Ideas old and new

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GCE Level History M. Nichols BWIC 2007-8






MR. NICHOLS, 2007-8

History (and even pre-history) is one, almost continuous, story of confrontation and invasion. The current state of the world shows this only too well. Since WWII alone, there have been well over a thousand wars: some have lasted days, others years.

Discussion Point

  • What contemporary conflicts are taking place?

  • Why do people fight wars?

What made the First World War, the so-called ‘Great War’, in the minds of contemporaries, at least, was that it was the first truly global conflagration in history (given the extent of the participants’ empires). However, in other ways, it was arguably not unique, especially, in terms of its basic causes. A combination of circumstances at the time and Mankind’s innate, inherent failings, led to a conflict that would eventually see the deaths of over 9 million human beings. It was a war, in other words, that cost over 6000 lives (or two 9/11’s) a day - for four and a quarter years.

Contemporaries, however, regarded the possibility of a long war unlikely. The German Crown Prince looked forward to a ‘bright and jolly war’. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey argued that the War would not last long and be over by Christmas, on the logic that a war between the Great Powers would be too ruinous to continue long.
Wars are rarely, if ever, ideological. Wars are fought for far baser ideals than their participants are prepared to admit. In my opinion, the ‘just war’ concept has always been something of a myth. WWI was never a ‘just war’, despite each side proclaiming that it was.
Cynicism is something that is unavoidable when studying the causes of wars, and is an especially useful state of mind to take when looking at the reasons for the First World War.
But while WWI was, in many ways, not unique, it does have its peculiar causes. Even so, it is still very much an adequate and representative reflection of the follies of Mankind.


A war, which had such appalling consequences as the one of 1914-1918 had, has to have blame accorded somewhere.

It seems to me that are basically three approaches to the question. I would summarise these as:

  • ‘It was Nobody’s Fault’

  • ‘It was Everybody’s Fault’

  • ‘It was Austria’s and, especially, Germany’s Fault’

Theory 1: It was Nobody’s Fault

Often called the ‘tragedy of miscalculation’ theory, it is a view propounded most energetically by L.C.F. Turner (1970). He argues that no one power really wanted war. He stresses the pacific feelings in 1914, of certain major powers and the misconceptions of the statesmen involved. His main contention is that: the eminent and wily statesmen of Europe had no real grasp of the technical issues connected with mobilisation, and so they failed to grasp its strategic and political implications. The War memoirs of David Lloyd George who commented that nations “slithered” into the conflict, concur, but are no more convincing.

Discussion Point

  • What significance, do you think, should be attached to the fact that Turner was a professor at the Royal Military College of Australia?

Theory 2: It was Everybody’s Fault

After the war, and partly in a spirit of reconciliation, it was increasingly argued that no one power had been responsible for bringing about the war. In the 1920s and 30s, the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon historians’ like Fay, Barnes and R.H. Lutz gradually began to relieve Germany of sole blame for causing the war. Such views can perhaps best be supported by looking at Britain’s role in helping to bring about the conflict.

GB has been accused of being, while not overly aggressive, at least dangerously ambiguous in her aims and intentions towards Germany and the continent. Some historians (notably Geoffrey Barraclough and, most recently, the revisionist Niall Ferguson) have gone further and put a lot of the blame squarely on British shoulders. Germany, it is claimed, did not know what GB would do, once she put the infamous Schlieffen Plan into operation. Would GB support France? Would she support her other partner (but also imperial rival), Russia?
However, these views have one main drawback, in my opinion: the infamous, if controversial, so-called ‘War Council’ of 8th December 1912.
Held by the German Kaiser (Wilhelm II), with his main military advisors, to plan a future war in Europe that Germany could win, it referred also to the German realisation, provided by Lord Haldane that GB would actively intervene on the side of France, to maintain the balance of power in Europe, and thus prevent German hegemony. By utilising the Schlieffen Plan, Germany must have known it would be unleashing a major war (itself a reflection on the severe limitations of the Plan itself and the limited scope for tactical and strategic initiative it allowed).
We should also note that Fay and Barnes themselves have limitations as historians, in that they may have been hoodwinked by the German authorities into accepting German blamelessness. Certainly, they had links with the ex-Kaiser (in the post-war years, exiled in the Netherlands) and other former members of the imperial government. How much, therefore, are their views objective history? Even at the time, contemporary historians like Renouvin of France and Schmitt of the US were vigorously disputing their findings. Ruth Henig also absolves France, Russia and even Serbia of much of the blame for the War, pinning the blame on Germany instead.

Homework Assignment

  • What was the Schlieffen Plan? Show your understanding in diagrammatic form. Be prepared to explain it to the class.

Theory 3: It was Austria and Germany’s Fault

The other traditional, but frequently challenged view, is that Germany and her close ally Austro-Hungary bear the brunt of responsibility for the instigation of the war. Certainly, Article 231 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, laid the blame squarely on Germany and the Kaiser for starting the war. But then, history is always written by the victors and the treaty is, as such, hardly a reliable source of evidence!

In the 1960s, however, the whole debate was re-awakened with the 1961 publication of Fritz Fischers’ ‘Griff Nacht der Weltmacht’ (Germany’s grasp for world power). This seminal work still holds sway.
To Fischer and his disciples (Immanuel Geiss et al), Germany had caused the War and indeed did bear ultimate responsibility for it. This assertion caused an almost hysterical amount of controversy in German academic circles. Serious accusations, of a personal and academic nature, were levelled at Fischer by men like Professor Gerhard Ritter and later, H.W. Koch, jealous perhaps also of his fame and his access to the state archives, in Potsdam, East Germany, which as West Germans they could not get near!
Germans, it seemed, could not contemplate the fact that their countrymen had indeed caused two world wars. A theory like Fischer’s, even seemed to endanger possibilities for future German re-unification.
H.W. Koch has criticised Fischer’s research methods and selectivity, while admitting they are those frequently used in German academia! Koch takes a more benign view of Imperial Germany stressing its defensive postures and geographical exposure in the middle of Europe, quoting the famous maxim of G.P. Gooch, that: ”Geography is the mother of history”.
What does: “Geography is the mother of history”, mean?
Koch claims Germany wanted security above all else. Germany feared an Anglo-Russian seaborne invasion. He even speaks of the Schlieffen Plan as a “preventative, defensive stroke”. He points out the Germanophobia of high-ranking British officials, and that Germany was bound to support her one true ally, Austro-Hungary (1879). Koch goes so far as to say that, to the British, war in Europe was preferable to war elsewhere and that preservation of its empire mattered more to GB than anything else.
A lot of what Koch says is controversial. What I aim to show is that the reasons for the War can be divided into ‘long-term causes’ and ‘short-term triggers’, and that contrary to what Koch says, Germany and the Kaiser, did indeed play the dominant, though admittedly not the sole role, in bringing about the world’s greatest and bloodiest war to date.
A whole host of historians have re-iterated this argument including Dominic Lieven, Norman Stone, John Moses and Herwig. Luigi Albertini in his magisterial three volume history also famously pronounced Germany guilty.

Discussion Point

What does it mean, when we say history is more grey, than black or white, in nature?
Table of Historiography on Causes of WWI



The Germans

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