In early 1916, I published a book, The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon (Ashgate/Routledge, 2016). Initially, I had intended to complete it by 2014, in time for the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the so-called “Great War” in August 1914.

Unfortunately, however, I finished the book in mid-2015, so it did not come out until 2016. On the negative side, that meant the book was not available to be reviewed at a time when media attention was focusing on the origins of the 1914 war. On the positive side, it gave me the chance to read the analysis of the different World War I historians who did manage to publish in 2014.

Homo geopoliticus did not “sleepwalk” into major power war

What distinguishes my book from others, particularly that of Christopher Clark’s well known and highly praised, The Sleepwalkers (2014), is that I attempt to show systematically how the French prepared for revanche immediately after the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian war, after Imperial Germany annexed most of French Alsace Lorraine.

Berlin’s control over Alsace Lorraine, that was rich in iron ore and coal as well as steel industries, gave Germany political-military ascendency over France and could be used as a strategic lever against French colonial interests at a time when Berlin sought to expand its colonial empire in conflict with both France and Britain.

Karl Marx had argued that the German annexation of Alsace Lorraine made Tsarist Russia the “arbiter” of Europe as France needed Russian support to counter Germany and Germany needed Russian backing to isolate France. Whoever won Tsarist Russia to its side could defeat the other, thus strengthening the diplomatic hand of Russia, at least until it aligned with France in 1890-94.

While there are always two or more sides to any conflict, it was the French who most steadfastly prepared for and provoked war to regain their lost territory. By seeking an alliance with Russia, rather than a possible compromise with both Imperial Germany and Great Britain, they risked provoking Berlin… Alsace… say it never, think of it always…

Immediately, at the time of the repression of the Paris Commune, whose participants opposed the stumbling of Louis Napoleon into Bismarck’s trap and going to war over Alsace Lorraine’s rich territory, French President Adolphe Thiers (1871–73) initiated a search for alliances in the effort to "contain,” "encircle,” and “weaken” Imperial Germany.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had warned of war if the French were able to align with Tsarist Russia, was able to prevent a French alliance with Austria, and with Russia until 1890—that is, until Bismarck was forced to step down in large part because the Prussian Junkers did not like his 1887–1890 Reinsurance Treaty with Tsarist Russia. Once the Kaiser forced Bismarck to step down as Chancellor, Paris immediately took steps to fully align with Russia. This is the deeper root of the war.

Confronted with the military superiority of the combined armies and fleet of the Franco-Russian “Dual Alliance,” Berlin opted by 1897 to develop its “risk fleet” that could counter both France and Russia—and potentially Great Britain. Inspired by the rising American fleet, Imperial Germany saw its naval fleet as a means to press Britain into an entente or alliance. Berlin’s new naval race was, however, an exercise that failed miserably, as London soon began to see the German fleet as an existential threat.

Instead of bringing Imperial Germany and Britain closer together into an entente or alliance relationship, as the Imperial German elites hoped, Great Britain soon, by 1901, found itself forced to reach agreements with its major former rivals, including the USA, France by 1904, and Tsarist Russia by 1907. Each of these British rapprochements was enabled by French diplomacy and showed that it was possible for Britain to make difficult compromises with former rivals in resolving disputes in North America, Africa, and Eurasia.

It is often forgotten that democratic Britain and France had almost gone to war over the Sudan in 1898 and that the British entente with Tsarist Russia surprised the world, given their historical rivalry in what the novelist Rudyard Kipling called the “Great Game” in Asia.

Once Britain forged ententes with the U.S., France, and Russia, Berlin responded by screaming “encirclement” and warning of war. The signs of war then became more evident with the 1911 Moroccan crisis, when no one in Britain before 1901 had really expected war with Germany. Prior to 1901, many in London expected war with France or Tsarist Russia—but not Imperial Germany.

Given the rise of Franco-German tensions, the French Center-Left, led by Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux and the Socialist Jean Jaures, sought peaceful compromise with Germany. As prime minister from 1911 to 1912, Caillaux helped to quell tensions with Berlin during the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911. Yet his efforts to secretly negotiate with Berlin led revanchist anti-German political factions in France to force him to resign on January 11, 1912.

Caillaux became Minister of Finance, and socialist leader Jean Jaures then opposed the Three Years' Service Bill and the military draft that were seen as provoking Germany. As conflict with Germany became more imminent, the Socialist Jaures tried to organize general strikes in both France and Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate.

Three months before the outbreak of World War I, Jean Jaures and Joseph Caillaux hoped to enter the French leadership after the Socialists won the 26 April and 10 May 1914 legislative elections. In the quest for peace with Germany, they opposed the efforts of French President Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani to sustain the Franco-Russian alliance and to plot military strategy with the Tsarist regime against Imperial Germany.

What Jaures sought was an Anglo-French-German entente that would counter the reactionary Tsarist Russia. Yet France had forged a miliary alliance with Tsarist Russia in 1894 that could not be broken without infuriating Russia, turning it toward Germany, and potentially weakening France against Imperial Germany without strong Anglo-German guarantees. And then French minister Théophile Delcassé achieved a secret 1902 defence accord with England, leading to the 1904-05 Anglo-French Entente Cordiale that would soon be tied to Tsarist Russia in the Triple Entente by 1907 . Poincaré further tightened relations with Tsarist Russia by building railways that could transport Russian troops while preparing for war with Imperial Germany.

