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Military History World War I Origins
Dennis Showalter


The origins of World War I are best summarized in two contexts. The first stresses long-term issues such as nationalism, materialism, and militarism. It critiques a diplomatic system that devolved into rival alliances that risked turning any conflict into a doomsday machine. This structural approach incorporates the domestic tensions generated by industrialism, a shift that led to the emergence of an upper class of old aristocrats and new bourgeoisie willing to risk war to maintain their position. The second context of the war’s origins emphasizes volitional elements. The states of Europe, Great Powers and lesser ones, interacted according to decisions that were made by relatively small groups of politicians, officials, and soldiers so that relatively small events, such as the assassination of Habsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand, could set off a chain reaction of events leading to a war no one wanted. Taken together, these contexts inform most of the literature on the origins of World War I but that is not to say plenty of debate still goes on over the events that precipitated the first shot.


In an increasingly visual age, the structure and the sources of the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne, France, set the standard for establishing the war’s atmosphere. In the world of print, several well-known and well-respected overviews directly address the origins of World War I. The first one hundred pages of Strachan 2001 are close to definitive on the war’s origins, and they can be read separately from the rest of the book by anyone with a basic background. Schroeder 1972 and Remak 1971 have helped many a graduate student through orals, and they can be recommended to general readers as well. Martel 2008 is a concise and sophisticated presentation that contains a well-chosen sample of significant documents and an updated reading list that makes it an ideal book for undergraduates. Lafore 1981 begins with the mid-19th-century wars of German unification and emphasizes the Balkans. Stressing political factors, it remains a useful general introduction. Geiss 1990 focuses on the economic subtext. It is a well-executed and typical example of the “industrial capitalism was responsible” school that from the 1930s to the 1970s shaped, and arguably dominated, interpretations of the war’s origins. Stevenson 1997 focuses on the discussions surrounding the war’s outbreak and is still useful as a summary of the main lines of causes and responsibilities. The website of the recently established International Society for First World War Studies is an essential clearinghouse for news and information on current developments on the subject.


The anthology format continues to dominate approaches to publications on World War I. In good part, this reflects the significant spectrums of interpretation on almost every aspect of the subject. A cafeteria approach is correspondingly both appealing and useful for readers seeking a developed introduction to the war’s origins. The contributions to Afflerbach and Stevenson 2007 take the question of the war’s origins back to the French Revolution. The five essays in Miller, et al. 1991 are written from a contemporary perspective and highlight the nonrational factors that escalated what seemed a routine crisis into a world war. Hamilton and Herwig 2003 focuses closely on 1914 and stresses the contingent behavior of small elites. Evans and Pogge von Strandmann 1988 offers a series of studies in state policy. May 1984 emphasizes the role of information broadly defined. Laqueur and Mosse 1966 is dated but not obsolete, and it is still a useful guide to further reading.

  • Afflerbach, Holger, and David Stevenson. An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture before 1914. New York: Berghahn, 2007.

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    Best of the contemporary crop, intended for scholars, its contributions emphasize the war’s roots in the “long 19th century” that began with the French Revolution, and in that context establish the conflict’s contingent nature.

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  • Evans, R. J. W., and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. The Coming of the First World War. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

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    Takes a country-by-country approach. The essays integrate domestic and international factors; the distinguished contributors have extended the work’s shelf life with generally perceptive interpretations that remain solid despite subsequent research developments and are useful as graduate and upper-division supplements.

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  • Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger Herwig, eds. The Origins of World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    Focuses closely on 1914; stresses the central role of specific decisions made by small coteries of governing elites, and accordingly contributes strongly to the “contingency” approach to the war’s outbreak—namely, that nothing is inevitable until it happens.

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  • Laqueur, Walter, and George L. Mosse, eds. 1914: The Coming of the First World War. New York: Harper, 1966.

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    Edited by two great scholars; state of the art when first published. Essays combine for comprehensive coverage; reference apparatus is solid. Still a useful introduction to many of the issues of responsibility and causation that would dominate during the rest of the century; the texts and footnotes of the individual entries are correspondingly valuable to students of the war’s historiography.

