Research Essay

The Origins of World War I: Assessing the Historiography

By: R. M. Davis

Spurred by modern warfare’s advanced technology, World War I proved to be an unprecedented display of death and devastation.  From the rubble and smoky haze of the war’s aftermath emerged the equally unprecedented practice of seeking out and punishing those deemed responsible.  Confused and traumatized by the horrors of the Great War, Europeans demanded an explanation, triggering—for the first time in history—a large-scale campaign waged by governments, politicians, journalists, novelists and scholars to ascribe blame to the guiltiest nation.  This debate, debuting at the war’s start and ever intensifying with no end in sight, has resulted in what historian Christopher Clark describes as “an historical literature of unparalleled size, sophistication, and moral intensity.”[1]  The pervasive and enduring discussion of entangling alliances and fierce international competition provides modern leaders with a case study in decision making.  John F. Kennedy, for example, requested that his cabinet read Barbara Tuchman’s famous analysis of WWI, The Guns of August, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while President Jimmy Carter has written about the value of considering the war’s origins when confronting today’s international crises.[2]

In the past century, a variety of hypotheses regarding responsibility has been presented and certain schools have fallen in and out of esteem.  The debate—originally centered on Germany’s alleged war-guilt—eventually drifted towards notions of collective culpability, giving rise in the1930s to the conviction that no single nation was to blame, only armaments, alliances, failed diplomacy and imperialistic capitalism. [3]  But this school has its inherent problems.  The position relies on the examination of broad forces and trends (like imperialism) at the expense of the actions of individuals.  Its followers fail to take into account the unique nature of  each of the great powers and the distinct ways in which nations pursued the very types of policies they criticize.

The debate gradually subsided throughout the 1940s and 50s.  That is, until West German historian Fritz Fischer’s explosive work in the 1960s inspired new scholarship, portraying WWI as a conscious German design for either power or distraction from its growing social unrest.[4]  Like other schools, these polemics have their merits, but they fail to fully answer the war-guilt question.  Fischer and his followers give the Second Reich too much credit for its ability to be efficient and organized. In fact, the Kaiserreich was particularly disorganized.   Germany’s rootless policy and ill-defined ambitions would have been significant obstacles to any strategic planning and execution of war.

More recent scholarship tends to examine individual countries.  The British, French, and Russians have all been indicted, to varying degrees, for their isolation of Germany.  Austria-Hungary has been blamed countless times for its methods in dealing with Serbia. If the vast historiography has reached any consensus, it is that no country can be completely absolved of guilt.  The tendency of the German nation, however, after 1890, to act with negligence and a lack of focus in its misguided efforts to grapple with domestic turmoil and navigate the European system, resulted in a dangerously unpredictable, alienating policy, setting the stage for general conflagration in 1914.  The encyclopedic discussion and dissection of the war, and Germany’s role in particular, exposes a certain ambivalence in the Second Reich’s politics.  Germany is regularly found at the root of many of the causes of conflict that are examined in WWI literature and the war’s extensive historiography—a historiography with as compelling a story as the war’s origins itself.

According to historian Dennis Showalter, “The understanding of the First World War is connected more than that of any other modern conflict with the war’s historiography” because its written history developed as soon as fighting did.  At the onset of war in August 1914, “color books,” named for each country’s uniquely hued cover, were written for “domestic and international consumption” in an attempt to rally support at home and sympathy abroad.[5]  The Belgian Grey Book, the Austrian Red Book, the French Yellow Book, the Russian Black Book and the German White Book were edited collections of highly selective and dubious (half of the Deutsches Weissbuch’s thirty documents are believed to be forgeries) political papers released by the state in order to prove the defensive, and therefore justifiable, nature of the respective government’s decision to fight.[6]  Efforts continued in September as a German government-sponsored committee wrote a defense of its country entitled Truth about Germany: Facts about the War.  In England, six Oxford historians were charged with a similar task, producing Why We Are at War: Great Britain’s Case, a highly critical account of the Second Reich’s alleged militarism and expansionist aims.[7]

In May 1919, Germany published a second White Book, Deutschland Shuldig? (Germany Guilty?), as a means of preempting the coming Treaty of Versailles.[8]  The Treaty, signed June 28, 1919, dispensed harsh punishment to the war’s losers, forcing Germany to reduce its military, cede significant territory and pay reparations.  The conditions of the agreement were justified by a clause, Article 231, which expressly blamed Germany for the twentieth century’s great disaster.  Horrified by the financial and moral implications of this “war-guilt clause” (a French idea), Germany worked with alacrity to disprove the charges, granting unprecedented access to sources and archives to patriotic, nationalistic—and often government-funded—historians, encouraging pro-German work and investigations into the “war-guilt lie.” [9]

In 1921, the Weimar Republic created the War Guilt Section.  This government body consisted of one branch dedicated to disseminating literature to trade unions and various clubs and another concerned with scholarly research in Germany’s defense.[10]  By 1930, this mass propaganda distribution center had 1,700 to 2,000 organizations working to undermine the legitimacy of the treaty as well as its own academic journal, Die Kriegsschuldfrage.[11]  Historians Albrecht Menolelssohn-Bartholdy, Johannes Lepsius and Friedrich Thimme were asked to create a definitive defense and collection of German documents, leading to the controversial, forty-volume Die Grosse Politik der Europaischen Kabinette, published over the course of 1922 to 1927.  As German government official and industrialist Walter Ratheneau told the Reichstag on June 13, 1922, the book was intended to absolve Germany morally, once and for all. [12]

 Fearing the prospect of a WWI historiography dictated by Germany, Europe responded.  Britain, France and the newly-formed Soviet Union were quick to counter with their own edited accounts of the war, strategically placing blame where they saw fit.[13]  London released British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914, an official collection ordered by Foreign Secretary Ramsay MacDonald, in installments from 1926 to 1938 as an answer to Die Grosse Politik.  In France, Raymond Poincaré, president during the war, originally resisted any publications for fear they might undermine the presumption of German war guilt.  Nonetheless, he eventually begged the high-ranking diplomat, Maurice Paléologue (who preferred a posthumous publication) to release documents, recognizing that the debate would carry on with or without France.  The Ministry of Public Instruction, the government body responsible for historical inquiry into the war, created the journal, Revue d’histoire de la guerre mondiale, and published its own definitive collection, Documents diplomatiques francais 1871-1914, in 1936.[14]

Russian WWI historiography has a unique origin.  The Bolshevik Party came to power in November 1917 with an ostensible commitment to abolishing secret diplomacy.[15]  In keeping with that promise, the Soviet government vowed to release war-relevant documents, which were ultimately published through scattered sources and in an unfinished three-volume work. [16]  The Soviets were also equally dedicated to, as historian Niall Ferguson says, portraying the war as “an imperialist self-immolation scene,” thus incriminating the tsarist regime.[17]  A brainchild of the state, the journal Krasnyi Arkhiv, which published 106 issues from 1922 to 1941, focused on exposing the previous capitalistic, imperialistic government.[18]  In an attempt to legitimize the revolution, the Soviet Union, unlike other nations, strategically selected documents in hopes of implicating its own country in the war’s origins.

The harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles sparked non-state sponsored debate as well.  A school of thought emerged in the 1920s that questioned the extreme notion of Germany’s sole responsibility and hoped to eradicate the war-guilt clause and massive reparations.  These “revisionists” sought to find a more moderate truth, while some even proposed the idea of Triple Entente, specifically British, French and Russian, culpability.  Naturally, these ideas took the strongest hold in Germany.  A pioneer in revisionism, German historian Max Montgelas came to the defense of his country in The Case for the Central Powers, making claims that Germany and Austria-Hungary had only intended to maintain the status quo.  Instead, he argues, it was the Franco-Russian alliance that harbored belligerent goals, specifically the reclaiming of Alsace-Lorraine and the Straights that connected the Black and Mediterranean Sea.[19]  Writing in 1927 at Leipzig University, historian Erich Brandenburg admitted his country’s possible “short-sightedness,” but insisted vehemently that Germany had never intended to incite a war.[20]

Outside of Germany there were very few European scholars calling for the revision of Article 231, though British historians G. P. Gooch and Edmund D. Morel and French historian George Demartial did argue against their profession’s complacency and advocated for truth over patriotism.[21]  It was in fact the United States that became the biggest target for war-guilt propaganda.  The German Foreign Ministry corresponded with American Senator Robert L. Owen, requesting a review of the war-guilt clause.  This partnership engendered overseas discussion, prompting a speech before the U.S. Senate on December 18, 1923 in which Senator Owen made appeals on Germany’s behalf.[22]

Many American scholars, like Harry Elmer Barnes, came to accept the revisionist philosophy.  His work, The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt is an angry critique of the historiographical status quo and a fierce condemnation of the Versailles Treaty.  In his 1926 treatise, he contends that Germany had every right to assemble a navy or expand its empire in the twentieth century just as all European powers had.  In fact, Poincaré and Russian diplomat Alexander Izvolsky were incendiary figures from the start, looking to convert Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov to their “war party.”[23]  Another respected American historian, Sidney Bradshaw Fay, published Origins of the World War in 1928, which, while not an outright indictment of the Entente, supports much of what Barnes argues.[24]  The German government went to great lengths to encourage this kind of American revisionism, regularly inviting Fay to contribute to its historical journal, and purchasing 250 copies of his book to be issued to diplomats. The War Guilt Section provided Barnes with research material, propagated his writings, funded visits to Berlin, Munich and Vienna and translated his book into German and French to be distributed overseas.[25]

The revisionists inevitably spawned the anti-revisionists, a group whose work was highly censored in the Weimar Republic.  The scholarship of Bernadotte Schmitt, a professor of modern history at the University of Chicago, was never translated into German.[26]  His study, The Origins of the First World War, upheld traditional views depicting Austria-Hungary as the instigator of war and Germany as its all-important ally and supporter.[27]  Prominent French scholar, Pierre Renouvin, a professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne, published The Immediate Origins of the War in 1927 and was one of the first historians to directly respond to and criticize the revisionists.[28] Also from the Sorbonne, Professor Camille Bloch wrote in defense of the Versailles verdict in 1935 in The Causes of the World War, claiming that the German Kaiser and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg had intended violent conflict in hopes of capitalizing on France’s and Russia’s unpreparedness.[29]

The debate’s extreme, polarizing nature waned as the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s gave rise to a new, more palatable view.  A belief in shared culpability and a sort of fortuitous stumbling into conflict gained in popularity as nations tried to put the tensions of the First World War behind them.  The rise of Marxism and a general criticism of the post-industrialized society worked in concert with a more liberal Europe’s attempt to heal itself after the war, leading to the creation of a new school of thought based on a collective responsibility.  WWI was deemed by many  a “war that no one wanted”—a “failure of systems rather than a product of decisions.”[30]  Failed diplomacy, the arms race and the entangling alliances that dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were seen as chief causes for fighting’s outbreak.[31]  The release of many famous wartime memoirs reinforced this idea.  Bethmann-Hollweg’s and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s accounts, published between 1919 and 1921, and in 1925, respectively, are descriptions of the impossible positions in which politicians found themselves in July 1914. First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war, Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, published between 1923 and 1931, as well as the memoirs of Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1933), depict the world struggle as an inevitable phenomenon beyond anyone’s control. [32]

This change in historiography offered a chance to improve international relations—a development even more desirable after World War II.  With the international community of scholars moving towards a consensus of collective accountability, French and German historians met in 1951 in Paris and Mainz to eliminate one-sided textbooks and create an agreed-upon, uniform, historical curriculum.[33]  The conclusions of the French, led by Renouvin, and the Germans, under the leadership of historian Gerhard Ritter, marked a shift toward moderation on both sides: the portions of the report regarding WWI describe the Franco-Russian pact as merely a natural product of the alliance system and any German aggression as the manifestation of very legitimate fears of encirclement.[34]

Even those who preserved the creed of German guilt in the post-WWII era did so in a much more moderate way. Italian historian Luigi Albertini’s three-volume treatise, Le origini della guerra del 1914, published in Milan between 1942 and 1943, asserts that Germany urged Austria-Hungary to strike against Serbia in 1914, but not with the  intent to ignite a general conflict.  While Albertini’s work ascribes most of the blame to the Central Powers, namely Austria-Hungary and Germany, it appealed to readers on both sides of the debate, as his scholarship is also highly critical of Poincaré, Grey and Sazonov.[35] In 1954, historian Raymond Aron published The Century of Total War.  Although the work builds on the belief of Renouvin that the statesmen of Berlin and Vienna wrongfully risked war, it illustrates the complexities of the conflict that Aron contends cannot be reduced to the guilty and the guiltless.[36]

The idea that war was accidental or simply a product of the flawed European system continued to appear in WWI literature.  One of the most legendary and popular portrayals of this stumbling into war was The Guns of August, published by historian Barbara Tuchman in 1962.  Tuchman claims that as July 1914 came to a close and war looked more and more probable, “governments struggled and twisted to fend it off,” but “it was no use.”[37]  In a famous investigation into the power of army schedules released in 1969, British historian A. J. P. Taylor asserts that the extreme focus on speedy and efficient military timetables forced countries to become increasingly unwilling to turn to diplomacy, for fear of becoming weeks, days, or even precious hours behind in their plans.[38]  Taylor lays most of the responsibility on the Central Powers, yet he fits partially into the collective culpability school, believing the war was in no way “deliberate,” but actually “produced by muddle.”[39]

Historian David Stevenson suggests in “The Politics of the Two Alliances” that while alliances were not solely to blame for war, it is impossible to explain the decisions made by the major powers during July 1914 without considering the hostile, two-bloc European system.[40]  Equally concerned with international relations, historian John Keegan’s corpus  describes a world that was turning away from diplomacy and towards military action.  Keegan concedes that A. J. P. Taylor was too extreme in his conclusion that military timetables had caused war, but asserts that Prussia’s success with timetables in 1870 prompted Europe to become increasingly concerned with mobilization dates and further entrenched in secret alliances and inflexible war plans.  “Secret plans,” Keegan claims, “determined that any crisis not settled by sensible diplomacy would, in the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914, lead to general war.”[41]

Historian Paul Kennedy similarly cites the European environment, plagued by the effects of modernization, industrialization and urbanization, as a cause of war.  In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy focuses on the growing suspicion and rivalries in Europe, coupled with the creation of agreements and military pacts.  This coalition mentality, Kennedy argues, encouraged countries to act in haste during crises like that of July 1914.[42]  Modris Eksteins, a historian also concerned with the active underlying forces of European society, goes so far as to depict WWI as a sort of social conflict.  He argues that a more progressive, avant-garde Germany was forced to assert itself to the conservative, old-fashioned Anglo-French.[43]

There are fundamental problems with any school of thinking that holds all, or none, accountable.  In her book, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, historian Margaret MacMillan even describes it as “dangerous thinking” to accept WWI as an inevitability.  Of course there were underlying factors—trends and circumstances—that helped to create an environment conducive to war, but there were also individuals responsible for their countries’ policies and decision-making.[44]  Leading up to the conflict, Europe was a web of provocative alliances.  Stevenson makes a valid point that general war was much more likely after “industrialization…transformed the power to produce and destroy” and because “central military antagonism polarized the two big blocs.”[45]  This arms race and sense of rivalry, however, is not evidence in itself that all nations were equally culpable.  More important is how the powers responded to this environment, and that one nation, above all, still felt powerful enough to compete on the world stage, but that its position was becoming increasingly precarious.  Germany, in other words, felt as though the window of opportunity to prove itself in this type of tense, competitive Europe was quickly closing.[46]

