Most historians have a difficult time dispensing with their biases when writing historical treatises. They are after all merely Human, so this tendency is quite natural and should be expected from their readers. As large, complex events such as World War I are studied in great deal historians, researchers, and other interested parties tend to migrate to what are known as “schools of thought”. Each school believes it has found the answer or answers that explain the reasons for why such events have happened. In many cases these schools are also politicized to support prevailing political ideologies in a society and\or encourage a group-thing among a society’s citizens. None of this means that the research such “schools of thought”, which has been popularized in the mainstream, is necessarily inaccurate or wrong. However, under such circumstances it is easy for a veil of deceit and subterfuge to become the surface of such studies and in some cases replace good research with inept conclusions for various agendas.
World War I was a horrific conflict and unlike World War II after its conclusion, was allowed to be studied from a variety of quickly released resources that the second war’s researchers did not enjoy. However, as one historian as already noted, the documents released soon after the first world war’s conclusion were done so with the added intention of legitimizing the claims in the war made by each country’s release as well as with their to claims to innocence of any involvement towards initiating the conflict.
Such documentation has of course led to much debate over the actual reasons behind this cataclysm in world history; most of it being quite honest attempts since it did not have the overlying concerns of the “Holocaust” or the “European Jewish Question” to contend with. However, some will still claim that even the Jews in 1914 and before it were responsible for this event. Whatever their influence at the time it certainly was not in the various political groups that made up the leadership of the belligerents; at least not to the extent that they are given credit for.
The short answer to this decades’ old question is that they were all responsible due to their miscalculation of the expected consequences of their actions and there were specific reasons for these miscalculation the answer to which will be provided in the conclusion to this paper.
Germany, who has received since, the most blame in many respects could be viewed with actually the least, though there were those in her upper ranks that would have been quite happy with a continental conflagration. Blaming Germany for her desire to expand, which was more or less the result of a young state experiencing growing pains since she was the last of the large European states to be formed in the latter part of the 19th century has to be taken within the context of her sociological and political growth.
England cannot be held any less at fault for the same reasons as she entered the war with the intent of maintaining her Navy and reducing competition from Germany who quickly became a world power in her short time.
France wanted Alsace Lorraine back, which she was forced to surrender after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and drove her foreign policy to align herself with Russia to provide a military envelopment of Germany as a result of fears that engaging with Germany may lead to a another catastrophic defeat.
Italy was simply an opportunist and was often jokingly derided for having such caution in a conflict that she only allowed herself to engage in fully at the time of the Armistice in November 1918.
The Ottoman Empire was falling apart at the seams due to internal corruption and initially really wanted nothing to do with the European war but fell into the side of the Central Powers after a combination of events forced her hand such as when a German cruiser suddenly entered one of her ports for desperately needed fuel.
Austro-Hungary, like the Ottoman Empire was failing due to the mismanagement of her finances over so many years along with some poor decisions made years before by her last great emperor, Franz Josef. She was hardly prepared for war when she entered into conflict with Serbia in 1914, an act that was not intended to initiate a world war.
Finally, we have the United States whose citizens overwhelmingly wanted nothing to do with a European conflict. However, led by a megalomaniacal president Wilson who was able to sway a war hungry Congress itching to prove America’s prowess on the world stage, the US entered the war also wholly unprepared to do so but eventually turned the tide against Germany in the last 4 months of the war. Such a defeat did not prove America’s world prowess but in fact led to massive dislocation in Europe that would not have occurred had she left such events alone.
This paper then will attempt to show the various schools of research that have gone into building the knowledge bases we have to day of The Great War; schools of research all of which take sides for their reasoning for the outbreak of this terrible conflict and all of which are quite legitimate from their points of view but assume that such complexity can be separated from the terrible complexities of social interaction at the time…
To this day there is still tremendous debate on the topic of who initiated World War I, otherwise known as “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”. This question is still considered one of the most engrossing historical investigative questions of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Unlike World War II, which has had a thick veil of political intrigue draped over the tens of thousands of documents that were found after the war, the study of World War I began shortly after the end of the conflict as the atmosphere was far more open at the time for its investigation.
Luigi Albertini, an Italian historian published his monumental investigation on the war after spending years researching it thoroughly in the 1930s. In hard cover, this piece of writing takes up three volumes. In paperback it is around 2111 pages in length.
