The Tsar, seated, and the Kaiser, who both spoke movingly of European Union © Mary Evans Picture Library
To mark the centenary of the Great Crisis of 1914, here is an excerpt from AJP Taylor’s unpublished masterpiece, “The Struggle for European Union,” which opens with an account of the signing of the Treaty of Paris at Versailles in September 1939:
The historic resonance and opulence were matched only by the grandeur of the two senior crowned heads who opened the proceedings: the 80-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the 71-year-old Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Both spoke movingly of the path towards European union. Thirty of Europe’s heads of government then signed the Treaty of Paris, establishing a European parliament and executive to oversee the now substantial “Concert of Europe joint defence force for European security.”
The joint force had first been established to police the implementation of the Balkan peace plan, which saw Austria withdraw its troops from Serbia in 1915. Led initially by British Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, it grew from four brigades totalling some 15,000 troops (one each from Germany, Russia, Britain and France) to become an integrated military force of more than 100,000 by the mid-1930s, deployed under successive European treaties in trouble spots across the Balkans and southeastern Europe.
The Treaty of Paris introduced democratic oversight and leadership for this growing European defence capability, and added a significant free trade dimension to the new “European Union.”
It was a far cry from the Great Crisis of 1914 which began the process. In the weeks after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June, Europe stood on the brink of general war. Austria planned military reprisals against Serbia while the German pro-war party, led by Helmuth von Moltke and Alfred von Tirpitz, agitated strongly in support of Austria. Kaiser Wilhelm, who had been leaning towards the war party against his Chancellor and diplomatic advisors, only drew back thanks to the famous Asquith ultimatum of mid-July.
The British Prime Minister warned Berlin that Britain would throw its entire military strength against any incursion by Germany into Belgium, the Netherlands or France. This led Germany to draw back from supporting a humiliating Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, intended for 23rd July, which would have been rejected and precipitated immediate Austro-German military confrontation with…