There is no significant evidence that any nation hoped for or designed a world war, but the Second Reich, with its fatalistic mentality, maintained a unique willingness to resort to violence.  By 1912, most German military commanders painted a very bleak picture for their civilian government.  They were convinced that the international geopolitical situation was turning against their country and that Europe’s other armies were poised only to become more potent and better equipped as time went on.[47]  As early as December 8, 1912 at the now infamous “war council” held at the Royal Palace in Berlin, German government officials were already discussing the importance of British neutrality, the production of U-boats and efforts to popularize war.[48]  At the meeting, Germany’s leaders expressed confidence in the likelihood of a victory for their nation as long as fighting were to take place before Russian armament increases in 1916; as Helmuth von Moltke, the German chief of staff put it: “War the sooner the better.”[49]

Although this conference did not result in, as some historians would argue, a design for war (the specific naval expansion and propaganda campaign proposed by the Kaiser never came to fruition), it showed, as Christopher Clark says, that Berlin was “strikingly untroubled by the prospect of such an outcome.”[50]  More important, it exhibits the way in which the German generals doubted there being any chance to break their country’s encirclement through peaceful measures.[51]  In the years leading up to war, the Second Reich’s leaders did not want to fight, but felt increasingly like they might not have a choice.  As conflict seemed more and more inevitable, historian Michael Howard argues, “war avoidance” became a low priority.[52]  In their clumsiness, the Germans even exposed their frighteningly cavalier attitude towards combat to the international community when, in November 1913, King Albert of Belgium met with Wilhelm in Berlin.  The Belgian military attaché reported that the Kaiser talked of marching on Paris while Moltke spewed similar bellicosities about the likelihood of an impending war with France.[53]

Even in the first half of 1914, a peaceful time when conflict seemed less likely than it had in the past, men like Moltke and Generals Alfred von Waldersee and Alfred von Schlieffen still insisted war would prove unavoidable.[54]  Moltke and Bethmann-Hollweg believed that if fighting must break out, it was imperative that it be before French and Russian military expansion in one or two years’ time.[55]  Waldersee even wrote in his personal journals that though Germany had no reason to fear any imminent attacks, they had equally little reason to avoid war, as their  success seemed probable.[56]

Some historians have nonetheless chosen to focus on systems, rather than these types of statements from individuals.  The shift in historiographical thinking in the 1930s, coupled with the rise of Marxism, also led to a more literal Marxist interpretation of the Great War—a view in which gluttonous capitalism and competitive imperialism were to blame for hostilities.[57]  This school had early origins with Lenin’s pamphlet “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” in 1916.  Lenin states that “under capitalism the home market is inevitably bound up with the foreign market” and because the capitalistic countries of the world had already seized and divided up all unoccupied territory by the turn of the twentieth century, only redistribution, and therefore conflict, was possible.  He also expresses his own perspective on the nascent historiography extant at the time of his work’s publication: “bourgeois scholars,” writes Lenin, were defending imperialism “in veiled forms” as they fumbled with “partial and secondary details,” ignoring the real crux of the issue.[58]

Lenin laid the groundwork for a less widely-accepted way of thinking, but one that continued to appear periodically in WWI historiography.  Some researchers investigating the origins of the First World War went so far as to say that the private sector—businessmen and manufacturing companies—encouraged governments to declare war, hoping to profit from the lucrative armaments market.  One German historian, Willibald Gutsche, rationalizes WWI as the work of greedy steel and mining companies, large banks, engineers and shipping firms.[59]  Left-wing British politician, Konni Zilliacus, makes the claim in his Mirror of the Past: A History of Secret Diplomacy (1946) that the plutocracy financed organizations like Navy, Air and Empire Leagues, Colonial Societies, and British capitalist parties, which lobbied successfully for imperialism, protectionism and armaments.  Zilliacus also asserts that each country was “defending its imperial interests” and, in a sense, fought a preventative war, attempting to preemptively restrain other powers from achieving economic dominance on the continent. [60]  Similarly focused on imperialism, historian Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire, published in 1987, scrutinizes the pre-war fixation with competition and formal conquest.  He concedes that the Marxist interpretation is not a complete explanation, but believes that “the development of capitalism inevitably pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry, imperialistic expansion, conflict, and war” and hurried along the “uncontrolled slide” into catastrophe.[61]

Although, as historian Roland Stromberg observes, the idea that capitalism was at the root of WWI is “as old as the war itself,” this thesis is far from an answer to the war-guilt question.[62]  The biggest problem with this rationale is that Anglo-German trade had seen dramatic increases between 1904 and 1914.  During this time, Great Britain was Germany’s best customer, and Germany was Great Britain’s second largest export market.[63]  The overwhelming belief in London in the twentieth century was that war would induce economic chaos, not prosperity, and possibly even political dissent from the left.  A motion put before the House of Commons in April 1897 had called attention to inadequate food production in England, leaving the nation’s leaders wary of the fiscal implications of fighting or blockade up until and throughout the war.[64]  Furthermore, the most outspoken German advocates of war, like the Pan-German League and Parti Colonial were comprised of mostly teachers and intellectuals who had virtually no connection to big business.[65]

Capitalism did have its effect on world events in that the imperialism it helped, in part, to inspire was a major source of tension and one of the chief catalysts in triggering confrontation.  Countries like China, Morocco and Egypt became highly sought-after prizes and diplomatic battlegrounds as each country pursued its own goals of economic expansion and worldwide prestige.  As colonies and foreign markets were divided up among the powers, conflict naturally ensued and the world changed: according to historian Joachim Remak, had it not been for pressures and disagreements in Africa and Asia, British Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne would not have considered abandoning non-alignment when he came to power in 1900 or felt it necessary to negotiate a defensive agreement with the French—the Entente Cordiale—In 1904 .[66]

It was German imperialism, though, and German foreign policy that did the most irreversible damage.  Not unified until 1871, Germany had to organize and industrialize rapidly to stay on par with the rest of the top nations of the world.  It did not acquire many useful colonies—Germany had come late to the imperialistic party—and always felt left behind and inadequate as a world power.[67]  When the country was ready to embrace overseas expansion, most of the world’s valuable possessions had already been claimed.  Ironically, as historian Zara Steiner states: “It was the British example which provided both the impulse and the obstacle to German expansion.”[68]

The Second Reich’s leaders in 1890 did not heed the words of their former Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, that Germany was in fact a territorially satiated nation.[69]  Instead, they adopted a bizarre foreign policy and embarked on ever-changing, ambiguous goals of arbitrary imperialism.  Great Britain was never against legitimate German efforts to expand.  Grey was only concerned about British possessions, not, for instance, German efforts to secure ports and coaling stations, penetration of Sweden, Denmark and Holland, or work on the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.[70]  Writing in a memorandum, British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe acknowledges that his nation should not deter peaceful and legitimate German expansion.  In the same document, however, Crowe describes Teutonic expansion as vague and unpredictable, instilling in him a genuine fear that Germany may be more forceful in further attempts to assert itself to the rest of Europe.[71]  It was not the idea of German imperialism per se that led to a hostile Europe, but rather the way in which its policies were carried out.  Great Britain was left constantly guessing at the Germans’ actual aims, leading the British to misconstrue their motives.  As Remak states, with an expanding industry, Germany had the right to seek out markets and natural resources, but so often its foreign policy defied “rational explanation” and was just “action for action’s sake.”[72]