Working with primary sources and interviewing many who were still alive at the time of his research, Luigi Albertini squarely placed Germany’s Second Reich in the cross-hairs of blame. Even today, Albertini’s enormous research is still considered in many quarters of the historical profession as the definitive work on the war’s origins. Though his work demonstrates that other states involved in the conflict were complicit in initiating hostilities, Albertini primarily supports the thesis that Germany was primarily responsible as a result of the blank cheque Germany’s leaders provided Austria to pursue an attack on Serbia.
However, other histories show that there were people in the Austrian general staff who needed little prodding to follow through with such an attack. Not versed on Albertini’s work I wonder if he considered this aspect of Austria’s general staff.
The man that historian Edward Crankshaw, author of the distinguished study on the Hapsburgs, “The Fall of the House of Habsburg”, points the finger at, would be Conrad von Franz Xaver Joseph Conrad Graf von Hötzendorf. As Chief of the Austrian Imperial Staff in 1914, Hötzendorf saw Serbia as an open sore in the side of Austrian influence in the Balkans. And he itched for an attack on the small, Slavic nation in response to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Knowing that Serbia was under the protection of Czarist Russia at the time didn’t seem to constrain his ambitions towards a confrontation.
Conrad von Franz Xaver Joseph Conrad Graf von Hötzendorf
On the political side of things in the Austrian Court in that summer of 1914, others who also wanted to see a punitive attack on Serbia commence, prepared an ultimatum to the Serbian leadership that was so outrageously harsh that they knew that that the Serbian government would reject it leading to the attack that Hötzendorf and the ministers in the Austrian government wanted.
Germany’s offer of a “blank cheque” was the impetus that provided Hötzendorf and others in the Austrian High Command as well as within the government, with the backing they needed before commencing a conflict with Serbia, which is interesting in itself given that the Austrian Army far outnumbered the Serbian military. Unfortunately, by 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not in very good financial shape, which in turn led to structural weaknesses in many sectors, including the Austrian Army; the latter being poorly trained, led, and equipped for many years.
In terms of the Austrian Army, if we go back in history to 1848, when Franz Joseph ascended to the throne of the Austrian Empire after his uncle Ferdinand abdicated along with Franz Josef’s father, we find a fateful decision by the young emperor that had long-term ramifications on the capabilities of Austrian Imperial Forces over the decades.. This decision by the young Franz Josef was made with a mix of a lack of confidence as well as immature judgement.
Franz Josef – 1905
Shortly after Franz Josef’s ascension to the Hapsburg throne he selected Count Karl Ludwig von Grünne to be his new Adjutant General for the Austrian Imperial Forces. Though there were other military men in the Austrian forces that were far more capable in terms of understanding military matters, at 18 years of age the young Franz Josef needed someone that would allow him to retain an anchor to the previous administrations of the people he succeeded. Franz Josef needed a confidant and a family friend that would do well with the requirements of the new court and von Grünne was that man.
Count Karl Ludwig von Grünne, was what was known as a “parade ground” general who was far more interested in military protocol than combat effectiveness, none of which he had any experience with compared to other more qualified senior officers; especially Marshall Radetzky and General Hess who would later be considered for the position in the 1860s. Grűnne was also a close associate and friend of the royal family with very close relations to the new emperor and empress.
Count Karl Ludwig von Grünne
For young Franz Josef, von Grünne was the perfect selection for this high post. In the Austrian Military at that time, the Adjutant General was in a sense what would be compared to today’s US Chief of Staff. Both posts are highly politicized and the subsequent results for both militaries were and are apparent.
Though von Grünne was a good organization man and administrator he lacked the necessary qualifications to reform the Hapsburg Forces appropriately for effective combat and was further stymied by the fact that in 1848 the Hapsburg\Austrian Empire was nearly financially bankrupt and this became a crises when Prime Minister Schwarzenburger suddenly died of a heart attack in his place of residence while preparing for a royal affair. As Prime Minister, Schwarzenburger, probably the finest statesman in Austrian history during this period, knew that the empire was nearly bankrupt and did everything possible to resist any elaborate plans for increased spending.
The result was that the selection of von Grünne by Franz Josef set the tone and the priorities of the Austrian forces for years to come. This was quite apparent in 1914 when the military was in fairly bad shape and not prepared at all for any attack on Serbia.
Nonetheless, after the Serbians refused the demands of the Austrian government in 1914, the request for war with Serbia was brought to the emperor. For a man who had worked tirelessly to keep the peace during his entire reign (aside from a few major battles) signing this declaration was the last thing he wanted to do. However, at 84 years of age the elderly Franz Josef had lost his inner strengths after working so arduously and continuously for his empire for so many years. With intense regret, he signed the declaration of war.
