to move quickly and attack, before Serbia and more importantly Russia had a chance to mobilise their own forces.

Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff and Commander in Chief, initially insisted an ultimatum to Serbia be given within two days.

The time of year was critical; it was summer and nearly half of the Austro-Hungarian army was on harvest leave until late July.

Bringing in the harvest

Huge advances in agricultural methods had been made since the early nineteenth century. Horse-drawn machinery, steam-powered threshers and petrol-powered tractors revolutionised harvesting and increased output. But bringing in the harvest was still largely a manual task and required a large labour force. Harvest leave allowed soldiers from rural areas to go home and help bring in the crops that would feed the nation. Conrad had reluctantly agreed that his troops could take part. And now he felt unable to call them back, as that would signal Austria-Hungary's intention to mobilise its army against Serbia.

An understanding Russia

According to the British ambassador in Russia, the reaction to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was initially one of horror. Ferdinand was, after all, a future king. The head of the Russian royal family, Tsar Nicholas II, had been a boy when his grandfather had been assassinated, and had already survived an assassination attempt on his life. And he was the only person who could order Russia's army to be mobilised.

But as the weeks passed, the Russian view began to change. Sympathy for a royal murdered by terrorists, was replaced by political calculations about the balance of power in Europe, and support for Russia’s traditional ally, Serbia. By the time Austria-Hungary finally came to declare war on Serbia, at the end of July, Russia had decided that this meant war against Austria-Hungary.

What might have happened if Austria had declared war and invaded Serbia quickly? Would Russia have accepted another brief war in the Balkans, like those that had come before it in 1912 and 1913, and stood aside?

Without Russian involvement, could a wider war have been avoided?

4. Strike, not fight

Socialist movements in the early 1900s strongly argued against war in Europe. Could the workers of the world have united in 1914 and refused to fight?

Images courtesy of Getty Images, Mary Evans and TopFoto.

5. Absent Friends

As Europe’s leaders took the decisions that pushed them towards war, the circles of power in Russia, France and Austria-Hungary were missing some influential figures. If they had been there, it's possible that these men could have steered the course of history away from war.


Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin had enormous influence over Tsar Nicholas II. He was a committed pacifist, and had previously advised the Tsar against involvement in the Second Balkan War of 1913.

Two weeks after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Rasputin was stabbed in the stomach by a woman who thought he was spreading temptation among the innocent and was later declared to be insane.

As the July Crisis developed, Rasputin was recovering in hospital in Siberia. He sent a telegram to Tsar Nicholas warning him against war. But he was too far away to have his usual effect. If he had been in St Petersburg, could he have persuaded the Tsar against war?

Joseph Caillaux

As Prime Minister of France from 1911 to 1912, Joseph Caillaux had promoted better relations with Germany (later, during the war, he led a peace party opposed to the conflict). His attempts to negotiate with Germany, without the knowledge of the French President, forced his resignation. But he was still respected; at the end of 1913, he was appointed Minister of Finance.

In early 1914, the editor of Le Figaro newspaper threatened to publish letters sent between Caillaux and his mistress, who by then was his wife. Caillaux's wife shot and killed the editor. In the scandal that ensued, Caillaux was forced to resign.

If Caillaux had still been a senior member of the French government in July 1914, could he have influenced the strongly anti-German President Poincaré and the rest of the French cabinet, and engineered a negotiated peace, instead of war?

Franz Ferdinand

Before his murder, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had planned to save the Austro-Hungarian Empire by centralising power and creating a federated state to include Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, Poles and South Slavs.

He also wanted to improve relations with Russia, as another conservative monarchy. In the previous Balkan conflicts of 1912 and 1913, he had argued that although a war with Serbia would be over quickly, if Austria-Hungary were to enter a war with Russia 'it would be a catastrophe'. 'God help us,' he said, 'if we annex Serbia'.

What if it had been another member of the Austro-Hungarian royal family gunned down in Sarajevo? Tensions in the Balkan region might still have led to the prospect of war, but could he have persuaded his countrymen against sparking a wider conflict?

6. Was World War One inevitable?

Ever since it was fought, the question of why the world went to war in 1914 has been vigorously debated, but did it have to happen? After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, was war inevitable?

Dr Heather Jones, London School of Economics

War was far from inevitable after Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. In the years before 1914, the assassination of leading political and royal figures was not unusual. The days following Franz Ferdinand's assassination saw a debate between the hawks and the doves in the Austro-Hungarian leadership with some figures such as the Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza not initially supportive of war. It was only once the Viennese hawks, such as Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of staff of the Austro-Hungarian army, won the debate that war was necessary to crush Serbia, using the assassination as an excuse, that war became inevitable - and then only a local Austro-Hungarian-Serbian war.

It only became a European conflict because Germany, Austria-Hungary's ally, offered it unconditional support in its decision to attack Serbia. Russia, Serbia's supporter, then mobilised to support Serbia. As Russia was allied to France, Germany now feared a Franco-Russian war against it and Austria-Hungary so invaded France pre-emptively, partly via neutral Belgium. This greatly escalated the conflict, as it brought in Britain in defence of France and Belgium.

Associate Prof. Sean McMeekin, Koç University

The short answer is no, if by ‘war’ you mean a general conflagration. The odds of a ‘smaller’ war breaking out in summer 1914 were good, however. On the eve of Sarajevo, the expectation in Europe’s chancelleries was that war was about to break out between Greece and Turkey. Had this ‘Third Balkan War’ occurred, absent the July crisis born of Sarajevo, it might have spread, but it is hard to see how. Austria-Hungary would have had no cause for war with Serbia, nor Russia with her, nor Germany, nor France, nor Britain. A third round of Balkan ethnic cleansing might well have united the Great Powers in horror and possibly even led to a revival of the Concert of Europe.

Prof. Gary Sheffield, University of Wolverhampton

War, in the shape of a local conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, was inevitable because Vienna decided to use the pretext of the assassination to crush Serbia. This decision was taken, and given explicit backing by Germany, in the full knowledge this was likely to bring about a general European war. Many in the German elite welcomed an expansionist war of aggression. While a general war was not inevitable, the Austrian and German decisions made it highly likely. These two states bear the burden of war guilt.

Prof. Margaret MacMillan, St Antony's College

To say that the outbreak of the First World War was inevitable is to ignore the importance of the key decision-makers who had the power to say Yes or No to policies and actions. It is true that there were considerable tensions in Europe in 1914, between Britain and Germany for example who were vying for naval and economic power, or between Austria-Hungary and Russia both of whom had ambitions and interests in the Balkans.

It is also true that nationalism was on the rise and that it helped to drive nations apart and, in the case of Austria-Hungary, threatened its very existence. And there were, unfortunately, many in Europe, often in positions of influence, who thought that a general war was inevitable and perhaps even desirable. We should remember though that there was also a very large peace movement in Europe. I think war could have been avoided after the assassination of the Archduke but that became less and less likely as the days went on.