Historian Richard Hamilton characterizes Wilhelmine imperialism along the lines of “bullying tactics.”  In 1894 alone, Germany instigated arguments over Samoa, the Congo, the Sudan, Morocco, Turkey, and Portugal’s African colonies.  “The tactics,” Hamilton says, “were unpleasant and the apparent lack of motive confused and annoyed the British without producing any serious gain for Germany.”[73]  The effects of this alienating, alarming and seemingly random foreign policy became most apparent during the Moroccan Crises, as indiscriminate attempts to weaken Anglo-French relations only resulted in further German isolation.[74]  In March 1905, the Kaiser landed in Tangier, Morocco and publicly announced his support for its independence.  He then asked for an international conference to vote for an open door policy and prohibit the French’s exclusive influence in the northwest African country.  Despite France’s willingness to compromise (the influential anti-German diplomat, Théophile Delcaseé, was dismissed and a part of Morocco was offered to Germany), the Wilhelmine government insisted on staging the conference, which convened in Algeciras in 1906.  Remak describes the British as “disturbed” by the “German bullying” and when a vote was finally taken, only Austria-Hungary sided with Germany.[75]  The incident at Tangier not only intensified the growing British suspicions of the Second Reich, but the initial capitulation of the French exposed Paris’s weakness, and London’s need to protect its fellow Entente member.  The Anglo-French relationship became stronger than ever before.[76]  While no binding agreements were reached, the Moroccan Crisis sparked informal military discussions between the French and the British about theoretical army sizes and coordinated strategies.[77]

In 1911, there was a native revolt in Morocco, which warranted French military intervention.  The Germans, in a theatrical attempt to remind the French that Morocco was still nominally independent, yet ostensibly to protect German citizens in South Morocco (in true clandestine and unintelligible German fashion, the foreign ministry only used this excuse well after the event), sent a gunboat, the Panther, to Agadir during the crisis.[78]  Germany had no real designs in Morocco.  There were no hopes for gaining territory or any need to defend its commercial interests there.  The Germans were simply motivated by misguided efforts to cultivate prestige and weaken British and French relations.[79]  In fact, although Germany intended to force France into negotiations, the Germans were in Morocco for an entire month before they decided what it was that they were demanding.  Eventually, 100,000 square miles of territory in Central Africa was given to Germany in exchange for its recognition of a French protectorate over Morocco.[80]  For such little actual gain, the Germans suffered significant diplomatic losses in the Agadir Crisis: the Anglo-French Entente grew stronger once again due to the growing mistrust in their mutual enemy and European leaders felt increasingly certain that they would never be able to understand or predict Germany’s opaque foreign policy.[81]

Yet in the 1930s, WWI historiography’s early years of dissecting imperialism, many believed that colonization in general, not one country’s actions, generated enough conflict and competition to precipitate war.  As shared responsibility remained the consensus among the scholarly community continuing into the 1940s, and Europe was distracted by the plunge into another world war, the once loud and heated debate fell nearly silent.  Overshadowed by the horrors of WWII and with a sense that the question had been answered, the war-guilt discussion lay dormant for many years.

Nowhere in the world was there more unanimity about the war’s origins than in Germany. The Weimar Republic’s innocence campaign had been so successful and so pervasive that German historians followed suit, becoming increasingly entrenched in their views and unapologetic in their defense of the Second Reich.  Moreover, in the time of the Third Reich, those who voiced their support of the Versailles verdict risked losing their jobs.  Hitler put a stop to all WWI inquiry, fearing his regime might be undermined or eclipsed by memories of the Kaiserreich.  In the 1940s and 1950s, Germans continued to believe that their country held no–or at worst–secondary blame for WWI.[82]

It was in this environment that historian Fritz Fischer published Griff nach der Weltmacht in West Germany in 1961.  His book, eventually translated into English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, though claiming to be “neither an indictment nor a defense,” implicated the Germans as being chiefly responsible for the war’s outbreak.  Fischer describes Germany as unrelenting in its quest for world power, a navy comparable to England’s, a central European customs union and an opportunity to overturn the colonial status quo.  The controversial historian argues that the Second Reich’s war-time goals and campaigns for dominance and annexation as laid out by Bethmann-Hollweg’s Septemberprogramme—German plans created in the first few weeks of WWIwere not a matter of opportunity, but a continuation of fully-formed ambitions discussed well before fighting began.  As early as 1912, he contends, Rathenau had completed plans for a Central European customs union, approved by Bethmann-Hollweg.  Before the war, the German chancellor was concerned about Russia’s abundant natural resources and manpower and believed France to be a chief obstacle that needed to be eliminated.  Germany, Fischer maintains, encouraged Austria-Hungary to confront Serbia in 1914.  The Second Reich did so with “eyes wide open,” knowing that Russia would never let the dual monarchy “act in the Balkans unopposed” and that a general war was not only possible, but likely.[83]

The book sparked a furious backlash.  In the introduction to a later, translated version, historian James Joll describes the work as being at “the centre of one of the most violent academic controversies,” reigniting the debate over a question thought to be long answered in West Germany.[84]  Internationally, Fischer did not present an entirely new view on the issue (his work agreed, in large part, with the popular and widely accepted scholarship of Albertini and Taylor), but domestically, it was a scandal.  In an almost blasphemous betrayal of the patriotic self-censorship that had evolved as German tradition, Fischer became the first major West German historian to denounce his country as the principal instigator of WWI.  These findings had serious implications.  As Joll states: “One can understand why those Germans who are willing to accept Hitler’s responsibility for the Second World War and even, to some extent, Germany’s responsibility for Hitler, find it hard to reopen the whole question of war guilt in the First World War.”[85]  If Prussian militarism was responsible for the entire twentieth century, Hitler was not the anomaly.

As a result, Fischer and his “Hamburg School” of followers suffered personal attacks. Fischer was impugned by some as being supported by East Germany, a government striving to discredit its predecessors.[86]  West German historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen wrote “The Debate on German War Aims” in direct response to Fischer, criticizing him for exaggerating evidence and ignoring context and the circumstances in which decisions were made.[87]  Gerhard Ritter, known at the time as the “dean of German historians,” called Fischer an “old Nazi” and accused him in 1964 at the Congress of the German Historical Association in West Berlin of fabricating sources.  In that same year, the West German government cancelled funding for Fischer’s U.S. tour.[88]

Ritter continued to be Fischer’s fiercest critic.  In his work, he accuses Fischer of taking politicians’ words out of context and confusing nationalist, patriotic rhetoric for actual political intentions.[89]  He criticizes Germany’s Aims as being too exaggerated in its depiction of a unique German preoccupation with world power and makes the case that other nations harbored expansionist strategies too.[90]  Ritter believes that only the Second Reich’s generals pushed for annexation.  He stands firm with the West German status quo that had developed up until the time of Fischer’s scholarship, depicting the army and the civilian government as having very different agendas, defending the chancellor and ascribing all notions of aggression to the armed forces.[91]

Fischer’s disciples include historians like Dirk Stegmann, Barbara Vogel and Peter Christian Witt who went on to expand his theory.[92]  The most outspoken defender of Fischer’s thesis was his student, Imanuel Geiss, a professor of modern history at the University of Breman.  In his work, Geiss disputes what he sees as the illusion of encirclement, describing the two bloc alliances as springing mostly from German militarism and bad policy in their quest for power.[93]  He believes that, in the time leading up to the events of 1914, the German empire constituted the biggest threat to peace.  Germany’s world policy, he maintains, “made war inevitable,” while its pact with Austria-Hungary and Italy was quickly transformed from a defensive agreement to a “basis for German ambitions as a fledgling world power.”[94]

As the Fischerite point of view gained more traction around the world and its stigma in West Germany began to erode, the position inspired further theories of a German preemptive strike or an especially aggressive Second Reich bent on world domination—ideas that have occasionally appeared in WWI historiography ever since.  Historian John C. G. Röhl believes that Germans were in fact trying to establish hegemony on the continent and that the Kaiser and his staff saw the controversy in July 1914 as a “golden opportunity” to fight the Franco-Russians.[95]  In the legacy of Fischer, historian Jerzy Marczewski argues that Wilhelmine policy was nothing short of “maximum expansion,” while historian David Fromkin believes that Moltke and German General Erich von Falkenhayn seized control from the Austro-Hungarians during the Serbian crisis and crafted the preventative war they had always wanted.[96]

Fischer’s treatise reignited an important dialogue and appropriately refocused scrutiny on the most deserving country, but did so through an over-extended, problematic philosophy.  Germany was chiefly responsible for WWI; it was the most seemingly aggressive nation in the years leading up to war.  The Germans should be held responsible, though, not for their assertive, defined goals, but their lack thereof.  After Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890, German foreign policy and government decision-making took a dangerous turn.  His less cautious and less able successors abandoned his complex, well-structured plans for a poorly executed, haphazard pursuit of status and prestige.[97]  While Germany’s policies were without a doubt the most alarming and troublesome of that of all the powers, they were not the foundation of a bid for world domination, but were, rather, a result of the government’s unclear aims and inability to navigate the European system.

