See also documentary archive of World War I.

C.1. German Responsibility for the Outbreak of the War

The importance of the war 1914-1918:
Maybe the war that broke out in 1914 was more of a break in world history than even the Second World War with its unprecedented mass annihilation. The First World War marked the dramatic beginning of the end of European predominance over the globe, which had lasted for five centuries. While the European nations remained locked in a murderous struggle, nations in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Australian continent started to make up for the absence of European imports and lessened their dependence upon European products and know-how. New competitors for business and power emerged overseas (for instance in Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – in addition to the already competitive United States and Japan), and Europe never regained its superiority in those fields. For the first time the United States mobilized its enormous industrial potential and intervened outside the American continent. Toward the end of the war a radical socialist group seized power in Russia and started to transform society in totally new ways, leading to a long and often painful process whose effects we still feel today.

The First World War was fought by armies whose size was unprecedented in history. At the same time, new weapons appeared such as machine guns, tanks, poison gas, airplanes, submarines. The civilian population became a target of war; while the British blockade tried to starve the Germans and their allies into submission, German submarines tried to cut Britain off from its supplies. The new weapons created new horrors of war. Eight million soldiers died on the front lines or at sea. Millions of wounded soldiers remained handicapped, and millions never came to terms with the trauma of war. A single battle could claim hundred thousands of lives on both sides.

More than before, the war effort depended on the support and willingness to sacrifice of whole peoples. Women and children often took over the jobs of men in industry and agriculture. In Germany and Austria food became so scarce that famines occurred from 1916 on. To support more than four years of industrialized warfare, national governments almost everywhere faced tasks of an unexpected nature and magnitude. They had to ensure industrial production for the fighting while millions of able-bodied men between age 18 and 55 served in the military; they had to organize the food supply and keep up morale at home and in the front lines; new administrative offices were created, and the state bureaucracy reached into new realms. All this was only partially reversed after 1918.

In short, the war was a catastrophe for Europe. That it had such a terrible impact was an effect of its sheer duration. Until the fall of 1918 both sides remained stuck in deadlock. Neither side could force a decisive victory and neither seemed so superior that the other would have been tempted to give up. Moreover, to conclude a truce and return to the status quo seemed intolerable to most people, as the war had demanded enormous sacrifices (human and material) already during the first few months.

Given these momentous changes and the high blood toll, the question of war guilt assumed special emotional and moral importance. The victors of the war, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy, forced Germany and its allies to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans, however, reacted with indignation; up to the 1960s they considered the claim that Germany was the culprit of the war an outrage. Most Germans at the time claimed either that the war was a logical outcome of an aggressive encirclement of Germany by the allies or supported the opinion of Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who had said: “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war.” We therefore need to ask how such a dramatic historical event occurred and who was responsible for it.

Germany in 1914:
In foreign politics, Germany was effectively isolated together with its last faithful ally, Austria-Hungary. In domestic politics, governing had become more difficult for the Imperial Governments because the Social Democrats had grown in strength and because Tirpitz’s costly fleet-building program had eroded much of the other parties’ solidarity. Although they always feared the possible revolutionary consequences of an international conflict, German leaders had sometimes considered war as a panacea for foreign and domestic problems; war should split the alliances against Germany and unite the people in a wave of nationalism or even initiate some form of dictatorship based on the military.

Although pacifism existed both as an independent movement and as an idea attached to the socialist movement, most leaders and much of public opinion did not consider war necessarily as an evil thing, particularly if it meant to continue politics by other means. (This was true for all European countries.) However, nobody really knew what kind of war they had to expect. Since the Napoleonic period (one hundred years ago) no war had ever affected large areas of Europe. The Franco-German war of 1870-71 had been the last violent conflict between industrially advanced nations in Europe. It had been decided within a few weeks. Fast mobilization, massive gun power, fast communications (telegraph), and the support of railroads seemed to have made war between industrialized nations a short affair. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 confirmed this.

Moreover, no nation in Europe seemed capable of surviving a long war. Industrialization and the concomitant reduction of agriculture had made national economies so dependent upon imports and international trade that a long war — to contemporaries — could only end in chaos, likely to be followed by a socialist revolution. Many people in Europe and in Germany, in particular, thus thought that war would be short, and that not all should be done to avert it. War might as well come as a violent but short event, a heavy thunderstorm, and clear the air from the year-long tensions and problems. It was not uncommon among European intellectuals to think that their peoples had become lazy and — in a Darwinist sense — unfit, as they had enjoyed peace and material progress for so many decades. For a document showing how this thought also influenced some generals – though not necessarily official German policy, see H-German: Bernhardi: The Next War.