Austro-Hungarian Declaration of War on Serbia 1914
The Germans saw the necessity to offer their support to Austria in this situation due to the that Austro-Hungary was their only major ally and as a result had to shore up the aging empire.
Luigi Albertini, in his thesis on the war, saw Germany as the major instigator for Austria’s harsh stance on Serbia with the idea that provoking a “local” war between Austria and Serbia would shatter the alliance between France and Russia as well as their relations with Great Britain. However, it appears on the surface that Albertini was trying to mix apples and oranges with this interpretation since such a war on Serbia would most likely result in an even stronger alliance between both France and Russia, making his interpretation somewhat questionable.
It is true that such an alliance was questionable since both Russia and France had concluded this alliance in 1892, which was fully signed in 1893 by Russia for differing reasons, those reasons being the sole interest of each country. However, the one interest that each had in common with each other was that of railway modernization, which the French viewed as necessary for any future conflict with Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that demonstrated Germany’s superior logistical skills with railroad transportation of troops.
This alliance started off with very general terms as can be viewed in the contents of this agreement below…
The Franco-Russian Alliance Military Convention – August 18, 1892
France and Russia, being animated by a common desire to preserve peace, and having no other object than to meet the necessities of a defensive war, provoked by an attack of the forces of the Triple Alliance against either of them, have agreed upon the following provisions:
1. If France is attacked by Germany, or by Italy supported by Germany, Russia shall employ all her available forces to attack Germany.
If Russia is attacked by Germany, or by Austria supported by Germany, France shall employ all her available forces to attack Germany.
2. In case the forces of the Triple Alliance, or of any one of the Powers belonging to it, should be mobilized, France and Russia, at the first news of this event and without previous agreement being necessary, shall mobilize immediately and simultaneously the whole of their forces, and shall transport them as far as possible to their frontiers.
3. The available forces to be employed against Germany shall be, on the part of France, 1,300,000 men, on the part of Russia, 700,000 or 800,000 men.
These forces shall engage to the full with such speed that Germany will have to fight simultaneously on the East and on the West.
4. The General Staffs of the Armies of the two countries shall cooperate with each other at all times in the preparation and facilitation of the execution of the measures mentioned above.
They shall communicate with each other, while there is still peace, all information relative to the armies of the Triple Alliance which is already in their possession or shall come into their possession.
Ways and means of corresponding in time of war shall be studied and worked out in advance.
5. France and Russia shall not conclude peace separately.
6. The present Convention shall have the same duration as the Triple Alliance.
7. All the clauses enumerated above shall be kept absolutely secret.
Signature of the Minister:
Signature of the Minister:
General of Division,
Chief of the General Staff
Councillor of State
Signed: OBRUCHEFF Sub-Chief of the General Staff of the Army
However, over time this basic agreement infrastructure led to conflicts between how the French viewed railway construction for military purposes and Russia viewed it as a necessity for their economy. Russia wanted French loans to engage in railway development but the French wanted to see the monies invested in such a manner that the primary goal of Russian railway development would be for military purposes; the same purposes that she saw to modernize her own railway system.
The French were so intent in seeing their loan monies used for strategic Russian railway development that starting in 1892 after Russia signed the above agreement, the French government moved to influence the Russian military lobby, which though looked at the French intent sympathetically did not accomplish much in that vein.
French efforts to continue to convince the Russian government to accede to their concerns as to how the monies were to be used would not happen until 1898 when a new French Foreign Minister took office. Up to that time, the Russian viewpoint was that railway construction was to benefit the overall economy and not some potential enemy in the future.
Oddly enough when success was accorded to the French efforts in Russia on this matter, the first Russian railway development project that the French wanted built was in India against British interests there. The railway line to be built was to be done from Russia to the Afghan border for which the French felt pressure could be brought against British influence there when and if necessary; so much for the logic in such an alliance.
The railway development proposal was at first opposed by the Russians but such opposition was overcome and it was eventually completed in 1906 with little strategic advantage coming from it. At the same time this railway line was being laid, France was in negotiations with Britain for more cordial relations.
If this alliance was any example of how many other agreements were made throughout the European continent prior to the war, it is no wonder that the secrecy of most such alliances led to tangled webs of conflict, cross purposes, and mutual nullification without any of the diplomats corps of each nation being much the wiser.
Germany of course was not devoid of such political maneuverings but if you don’t have that many allies to begin with and there are few who want to become allies with you than political maneuver in such a quagmire of intrigue is somewhat limited. In a sense it did keep the German side of things a bit more honest from such a perspective.
