Testing Compliance:  How the Major Players 
Exceeded Their Legal Obligations

      The clearest example of state action exceeding legal obligations came from Germany.  After the June 28th assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, even the Entente powers thought that Austria-Hungary had the legitimate right to take action against Serbia for its alleged involvement in the hostile act.  However, Germany had already decided prior to 1914 that maintenance of the Austro-Hungarian empire was vital to its own interests on the strongly divided continent, because Germany was surrounded by the Entente allies whose primary goal was to contain German power.[1]   Thus, fearing the internal collapse of her only real allyís empire (Germany had never really considered Italy a significant ally), Germany pushed Austria-Hungary to take drastic action against Serbia to crush the growing rebellion, and the Kaiser gave his Austro-Hungarian allies a blank check for whatever measures they might deem necessary (i.e., the harsh ultimatum on Serbia).[2]   But Wilhelmís desire to bully his enemies resulted in an unforeseen consequence:  it put Germany in Austria-Hungaryís pocket, pre-committing Germany to support the potential escalation to war, even though Wilhelm may have wanted to prevent that end result near the end of July.[3]   Clearly, though, this critical German decision, perhaps the most critical in the events leading up to the war, was not motivated by a sense of legal obligation, but rather by a nationalist desire to maintain and expand German dominance on the continent.  However, Germanyís aggressive actions, including the first declaration of war (against Russia on August 1st), put it in the position of the instigator, a result the Germans had wanted to avoid both to rally public opinion behind the theory of self-defense, as well as to keep Italy tied to her obligations under the alliance treaty.[4]

       On the other side, the Russians were committed to maintaining their prestige in the Balkans, and having backed down to German threats the previous year, they decided this time they would stand up to Germany and Austria-Hungary in defense of Serbia.[5]   As the timeline illustrates (see July 24, 1914), the same day Austria-Hungary informed Russia of its ultimatum on Serbia, the Russian government began preparations for mobilization against Austria-Hungary.  Then, after an unsuccessful request that Germany restrain the irrational actions of her ally, Russia ordered mobilization as soon as it received word of Austria-Hungaryís declaration of war against Serbia.  But this action was taken for political, not military reasons.[6]   Russia displayed her willingness to defend Serbia, though under no obligation to do so, primarily hoping to pressure Austria-Hungary to back down and seek a negotiated settlement of her dispute with Serbia.[7]   Nor was Russian mobilization required by Article 2 of the military alliance with France, which only mandated mobilization as soon as a Triple Alliance state mobilized against either France or Russia.  Thus, Russia took action entirely within its discretion, unconstrained by the terms of any alliance treaty.

       French compliance with its obligations under the military alliance with Russia was never effectively tested, since as soon as Germany had declared war on Russia, she was also threatening France and preparing for the western sweep called for by the Schlieffen Plan.  Thus, the French were forced to prepare for war to defend themselves and never had to face the decision of whether to mobilize against Germany if Germany had only attacked Russia. Nonetheless, when Austria-Hungary mobilized on July 31st, France ordered mobilization for the following day, complying with Article 2 of the Franco-Russian military alliance, which required immediate and full mobilization as soon as one of the Triple Alliance states mobilized.  Moreover, France took an extraordinary step to make it clear that she was the victim of German aggression, pulling her troops back ten kilometers from the entire German border, but this measure was designed primarily to convince Great Britain to enter the war against Germany.[8]




1.     James Joll, Origins of the First World War, 2d ed., 1992, p. 60.
2.     James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, 1981, p. 26.
3.     Id. at 26-27. 
4.     Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962, p. 83. 
5.     Joll, supra note 1, at 73.
6.     Mark Trachtenberg, ìThe Meaning of Mobilization in 1914,î in 15 International Security 195, 205 (Winter 1990/91).
7.     Id., citing Bernadotte Schmitt, The Coming of the War:  1914, Vol. 2, 1930, p. 94.
8.     Tuchman, supra note 4, at 87.