After 1890, Margaret MacMillan asserts, there was a degree of “indifference” in German foreign policy as leaders allowed their country to “drift” further into dependency upon the Triple Alliance.[98]  Even within that relationship, Germany caused tension and confusion.  Vienna was fearful of Germany’s inconsistent policies and their overtly aggressive propaganda and naval armaments.[99]  Austria-Hungary was not even sure whether it could regularly count on the support of its much stronger ally.  In November 1912, at his hunting lodge, the Kaiser personally promised Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand outright support in the First Balkan War (1912-1913), but as conflict broke out, Berlin eventually worked to restrain Vienna and cooperated with Britain in maintaining peace and undermining its partner.[100]  Germany never had concrete plans to exploit tensions between the two blocs of powers and, in fact, even confused and alienated its own ally.

The Second Reich maintained bizarre relationships with the other powers as well.  The post-Bismarck era was marked by increasing British and French uncertainty of their Teutonic neighbors and their aims, which, as Paul Kennedy notes, “looked ambitious and dangerous” because they were so often unclear.[101]  In 1898, the Germans rejected British statesman Joseph Chamberlain’s offer for a defensive alliance with the British, fearing that an agreement of that kind would dash the hopes for good relations with the Russians.[102]  Just a few years later, however, in 1901, Germany changed its strategy, aspiring to ally itself with Great Britain and, accordingly, was hesitant to commit to supporting the French in Morocco.  Nevertheless, in their usual desultory fashion, the Germans never reached out to the British to initiate any cooperation over the course of the six months following their rejection of the French.  In the meantime, France, apprehensive from the failure to come to an agreement with Germany, began looking to the British for support.[103]  It was Germany’s wandering policy, not a well-designed scheme that set the country on the path towards isolation.

The Kaiser’s personal attempts to cultivate alliances or control foreign policy often exacerbated the situation for the Germans.  In 1905, while cruising together on the Baltic, Wilhelm convinced the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, to sign an impromptu defensive treaty, effectively neutralizing Russia’s treaty with France.  Afterwards, both governments were outraged at the actions of their respective heads of state and the agreement was immediately annulled, but the close call did have lasting effects for Germany.  Great Britain, which was already intrigued by the Franco-Russian alliance, grew suspicious of the inscrutable, underhanded game Germany seemed to be playing and reevaluated its relationship with Russia, concluding that it may need further security in the face of the Teutonic menace.  Once again, it was mere German clumsiness that repelled other nations.

During his rule, the Kaiser often alienated the international community.  His erratic and unstable personality was worrisome to other nations; Europe’s leaders were unsure whether or not to take him at his word in his calls for German dominance and belligerence.  Wilhelm’s bellicose speeches, bold correspondences and angry marginalia became infamous, as historian Max Hastings sardonically suggests, “the exclamation mark was his favoured instrument of policy-making.”[104]  The German emperor’s intentions were often ridiculous and ephemeral (for a brief period he wanted to create a South American “New Germany” and encourage colonization in and migration to Brazil), but had little effect on actual policy.[105]  While the country and the Kaiser’s ostensible aggression had a direct role in both bringing the Triple Entente closer together and creating tension between the two opposing blocs, Wilhelm was not the mastermind behind a designed crusade for hegemony.

Even the aggressive rhetoric recklessly thrown around by the Kaiser and his government was just that—rhetoric—and not an expression of tangible objectives.  The principle of Weltpolitik, or world policy, perpetuated by Bülow and other leaders, included vague notions of German expansionism and a dedication to finding its imperial “place in the sun.”  This was inherently problematic—most land was either taken or, as in China, highly contentious.[106]  As the Second Reich promoted propaganda and commissioned endless speeches constructed around Weltpolitik and the German call for ascendancy, neighboring powers naturally grew concerned.  Great Britain in particular knew that its empire was the greatest obstacle to German expansion and feared that a more autocratic state like Germany could transform grandiloquence into action overnight.[107]

While Weltpolitik was a major contributor to the formation of a hostile Europe, it was not the basis of a German attempt at world domination.  The policy, first of all, was impossible to define.  Bülow never publicly expressed any of its actual aims.[108]  Even within the government there was confusion.  Waldersee wrote in his journal: “We are supposed to pursue Weltpolitik.  If I only knew what that was supposed to be.”[109]  MacMillan describes the oscillating foreign policy of Germany between 1890 and 1897 as “incoherent.”  In 1894 Leo von Caprivi, chancellor at the time, told the German ambassador to London that the Solomon Islands were a crucially important imperialistic target, yet within two months, Berlin lost all interest there.[110]  The German world policy never resulted in many actual gains.  Its practical achievements after 1897 included only the modest acquisition of the Caroline Island and a segment of Samoa.[111]  With its forceful rhetoric, aggressive speeches, and Weltpolitik, the German government postured itself as a threat to peace, seriously alarming the major powers and isolating the Second Reich.  This heavy-handed approach had a direct effect on Europe at large, and set the stage for war in 1914.  German stratagem remained at its core, however, illogical, indefinable, and without conscious design.

Among the scholars involved in the historiographical debate, many came to see this point of view, questioning the extremism of Fischer’s thesis, while some still took a strong stance in his defense.  Others were inspired by his work to explore new ways of thinking about WWI. One particular offshoot, the “domestic crisis school,” argues that local, not global politics, was at the center of the war’s outbreak. [112]  The work of West German historian Eckart Kehr (a contemporary of Fischer whose ideas were actually published before Germany’s Aims) became increasingly popular in the midst of the Fischer controversy, and his theory of der primat der innenpolitik, or the primacy of domestic politics, offered a new perspective.  Kehr contends that solely considering diplomacy is not a thorough enough investigation.  He argues that the Second Reich was chiefly responsible in starting the First World War, but only in that the state’s foreign policy was “a means to their domestic ends.”  Essentially, much of Germany’s pre-war decisions were conservatives’ attempts to quell the social conflicts that arose in the 1890s and preserve patriarchal, agrarian capitalism.  Kehr notes that the German agrarian elites originally rejected the building of a naval fleet in 1890, but came to embrace the idea at the turn of the century in the spirit of Anglo opposition because the British—an industrialized power—victory over the Boers—an agrarian society—represented a blow to their traditional position of power.[113]

Arno Mayer, a historian from Princeton University, takes the argument even further, claiming that because of internal turmoil, German policymakers were especially willing to engage in violence in 1914; their fear of revolution trumped their fear of combat.[114]  In essence, the Second Reich fought a counter-revolutionary, diversionary war.[115]  Historian Michael Gordon, writing in 2014, agrees that a sole focus on foreign policy is insufficient in understanding the First World War.  He describes the elites of the Wilhelmine era as living in an “anxiety-ridden condition,” disturbed by the societal vicissitudes that accompanied Germany’s budding modernism and remarkably quick industrialization. Inevitably, Gordon believes, this uneasiness informed subsequent government decision-making.[116]