Despite Luigi Albertini’s excellent and thorough research on the subject, laying the majority of blame on German intrigue for the start of The Great War given a sampling of Allied political intrigue on their own as just described does not seem realistic or even fair.
No doubt German leadership, descendant from the robust Prussian Imperial Forces and the autocratic ruling philosophies of the Junker familial aristocrats that created their nation-state, they too saw advantages to war and some even wanted aggressive war. However, the German military and political leaderships appeared to be somewhat more pragmatic than they are given credit for.
This distorted view of German war aims in part grew from their master plan for conflict at the time, the Schlieffen Plan.
Gerhard Ritter & Terrance Zuber
Gerhard Ritter, a historian of note in the 1950s, published his treatise, The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth, in German in 1956 and then later in English in 1958. Like Albertini, he also blamed Germany for the initiation of the hostilities but more from a military perspective as a result of their daring and highly mobile operational plans for attack on France that were in fact carried out in the fall of 1914; the Schlieffen Plan.
Gerhard Ritter, a German historian and nationalist, saw this attack on France as the cause of the war since he felt that the German leadership was blinded by the militarism in the German Armed Forces that influenced the political leadership. In part this point of view does in fact have some merit.
The German state in 1914 was in fact a product of Prussian military successes (Junker family members made up most if not all of the senior positions in the military) in the past as well as the autocratic form, of authority that provided for an absolute monarch, which was passed on from the earlier mentioned Junker familial aristocrats. This closed group of ruling parties could be easily swayed by one sector’s influence to the other given that many in both these ruling areas came from the same place.
As a result, this viewpoint of the Schlieffen Plan as the basic cause of the war became a predominant one after Ritter’s publication as it had been also a legitimate view prior to it. The problem however, like the blanket blame that Albertini attributes to the German leadership, is that the Schlieffen Plan appears to have become various things based on who was discussing it.
For some this operational plan was in fact the actual plan for a major conflict on the continent, while for others, it was more of a proposal in the form of a memorandum that was taken out of context.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen was the Chief of the Prussian Imperial Staff from 1895 through 1905. During these years it has been written that he was obsessed with a concept that provided for a two-pronged pre-emptive attack both on France as well as Russia. Ritter should be given some credit for his assertion that logistically, the plan made little sense given the enormity of it, which than provided its complexity.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen
However, the Schlieffen Plan was not simply a static war plan for a future conflict with France and or Russia but in fact became far more flexible over time to accommodate the circumstances that the German Reich would find itself. This underlying fact was elucidated in Robert T. Foley’s very interesting and intriguing critique and analysis of Schlieffen’s development (The Real Schlieffen Plan) who aimed his treatise towards the later author of similar perceptions about Schlieffen as that of Gerhard Ritter, Major Terrence Zuber in 1999.
The Schlieffen Plan – Circa 1905
Unlike Ritter’s initial conclusions that the use of large wheeling armies (see image below) was a reckless endeavor, Schlieffen’s own analysis proved to be more cognizant of the realities surrounding German in his time than such historians as Ritter and Zuber give credit for.
Initially, the plan did take into account the possibility of a two-front conflict between Germany, France and Russia, thus forming the basis for an initial knockout blow against France so that Germany could turn her attentions to dealing with Russia. As I noted earlier, this consideration arose as result of the alliance France developed with Russia over railway development in 1892.
Ritter and Zuber also speculate that the Schlieffen Plan was not the basis for a war plan but was instead intended to simply prompt the German War Ministry to provide more funding for the enlargement of German Forces. However, if the findings by historians regarding Schlieffen’s plan are correct as they allude to an obsession with the development of such a strategy, in Schlieffen’s mind there had to be more at stake than just the enlargement of German military resources.
As the plan began initially as defensive strategy for fighting against two belligerents on either side of Germany, in late 1905 and after this foundation for such planning began to fade after the results of the Russo-Japanese war concluded, which demonstrated to German military attaches who were present on the Russian side of the conflict that Russian military prowess had been heavily overestimated by German intelligence.
This German analysis of Russian military capabilities in 1906 were re-analyzed to demonstrate a lower capability than previously envisioned, though some historians have used the earlier overestimations of Russian strength as a basis for German offensive actions as late as 1914.
With this re-evaluation of Russian capability, Schlieffen and Helmut von Moltke the Younger (the nephew of Helmut von Moltke the Elder who designed the actual Blitzkrieg strategies used in 1940’s France in the early 1860s) viewed Schlieffen’s work in the same manner as Schlieffen had come to see it; that of a “preventive attack” on France in order to neutralize her army.
