Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The folly of the erstwhile rulers

In the opinion of Rudolf Sieghart, the governor of one of the largest and most influential Viennese banks before 1914, the Boden-Credit-Anstalt, it was the folly of the erstwhile rulers that led directly into the war. The Boden-Credit-Anstalt was regarded as the bank that was particularly close to the Imperial house.

It might appear strange at first sight that the outbreak of the First World War found the ruling classes – the economic and political elites and (as far as concerns military strategy) the military leadership of the belligerent countries – in a certain sense badly prepared. There were practically no economic war plans going beyond the short term. This is all the more surprising in that the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 not only intensified the political tensions between Austria-Hungary and Serbia but also led to an increase in pan-Slav movements within the Empire and to an aggravation of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans themselves. In addition, the partial mobilisation set in motion by the wars led to a further burden on the Empire’s already strained public finances.

Even before the First Balkan War, the Turkish state had been weakened by the Young Turk revolution. Austria Hungary seized this opportunity to annex the Turkish province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878, setting off not only the annexation crisis, which placed the risk of an armed conflict between the European Great Powers on the agenda, but also provoking a radicalisation of nationalist forces in Serbia. It was in this connection that the organisation Ujedinenje ili smrt that was behind the Sarajevo assassination was founded in 1911.

The generals ignored the experiences of the 1904/05 Russo-Japanese War, which had demonstrated to the world the devastating consequences of the machine gun and the major strategic role played by logistics in a modern industrial war. Even less thought was given to the economic consequences of a war lasting years with hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded. The Polish railway entrepreneur and banker Jan Bloch had already pointed out the great changes to the future conduct of wars as early as 1899.

Many a high-ranking officer was longing for war. As early as 1908, Conrad von Hötzendorf was in favour of launching a preventive war against Serbia and annexing the country. There was no idea about the dimensions of the military and economic problems that Austria-Hungary would be faced with. The best that can be said about the generals is that they were naive and arrogant to an extent that surprised even a representative of high finance such as Rudolf Sieghart, the governor of the board of the Boden-Credit-Anstalt. “Up to the last moment,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I did not believe that war would happen. I could not imagine that Austria-Hungary, of all the great powers that with the weakest periphery, with an exposed situation on several fronts, with the magnetic attraction exercised by numerous nations beyond its borders on their co-nationals inside them, would plunge into so risky an adventure. I still do not understand the folly of the erstwhile rulers, and least of all their childish faith that Austria-Hungary would be dealing solely with Serbia.”

Translation: David Wright


Bloch, Johann: Der Krieg. Übersetzung des russischen Werkes des Autors. Der zukünftige Krieg in seiner technischen, volkswirtschaftlichen und politischen Bedeutung, 6 Bände, Berlin 1899

Clark, Christopher: Die Schlafwandler. Wie Europa in den Ersten Weltkrieg zog, München 2013

Janz, Oliver: Der Große Krieg, Frankfurt am Main 2013

Kann, Robert A. et al. (Hrsg.): The Habsburg Empire in World War I (East European Monographs, No. XXIII), New York 1977

Leonhard, Jörn: Die Büchse der Pandora: Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges, München 2014

Rauchensteiner, Manfried: Der Erste Weltkrieg und das Ende der Habsburgermonarchie, Wien/Köln/Weimar 2013

Sieghart, Rudolf: Die letzten Jahrzehnte einer Großmacht, Berlin 1932


"Up to the last moment …": Sieghart, Rudolf: Die letzten Jahrzehnte einer Großmacht, Berlin 1932, 168 (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    The Habsburg empire

    Austria-Hungary had an extremely diverse state structure. At the start of the First World War it was a major power in decline. Social and political problems and the dominant nationality conflicts shook the empire to its foundations. At the same time, the Monarchy represented an enormous cultural region in which the Habsburg empire flourished in spite of the political stagnation.

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    Mechanical warfare

    In the years and decades before the First World War there were many innovations in arms technology with the result that the entire war machinery and with it the strategic and tactical considerations had to be fundamentally rethought. The artillery, with its powerful arsenal of guns, mortars and howitzers, epitomised the dominance of “fire power”. It was the prototype of industrialised mechanical and mass warfare and responsible for a larger number of casualties than any other type of weapon.

  • Event

    Assassination in Sarajevo

    Assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the Bosnian capital.


  • Development

    The "Balkan powder keg"

    The decline of the Ottoman Empire created a vacuum waiting to be filled by new forces. The Balkans became an unstable theatre in which the interests of the major powers clashed with the national programmes of the emergent peoples of south-eastern Europe.