While the fear of social upheaval in pre-war Germany may have been very real, any organized attempts to combat the issue or divert attention from it were not. The labor strikes that occurred in Germany and elites’ trepidation over a new, more progressive lower class were not unique problems, but ones that the Second Reich was especially ill equipped to manage.  Their unreliable political system included a federal parliament, the Reichstag, which maintained the power to approve the national budget and a federal council, the Bundesrat, which oversaw foreign affairs and the army and navy.  The council never amassed much power.  In Bismarck’s time, he designated himself not only Chancellor, but Prussian Minister-President and Foreign Minister, running foreign affairs out of the Prussian Foreign Ministry.  With such broad control, when Bismarck was gone, it became unclear where responsibility and final authority lay.  In this atmosphere, the Reichstag often tried to establish some sort of control and influence government policy by withholding approval of budgets, resulting in devastating political paralysis in times of crisis. [117]  Social uproar shed light on the inefficiency of the German system, but did not inspire notions of using war as a distraction.  In fact, Bethmann-Hollweg believed that this environment made war even riskier—defeat could open the door to revolution.[118]

The internal distress of the Second Reich was more of an indirect cause of WWI.  Dissent led Germany to adopt certain policies that helped to create an environment hospitable to war in 1914.  Just as Volker Berghahn, a historian who wrote on Germany’s domestic situation, argues, internal and external factors are interdependent.[119]  In the late nineteenth century Bülow, the Kaiser and conservative advisors adopted a policy of Sammlungspolitik—a program dedicated to galvanizing nationalist support and undermining socialism through, in part, an active foreign policy.  Bülow once revealed that the Germans had taken Samoa, knowing it to be of no use, solely in hopes of inspiring pride and patriotic fervor at home.[120]  Sammlungspolitik also involved state-sponsored propaganda.  There were films, pamphlets, battleship launches and public ceremonies celebrating the fortitude of Germany.  Even naval armament, to some extent, had its origins in the quest to quell social unrest.  Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and other officials believed the expansion of the navy could inspire German prestige and develop as a project for citizens to rally behind.[121]  However, this ostentatious bellicosity used as means of uniting Germans only worked to instill fear in the rest of the world.[122]

Throughout the historiography of the war, the tense relationship between Great Britain and Germany—one exacerbated by the naval race—has been examined endlessly, yielding various hypotheses about how competition between the two nations was allowed to escalate into armed conflict.  A viable, but less popular view, defended wholeheartedly by Ferguson in 1999 in The Pity of War, contends that London, not Berlin, was at the center of the sour relations.  The author claims that any chance at Anglo-German cooperation broke down, not due to Germany’s strength or aggression, but as a byproduct, in fact, of its weakness: Britain felt it needed to appeal to stronger allies like Russia, France, or the United States, even if it meant marginalizing others.  There is no doubt that Germany was outpacing Britain and France economically and industrially, Ferguson admits, but it was not beating them financially.  By 1913, Britain had accumulated 3.9 billion pounds of foreign assets, while France had about half as much, and Germany only a quarter.[123]  The historian also argues that Grey and his government were constantly overestimating the belligerence of the Second Reich, wrongly accusing them of Napoleonic schemes.  The threat posed by the German navy, for example, was exaggerated.  In 1912, Germany had nine dreadnoughts to the British’s fifteen; at the start of war, the Entente had forty-three warships, while the Central Powers had only twenty.  As other historians and defenders of the Second Reich often point out, Tirpitz’s plan for naval armaments were never connected to any specific offensive campaigns.[124]

Although Germany never formulated explicit plans for the navy, the program remained the most incendiary element of Anglo-German relations.  Even a historian like Keegan, who tends to lay blame on abstract concepts, like diplomacy and rivalry, admits that the worst rivalry of all was the one actively provoked by the Germans when they decided to embark on building a fleet comparable to the best in the world—the British navy.[125]  Although the British always maintained their naval supremacy, the German fleet was still a direct threat to Britain, a country whose defense and security was based on the water.  It was also a country that relied heavily on imports: Britain imported seven-eighths of its raw materials (excluding coal) and half of its food supply.[126]  An enemy blockade would be devastating.  In addition, an agreement between Grey and French diplomat Paul Cambon specified that the French fleet protect all Entente interests in the Mediterranean while the British fleet protect the Channel.  Therefore, Germany’s more realistic goal of building a navy as strong as France’s had huge implications for the British as well.[127]

Germany already maintained the biggest army of the twentieth century.  Naval expansion, then, was an especially antagonistic, alarming practice as Britain and the other major countries worried that too much power would be concentrated in the hands of one nation.[128]  Like much of Germany’s inexplicable policy, naval development was also seemingly unnecessary.  Tirpitz and Bülow made claims that a fleet would benefit the Germans’ colonial exploits, and yet there was very little economic significance to their colonies after 1897.[129] As Geiss writes: some politicians in Britain were “disturbed and even frightened by the menace of the German fleet, of Germany’s vague, ill-defined demands, her pretensions and the ostentatious display of her military and naval power.”[130]  Unable to discern the actual motivations behind the fleet, Great Britain and the rest of Europe often assumed the worst.

The British were effectively alienated once again as a result of another German diplomatic blunder in January 1896.  The incident—known today as the Kruger Telegram—involved a congratulatory message from the Kaiser to Paul Kruger, the president of the South African Republic, commending his work in repelling British invasion.  Regarding Great Britain’s efforts in South Africa, most powers were in fact privately in support of Kruger, but were prudent enough to remain publicly neutral.[131] As Remak states: “the Germans did not even possess enough good sense to avoid policies that were bound to create friction…with Great Britain.”[132]  Limited by their own tunnel vision, Germans remained seemingly blind to the realities of the world and unwittingly agitated the British with their unnecessary and unwise policies.

Beyond the historical investigation of prewar Britain, much of the literature on the Great War’s origins also seeks to explain the nature of Franco-Russian tension with Germany.  In the tradition of revisionists like Barnes, some recent scholarship still maintains Russia and France were motivated in going to war, or at least in entering into their surprising and provocative alliance, because of their respective hopes of claiming the highly sought-after Straights and to recover the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.[133]  In other words, the partnership was based on expansion and revenge.  In his 2011 book, The Russian Origins of the First World War, historian Sean McMeekin argues in this same vein, claiming that much of Russia’s foreign policy was centered on finding a warm water port and a fear that an improving Turkish army would make that objective difficult.  He argues that the historiography focuses more on Germany’s war aims only because its army’s early success provided the opportunity for leaders to consider expansion and more aggressive ambitions.  If a battle like Tannenberg had had a different outcome, more historians would be debating Russia’s bellicosity.[134]

There is very little evidence that either France or Russia designed a war for expansion.  French revanche has been dispelled by recent scholarship as a myth, and though a thorn in the side of France, lost territory was far from a reason to risk world war.  In fact, Alsace-Lorraine was a profitable center for the nations on either side as it served as the nexus between the very successful Franco-German banks and industry.[135]  In 1914, the Tsar and the Russian government had even less reason to provoke conflict, knowing that their country would be much better prepared in two years time upon the completion of their military plans and armaments production.[136]

The Franco-Russians cannot be considered blameless—their decision alone to ally with one another was antagonizing, turning German fears of encirclement into a reality.  Their partnership, however, did not inspire, but rather was a result of a mutual distrust of Berlin and its strange policies and disturbing rhetoric.[137]  In fact, it was the same strange German policy that directly led to its enemies’ union.  As historian George F. Kennan writes in The Fateful Alliance, “the decline of the special Russo-German relationship was the prerequisite for the establishment of any significant political and military intimacy between Russia and France.”[138]  When in 1890 the Tsar made an offer to the Kaiser to renew the Reinsurance Treaty (an agreement designed by Bismarck three years earlier in which both nations consented to remain neutral if the other were to end up at war), the Germans rejected the Russian proposal, worried it may contradict their arrangement with Austria-Hungary.  None of Bismarck’s successors had his propensity for judiciously maintaining foreign relations and skillfully fitting the country’s agreements and treaties neatly together.  As a result, the Russians, fearing isolation, turned to the French, while the Germans became intrinsically more reliant on their only viable ally—Austria-Hungary.[139]