The reason for this change in viewpoint was the modernization of French military Forces in the early 1900s, especially in the area of artillery, which could outperform anything the German Army could field at the time. In addition, French armoring of their fortresses that ran the length of the French city, Verdun to the French southeast, were literally impregnable to German artillery, no matter how fine. This line of French fortresses is what gave rise to the leftwards wheeling movement in Schlieffen’s grand analysis, which was intended to circumvent French defensive positions, positions that had developed as result of French investment in their military since the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.
It should be noted here that based on Foley’s analysis, which used in-depth resources including those of the German archivist and historian, Dr. Wilhelm Dieckman, there is never any interpretation provided that such a plan would provide for hegemonic conquest of Western Europe as several historians over the years have alluded to; again with the intent of singularly blaming Germany and she alone for the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.
Taken in context, the Schlieffen Plan was an ongoing development of potential defensive strategies (which included offensive operations) for the changing realities that Germany found herself surrounded by. This can be seen towards the end of Schlieffen’s time as the Chief of the Prussian Imperial Staff as by then he had changed in viewpoint towards his strategic development as he came to view it as a “preventive strike”. There is nothing noted in the plan that regards it as technique for not just neutralizing the French Army but then occupying France for purposes of territorial acquisition.
The Schlieffen Plan (red) in Relation to the French Offensive Plan (blue)
After 1905, Helmut von Moltke the Younger took over the Chief of Staff position and despite later reports of his talents being less than those than his famous uncle, Moltke was in fact quite cognizant of the potential threats facing Germany militarily. Unlike many in Europe, Moltke was very concerned that a long war would most likely be the result of any conflict. Many political and military leaders foresaw a short war similar to those that had occurred in the 19th century which had just recently passed.
To add to Moltke’s concerns, after 1905 Russia began re-modernizing her military with an entire array of reforms that German intelligence was watching quite carefully. Such reforms immediately put the Russian Forces on a path to modernization that began to unnerve the German military authorities as intelligence reports of increasing and ongoing successful developments were reporting serious upgrades to Russian military capabilities.
In 1905 however, France had a serious political clash with Germany in French Morocco, which spurred French military reforms and developments even further.
By 1910, German military thinking under Moltke had taken a new turn as it began to revert to Schlieffen’s thinking prior to 1905, which was a lightening offensive operation in France in order to neutralize her quickly so that Germany could turn her attentions towards Russia.
By this time, Germany was in a sense starting to panic that she would be enveloped on two fronts, both of which she could not handle at the same time. And given the circumstances, who could blame her?
Foley, like Ritter and Zuber before him concludes that Germany was primarily responsible for the initiation of hostilities in 1914 from the fact that Moltke had been pressuring Kaiser Wilhelm to initiate a war against France after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
Though Foley successfully disputes Ritter and Zuber for their analysis of the Schlieffen Plan as nothing more than a proposal for war planning, he falls into the same trap for blaming Germany solely for the initiation of hostilities due to Moltke’s rush for their commencement.
Even Foley, in his own analysis admits that after 1870, the tensions that existed between France and Germany remained high enough to have each view the other as a mortal enemy as they had done so for decades. Both countries did in fact move to preempt the other in their own ways to avoid defeat; France in a defensive posture with a southern offensive move into Germany, Germany in a highly mobile one, the latter precipitating an offensive attack France for defensive reasons.
In terms of French handling of the increasing tensions between the two neighbors, France was also involved in secret planning with Great Britain’s senior military leaders who were handling their relations with their French counterparts beyond the ear of most British political leaders prior to the war; something German planners were not really counting on. In addition, Russian railway modernization began to advance in the way that France wanted to see her loans to Russia used forcing the German High Command to continuously upgrade their own plans to accommodate the more rapid mobilization capabilities that they were seeing with Russian developments. In essence, France, Germany, and Russia were mobilizing their economies for an inevitable war that Germany for all intents and purposes really could not afford. This was a result of the still existing imperial ambitions of Britain and France that clashed with newly developed German economic prowess and Russia’s need for modernization and her own fears of being defeated by an increasingly powerful Germany.
Though there was no need for a conflict, these various powers only thought in terms of 19th century balance of power politics and this was especially true of Britain who had honed such political maneuverings to a fine art.