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  • May, Ernest R., ed. Knowing One’s Enemies: Intelligence Assessment before the Two World Wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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    The essays on World War I in this collection demonstrate that the more the Great Powers knew about each other, the more aware they became of their own shortcomings—and the more concerned about being caught off balance in a war that was generally expected to be short.

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  • Miller, Steven E., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Stephen van Evera, eds. Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

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    Based on a special issue of International Security, the contributions have a political science focus and are aimed at academic readers. Noteworthy is the case made by Scott Sagan that offensive doctrines manifested perceived weakness rather than perceived strength.

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Three journals stand out as sources for significant publications on the war’s origins. War in History, though not a specialist periodical, regularly includes specialized essays addressing the subject. First World War Studies is a new publication that is especially interested in publishing the work of younger scholars. A magazine rather than a journal, 14–18, le magazine de la Grande Guerre, focuses, as its title indicates, on the conflict itself but contains a fair amount of material on origins and preparations.

European Factors

The Great War’s origins transcended national boundaries. Mayer 1981 considers the nature of a pre-1914 ruling class more heterogeneous than usually understood, but lacking cohesion. Crook 1994 takes an intellectual perspective, stressing the limits of Darwinism as a causal factor. Winter 1995 and Ekstein 1989, best consulted in tandem, use the war’s origins as a basis for discussing its comprehensive cultural impact.

Global Issues

The Great War was also a world war, and its global roots are complex and comprehensive. Wesseling 2004 is useful for its eschewing of the Anglocentricity common to the subject. Offer 1989 presents the war’s origins in the context of an integrating global agriculture. Headrick 2010 and Ralston 1990 focus on the military aspects. Fogarty 2008 offers a sophisticated analysis of the role of French colonialism during the war.

Attitudes to War

Feelings and thoughts impelled Europe into war as much as diplomatic documents and call-up notices. Becker 1977 breaks new ground in demonstrating the contingent, limited nature of French support for the war. Verhey 2000 does the same for the Germans. Morris 1984 goes deeper temporally in establishing the growth of a climate of fear in Britain. Adams 1990 explores the psychological dimensions of the relationship between war and masculine identity; Wohl 1979 focuses on the generational aspects.

Art and Literature

Military themes were increasingly present in popular art and literature in the final years of the 19th century. Eby 1988 describes the shift away from mid-century liberal antiwar tropes in British popular fiction in favor of positive images of war and imperial conquest. In a parallel work, Peck 1998 presents the soldier’s evolution from social outcast to national symbol, epitomized in the work of Rudyard Kipling. Hichberger 1988 discusses the emergence in British art of “heroic realism,” that is, death in battle with an affirmative spin. Robichon 1998 examines French military painting, which, more often than its British counterpart, addressed themes of heroic defeat usually drawn from the battle of Waterloo and the Franco-Prussian War.


Förster 1985 stresses militarism’s function as a means of internal control in a German context; Miller 2002 depicts the same phenomenon in France as a consequence of co-opting republican patriotism. Ingenlath 1998 and Nolan 2005 present a reciprocal process, each form of militarism reinforcing the other. Vogel 1997 describes militarism in terms of a secular near-religion. Kennedy 1982 presents the Anglo-German antagonism in broader cultural terms. The militarization of daily life also flourished, from nurseries filled with toy soldiers to taverns filled with nostalgic reservists—a development well presented in Cooper 1991. All things considered, the hawks definitely dominated, though Rohrkramer 1990 shows that active warmongering as opposed to patrioteering and posturing remained at a discount.

Antimilitarism and Pacifism

The distinguishing characteristics of antiwar movements in pre–Great War Europe were their small size and high ambivalence: Chickering 1975 is a good case study. Pure pacifism was, for practical purposes, the resort of individuals. Middle-class peace groups achieved nothing outside of their own meeting rooms—see Uhlig 1988. On the left, Stargardt 1994 shows that antimilitarism was as much an instrument to challenge—and anger “bourgeois” power structures as it was a moral principle. On the other hand, Dülffer 1981 shows the potential of international law to structure and control some of war making’s details.