More often than the Franco-Russians, the Austro-Hungarians have been cited as the principal instigator of WWI due to their provocative ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914.  Landlocked Serbs wanted to expand, access more markets, and encourage subversion in the multi-cultural Austria-Hungary.[140]  Their country, due to the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, increased in size by 80 percent, while the dual monarchy was left in a very precarious position as a world power.[141] It was no secret then that Austria-Hungary was looking to absorb its chief rival and biggest threat, Serbia, and that its chief of staff of the armed forces, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, was a zealous hawk who had been agitating for action against the Serbs since 1906.[142]  Historian Max Hastings is among many who reserve harsh judgment for the Austro-Hungarians, criticizing their desperation to become a more formidable world power and the speed with which their military leader’s impulse turned violent.  Between January 1, 1913 and June 1, 1914, Hastings notes in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Conrad asked his government for war a total of twenty-six times.[143]

Austria-Hungary should bear secondary blame for the war.  Its failure to act swiftly and decisively following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 opened a window of opportunity for controversy and allowed events to escalate into chaos.  The international community was initially sympathetic to the nation whose heir to the throne had just been murdered and had always considered Serbia an inherently violent and backward place.  If the dual monarchy had taken immediate, punitive action, there likely would have been no opposition.  It was Austria-Hungary’s decision to wait nearly a month (which incited fears that the Central Powers were planning a much larger war) and include its more powerful allies in a situation unrelated to them that led to the outbreak of general conflict.[144]

If Austria-Hungary should be held accountable for mishandling the events of July, the Germans should be afforded as much blame in the blind support of their inept ally.  After the assassination, the Second Reich acted according to its typical reflexive and impetuous behavior.  On July 5, 1914, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Leopold Berchtold, sent Alexander Hoyos, his chief of staff, to Berlin to arrange a meeting between the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Germany, László Szögyény, and Wilhelm II to see what role the Germans were willing to play in the dual monarchy’s plans for action.  Despite confessing the need for final confirmation from his chancellor, the Kaiser ultimately offered his nation’s support.  By July 6, Bethmann-Hollweg had also sent the allies word of his agreeing to whatever aid the country requested in its strike against Serbia.

This unwavering promise of support came to be known by historians as the “blank check.”  The blank check, issued casually and without much consideration of the devastating alliance mechanism it could initiate, was vital in Austria-Hungary’s decision to take action. The question of German support had been on every leader’s mind since the commencement of discussions of revenge.[145]  The Austro-Hungarians, militarily and economically relatively weak, and certainly isolated without the help of Germany, would have been far less likely to engage in conflict without the help of their ally.  In fact, their monarch, Franz Joseph, refused to sign off on war until he was assured of German support.[146]

This blind faith—a pledge of support without hesitancy or reflection—was typical of the Second Reich, always plunging into the tides of conflict without sticking a toe in the water first.  The issuing of the blank check was only the grand finale in a series of German indiscretions and careless decision-making.  The famous Prussian efficiency of the army never carried over into the civilian government in the forms of diplomacy or foreign policy, as German leaders, with vague dreams of success, always seemed to have their hand in twice as many matters as the rest of the world, but with only half the results.  The Germans’ reassurance to Austria-Hungary, a country which holds secondary responsibility for its direct role in precipitating conflict, was the tipping point in a world disposed toward war—a world created, in large part, inadvertently by Germany.

The Triple Entente is not blameless in the events leading up to WWI.  The British, the French and the Russians all participated in the same arms race and secret diplomacy that made Europe such a powder keg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They were quick to grow suspicious and often acted on fears grounded in an overestimation of German belligerence.  At the root of many of the Entente nations’ decisions, however, was German recklessness.  Nevertheless, the Second Reich never forged concrete plans to spark a world war.  Like so many of its gestures, the call to fight or desire to prove themselves was mostly rhetoric, uttered without thinking and without intention.  Even the clearest expression of belligerence communicated by the men in Berlin on December 8, 1912, though alarming and proof of a unique German perspective, never resulted in the actual war preparations that were discussed.  It was Germany’s clumsy attempts to flourish, not devious, calculated plans that led to war.

Encumbered with domestic turmoil, and suffering a sense of inadequacy on the continent, Germany’s policies unraveled in confusion and isolation after Bismarck’s dismissal in 1890.  Patriotic, truculent propaganda and the insistence on developing a world-class navy were intended to serve the German people in their time of disunion, but only managed to inflame the international community.  The Kaiser, prone to his fits of rage and his perpetually changing plans; Weltpolitik with its menacing bombast; and Germany’s seemingly arbitrary, antagonistic foreign policy (including the Moroccan Crises and the rejection of the Reinsurance Treaty), culminated in an anxiety-ridden Europe and an estranged two-bloc system.  This Europe, crafted unskillfully by Teutonic leaders, was poised perfectly for war in July 1914.  With one bullet, one pledge of support, and one ultimatum, the world that Germany had unintentionally created, spiraled into an unprecedented catastrophe.

Like other nations, the Second Reich was fearful of war, but less so.  Leaders and politicians, like Wilhelm and Bethmann-Hollweg, and military men, like Schlieffen and Waldersee, often expressed belief in the war’s inevitability.  Moltke’s insistence on “war the sooner the better” has now become infamous and cited innumerable times throughout the voluminous historiography of WWI.  In the literature of the past century, historians have focused on quotes like these and tried to make sense of the devastation and failure to compromise in 1914.  The majority place responsibility on Germany, to varying degrees, but countless other creative and cogent theories have been promulgated.  Nonetheless, the blame game is less about condemning those from our past and more about ensuring the brightness of our future.  As the investigation continues, without a conclusion in sight, historians provide the world with an in depth dissection of rivalry and conflict—knowledge that may give the world a better chance at fending off the demons of division, competition and violence that plagued Europe in 1914.


[1]Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper, 2013), xxiii.

[2] Holger Afflerbach and David Stevenson, eds., An Improbable War? The Outbreak of World War I and European Political Culture before 1914 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), x-xii.

[3] Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2002), 106.

[4] Frederick Hale, “Fritz Fischer and the Historiography of World War One,”

The History Teacher 9, no. 2 (February 1976): 259, accessed April 19, 2014,; Dennis Showalter, “The Great War and Its Historiography,” Historian 68, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 718, accessed March 9, 2014,

[5] Showalter, 713.

[6]Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, 2009), xxxiii; Holger Herwig, “Of Men and Myths: The Use and Abuse of History and the Great War,” in The Great War and the Twentieth Century, ed. Jay Winter, Geoffry Parker and Mary R. Habeck (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 301.

[7]Mombauer, 25, 31.

[8]Mombauer, 43.

[9]John W. Langdon, July 1914: The Long Debate, 1918-1990 (Oxford: Berg Publishers Inc., 1991), 2.

[10]Langdon, 3.

[11]Mombauer, 53.

[12] Keith Wilson, ed., Forging the Collective Memory: Government and International Historians through Two World Wars (Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1996), 11-12.

[13]Showalter, 714.

[14]Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies 1914 to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 9.

[15]Wilson, 64.

[16]Langdon, 19.

[17]Ferguson, xxxiv.

[18]Wilson, 67.

[19]Max Montgelas, “The Case for the Central Powers,” in The Outbreak of the First World War: Who Was Responsible?, ed. Dwight E. Lee (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1963), 5.

[20] Erich Brandenburg, “From Bismarck to the World War,” in Lee, 8.

