A. J. P. Taylor
A. J. P. Taylor

The “red button” of the First World War – A. J. P. Taylor’s “timetable theory” on the outbreak of the world war

What caused the First World War, the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century? Perhaps no historical question has so much literature than the outbreak of the First World War. One of the most original answers were provided by A. J. P. Taylor (1906–1990), who had less research in the archives, but he thought so much more: the first and most renowned British “media historian” even today explained his shocking “timetable theory” in several works: it starts from the basic assumption that people are unwilling to believe – that “large events have minor reasons“.

A. J. P. Taylor explained his theory first in his work published in 1963 – and translated into Hungarian in 1988 – entitled The First World War: An Illustrated History, in the most detailed manner in War by Timetable published in 1969, and finally in How Wars Begin published in 1979, which was based on his series of television lectures held freely without notes in 1977. According to Taylor, in the summer of 1914, none of the great powers wanted the outbreak of war. His theory is based on three starting points: mobilizing the reservists does not necessarily mean war, but rather only a threat, which was gladly used by the diplomacy of great powers at the turn of the 19-20th centuries. As an important aspect, mobilization can be stopped, but – to mention the third prerequisite – it cannot be formed in an improvized manner, since soldiers are transported by train, and rail timetables require the most stringent calculations.

As Wolfgang Schivelbusch explained in his work entitled The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, timetables could “democratize” the 19th-century Europe by being valid for everyone: no train could be started for the sake of gentlemen with any privilege like a chariot or automobile, since railways required the existence of strict timetables. In the summer of 1914, all mobilization plans were built on the railway network, therefore each phase of mobilization was calculated to the minute months, years prior to the outbreak of war, and these plans could not be simply modified. Taylor emphasized that upon changing the direction of even one train, all others had to be modified and recalculated. He also declared – strongly exaggerating, according to his critics – that any changes in the timetable, even a delayed train could mean that the given power might lose not only 24 hours but even half a year since this would have been the time needed le to prepare the next mobilization timetable if everything had crashed.

Historians who do not blame Germany for the outbreak of the First World War usually emphasize the responsibility of Russia: they think that the biggest push toward the world war was the decision by the state to order general mobilization. This caused the expansion of the local conflict between the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy and Serbia. However, according to A. J. P. Taylor, Russia was the one who wanted to curb the outbreak of the Balkan conflict on time by declaring to be ready to support Serbia, and order the mobilization of its troops to give weight to this statement. But why was general mobilization necessary then?

Russia would have only ordered mobilization against the Monarchy, however, Russian generals pointed out that if Russia mobilized only against the Monarchy, it would be completely vulnerable against Germany, therefore they rejected partial mobilization. The next day the military leadership realized how terrible this inaction was, but no other tools were left beside general mobilization as additional threats. While, in fact, Russia did not have any offensive intentions not only against Germany, but even against the Monarchy – as Taylor pointed out the absurdity of the outbreak of the world war. The generals and the chief of staff were brooding so much that Nicholas II – who was probably the weakest-willed tsar ever – took the opportunity to show who ruled in Russia, and the general mobilization was ordered at his command. However, the importance attached to the case by Nicolas II shows that he mentioned the nice summer weather and beach bathing in his diary record that evening, but not mobilization.

That is how the grenade, passed from hand to hand, got to Germany, the only problem was that there was no difference between mobilization and war in the case of Germany. Why? For most countries, mobilization was a significant step toward the war, but it did not at all mean war. The British Royal Navy was mobilized several times prior to the First World War, lastly in 1911, Russia also mobilized in 1913, and yet no war followed, i.e. as A. J. P. Taylor noted: great powers used mobilization as a threat. With the exception of one, which did not have this option.

The German military staff worked monomanically to solve the problem of the two-front war, i.e. to be able to fight war against two threatening neighbours, Russia and France at the same time, since Germany’s unification in 1871. The latter two states made a defence alliance in 1894, which stated that upon an attack against the other party, they would provide mutual military assistance to each other. German chiefs of staff – the older Moltke, Schlieffen and younger Moltke – were all convinced that Germany would not be able to fight on two fronts simultaneously. But as it often happens to chiefs of staff: they were not right. Germany successfully fought on two fronts simultaneously between 1914 and 1918: a false assumption dictated the plans of the military leadership, and thereby in fact Germany’s politics. However – as Taylor emphasized – the ones who think that the intention to outbreak the war was behind the German plans are wrong, since what else the military leadership would do in peaceful times than preparing plans for likely and unlikely cases as well. Preparing a plan does not mean that the ones planning it do want that war, and especially not wanting to outbreak it.

What can be done if war is necessary in two fronts at the same time, and according to their fixed belief, there are not sufficient resources for the two-front war? As for the German response, Germany had to be the first to attack, and the first strike had to be so devastating that would knock one of their opponents out of the war right away. Since they believed that it was too difficult to make a decisive blow against Russia owing to its huge distances, they selected France as their primary target. However, the German border of France was strengthened, therefore the German military leadership decided as early as the 1890s that the road to Paris shall go through Belgium, although a lot of time passed until they managed to work out the entire plan: The famous “Schlieffen plan” was finally complete in 1905. In addition to avoiding the French fortification system, another significant element of the Schlieffen plan was that only 40 days were dedicated to defeat France, and there was no place for delay, otherwise Russia would mobilize and Germany could not avoid the two-front war. The compulsive haste also implied that the German decision to start mobilization also meant the decision to go to war. Mobilization plans of other countries ended by transporting soldiers to their barracks, however, German generals considered their immediate transfer to the front.

Taylor’s “timetable theory” thereby emphasizes that neither great power could outbreak the First World War, but in fact the armament to deter the attackers, the relentless logic of mobilization, the unalterability of timetables, the amount of mutual fears reached a “critical mass”. As soon as Russia, due to their fear from the Germans, started general mobilization instead of the partial one to deter the Monarchy, the cornered Germany did not have any other options to at least take advantage of the initiation and strike first.

If it is still necessary to find the one responsible for the war, it was a dead man: Alfred von Schlieffen, who died in 1913, since it was his idea that Germany could not differentiate between mobilization and war. The precisely worked out and calculated mobilization plan could not be easily changed owing to the restrictions of railway timetables. So the wave of mobilization that started the world war closing the 19th century was a tragic peak of the era of “railways”, the technical development of the preceding century, which eventually captured the people.

E. H. Carr says that the work of a historian is not only the source of the era it is about but also of the era when it was created. If we think about it, it easily becomes clear that it was indeed the cold war psychosis of the 1960s that affected the theory of the pacifist A. J. P. Taylor, who was an active campaigner against nuclear weaponry and for the reduction of nuclear weapons. The fear from having a high-ranking military leader or politician in the USA or the Soviet Union who would, out of fear from the other, decide that there was no other option but to strike first and push the “red button” to irreversibly fire the missiles.



A. J. P. Taylor: How Wars Begin. London, 1979.

A. J. P. Taylor: A Personal History. London, 1983.

A.J. P. Taylor: Az első világháború képes krónikája. Budapest, 1988.

Adam Sisman: A. J. P. Taylor. A Biography. London, 1994.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch: A vasúti utazás története – A tér és az idő iparosodása a 19. században. Budapest, 2008.


Written by: Csunderlik Péter