1914 – The failure of and the need for diplomacy

1914 – The failure of and the need for diplomacy

Frank-Walter Steinmeier
On June 28 1914, telegraphs were disseminating the news of the violent death of the Austrian heir to the throne in Sarajevo. Five weeks later, the First World War broke out. In our German collective memory, this event is often overshadowed by the Second World War and the crime against humanity that was the Shoah. Nevertheless, for many of our neighbors, the countries in which the bloody battles and terrible killing in the trenches took place, the First World War remains is etched in their memories. In France today, it is still called La Grande Guerre, the Great War and George Kennan declared it to be the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century.

The history of those five weeks, between the assassination in a restive peripheral region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the outbreak of war between Europe’s great powers, has been told many a time. On the centenary of the catastrophe, numerous new studies have been published that strive to render the incomprehensible comprehensible. They detail the calculations of those in power in the European capitals, the rash predictions of a swift, successful military campaign, the elaboration of far-fetched war objectives, the misjudgment of the conduct of opponents and partners alike.

The history of the outbreak of war one hundred years ago and of the collapse of the fragile balance of power in Europe in the summer of 1914 is as much a striking as a disturbing tale of a failure of the elites, the military, but also of diplomacy. This is not only the case for the fateful days of July 1914. The relations between the great powers on the continent and their interlinked or even interrelated ruling dynasties had been built on the sand long before the fateful chain of political misjudgments and military mobilization was set in motion. The mindsets at the Congress of Vienna had become outdated and were unfit to deal with the Europe of the early 20th century, which was intricately connected and seeing the early globalization of its economies. The foreign policy of that time lacked both the will and tools to build confidence and foster a peaceful balance of interests. It was beset by deep mutual mistrust, depended on the means of secret diplomacy and had no qualms about thrashing out power rivalries at the cost of other parties. This never led to the development of viable institutions capable of settling disputes by means of negotiation.

That the archives of the warring parties clearly reveal the dominating presence of misconceptions and political short-sightedness in no way gives us Germans grounds to downplay the German foreign policy failings of those disastrous weeks. In Berlin, instead of de-escalation and understanding, the lust for escalation prevailed. 17 million people around the world lost their lives in the First World War, countless suffered and were marred for life.

This year, on the former battlefields, we will pay tribute to the victims – in Alsace, in Flanders, on the Marne and on the Somme, around Ypres, as well as in the East. It is extremely fortunate since that time, the prospect of war breaking out in the heart of Europe has become unimaginable. In the place of a fragile balance of constantly shifting alliances between states which shaped our continent a hundred years ago and following the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Germany during the Second World War, we have built a European community of law. Through the European Union, we have found a way to resolve our differences of interest peacefully. Instead of the law of the strong, Europe is now governed by the strength of the law. For some, the pursuit of compromises around negotiating tables in Brussels is too arduous, too protracted and too unwieldy. This commemorative year reminds us of the importance of remaining ever aware of what an achievement of civilization it is that small and large member states, once opponents in numerous conflicts on our war-torn continent, can spend long nights striving to find joint solutions in a peaceful and civilized manner.

The loss of trust in the European project, which has accompanied the economic crisis in Europe in recent years, particularly prominent in the young generation who suffer from unemployment and a lack of future prospects in large parts of the EU, holds great danger. In this kind of atmosphere, it is easy to fall back on nationalist rhetoric, sung to the catchy tune of criticism of Europe. Given our history, we must firmly resist this.

Today, the shaky system of the balance of power has still not been overcome in many parts of the world. 25 years after the fall of the Wall and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, there are numerous trouble spots. In the Middle East and parts of Africa there is no stable regional security architecture. In East Asia, nationalist tendencies and competing ambitions are threatening to put peace and stability at risk, both in the region and beyond.

The outbreak of war in 1914 put an end to the initial phase of globalization. Europe’s economies and cultures were so closely intertwined that at the time war seemed impossible to many, it appeared irrational and against countries’ own interests. Yet it still broke out. Today, our world is more interconnected than ever. This offers many opportunities; it creates wealth and grants new freedoms. Yet our world is also vulnerable, full of friction points and conflicts of interest. Prudent foreign policy and diplomatic craftsmanship are more important than ever in this world. Having a sober view not only of one’s own interests, but also those of one’s neighbors and partners, acting responsibly and thinking about consequences with a level-head are vital to safeguarding peace. Avoiding the hasty adoption of positions and constantly seeking new room to compromise are two fundamental principles of diplomacy.
1914 provides us with vivid insight into what happens when we ignore them. Did the July crisis necessarily have to lead to catastrophe back then? Probably not. Yet, at that time, emotive rhetoric misguided and bravery overrode the courage for a laborious balancing of interests. Can we rule out something similar happening today? The answer depends solely on us, on us being responsible today and on the lessons that we take from history.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the Foreign Minister of Germany.