Perceptions of power during the crisis were particularly revealing. During the early phases, leaders notoriously tended to exaggerate their own power and to perceive their enemies as weaker than they really were. Wilhelm’s pledge to Austria, for example, betrayed a fundamental contempt for Russia’s military power and an exaggerated confidence in the impact of his own appearance on the Russian leadership. Similarly, the Austrians had contempt for Russia’s military machine, which they perceived as more cumbersome and weaker than it actually was. As stress mounted, however, these perceptions gradually changed, and were soon replaced by acute fears of inferiority. These fears, interestingly enough, did not deter any of the participants from actually going to war. At the boiling point, all leaders tended to perceive their own alternatives as more restricted than those of their adversaries. They saw their options as limited by necessity or “fate,” whereas those of the adversary were characterized by open choices. This may help explain the curiously mechanistic quality that pervaded the attitudes of statesmen everywhere on the eve of the outbreak: the “we cannot go back now” of Francis Joseph; the “iron dice” of Bethmann-Hollweg; and the unrelenting determinism and enslavement to their timetables of the military leaders who perceived the slightest advantage of the enemy as a catastrophe.

Everywhere, there was a total absence of empathy. No one realized how the situation looked from another point of view. Berchtold did not see that, to a Serbian patriot, Austria’s action would look like naked aggression. He did not see that, to the Russian leadership, war might seem to be the only alternative to intolerable humiliation, nor did he see the fateful swing of the pendulum in the mood of his ally, the German Kaiser, from careless overconfidence to frenzied paranoia. Wilhelm’s growing panic and total loss of balance made any empathy impossible. And the Russian’s contempt for Austria and fear of Germany did likewise.

Finally, one is struck with the overwhelming mediocrity of the personalities involved. Each of the leaders, diplomats, or generals was badly flawed by arrogance, stupidity, carelessness, or weakness. There was a pervasive tendency to place the preservation of one’s ego before the preservation of the peace. There was little insight and no vision whatsoever. And there was an almost total absence of excellence and generosity of spirit. It was not fate or Providence that made these men fail so miserably. It was their own evasion of responsibility. As a result of their weakness, the flower of Europe’s manhood was destroyed. The sins of the fathers were truly visited upon the sons who forfeited their lives. Of all the cruelties that men have inflicted upon one another, the most terrible has been that of the weak against the weak.

John G. Stoessinger Why Nations Go To War, 2nd ed October 1, 2008
Posted on October 1, 2008