German historian Fritz Fischer turned all previous analysis of the First World War on its head with his explosive publication in 1961, “Germany’s Aims in The First World War”. Prior to this many took an analytical view of Germany’s responsibility towards initiating the conflict as Ritter and Zuber were described to do in the previous section via the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan. Fischer on the other hand unearthed primary source documents that demonstrated that German imperial aspirations were the basis for the war using German Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg’s September Plan as a primary factor in his thesis.
According to Fisher’s research, The September Plan outlined the expected territorial acquisitions the German Reich would make after the conclusion of successful hostilities.
The concepts of this plan were developed for German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg by his private secretary, Kurt Riezler, after hostilities had commenced in 1914. The outline of the plan is listed below…
- France should cede some northern territory, such as the iron-ore mines at Briey and a coastal strip running from Dunkirk to Boulogne-sur-Mer, to Belgium or Germany.
- France should pay a war indemnity of 10 billion German Marks, with further payments to cover veterans’ funds and to pay off all of Germany’s existing national debt. This would prevent French rearmament, make the French economy dependent on Germany, and end trade between France and the British Empire.
- France will partially disarm by demolishing its northern forts.
- Belgium should be annexed to Germany or, preferably, become a “vassal state”, which should cede eastern parts and possibly Antwerp to Germany and give Germany military and naval bases.
- Luxembourg should become a member state of the German Empire.
- Buffer states would be created in territory carved out of the western Russian Empire, such as Poland, which would remain under German sovereignty “for all time”.
- Germany would create a Mitteleuropa economic association, ostensibly egalitarian but actually dominated by Germany. Members would include the new buffer states.
- The German colonial empire would be expanded. The German possessions in Africa would be enlarged into a contiguous German colony across central Africa (Mittelafrika) at the expense of the French and Belgian colonies. Presumably to leave open future negotiations with Britain, no British colonies were to be taken, but Britain’s “intolerable hegemony” in world affairs was to end.
- The Netherlands should be brought into a closer relationship to Germany while avoiding any appearance of coercion.
(Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septemberprogramm)
Fischer’s thesis caused many historians to seriously review their standpoints on responsibility for the war when it was published and many still maintain a harsh stance towards Germany even today on the matter, even in light of far more information and research coming to light.
The problem with Fischer’s treatise is that there was evidence available even shortly after the war to dispute such drastic claims against the German political and military leadership, which Fischer either did not take into account or refused to entertain as not sufficient enough to sway him from his views.
Nonetheless, Fischer sees this plan as an outgrowth of continual German expansionist policies that had been part of German imperialist thinking for many years and would also later influence Adolph Hitler with his concepts for Lebensraum before and during World War II. However, even here, Fischer fails to take into account the very policies that created the German nation under Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century.
Unlike the persona that has been attributed to Bismarck as a steely eyed German warrior who saw everything from that standpoint of his famous remark in a speech concerning Blood and Steel, he was in reality a very pragmatic and sensible statesman. In fact, he viewed warfare from a very limited perspective and only rarely used it to accomplish very specific and limited objectives. Once done, he refrained from engaging in it since he saw it from an economic standpoint as having the potential to completely drain a society’s economy. At least, two major engagements that Germany took part in under his leadership were to a great degree forced upon him; due to rising tensions with Austro-Hungary, the Battle of Konigratz in 1866 by which the German nation was unified from the previous confederation of kingdoms, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 in which France attacked Prussia.
Bismarck policy led the development of Prussia under Kaiser Wilhelm I until his death in 1888 when the Prussian throne fell to Friedrich III. Unfortunately, at the time if his ascension, Friedrich was severely ill with cancer. He died just 99 days after taking the reins of power. Friedrich was then succeeded by his son, Wilhelm II.
Otto von Bismarck in 1881
Unlike Wilhelm I and Friedrich who followed Bismarck’s policy promotions of very limited war, thus pursuing peace during his time as Chancellor, Wilhelm II is characterized by somewhat of a dual personality in which on one side of his complex persona he promoted expansionist policies, while on the other he pursued social modernization programs at home. The new Kaiser was impetuous and appeared to suffer the necessary impulse control that such a leader required.
Some histories describe Wilhelm II as engrossed with a campaign of expansion of the empire and as a consequence launched a ship building program that resulted in an arms race with Britain. However, this last point has been looked at from two different perspectives. On the one hand it was the result of a return to Prussian militarism as just noted; on the other Wilhelm II who was related to England’s King George V wanted to impress his relation with a navy as fine as the English one. Either way, this did not sit well with Great Britain.
To add to this view of such a complex personality, the New York Times in 1913 provided a 25-page supplement demonstrating that the German Kaiser was a “Man of Peace” who often rescued Europe from the brink of war. Earlier in 1911, a University of California nominated the Kaiser for the Nobel peace Prize.