The German government, in particular, felt under increasing pressure from the generals and from right-wing opinion to wage war at the next feasible opportunity. Diplomatic means to counteract the encirclement of the country had proven counterproductive and seemed exhausted. Russia, moreover, was industrializing rapidly, its population grew at a pace that alarmed Germans, and their concern heightened when Russia, with French money, began to build railways to the German border and alongside it. Germans now feared that they could be crushed within a few weeks if France and Russia decided to wage a two-front war against their common antagonist.

The unfolding of events, 28 June to 4 August 1914:
On 28 June 1914 the Austrian heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand, was murdered in Sarajevo, the capital of the province Bosnia-Hercegovina, occupied by Austria since 1878 and annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. Murders of princes and princesses or heads of state were not unusual, but this one arose special anger in most of Europe, particularly since suspicions existed that the Serb government had had contacts with the terrorist group responsible for the assassination. (These suspicious were confirmed later. Although the Serb government knew about the plans, it did not condone them; it even tried to warn Vienna in clouded language. The warning, however, was not understood, and the embarrassing ties of the Serb government to the terrorists would have been enough of an embarrassment.)

The Austro-Hungarian government, angered by continued Pan-Slavic agitation within its borders, decided to react to the murder by crushing Serbia or at least by curbing Serb agitation within the Habsburg Empire. The German government gave Vienna green light for a punitive action against Serbia and even encouraged it. The German government of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, made it clear that Germany would stand by Austria-Hungary even if an attack on Serbia provoked Russia, Serbia’s ally, to declare war on Austria-Hungary.

A punitive strike by the Austro-Hungarians would maybe have been tolerated by other European governments (who all were outraged at the assassination) if it had happened right after the murder. But Austro-Hungarian military preparations and diplomatic procedures were notoriously inefficient and time-consuming. The Hungarian and Austrian governments rarely agreed on anything, and the military of the Habsburg monarchy was poorly organized and coordinated. The mobilization order appeared in some twenty different languages – testimony to the tolerance but also to the unpracticality of the empire. It took the Austro-Hungarian government four weeks to send an ultimatum to Belgrade, demanding far-reaching powers to investigate the murder and the implication of the Serb government.

The Serb government accepted most clauses but rejected some, knowing well that this would mean war with Austria. Russia had encouraged Serbia not to give in completely. Austria-Hungary was unwilling to consider a compromise and declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Russia now mobilized first on its borders with Austria, but soon ordered general mobilization. This made the German generals extremely nervous, as their only plan for a two-front war with France and Russia rested on the condition that Russia would mobilize slowly and with great delay. The German government, under increasing pressure from the generals, sent an ultimatum to St. Petersburg, demanding that mobilization be stopped. The Russian government did not bother to reply. This prompted the German declaration of war to Russia on 1 August. One day later the Germans, who knew that the French would not stand by in a German-Russian war, also declared war on France.

The German war plans urged a fast knockout of the French army and then a turn to the eastern front. But to win quickly in the west the German armies needed to surround the French, which they could only do by marching through Belgium. The German government therefore tried to receive permission from Belgium to march through its territory, which the Belgians rejected. The Germans then sent an ultimatum to Belgium and invaded the country after Belgium rejected it. When the Germans entered Belgium, whose neutrality they had recognized, Britain demanded a German withdrawal and, when that condition was not met, declared war on Germany on 4 August. War declarations followed between Russia, France, and Britain on the one side and Austria-Hungary on the other.

Origins of the war:
Why did the murder in Sarajevo lead to a general European war? Long-term causes have often been suggested: nationalism, militarism, imperialism, the fatalist mood of 1914, armaments, and mobilization plans. But what were the particular goals of the governments involved in the crisis of July 1914?

Austria-Hungary was worried about the possible dissolution of its empire. It desired to crush Slav nationalism, the main factor of instability. The Austro-Hungarian attitude to Serbia was also dominated by the antagonism to Russia in the Balkans. The government in Vienna felt concern about a loss of face after the murder of Franz Ferdinand.

The Serb government was involved in underground and terrorist activities serving its designs for a greater Serbia on the lines of future Yugoslavia. Like Austria-Hungary, Russia was concerned about a loss of face after several diplomatic or military defeats (war against Japan in 1904-5, Bosnian crisis in 1908). The Russian government was also worried about domestic instability (revolutionary activity, worker unrest). Russia hoped to score a foreign political success; its ultimate goal was to open the Dardanelles to Russian warships. Pan-Slavism and the feeling of an inevitable clash with the Germanic race also played a role in making war acceptable to St. Petersburg.

France was concerned about the possibility of German aggression. It wanted to make sure that Russia remained diplomatically tough. The French hoped to win back Alsace-Lorraine and realized that this would not be possible without a major war, but except for their encouragement of Russian intransigence their attitude in July 1914 was mostly defensive (wait and see). The headlines of the French press in July were preoccupied with a murder committed by the wife of a minister and rarely discussed the Balkan crisis.

