The Origins of World War I: How Responsible Was Germany? (Fall 2012)

The topic regarding the origins of World War I is one of the most studied, debated, and disagreed-upon among historians. The question most frequently asked is, “Was Germany primarily responsible for the start of World War I?” Most historians recognize that the immediate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in July, 1914. Most also believe that this incident would not have led to a world war by itself, but that the war was caused by series of interconnected events dating back at least four decades, creating an atmosphere that made war likely, or even inevitable. These causes included nationalism, militarism (an “arms race”), the complex system of strategic and military alliances, the economic and strategic effect of imperialism and social unrest as well as the lack of effective leadership among the nations of Europe. The purpose of this paper is to consider whether German policies and actions were more responsible than other factors for the origin of World War I.

Historians who believe Germany was primarily responsible for the war base their conclusion on the aggressive attitude of Germany’s leaders, their desire to extend Germany’s influence throughout Europe, and on the militaristic nature of the German people. The German Empire, founded in 1870 by Otto von Bismarck, was based on a strong sense of nationalism. Animosity between France and Germany existed during Bismarck’s time, but Germany established peace treaties with almost all of the other nations of Europe. Bismarck strengthened Germany’s position in Europe by establishing an alliance with Austria-Hungary and diplomatic relations with Russia. He wanted to avoid war and maintain a balance of power in Europe with Germany as one of the major powers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II came to power in 1888. He took a much more aggressive stance than Bismarck had and wanted to do more than maintain the status quo. He wanted to expand Germany’s power and influence in Europe. He ended diplomatic relations with Russia, strengthened Germany’s alliance with Austria-Hungary, and began to build up Germany’s navy in an attempt to match the naval power of Great Britain.

The strongest arguments to support the claim that Germany was primarily responsible for World War I are based on documents that had been suppressed by the German government immediately after the war. The first document gave details of a War Council held on December 8, 1912 between Kaiser Wilhelm II and the military leadership of Germany. According to that document Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to start a war of aggression immediately. He was convinced by Admiral Tiplitz and others at the council to delay the war for eighteen months to give the military the opportunity to build up arms and better prepare for the war. World War I started eighteen months later. The second document discovered at this time was an Imperial German government document that identified expansion into a Russian-occupied area of Poland as a major aim of the war. The purpose of this imperialistic expansion was to gain Liebensraum, or “living space”, for the German people. This document provided historians with a link between the foreign policy of Germany in 1914 with that of Hitler in 1939. This document along with the War Council document, led many historians to place most of the blame for the start of World War I on Germany.

Historians who believe Germany was not primarily responsible for the war base their conclusion on the fact that other nations behaved just as badly as Germany did in the decades preceding the war, and that factors outside the control of any one country or individual were more responsible for the war. Militarism, nationalism, the complex system of alliances, imperialism and economic factors, and social and political forces affected all of the countries involved in the conflict, not just Germany.

Militarism was successfully used as a method to carry out imperialistic expansion by England and France. Force or the threat of force was used whenever necessary to establish or maintain control of their colonies. It was used because it worked. Most citizens of England and France didn’t see this aspect of their government because it took place on different continents, not at home. Politicians and military leaders, however, relied on militarism to achieve their goals. Historians believe that the tendency to resort to military action rather than compromise and diplomacy played an important role in how these countries responded when they were threatened at home.

Nationalism didn't just affect Germany. France’s nationalistic feelings date back to the French Revolution of 1789 and to Napoleon’s conquest of Europe in the early 1800’s. The concepts of nationalism and pride in the culture and identity of groups spread to other cultures and nations. Nationalist movements in the Balkans involving Serbs had been going on for the decade leading up to World War I, and war had almost broken out several times. Russia had been embarrassed by a military defeat at the hands of Japan earlier in the century and was eager to regain national pride. In addition to modernizing their culture and economy, winning a war was a way to regain nationalistic pride. France and Great Britain had vast overseas empires that were threatened when Germany became and imperialistic nation. Great Britain’s national pride and security were threatened when Germany threatened to build a navy to challenge Great Britain’s dominance of the seas. As an island nation she felt particularly vulnerable if she didn’t have control of the seas. Because France and Great Britain felt that their strategic and commercial interests were threatened, they became allies to protect themselves from Germany.

All of the countries joined in alliances for mutual protection, and the alliance system kept peace on the continent from the time of the establishment of the German Empire under Bismarck in 1871 to the beginning of the war. None of the major countries, Germany, France, Russia , Austria-Hungary or Great Britain, trusted each other, so the alliances were imperfect. Once aggressive acts were initiated against any country, though, the alliance system acted to promote rather than prevent war as countries were bound to come to the defense of each other. This can be seen as the main reason why a skirmish between Serbia, a small country, and Austria-Hungary, an empire in decline, escalated into World War I.

There was social and political unrest in many European countries during the years preceding World War I. The ruling class was fighting for survival, and all of the major countries were looking for ways to gain the support of the people and strengthen their own countries. Because of this, some historians believe all of the countries were willing to go to war to increase their power and prestige, relative to each other. At first, the countries felt that showing a willingness to go to war would act as a deterrent to war, and other countries would not risk a war with a willing and armed opponent. However when it became apparent that attacking first would be important for success, the risk of war actually increased.

Several other facts are important. In the 1890’s, two decades before the war started, Bismarck stated that Europe was a “powder keg” waiting to be set off that would lead to a war that would destroy the whole continent. He also predicted that the spark would come from the Balkans. Winston Churchill believed war came in 1914 because of a “general restlessness” in Europe. He noted that everyone was turning to violence as a way of expressing dissatisfaction, including trade unions, suffragettes, and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The feeling that all great achievements can be attributed to violence was popularized by French philosopher George Sorel and may have led to this behavior. Finally, the war was seen by some as the failure of leadership in all of the major countries of Europe, and that if one person had stepped up during the five weeks between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the start of the war, and taken a reasonable stand, the war would have been averted.

Many historians agree that German aggression and militaristic policies were responsible for some of the conditions that led to war, that Germany saw itself as likely to benefit from a war, and that as the strongest military power in Europe she could have taken actions to prevent a the war. Much evidence suggests that Germany was more responsible than any other country for the start of World War I and that forces of history outside of the control of Germany contributed to all of the events that led to World War I. Nationalism and pride in culture and identity spread throughout Europe following Napoleon’s conquests and put pressure on empires that had existed for centuries. Imperialism resulted in a rise in militarism as nations established and maintained colonies around the world. Military and strategic alliances created situations where regional skirmishes between small countries could escalate to major battles involving the entire continent. Social unrest put political and economic pressure on existing governments. Finally, there were no strong leaders when they were most needed.

The War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles was unfair in placing all of the responsibility for losses suffered in World War I on Germany. If Germany had won the war it is likely that another country would have signed a “War Guilt Clause” and historians would be debating the degree to which that country was actually responsible for the war. The Historiography references show how the consensus of historians have changed over time. Between 1919 and 1939, most historians felt that Germany was not to blame. After Hitler came to power, historians saw connections between the aggressive action of Kaiser Wilhelm at the beginning of World War I and Hitler’s aggression that led to World War II. As a result, blame for the start of WWI shifted back to Germany. This point of view was strengthened further when the War Council and Liebensraum documents came to light. Based on the evidence, while Germany was more responsible for the start of World War I than any other nation, the war began primarily because of forces of history outside the control of any one country.


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