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What caused the First World War? Part V: Monarchies and Republics

[This is the text of a talk I gave on 20 March to the 6/20 Club in London. This is the final part. Part IV is here.]

Could the outcome provide a clue? Four monarchies: Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey were swept away by the First World War.

When I say monarchy I am not talking about the wishy-washy monarchy we pretend to have in the UK. I am talking about real monarchies, monarchies red in tooth and claw, monarchies that can at minimum hire and fire ministers and start wars.

Now, I can almost hear the pedants shouting “But those are precisely the powers the Queen has” To which I say “Only in theory”. Should the Queen or any of her successors ever attempt to actually exercise those theoretical powers they would be out of office in a matter of nano-seconds. Britain is a republic.

When did it become one? I think we can be pretty precise with the dates: sometime between 1642 and 1694. 1642 is the date of the outbreak of the English Civil War, when Charles I tried to impose his idea of absolute monarchy. 1694 is the date William III accepted that his powers were extremely limited. Since then it has been Parliament that makes the laws and votes funding – without which making war becomes extremely difficult.

But think of what happened in that period: four civil wars, one military dictatorship and a foreign invasion.

You think that was bad? Try the French. Between 1789 and 1871 they saw four monarchies, three republics, three foreign invasions and a 20-year war with the rest of Europe.

And now look at what happened in the 20th century. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, China, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all made the same transition from monarchy to republic. I need not dwell on the German or Russian experiences – they are well enough known but all the others follow a similar pattern. China saw a 20-year civil war followed by Mao’s communist regime; Spain, a monarchy, followed by a republic followed by a civil war followed by a dictatorship followed by a monarchy followed by a democratic republic. Even Portugal saw two revolutions, a dictatorship and a series of bloody colonial wars.

The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.

If there is an exception to the rule it is Japan. Japan is odd because in the middle of the 19th Century it had two monarchies. The one we know about – which was as powerless then as it is now – and the Tokugawa Shogunate. The downfall of the Shogun was remarkably swift and afterwards, as I understand it, Japan was pretty stable up until the 1920s. That’s about 40 years. But assuming Japan is an outlier and we have a pattern, then why the bloodshed?

My guess is that once a monarchy looks vulnerable and anachronistic thoughts turn to a future blank slate. This blank slate is an invitation for idealistic, Utopian and statist ideas to fill the vacuum. And so they do. Even England got the Puritans (and, I might add, the Levellers).

This process was in full swing well before the First World War broke out. The Revolution of 1905 had forced the Tsar to call a parliament. The largest party in the Reichstag, the German Parliament, was the Socialists.

There were two basic majoritarian ideas knocking about Europe at the time: socialism and nationalism. Monarchs can’t do much with socialism but it is just possible for them to embrace nationalism (unless they’re Austrian, that is). And so we see Europe from about 1890 on divide on nationalist lines. Russia and Germany started to become hostile. German politicians began to talk of a coming racial struggle.

This put Austria in a bind.

When he was single there was a time when Franz Ferdinand would regularly visit an eligible duchess. The assumption was that he was courting her and that the two would eventually marry. Not so. He was courting Sophie Chotek one of her ladies in waiting. Sophie was from a noble family herself but just not noble enough. The emperor was furious when he heard that the two wanted to marry.

In English we have a rarely used word, morganatic. So rarely-used is it that I have only ever heard it used in one context. This one. It means that in a marriage one of the partners and the children and not allowed to benefit from any of the privileges of the other partner. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had a “morganatic marriage”. The children were not allowed to inherit Franz Ferdinand’s titles or status. They could not become Emperor or Empress. On state occasions Sophie could not accompany her husband. One of the reasons the couple loved England so much – their last trip was in 1913 – was that Sophie was granted the same status as her husband. One of the reasons Sophie was in Sarajevo on the fateful day was because it was one of the rare occasions on which she could accompany him. It was also their wedding anniversary.

I have often wondered about the significance of this. Why was the Emperor so furious about Franz Ferdinand marrying beneath him? I think the reason is that Austria-Hungary being a multi-national state could not embrace nationalism. The only unifying factor was the monarchy and so everything had to be done to preserve the mystique and uniqueness of the institution. As the Emperor might have seen it when royals start marrying lowly nobles pretty soon you give the impression anyone could do the job. Bye bye monarchy, bye bye empire.