It is no doubtless odd that prior to World War I Wilhelm II had his admirers from rather intellectual quarters in the United States to only be later defamed as a key figure in the downfall of the Prussian Monarchy as a result of war. This is what makes him such a difficult person to understand.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, c. 1914
Despite his idiosyncrasies, he did in fact have difficulties with Chancellor Bismarck who preferred to pursue more pragmatic foreign policies while also batting heads over his social policies with the veteran statesman. Eventually the rifts became too much to reconcile and Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck from office in 1890.
Wilhelm’s handling of his court and senior military officers allowed them to become increasingly politicized in their relations to policy, which in the end led to deterioration in the development of concrete foreign policy; something that the aging Bismarck would warn him against before he died in 1898.
Despite his oddities, and he had quite a few, Kaiser Wilhelm II appeared almost comical on a world stage that was filled with serious and astute statesman. However, though what the British would be want to call a “fop”, Wilhelm’s activities with the Prussian Navy and his interests in expanding the German Empire (though it was quite small in relation) caused increasing concerns among the major powers of the day.
The result of this short analysis is that Fischer’s own critique does bear some critical merit with his analysis of the development of German war aims as noted earlier.
However, the military under Moltke the Younger took the earlier proposed prognostications of a long and costly conflict to heart and did not see a quick resolution to the growing possibility of a continental-wide conflagration. So no matter what war aims were drawn up, militarily they had a flimsy basis to stand on since long and costly conflicts do not often reward belligerents with their original intentions. As a result, Moltke was probably more concerned with survival of his nation than the bellicosity of The September Plan.
By the time the war started, Kaiser Wilhelm’s idiosyncrasies had worn his welcome thin with senior members of his court, the Prussian Parliament, and the military. His influence would wane seriously once hostilities began. Nonetheless, another contradiction that ends up on Fischer’s analysis is that in those last weeks before the Guns of August began discharging their frightful destruction, it was nonetheless Kaiser Wilhelm who desperately tried to stop the ensuing crises from turning into a bloody conflict. True, he was late to the table on this matter, but he did in fact try and try hard. He lost his gambit but it does to some degree cast some doubt on to Fisher’s thesis that German war aims were the sole cause of World War I. Obviously, when Wilhelm realized what was happening, such war aims were then cast into the realm of fantasy than reality.
And for all the excellent research of primary sources that Fischer did in pursuit of his theory, one thing has to be remembered; at this time all of the major powers had their own war aims. Britain was an opportunist and wanted Belgium’s neutrality restored to further her intent of maintaining her policies of a Balance of Power on the continent, France wanted Alsace-Lorraine returned that she had lost in 1870 after declaring war on Prussia and seethed in revenge, Russia wanted to modernize her economy and enlarge her influence in the region, and Austro-Hungary had a score to settle with Serbia and indirectly with Russia as a result.
Sidney B. Fey
Sidney B. Fey was an American historian who studied the origins of World War I and published his great study, The Origins of The World War, in 1928. He would probably have the most profound, long term effect on the study of who started World War I as many still ascribe to his theory of spreading the blame equitably.
Fey concluded that all the great powers shared the blame equally as a result of the tangled net of secret alliances that arose after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which distributed the powers into two separate groups, both of which were highly suspicious of each other. The result is that each power worked to undermine their counterparts in the opposite group creating a cross-current of tensions that could only lead to an explosive confrontation.
If Fey had one peeve towards a single nation he felt contributed mostly to the ramp up of tensions in those final weeks in 1914, it was towards Austro-Hungary. Despite all the talk of Blank Cheques and the militarism on the part of Germany, Fey found Austro-Hungary living in a world disconnected from reality when dealing with the negotiations between Austro-Hungary, Serbia, and Russia. He elucidated his thoughts on the matter in his 1920 paper, New Light on the Origins of the World War, II. Berlin and Vienna, July 29 to 31.
The foolish intransigence of Austria’s ministers in dealing with conciliatory concessions from the Serbian government related to the demands that were being made of her related to the recent assassination of the Archduke, mixed with the military’s high command desiring a punitive attack on Serbia set the course of the path to continental conflagration. Though this was not the intent of the Austrian government, it nonetheless was the result. Emperor Franz Josef was the last man on Earth who wanted or desired an international conflict after maintaining peace for so many decades in his region of Europe.