Britain continued to be concerned about the rise of German naval power and feared German predominance on the Continent. The British, facing severe domestic unrest (an Irish rebellion and a miners’ strike), remained uncommitted for most of the crisis, but the German invasion of Belgium forced them to enter the war.

In Germany, fear of growing isolation dominated. Austria-Hungary was Germany’s last ally and thus seemed to deserve support at all cost (Italy was no longer committed to its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary). The Germans wanted Vienna to wage war on Serbia in order to prevent the breakdown of the Habsburg Empire. The Germans feared, moreover, that the modernization, population explosion, and industrial growth of Russia would transform their eastern neighbor into a superpower that would sooner or later crush Germany. This appeared all the more threatening to the German General Staff, since their only war plan would not work any more once the Russian railroads were completed.

The German generals saw only one way to survive a two-front war, the Schlieffen Plan: quickly mobilized German troops should encircle the French army by breaking into neutral Belgium and Luxembourg (initially even the southernmost part of the Netherlands was considered essential for the passage of the German army), moving through Belgium into Northern France, and turning back toward Alsace-Lorraine in a big pincer movement around Paris. Within a few weeks, the French army should thus be pressed against the Franco-German border and forced to surrender. Next, the bulk of the German army should be sent eastward by railroads to defend East Prussia against the Russians, who were expected to mobilize at a much slower pace than either the Germans or the French.

Schlieffen or his successor as chief of the German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, did not consider a war with Russia winnable in the short run, so they decided that France needed to be knocked out as fast as possible. Given the strength of the French fortifications on the Franco-German border, the march through Belgium appeared as the only way to overcome a true two-front war. Through the violation of Belgian neutrality, however, the Schlieffen Plan proved a diplomatic catastrophe and showed how badly military and diplomatic planning were coordinated in the German government (to a large degree a failure of the Kaiser). In any case, the German General Staff claimed to have no alternatives and feared that even the Schlieffen Plan would become obsolete once the strategic railroads in Russia would be finished in 1917. The German generals therefore advocated a “preventive war;” they accepted war as inevitable and believed the military situation to become increasingly unfavorable.

German war guilt?
In the 1960s a German historian, Fritz Fischer, argued that Germany had to bear the main responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Fischer’s three main theses were: 1) that the German government under the Kaiser’s direction deemed a European war inevitable since 1911/12, prepared for war, and decided to seize the next opportunity to start it. Fischer points out the expansive aims of the industry and Junkers; 2) that the German government and general staff precipitated an escalation of the Austro-Serb crisis in order to launch what they considered a preventive strike against Russia and France. If war did not come about, Germany at least hoped to weaken the Entente and win a moral victory that would increase the prestige and stability of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. Bethmann embraced a calculated risk of escalation; 3) that a long-term continuity existed in German aims for expansion, leading right up to the Second World War: an eastern empire, predominance over Belgium and France.

Argument 2) is widely accepted, although it would be wrong to exculpate Austria-Hungary and Russia. Argument 1) lacks proof with regard to war preparations and 3) needs a lot of specification because it makes too much of superficial similarities between German war aims in the two world wars (the racial agenda, for instance, played no significant role in 1914-1918). In any case, the German government, as all others, did not expect a war of attrition. Domestic calculations, occasionally mentioned by Fischer, played a limited role: Bethmann tried to draw Russia into the war as the aggressor in order to overcome the SPD’s antiwar feeling, but no immediate domestic crisis existed from which he would have had to escape. More severe domestic crises existed in Russia, Austria, and even in Britain.

To sum up, the German government’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war was certainly larger than that of the French and British governments, but particularly in the light of aggressive Austro-Hungarian and Russian moves it would be wrong to blame Germany alone. The causes for the war are highly complex. Earlier crises could have led to a major escalation, and in that sense it has been asked: why did the First World War come only in 1914 and not already in 1905, 1908, or 1911? To me, it seems decisive that fatalism had been growing among European peoples and decision-makers; many believed war to be inevitable and had become tired of the recurring diplomatic crises, which usually worked to the disadvantage of Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Russia. When a new crisis approached in 1914, the governments in Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, and St. Petersburg were less willing than before to finding a frustrating compromise.

The German government, ridden by long-term domestic concerns (more than by an acute crisis) and hoping to overcome the encirclement by the Entente, opted for the risk of war in July 1914, which was wanted by the German generals. Austria-Hungary, however, played its own part in driving the crisis to escalation. The Austro-Hungarian government chose to risk a punitive strike against Serbia to stabilize the crumbling empire; it knew well that this would probably mean European war. Russia failed to restrain its ally, Serbia, and its mobilization almost represented an act of war since early mobilization at the time gave powers a nearly decisive advantage. One ought never to forget, however, that no responsible statesman or general in July 1914 anticipated (and willed) the war that actually came.

Go to C.2.