Ultimately, no one is to blame for the First World War as such. The First World War is principally a chapter in the story of central Europe’s transition from monarchy to republic. As such the principal actors were subject to forces that were way beyond their ability – or indeed anyone’s ability – to control. Although, this does not entirely absolve them of blame it absolves them of a lot.


19 comments to What caused the First World War? Part V: Monarchies and Republics

  • staghounds

    Except either of those two bastards could have said “no” and it would have been the Balkan Crisis of 1914, or maybe the Austro-Serbian war.

    All it would have taken was good sense, or moral courage, or some Christian forgiveness, or a kind heart, or thinking of those who would suffer, or for that matter a drunken whim.

    What, they were going to get fired for not starting a war?

    Those two, right there in the picture.

    They let it happen, it’s ultimately their fault.

    Ultimum reprehendre regis.

    “Beyond their control”, my foot.

  • TDK


    You’ve just rejigged the Marxist interpretation. Natural Societal Forces drive historical events. Individuals have little to do with it.

  • Russ in TX

    He has, and quite cleverly. Individuals have a large theoretical scope of action, but those actions considered likely to bear fruit are constrained by the context in which they make them. Very few people are able to be sufficiently larger-than-life that they can create their own public context.

  • Paul Marks

    Well Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) had been only a puppet monarchy since 1908 – it was a Republic (and a modernist Progressive one) in all but name.

    In Austro-Hungary the Emperor Franz Joseph had little power in Hungary (where the Parliament was very much in charge), and even in Austria the Emperor had even given up trying to prevent the vile Mayor of Vienna (greatly admired by a young Mr Hitler – which tells people all we need to know about the Mayor of Vienna) take power and engage in his antics.

    Perhaps Franz Joseph still had power of peace and war – but that was the only power “Papa Fraz” had left.

    The Emperor of Russia did not even want to even mobilize the army (let alone go to war) in 1914 – but the Minister of War shouted at him till he did.

    Alas that the role of Emperor of all the Russians should fall into the hands of hopelessly weak man such as Nicholas II.

    As for Germany……

    Keiser Willy, noted (with pleasure) that the French had refused to do anything – so Germany would face war on only one front (with Russia – which Germany had declared war on, in order to destroy Russia before its faster economic growth made Russia a real threat in future years).

    No, Keiser Willy was told, we must PRETEND that France has attacked us – so that we can attack France.

    But why attack France at all?

    Because the German war plan called for the destruction of France before the destruction of Russia – and the plan could-not-be-changed.

    Patrick is right – if he makes a little twist in what he saying.

    Not so much “monarchy” as “bureaucracy”.

    The officials (military and civilian) really controlled these powers.

    The French or British Parliaments could refuse to obey governments – or just replace them.

    Patrick is correct – the German or Turkish or Austrian ministers and officials (especially the military officials – such as the “Young Turk” monsters in the Ottoman Empire) were in a different position.

    They were not puppets of the monarch – he was their puppet, but the net effect is the same.

    A handful of people could decide on peace or war – and there was not much the Parliaments could do about it.

    For example the German Parliament could consider not voting for “war credits” – but they knew it was pointless, even back in the early 1860s Bismark had defied the Prussian Parliament and collected higher taxes without their consent.

    And the Prussian Parliament proved itself impotent.

    But what of the United States?

    High ministers of the American government (including the Defence Sec and the Attorney General) are NOT really responsible to the Congress (to the American Parliament), they are really responsible to the President.

    A vote by a majority of the House and Senate does NOT get rid of an Attorney General (or whoever).

    The American system, in this system, is more like an “elective monarchy” than a Republic.

    And, unlike the Governor of Texas, the limits on the powers of the President of the United States are not clearly defined.

    I find this very disturbing.

    For example what happens if the President uses the IRS as a weapon to attack his enemies?

    In Britain the “Inland Revenue” is responsible to the House of Commons – if a Prime Minister used it against his political opponents that Prime Minister would fall from office (and go to prison).

    No such thing happens to be people such as President Obama.

    Of Franklin Roosevelt, or Jack Kennedy or…..

  • Paul Marks

    On Sophie and Morganatic marriage.

    It is not really a difference in power – it is a difference in law.