Britain, Germany, and even Russia were offering gestures of good faith in their intense negotiations with Austro-Hungary over the matter. However, Austrian officials did not want to listen and even refused to respond in timely manners to important queries regarding the status of their own thinking and decision making processes. Their intent to not forgive the Serbians was paramount in their thoughts. This was mostly in response to the rise of the Serbian Black Hand nationalist organization that had arisen and sought to destabilize the Austro-Hungarian government and her empire. Their final act, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the successor to Franz Josef, by Gavrilo Princip and his co-conspirators, was seen as an unforgivable affront to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
The Black Hand was actually the outgrowth of a policy decision towards the Balkans in the 18th century by the Austrian Empress Marie Theresa. However, by 1914 it had become a far greater threat in stirring anti-Austrian sentiment and activity than previously. And at this time the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in seriously poor shape financially placing them on a very weak and rickety pedestal from which to govern. Having a neighbor such as Serbia housing such an organization on their borders with the additional support of Russia literally unnerved the Austrian leadership across the board.
In such conditions, it is understandable why the Austrian negotiators were so reluctant to let go of the bone they had their teeth deeply sunk into.
However, it was not just Austria who acted foolishly during the crises of uncertainty in that summer of 1914. France was making disturbing moves with her own military that worried German authorities. Britain had already been scheming with France to support them in the event of an attack by Germany but this promised support was all being done to promote their conscious application of their Balance of Power policies on the continent in order to keep Europe from becoming a threat to their own Empire.
Despite Fey’s view that Russia was equally responsible, it has to be understood that she was as a nation in a state of flux as she worked to strengthen her economy and then her military with the aid of French support through their loans for railway construction. The alliance that was a result of these loans did have its limitations regarding how Russia would support France, which was only under the conditions that she was attacked by Germany or Italy in support of Germany. This left France with a sense of insecurity towards her own position towards Germany.
All of the schools of thought presented in this paper have their merits. They were developed with in-depth research by qualified scholars over many years of effort along with their many colleagues. Their one common problem is that with the exception of Fey, they have tried to resolve a decades old issue with a definitive perpetrator. And with the magnitude of the complexities that all of the belligerents brought to the table, there could be no single perpetrator. It wasn’t the butler but the guests who committed the crime.
Yet, there are very understandable reasons why the crime even occurred. Nationalism had been growing since the 19th century across Europe and was a major factor in the continuing social fracturing in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which as just noted, was near complete bankruptcy.
The Ottoman Empire, which played a lessor role in the conflict allied with Germany and Austro-Hungary, was collapsing from massive, internal corruption that had begun ten generations prior to 1914. Yet this empire still held considerable influence in the Balkans with its Muslim populations as well as with its own territories. As such, nationalism was spearheading itself through this aging entity as vociferously as it was occurring within Austro-Hungary.
Conflicts, as a result of such nationalism, would continue for several years after the conclusion of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that oversaw the conclusion of hostilities.
Another aspect of this story is the emergence of new technologies that began to heavily influence logistics and communications, while new weapons technologies severely increased in lethality. While militaries were quick to adopt such new innovations for their own purposes, diplomats across the board were still accustomed to using more traditional methods for diplomacy, which involved formal letter writing and face-to-face meetings. The result was that to a degree there was a serious disconnect between what the diplomats were trying to prevent and what the militaries had already set in motion. In this regard, a genie had been let out of the bottle and there was little that less equipped men and women could do to put it back in.
Government leaders and diplomats who did not have first-hand experience with such new technological weaponry had no idea as to what was being unleashed leaving many to believe that this new conflict would be fought in the same manner as previous ones in the 19th century. As a result, even populations across Europe entered a phase of euphoria that this new war would resolve many outstanding issues while only lasting a short, few weeks at most.
This addition of evolving technologies into this already toxic mix of European relations between the two opposing groups of countries that formed after the 1870 was the fuse merely waiting to be lit. And lit it was by Russia…
Modern historians such as G. J. Meyer (A World Undone) have concluded that if there was one single event that initiated The First world War, it was not the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand but instead Russian mobilization after negotiations completely broke down with Austro-Hungary after she had attacked Serbia.
Mobilization was then and is still in many respects viewed from a military perspective to be an act of war. When Russia moved beyond her original secret mobilization orders to full mobilization, France responded in kind bringing Britain along as well. As Austro-Hungary was already in a state of war, Germany was actually the last to enter the conflict demonstrating that she alone could have hardly been the single perpetrator of this terrible conflict.
In the end, they all did the crime…
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Keir A. Lieber
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Mises Daily Articles
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