On June 28, the archduke was assassinated. (See commentary below.) A month later, Jaures was assassinated on July 31. In the days that followed, Germany could not obtain a promise of British neutrality or a guarantee from Britain that it could prevent France from entering the war against Germany—that is, if Germany attacked Russia alone and not France—as Russia had mobilized, most likely with French encouragement, and could not stop mobilizing as Austria had mobilized half of its forces.

It is clear that the French goal of revanche to regain Alsace Lorraine needed simultaneous French and Russian mobilization and President Poincare was not going to let the Socialists check his efforts to regain the lost provinces after having so strongly supported Tsarist Russia. At the same time, to guarantee that Britain would enter the war on the French side, Poincare could not attack Germany through Belgium as the Germans actually did, nor could he appear to strike Germany first.

In other words, France and Russia had to provoke Germany to strike first, much as Bismarck had provoked France in 1870—so the conflict would appear to be a defensive war even though French troops may have been in Alsace as early as August 2, according to German Chancellor Bethmann von Hollweg, but accounts clash.

When the war did break out in early August, many assumed it would be over by Christmas, much like the Franco-Prussian war that lasted for roughly 6 months from 1870 to 1871. Few expected the horrific carnage that followed. Hence the title of my book, The Unexpected Armageddon.

In this sense, France and Germany did not “sleepwalk” into war over Alsace Lorraine and the overseas colonies. Both sides expected war, with the Germans reacting to French provocations—but neither believed the war would prove to be so devastating.

A new cycle of major power war

As noted in the Post-Script to The Unexpected Armageddon, Russian President Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which took place almost exactly 100 years after the outbreak of World War I, could represent a new cycle of global conflict, much as I argued in my first book, Surviving the Millennium (Praeger, 1994).

All global wars possess some similar attributes, but the major differences must be outlined as well. Today’s conflict is a mix of the pre-World War I and pre-World War II periods. Washington is presently forging a NATO, UK, EU, Ukraine, Japanese, South Korean, Australian, and Israeli Alliance vs. an Axis of Russia, Belarus, China, Iran, and North Korea, plus others.

Yesterday’s anti-state terrorists were anarchists, social revolutionaries, and pan-Bosnian nationalists; today’s anti-state terrorists are differing Islamists, although Russia is presently being accused of supporting acts of sabotage and cyber warfare in Europe while Ukrainians are being accused of engaging in acts of terrorism in Russia. And what “terrorists” blew up the North Sea pipeline?

In many ways, the Russian war over eastern Ukraine in relation to the European Union can be compared and contrasted with the Franco-German conflict over Alsace Lorraine. To quote Karl Marx, the German annexation of Alsace Lorraine made Tsarist Russia the “arbiter” of Europe. In today’s circumstances, the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine has made China the arbiter of Eurasia and the wider Middle East.

The US and EU are now acting assertively like France and Britain before 1914 in tightening alliances around Russia and China and building up their military capabilities, while Russia and China are in a more revanchist mood, more like Nazi Germany and Japan after the Soviet and Warsaw Pact collapse and China’s Hundred Years of Humiliation and its “loss” of Taiwan to Japanese and then American hegemony.

What is most interesting about the pre-World War I analogy is that it shows that Great Britain was able to more or less resolve most of its considerable territorial and political economic disputes with the USA, France, and even Tsarist Russia before the war—but not with Imperial Germany!

This at least implies that it might be possible for the US to negotiate with Russia and China if it really wants to. The pre-World War I analogy at least shows that there is a historical precedent for negotiating with Russia.

Accidental findings about the Archduke’s assassination

In researching official French documents for my book, I discovered that French sources had reported in March 1911 that Berlin and Vienna had hoped to place the eldest son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Maximilian, as the royal governor of Alsace-Lorraine.

If Maximilian had been made royal governor of Alsace-Lorraine, it would, in effect, have provided royal legitimacy to Prussian controls over that territory, which had been annexed by Imperial Germany in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, and would have helped to solidify the Austria-German alliance against France and their rivals.

I then discovered, too late to include in the book that had already gone to press, that the secret meeting of Kaiser Wilhelm II with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Konopischt on June 13–14, 1914 (which was relayed by the Tsarist secret police) reconfirmed those secret French reports dating from March 1911.

In effect, this represents a smoking gun (but not conclusive proof) to argue that the Russians, the Serbian Black Hand, as well as the French, all had reasons to eliminate Archduke Ferdinand. The problem, and what requires deeper research, is that all French documents dealing with the relationship between the Archduke and Alsace Lorraine between 1911 and 1918—in addition to reports on those who were involved in that assassination—were removed from the public domain and purportedly burned in 1940 when the Nazis invaded France or were otherwise taken by the Nazis to Poland.

If I can get to Poland... Perhaps I can write a second volume!

The Archduke today

Now, having pointed out some similarities between pre-World War I and today, one can wonder if some assassination or “black swan event” will set off what I call, in my second novel, Year of the Horseshoe Bat—in Exile, the next “Armageddon to end all Armageddons”? And if there are parallels, who might be the Archduke today?

Or can the US, Europe, Russia, and China be able to negotiate a more or less peaceful resolution to their conflicts, or at least formulate some form of modus vivendi—to prevent the real possibilities of a major power war that, with today’s military-technological capabilities, need not turn nuclear to be totally devastating?

On May 30, 2024, almost 110 years after the outbreak of the so-called "Great War" in August 2014—the war that was supposed "to end all wars," according to then US President Woodrow Wilson—I was interviewed on the causes of that conflict by Pelle Neroth Taylor on TNT Radio. My interview on the video begins around 13:15 and not only discusses the causes of World War I but also the possibility of World War III, based on the analogy to the pre-World War I period.