    Even when English monarchs were incredibly powerful – they could marry anyone they liked and it was a full marriage (because there is no such thing as “morganatic” marriage in Common Law).

    It is like big things such as “Salic” law (no inheritance via the female line – England fought the hundred years war AGAINST that).

    Or little things such as sitting to the right of a King in a carriage.

    Or the King (or a knight) not be allowed to fight with a bow.

    These laws and customs just did not exist here – even when the Kings of England had vast powers.


    I am not sure why.

    Why did trial by jury continue exist here – whereas it died everywhere else in Europe.

    Again I do not know.

    I know that England was different – but I am ignorant as to why.

  • veryretired

    I’m afraid I find the conclusion bloodless and unsatisfactory. Writing the calamity that set the tone for much of the violent slaughter that was the 20th century off as the movement of irresistible historical forces is a fundamentally flawed answer.

    Across the globe, throughout most of human history, the pattern of governance, or social organization, is that of a feudal, theocratic, aristocratic authoritarianism. You can find variations on this theme from the ancient empires of the world, such as Egypt or China, through the civilizations of Mezo-America, completely cut off from other developing cultures, right up to the great international empires that were consumed in this conflagration.

    Why, after millennia of this model being replicated over and over again, even after falling due to war or internal rebellion or natural disasters, is the authoritarian, aristocratic model suddenly discarded?

    I would contend that it was delegitimized by the only truly revolutionary doctrine that has ever been developed—that the individual is the paramount and sole source of political legitimacy through derived powers voluntarily granted, and that birth, class, and any other characteristic, is meaningless.

    This idea, promulgated, and then actualized, albeit imperfectly, by the end of the 18th century, undercut the entire ruling rationalization by which the world’s oligarchs maintained their positions.

    The entire 19th century is an intellectual maelstrom of theories and ideologies attempting desperately to re-invent some rationale that legitimizes the rule of a chosen group, or class, and refutes the primacy of the rights of the individual. Just read the endless philosophizing of the “big Names” in that period, relentlessly asserting the importance of the state, or the spirit, or the will or the folk, or the blood, or the class, and on and on.

    Anything but the terrifying idea that the individual is the sole repository of legitimate authority, the sole possessor of all rights, the only fountain from which all else flows.

    This war was the death spasm of an idea that had ruled the earth for all of human history, with only brief and disconnected exceptions. When that rationale for political/social organization was cut off at the root, the violent upheavals that followed, and the grotesque attempts to invent and impose some other theoretical framework for social organization, were not some inevitable evolution, but were the direct result of the reaction to individual rights by those for whom any theory that promised a potential escape from individual liberty and responsibility was preferable, no matter how bizarre and utopian.

    The calamities of the 20th century are the direct result of the ideologies and rationalizations of the past century, whether to justify the continuation of the autocratic state, or to replace it with some collectivist utopia that was invented in the fevered dreams of those for whom the only true evil was individuals living their lives in peace and autonomy.

    Ideas have consequences. The world we see around us, for good and ill, is the direct result of the continuing battle between those who wish to surrender themselves, and everyone, to the collective, however defined, and the independent individuals who wish to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit, is a society that respects and protects their right to do that as a sacred trust.

    Here is a mind experiment. Imagine the latest Kim from North Korea, or any number of other autocratic types, being put on the tsar’s throne in Russia, or in the Austrian Emperor’s position, or the Kaiser’s, and then try to see how he would have acted any differently.

    Then put Jefferson in those positions, or Washington, or Ghandi, or Mandela, or Havel, or Thatcher, or Reagan. Wouldn’t these latter behave with a marked difference from the former group? Why? If the circumstances were the same, what could account for any significant variations.

    It is because the foundational ideas and beliefs of the first group are utterly and fundamentally different from the latter. That’s the key element in human affairs, and it has ever been thus.

    Ides have consequences. They move through cultures and civilizations, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, altering and rearranging the basic tenets upon which all social structures are constructed.

    In my childhood religion, it was said that God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. But in the real world, much of what happens is due, not to some mysterious will, but to human folly.

    And the greatest folly of all, and the most enduring, is the diabolical conceit that claims that some, by virtue of birth, or blood, or mystical insight of one type or another, have the authority to control the lives of everyone else.

    Why proclaim, endlessly and indefatigably, the Rights of Man?

    They go a good way toward preventing too much folly.