[21]Mombauer, 90.

[22]Herman Wittgens, “Senator Owen, the Schuldreferat, and the Debate over War Guilt in the 1920s,” in Wilson, 128-129.

[23]Harry Elmer Barnes, The Genesis of the World War: An Introduction to the Problem of War Guilt (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970), 46-48, 138.

[24]Sidney Bradshaw Fay, “Origins of the World War,” in Lee, 16, 19.

[25]Holger Herwig, “Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War,” in Wilson, 105.

[26]Herwig, “Clio Deceived,” 105.

[27]Bernadotte E. Schmitt, “The Origins of the First World War,” in Lee, 74-75.

[28]Lee, 52.

[29]Camille Bloch, “The Causes of the World War, in Lee, 22, 25.

[30]Showalter, 715.

[31] Mombauer, 106.

[32] Ferguson, xxxv-xxxvi.

[33] Lee, 61.

[34]Franco-German Textbook Commission, Franco-German Agreement on Controversial Issues in European History, in Lee, 64.

[35]Langdon, 50, 130.

[36]Raymond Aron, “The Century of Total War,” in Lee, 68.

[37] Barabara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964), 72.

[38]A. J. P. Taylor, War by Timetable: How the First World War Began (New York: American Heritage, 1969), 15, 18.

[39]A. J. P. Taylor, “Fritz Fischer and His School,” The Journal of Modern History 47, no. 1 (March 1975): 121, accessed August 26, 2014,

[40]David Stevenson, “The Politics of the Two Alliances,” in Winter, Parker and Habeck, 78.

[41]John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 26-28, 48.

[42]Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House Inc., 1987), 199, 249, 252-254.

[43]Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 82-83.

[44]Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (New York: Random House, 2013), xxvi, xxxv.

[45]David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe 1904-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 9, 15.

[46]Ferguson, 82.

[47]Clark, 327.

[48]Clark, 329; Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (New York: Random House LLC, 2013), 30.

[49]Hastings, 31.

[50]Clark, 331.

[51]Hastings, 31.

[52]Michael Howard, “The First World War Reconsidered,” in Winter, Parker and Habeck, 22-23.

[53]Tuchman, 106-107.

[54]Holger Afflerbach, “The Topos of Improbable War in Europe before 1914,” in Afflerbach and Stevenson, 162-163, 167.

[55]Ferguson, 152.

[56]Hastings, 32.

[57]Mombauer, 106-107.

[58]V. J. Lenin, “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” (New York: International Publishers, 1982), 68, 76, 109.

[59]Ferguson, 31-32.

[60]K. Zilliacus, “Mirror of the Past: A History of Secret Diplomacy,in Lee, 46.

[61]Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 56, 315.

[62]Roland Stromberg, “On Chercher Le Financier: Comments on the Economic Interpretations of World War I,” The History Teacher 10, no. 3 (May, 1977): 435-436, accessed July 24, 2014,

[63]Zara Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977), 62.

[64]David French, “The Edwardian Crisis and the Origins of the First World War,” The International History Review 4, no. 2 (May 1982): 208, 210, 216, accessed August 19, 2014,

[65]Stromberg, 436.

[66]Joachim, Remak, The Origins of World War I: 1871-1914 (New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1967), 37.

[67]Volker Rolf Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), 19-20; H.W. Koch ed., Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalry and German War Aims (New York: Palgrave Taplinger Publishing Co., 1972), 2.

[68]Steiner, 68.

[69]Remak, 35.

[70]Steiner, 47-48, 66-67.

[71]Imanuel Geiss, “Origins of the First World War,” in Koch, 50.

[72]Remak, 78-79.

[73]Richard F. Hamilton, “The European Wars: 1815-1914,” in The Origins of World War I, ed. Richard F. Hamilton and Holger Herwig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 83.

[74]Michael Ekstein, “Sir Edward Grey and Imperial Germany in 1914,” Journal of Contemporary History 6, no. 3 (1971): 123, accessed July 14, 2014,

[75]Remak, 40-41.

[76]Steiner, 43.

[77]Remak, 43-44.

[78]MacMillan, 439.

[79]David E. Kaiser, “Germany and the Origins of the First World War,” The Journal of Modern History 55, no. 3 (September 1983): 452, accessed June 22, 2014,

[80]MacMillan, 455-456.

[81]Clark, 208-209.

[82]Hale, 263-264.

[83]Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1967), 8, 10-11, 28-29, 34-35, 52, 63.

[84]James Joll, introduction to Fischer, xviii.

[85]Joll, xix.

[86]Mombauer, 140.

[87]Wolfgang J. Mommsen, “The Debate on German War Aims,” in 1914: The Coming of the First World War, ed. Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1966), 54-55.

[88]Langdon, 5, 74, 101.

[89]Hale, 272-273.

[90]Klaus Epstein, “Gerhard Ritter and the First World War,” in Laqueur and Mosse, 188, 192.

[91]Mommsen, 66.

[92]Langdon, 86.

[93]Imanuel Geiss, “The Outbreak of the First World War and German War Aims,” in Laqueur and Mosse, 76-77.

[94]Imanuel Geiss, “Origins of the First World War,” 36-37, 45.

[95]Holger H. Herwig, “Germany,” in Hamilton and Herwig, 150; John C. G. Röhl, “The Curious Case of the Kaiser’s Disappearing War Guilt: Wilhelm II in July 1914,” in Afflerbach and Stevenson, 78-79.

[96]Jerzy Marczewski, “German Historiography and the Problem of Germany’s Responsibility for World War I,” Polish Western Affairs 12, no. 2 (1977): 289, accessed August 26, 2014,; David Fromkin, Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 290-291.

[97]Michael Epkenhans, “Was a Peaceful Outcome Thinkable?: The Naval Race before 1914,” in Afflerbach and Stevenson, 116.

[98]MacMillan, 81.

[99]Samuel R. Williamson Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 86-87, 143.

[100]MacMillan, 488.

[101]Kennedy, 252.

[102]Remak, 32.

[103]John F. V. Keiger, France and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 18, 21.

[104]Hastings, 76.

[105]Clark, 179-180.

[106]Hamilton, 83-84.

[107]MacMillan, 91-92, 96.

[108]Kaiser, 448.

[109]MacMillan, 88-89.

[110]MacMillan, 82.

[111]Clark, 150-151.

[112]Showalter, 718.

[113] Eckart Kehr, Economic Interest, Militarism, and Foreign Policy: Essays on German History, ed. Gordon A. Craig, trans. Grete Heinz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 23-24, 27.

[114]Langdon, 136.

[115]Michael. R Gordon, “Domestic Conflict and the Origins of the First World War: The British and the German Cases,” The Journal of Modern History 46, no. 2 (June 1974): 193, accessed August 1, 2014,, 193.

[116]Gordon, 200, 202-203.

[117]MacMillan, 73-74.

[118]Ferguson, 28.

[119]Berghahn, 3.

[120]MacMillan, 85.

[121]Epkenhans, 117.

[122]MacMillan, 106-107.

[123]Ferguson, 35.

[124]Berghahn, 38.

[125]Keegan, 19.

[126]Steiner, 60.

[127]Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 72-73.

[128]Remak, 80.

[129]Kaiser, 449.

[130]Geiss, “Origins of the First World War,” 48.

[131]Remak, 30.

[132]Remak, 71.

[133]Clark, 188.

[134] Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 30-31, 77.

[135]Keiger, 8.

[136]Hastings, 51.

[137]D. C. B. Lieven, Russia and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 27.

[138]George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), xii.

[139]Kennan, 19, 22.

[140]Williamson, 103; Keegan, 48.

[141]Clark, 99.

[142]Tuchman, 71.

[143]Hastings, 29.

[144]Keegan, 51-52.

[145]Clark, 99.

[146]McMeekin, July 1914, 106.


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