The Arms Races

Europe’s arms race, as Pick 1993 shows, was as much about ideas as weapons. Storz 1992 establishes a contribution to the growing mutual anxiety characterizing international relations. Herrmann 1997 and Stevenson 1996 combine for a discussion of the contest’s last stage, when resources were wildly expended without altering the running order. Sumida 1993 on the Royal Navy is paradigmatic for the development of prewar sea power in general: Europe reacted to Britannia, as Herwig 1980 demonstrates. Wilmott 2009 evaluates the changing operational climate generated by improved warship designs and doctrines that often failed to keep pace. Morrow 1993 is excellent on the origins of military aviation, and unexpected in showing its quick acceptance.

War Plans

The pre–Great War era was a period where improvisation was perceived as the road to catastrophe. Hamilton and Herwig 2010 is innovative in the stress the contributors place on the flexibility of the respective war plans, more familiarly described in terms of rigidity. The essays in Kennedy 1985 remain solid and are undergraduate-friendly in presentation. Significant research continues to focus on the German approaches. Förster 1995 breaks new ground in highlighting the German general staff’s belief in a long war. Hobson 2002 is excellent for the strategic ramifications of the Reich’s naval development. In wider contexts, Gooch 1974 stresses the neglected global, imperial aspects of British strategic planning; Marshall 2006 does the same for Russia. Stevenson 2007 gives details of vital prewar developments in Belgium.

The Schlieffen Plan

The alleged German master plan to secure victory by a lightning campaign in France and Belgium remains a fruitful subject of analysis. The flat denial of the Schlieffen Plan’s existence in Zuber 2002 is balanced by the contributions to Ehlert, et al. 2006. The latter work requires good knowledge of German. Foley 2005 describes the development of an unacknowledged alternative. Höbelt 1984 and Tunstall 1975 are excellent for the development of Austro-German plans for the eastern theater, which still tends to be overlooked in general accounts.

  • Ehlert, Hans, Michael Epkenhans, and Gerhard P. Gross. Der Schlieffenplan: Analysen und Dokumenten. Paderborn, Germany: Schoeningh, 2006.

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    German scholarship at its best, resulting in the best available compendium of material on arguably the war’s central subject. The essay by Gross demonstrating that a Schlieffen Plan did exist, and that it was flexible, is a tour de force. Accessible only to those with a good command of academic German and a solid background in military history, but worth the effort.

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  • Foley, Robert T. German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    Demonstrates the growing recognition by German military planners, even in the 19th century, that Germany could no longer count on winning the next war by battles and campaigns of “annihilation.”

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  • Höbelt, Lothar. “Schlieffen, Beck, Potiorek und das Ende der gemeinsamen deutsch-österrechischen-ungarischen Aufmarschpläne im Osten.” Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 36 (1984): 7–30.

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    Analyzes the growing, mutually caused strategic distance between the two Central Powers.

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  • Tunstall, Graydon A. “The Schlieffen Plan: The Diplomacy and Military Strategy of the Central Powers in the East, 1905–1914.” PhD diss., Rutgers University, 1975.

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    Still unsurpassed as an analysis of Austria-Hungary’s plans for the eastern front; far superior to the truncated published version.

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  • Zuber, Terence. Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning, 1871–1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199250165.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Controversial denial that a “Schlieffen Plan” existed in any coherent form, arguing instead that the concept was a postwar construction, developed by officers seeking to avoid blame for Germany’s defeat; affirms that Schlieffen’s real intention was to counterpunch and exploit opportunities as they developed.

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Ralston 1967 illustrates a Third Republic that spent forty years in systematic, comprehensive preparation for the military threats and challenges it perceived. Germany remained primary—to a point where Kennan 1984 shows France negotiating an alliance with its political opposite pole, tsarist Russia, and abandoning its centuries-long rivalry with Britain in favor of an entente—with consequences developed in Williamson 1969. Luntinen 1984 shows the details of the developing Franco-Russian military involvement. Keiger 1983 demonstrates the high degree of autonomy that the French Foreign Office enjoyed in the Third Republic. Diplomacy, however, could not solve the problems of a population whose growth lagged significantly behind Germany’s, which is the subject of Krumeich 1984. Nor could diplomacy improve an economy that remained inferior to both Germany and Britain in terms of heavy industry. As a result, France concentrated increasingly on developing a quality army and an effective navy for the purposes of a short war. Walser 1992 identifies the relative lack of success in the latter endeavor; Porch 1981 denotes the French army’s improved quality on the eve of war.