  • Mr Ed

    The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.
    If there is an exception to the rule it is Japan.

    But there was the Empire of Brazil.


  • J. Wilde

    Japan had the Satsuma Rebellion, arguably the last gasp of traditional samurai culture before it was subsumed into the emerging Oligarchy as Bushido.

  • staghounds

    “Very few people are able to be sufficiently larger-than-life that they can create their own public context.”

    But isn’t being larger than life, above petty political squabbles, the repository of national wisdom and moral strength the very point of a monarch? Both those awful men would have said so.

    They spent their lives fighting the erosion of their power using those sorts of justifications. Their entire lives were purposed to meet the crisis of peace or war, of understanding the national interest in its widest and deepest sense and applying the best judgement.

    “Sukhomlinov made him.” What a pathetic indictment, especially if true.

  • Jacob

    “As such the principal actors were subject to forces that were ..”

    This invoking of historical forces “beyond one’s control” is vague, undefined, mystic and unsatisfactory. One needs to be more specific and provide some details about the “historical forces”. It’ is like saying: “this is fate” or “this is God’s will”.

    On a previous thread a commenter brought a long list of quotations from the writings of prominent German philosophers, publicists and politicians of the time – which extolled the power of the German volk and it’s right and destiny to rule the world. How this set of ideas became prominent in Germany, and why in Germany more than in other countries – is a big and difficult question. Still, it is a much better explanation of the causes of WW1 – to show the ideas that influenced the protagonists’ decisions.

  • Jacob

    About monarchy: you claim that the demise of monarchy was a universal historical process responsible, in great part, for WW1.

    The demise of monarchy was indeed an important historical process together with the demise of religion – (“God is dead” proclaimed Nietzsche). It was also usually a violent process – accompanied by revolutions, civil wars and other wars.
    It is also true that the French Revolution of 1789 ( the first abolition of French monarchy) caused the first pan-European war – the Napoleonic wars.

    But, concerning the four big empires and monarchies that fell in WW1 – Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey – their fall was caused by the war, a result of the war. It was not that the fall of the empires caused the war – it was the other way round: the War caused the fall of the empires.

    Other Emperors and Monarchs fell without causing major, multinational wars.

  • TDK

    When I was at school, the default assumption was that

    1. Nobody really wanted war but we got it anyway
    2. Mass armaments encouraged militarism which encouraged more armaments. Armaments were a necessary precondition for war. Militarism caused it. Militarism was common across both Allies and Central Powers
    3. Train timetables. etc.

    This explanation has proven deeply unsatisfying for much the same reasons as that proposed by this post. It removes all human ability to act, to cause or prevent the war. Someone issued a blank cheque. Someone pushed the Austrians to move faster. Someone said it’s now or never. Someone thought it a good idea to back the Black Hand gang.

    Monarchs can’t embrace Socialism. Perhaps not in full but Bismark Germany had created the welfare state before anyone else and indulged in many reforms that Socialists elsewhere were demanding. Prior to 1914 the two ideologies of Nationalism and Socialism were not seen as antithetical as perhaps they are today. Marx and Engels were perfectly in tune with the idea that some Nationalism were superior to others – he coined the term Final Solution to the Jewish Question after all, which included the idea that the Jew had to be freed from Jewishness.

    Austria allegedly couldn’t embrace Nationalism but at that stage countries with disparate Nationalities were the norm and the majority weren’t falling apart. In the UK the Irish were pushing for home rule but certainly not the Scots and Welsh. The point being that multi-national states were not inevitably about to dissolve. Without the annexation of Bosnia the immediate cause of WWI disappears. That action was hardly the action of a state fearful of nationalism. I suspect that most of the ruling elite found it hard to distinguish the different types of radicals – anarchist and nationalist amongst others. It’s well to remember that Nationalism wasn’t the cause of the dissolution of Austria. It disappeared because the victors of the war imposed what they thought were just National boundaries that would avoid the next war.

    Some of the comments have a tone of an inevitable historical transformation towards individualism. I don’t see that. Russia replaced one ruling dynasty with another. The Empire was strengthened, particularly after WWII. In my lifetime the state has lost its controlling interest in the “commanding heights” of the British economy but has increased its share of GDP and its reach into everyday life. Profit has become a dirty word for some conservatives and the idea of market failure is normal. Non elected NGOs have enhanced roles in the control of everyday life. So called experts are the only people we are permitted to listen to on Global Warming or the amount of salt and sugar in foods. People barely demur when trigger warnings become mandatory, or the scope of hate speech is extended. The state has learned how to marginalize the voices it dislikes and control the narrative. Individualism is not inevitable.

