The July 1914 Crisis – Sleepwalking Diplomats?

13.03.2014 - Article

On Friday (14 March), Foreign Minister Steinmeier hosted a debate on the July 1914 Crisis in the German Historical Museum, with historians Christopher Clark and Gerd Krumeich.

Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier, in collaboration with Alexander Koch, the President of the German Historical Museum Foundation, opened a debate on Friday (14 March) on the July 1914 Crisis. In the Schlüterhof of the German Historical Museum the historians Christopher Clark and Gerd Krumeich discussed how the escalation in the July Crisis in 1914 came about and what lessons relevant to the current crisis in Crimea we can learn from it.

In his opening speech, Foreign Minister Steinmeier expressed his pleasure at how many people had attended the event in the Schlüterhof of the German Historical Museum. At the same time, Steinmeier continued, thinking of the “contemporaneity” of history sent “shivers down one’s spine”. 100 years after the First World War, the crisis in Crimea had once again raised the questions of “war and peace”, of “unity or division of the continent” in Europe. According to the Foreign Minister, the outbreak of the First World War showed what happens “if dialogue is not sought out”.

Lessons from the July Crisis

Critics would object, the Foreign Minister continued, saying that politicians would be better off staying alert and working on the current crisis in Crimea rather than being sidelined by acts of remembrance. Yet the two were not mutually exclusive – in Steinmeier’s view, addressing the First World War could provide many conclusions which are relevant to the current situation.

The July 1914 Crisis is a clear example of what happens when diplomacy fails. Therefore, with regard to Ukraine we will impose sanctions in stages, so that we will constantly be able to react to the latest developments and to ensure it is always possible to “pull back from” conflict – that is another lesson learnt from the July 1914 Crisis.

In seeking to resolve the situation, it was important not to go down “dead ends” but to search for “ways out”, according to the German Foreign Minister. It was thus vital for dialogue between Russia and the West not to be severed.

Clark: crisis makes us remember

Clark, Sturm and Krumeich on the panel
Clark, Sturm and Krumeich on the panel© photothek/Imo

In his speech, the historian Christopher Clark noted the amazing “modernity” of the July Crisis – the attack on the Austrian heir to the throne had involved a motorcade and suicide attacker, elements which we are fully familiar with in international politics today. The reactions to this, such as the gathering of troops and the harshening of rhetoric reminded us of the current crisis in Crimea and served as a reminder of how quickly the “elemental forces of the events” could snowball in reality. On the other hand, political decision making of the time was significantly less transparent than it is now. Today, heads of government were more capable of critical self‑reflection and had a much broader range of communication channels open between each other.

Krumeich: “testing” the willingness to go to war

Over 500 people attended the event in the Schlüterhof at the German Historical Museum
Over 500 people attended the event in the Schlüterhof at the German Historical Museum© photothek/Imo

The German historian Gerd Krumeich attributed the German audience’s enthusiasm towards Clark’s work “The Sleepwalkers” to the fact that the historian argued that the imperialism and nationalism of the Germans had been no worse than that of the other great powers. In the end however, Germany and Austria‑Hungary’s testing of Russia’s willingness to go to war triggered the July Crisis – this is how “German diplomacy failed”. “Everyone was involved in the escalation in rhetoric and the arms race, but Germany lit the fuse which led to the explosion.”

In the discussion which followed, Clark and Krumeich engaged in a well‑informed debate over the importance of blame for the war, the role played by society and the political and military culture of the early years of the twentieth century. Peter Sturm of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung moderated the event. Although the event overran, the audience gave enthusiastic applause, yet another sign of how relevant the debate over the triggers of the First World War remains in 2014.

At the initiative of Foreign Minister Steinmeier and in cooperation with the German Historical Museum, the Federal Foreign Office is organising a series of public lectures in 2014 and discussions to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. The series is entitled “1914/2014 – Of the Failure of and the Need for Diplomacy”.

In a series of six discussions German and international historians and policy‑makers will systematically explore how and why diplomacy failed on the eve of World War I and why responsible foreign policy is so important. The series is aimed at the informed German public and international audience.

More information

Document of the month The Sarajevo assassination

Related content

Top of page