How Nuclear War Could Start

“We all muddled into war,” said Lloyd George of 1914. None of the Great Powers really wanted war; certainly none of them wanted the sort of war they got. Europe had been preparing at great expense for thirty years to fight a big war, but when the war finally commenced the leaders of Europe were amazed all the same. How the war began, and why it occasioned surprise, are among the biggest puzzles of the century. In the 1930s the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm, speaking of Hitler, told an English visitor to Doorn, “It will run away with him, as it ran away with me.” What was it that “ran away,” exactly? Why did Lloyd George describe as a “muddle” something that was planned in advance in great detail and that unfolded, in the event, precisely in accord with those plans?

The immediate problem was an Austrian quarrel with Serbia in the Balkans. The opening campaign of the war was a German invasion of Belgium a thousand miles away. It’s not hard to follow the chain of events from one to the other. Serbia was backed by Russia. Austria was backed by Germany. France had promised to come to Russia’s aid in the event of war. The prospect of a two-front war alarmed the German General Staff; they figured that their best chance for success lay in dispatching their enemies one at a time. For a number of reasons France looked to Germany like the easier of the two. Belgium offered the best route into France. Thus war in the East meant war in the West.

It all made sense, and was well understood at the time. The diplomats of Europe had spent thirty years ensuring that everything was tied to everything else. The big question was who would land the first blow. In the years before 1914 the Great Powers made elaborate plans to mobilize their armies as quickly as possible. These plans depended largely on railroad timetables. Since Russia knew war with Austria meant war with Germany, it planned to mobilize against both at the same time. But at one point in July 1914, Russia, fearful of the big war looming with Germany, toyed with the idea of mobilizing against Austria alone. This was thought to offer Russia a chance to up the ante in the war of nerves with Austria without giving Germany an excuse to jump in. General Sergei Dobrorolski, chief of the mobilization section of the Russian General Staff, however, was horrified. For technical reasons a partial mobilization would call up too few troops for war with Austria, and thoroughly gum up plans for full mobilization later on. Eventually the Czar accepted the all-or-nothing logic of the situation and approved orders for complete mobilization.

For technical reasons as well it was assumed by military men everywhere that mobilization meant war. “One has only to press the button,” said a Russian general at the time, “and the whole state begins to function automatically with the precision…

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