  • Jacob

    Another Empire that fell as a consequence of WW1 was the mighty British Empire. Britain and it’s big Empire were mortally wounded in WW1. The British Empire took another 50 years and another World War to dissolve completely, but it’s fate was sealed in WW1.

  • TDK


    And France too.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Reading some of these comments I realise I have confused two similar but different ideas. In the British and French examples when I talk about the “transition from monarchy to republic” I mean from the moment a monarchy starts to look vulnerable to the moment it becomes clear that monarchy is not coming back. However, in the case of the 20th Century what I mean is from the moment monarch starts to look vulnerable to the moment the revolution runs its course. The odd thing about the British and French examples is that the revolutions had run their courses long before it became clear that those states had become republics. Perhaps it is a case of one or the other. Either you spend your time getting rid of the monarchy of you spend it enduring the revolution.

    @veryretired Why did individualism take so long to appear? Why did it sweep some places first? What was special about those places?
    I would argue that the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment had a lot to do with it. In the world before the Industrial revolution people were subject to all sort of influences – like disease, crop failures, storms, floods, famines etc – that they had no obvious control of. Hence they invented gods who were. And hence monarchs were able to claim their legitimacy: chosen by God etc. But the Industrial Revolution came along and challenged this. All of a sudden, human improvement was placed into the hands of human beings. God got cut out of the equation and monarchs lost their legitimacy.
    You pose an interesting counter-factual. Could different rulers have acted differently? Any ruler of Russia would have been well aware of the threat posed by the communists. How to neutralise that without – oh dammit I’ve lost my train of thought. But the point is that rulers cannot just do what they like. Maggie couldn’t privatise the National Health Service. Hitler was very careful to keep the home front on side. [Thinks: not so sure about Stalin and Mao. They really do seem to have been able to do whatever they liked.] Any ruler of Russia in 1910 is going to be painfully aware that the roots of freedom there are not strong.

    @Jacob The monarchies were all in big trouble way before 1914. Russia underwent the revolution of 1905 and in the period leading up to the war Tsarist officials were being assassinated in their thousands. Germany had, more-or-less, been a republic under Bismarck and the Socialists posed an enormous threat to Willhelmine legitimacy. Turkey, of course, had already had its revolution.

    @TDK My understanding is that successor states to the Austrian Empire like Czechoslovakia and Poland liberated themselves without waiting for the great and good at Versailles. Indeed, if my memory of Margaret Macmillan’s Peacemakers is correct, to a large extent the men of Versailles were playing catch up not least because they had no way of projecting their power into east and central Europe.

  • TDK



  • Veryretired

    PC—I’m not sure I understand your response. It’s phrased as if I said something significantly different than I did, so I’m somewhat at a loss as to how to respond.

    One of the basic reasons individual rights were so long in being recognized was the simple fact that anyone denying the legitimacy of the divine ruler, or divinely chosen ruler, would be summarily executed for doing so, and anyone else that might have agreed would understand that death would be their fate also.

    But the concept of rights was discussed in both Greek and Roman law, then very influentially in English law, before the many theorists and philosophers began discussing the basics of what we hold today, culminating in the American and French revolutions. The former was handicapped by its extremely limited definition of who could be a citizen, and the latter by its unfortunate, mistaken emphasis on equality as an absolute.

    Both would require time, and the effusion of massive amounts of blood, to move further toward the ideals they had proclaimed. The story of the rights of man is a work in progress.

    By the way, the often overlooked key to the emergence of the idea that the individual is the sole repository of rights is the emphasis in the ideas of the Reformation that the individual can achieve salvation through faith without intermediaries. After that concept kicked around through western culture for awhile, the idea that people could choose their own leaders and laws didn’t seem so outrageous.

    Always a pleasure discussing things with a rational adult. My respects to the obvious effort you have put into researching and considering these questions. The fact that we might disagree about this or that point is not nearly as significant as making the journey itself. Each question brings us closer to an answer, and each answer brings more, and better, questions.