French 1982 demonstrates that Great Britain’s road to the Great War reflected the growing enmeshment of its imperial position with its continental relationships. The policy of “splendid isolation” so often invoked by politicians in the late 19th century is best understood as a means of sustaining the European balance of power regarded as vital to Britain’s security. Friedberg 1988 highlights the relative decline of British economic and financial power combining with the growing demands of imperial security to impel direct involvement in continental affairs. Seligmann 2006 is excellent on the intelligence aspects of that involvement. Steiner 1969 and Hinsley 1977 combine to show how Britain managed to avoid a “continental commitment,” which, in turn, made any decision for war a political as well as a diplomatic question. Neilson 1991 offers the general proposition that there was still ample diplomatic and military life remaining in the British lion. D’Ombrain 1973 supports the position with its analysis of defense administration; Lambert 2005 substantiates such in the context of naval communications systems.

  • French, David. British Economic and Strategic Planning, 1905–1915. London: Unwin, 1982.

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    A sophisticated analysis of the relationship of economics to politics and diplomacy; emphasizes the government’s intention to minimize its continental commitment as much as possible.

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  • Friedberg, Aaron L. The Weary Titan: Great Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

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    Presents British policy at the turn of the 20th century as based on seeking systematic relief from comprehensive overextension: a necessary preliminary to understanding the origins of the entente.

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  • Hinsley, F. H., ed. British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

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    Excellent graduate-level anthology on foreign policy, featuring contributions by T. R. B. Langhorne on Anglo-German relations and Michael Ekstein on the triple entente.

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  • Lambert, Nicholas. “Strategic Command and Control for Maneuver Warfare: Creation of the Royal Navy’s ‘War Room’ System, 1905–1914.” Journal of Military History 69 (2005): 361–410.

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    Addresses the growing influence of prewar developments in communications technology on security policy and strategic planning.

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  • Neilson, Keith. “‘Greatly Exaggerated’: The Myth of the Decline of Great Britain before 1914.” International History Review 13 (1991): 695–725.

    DOI: 10.1080/07075332.1991.9640599Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Aggressively and concisely challenges the “declining titan” interpretation of British policy before 1914.

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  • d’Ombrain, Nicholas. War Machinery and High Policy: Defence Administration in Peacetime Britain, 1902–14. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

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    Addresses the development of defense administration in the decade before the war from a bureaucratic, as opposed to a doctrinal, perspective.

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  • Seligmann, Matthew S. Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Describes the valid contributions of military intelligence to the government’s perception that the German danger was real and imminent. Well researched and quite readable.

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  • Steiner, Zara. The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898–1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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    Excellent for the prewar role of a Foreign Office still largely independent of political and public influence. Still good as collateral reading even on an undergraduate level.

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Was the dual monarchy a doomed empire? The empire was surrounded by potential foes, contained eleven officially recognized languages, and possessed an inadequate military budget divided among Austria’s Landwehr, Hungary’s Honvédség, and the joint Imperial and Royal Army (kaiserlich und königlich Armee [k.u.k.]), whose organizational details are developed in Austro-Hungarian Land Forces 1848–1918. Austria-Hungary, despite the optimism expressed in Deák 1990 and Remak 1969, seemed, among opinion makers in many other capitals, to be the new “Sick Man of Europe.” Its dismemberment, however, was not of immediate concern, as Sondhaus 2000 and Pantenius 1984 demonstrate. More critical was the issue presented in Angelow 2000: the empire’s apparent decline into the status of a regional power. Austro-Hungarian diplomacy sought to maintain its first-rank status on the cheap. But weak states, as Kronenbitter 2003 argues, are like weak men: They must destroy their enemies. Williamson 1991 outlines Austria-Hungary’s developing diplomatic crisis. The counterpoint in Stone 1966 exposes an approach to war planning that took too little account of the details of war readiness.


Even before Otto von Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890 by the young emperor William II, challengers to the European order he created by the mid-century unification wars were emerging. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 reflected more than just concern at Germany’s still-growing economic and military power, discussed in context in Brose 2001. At the same time, Schoellgen 1990 shows that Germany’s foreign policy grew more erratic and acquired a global dimension that Bismarck had generally eschewed. Lambi 1984 discusses the negative diplomatic and strategic consequences of constructing an ocean-going navy. Hull 2005 describes a German Reich combining the most dynamic economy in Europe with an authoritarian political system and a highly militarized society. The latter is depicted more or less benignly on the Aktuelles website and analyzed in operational and social contexts in Brose 2001. To respond with force to a major perceived threat seemed, as Hewitson 2004 and Mombauer 2001 assert, to be leading from strength—at least in the summer of 1914. Herwig 1997 includes a brilliant analysis of the consequences: first, diplomatic crisis and, then, world war.


Italy was the least of the Great Powers and the last of the Central Powers. It played, as Bosworth 1979 and Bosworth 1983 demonstrate, an appropriately ambiguous role in the war’s origins. Hostility to Austria was balanced by fear of France. Gooch 1989 describes an army widely understood across the political spectrum as an instrument for domestic control rather than power projection. The thesis of Illari 1990 denies that premise, but the text tends to affirm it. Italy played an increasing role as a Mediterranean sea power, as shown in Halpern 1971. An underdeveloped economy and a pattern of increasing social tensions, nevertheless, made Italy a dubious ally (Ropponen 1986), and helped keep the state out of the war until the Allies met its price in 1915. Yet, ironically, Childs 1990 shows that, by its 1911 intervention in Libya and the resulting disruption of the Ottoman Empire, Italy played a crucial role in setting up the crisis of 1914.


On the one hand, prewar Russia was, as Fuller 1985 indicates, a network of anomalies and dysfunctions. An increasing need for committed, educated citizens confronted an increasingly alienated student community and an even more disaffected intelligentsia. Instead, Lincoln 1983 portrays an autocratic state system interfaced with an embryonic parliamentary system and an increasingly ambitious spectrum of revolutionary organizations. A developing industrial economy confronted a labor force whose social/cultural roots were in the 17th century and a financing system heavily dependent on foreign loans; Gatrell 1994 presents the results. Imperialism, as Geyer 1987 shows, invited overstretch. None of these situations, individually or together, made revolution inevitable. They did combine to limit what McDonald 1992 describes as an already restricted government ability to mobilize its human and material resources behind an industrial, mass war. Neilson 1995 is British-focused, but incorporates a solid general analysis of the dynamics of Russia’s prewar foreign policy. Menning 1992 and Rich 1998 depict how the armed forces had significantly improved since the debacles of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, but they remained ill-prepared for what they faced.


Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” would start a major war. He was right. The independent states of the peninsula increased in numbers and assertiveness in the last quarter of the 19th century, due in part to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and Austria-Hungary’s subsequent occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Jelavich 1991 admirably presents the decline of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, long-time guarantors of regional stability. Above all, however, the Balkan states themselves transformed “from wasps to locomotives” relative to their circumstances. Lampl 1971 narrates Serbia’s public finances in an excellent case study. Hall 2000 highlights Balkan achievements in making war. Ethnic and religious as well as territorial and dynastic rivalries, some of centuries’ standing and some reflecting recent headlines, were carried forward by governments that, Boeckh 1996 shows, were increasingly successful in mobilizing and militarizing their populations and in developing armies remarkably effective in the contexts of the early 20th century. The level of Balkan military industrialization was congruent with the peninsula’s wider infrastructure. Western observers came away from the Balkan Wars of 1911–1912 with an unexpected respect for the prowess and the potential of the region’s armed forces—respect that, Erickson 2003 shows from a Turkish perspective, was amply justified. Austria-Hungary’s anxieties in 1914 regarding a Balkan threat were neither entirely imaginary nor entirely inaccurate—particularly in view of increasing Austro-German economic rivalry in the region, as demonstrated in Löding 1969. Crampton 1979 surveys the failure of the Great Powers to stabilize a region increasingly disrupted by the kind of state-nationalist ambitions that Mackenzie 1982 establishes for Serbia.

LAST MODIFIED: 02/06/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791279-0006

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