To what extent was Germany to blame for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914?



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To what extent was Germany to blame for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914?

The outbreak of war in 1914 has been the subject of considerable debate ever since the war was concluded in 1918. Initially the victorious powers did blame Germany wholly for causing the war whilst historians from the 1920’s and 30’s tended to focus on the shared guilt e.g. Lloyd George argued that the nations of Europe slithered into the cauldron of war and nobody really wanted it but nobody really did anything to stop it. This argument has some credence but does not differentiate sufficiently between the Great Powers. Most had varying degrees of responsibility, not equal. The overwhelming evidence supports the argument that although Germany was not wholly to blame she was certainly the most responsible. Their imperial, economic and military aggression had created flashpoints prior to 1914 but it was the calculated high risk gamble of Moltke, the Kaiser and his other chiefs of staff in July 1914 to exploit a local crisis in the Balkans between Russia and Austria Hungary that helped engineer a continental wide conflict that was to become the Great War.

There is no doubt that great power relations had deteriorated from the 1890’s onwards and the atmosphere in Europe was tense for many years running up to 1914. The claim therefore that the Anglo German naval arms race, the Alliances and the economic and imperial rivalry between the Great Powers, all made war inevitable at some time. This shared guilt argument does explain why it was possible or even probable for war to break out but it does not account for the timing of war and the accountability of individuals who took risks and made choices they were not compelled to make. European powers were used to settling disputes with each other and other less powerful countries through limited wars and therefore a war mind set was well established amongst the Great Powers.

The balance of power in Europe had been reasonably stable in the 19th Century but the emergence of Germany in 1871 began to challenge the existing order. Kaiser Wilhelm II ratcheted up the rivalry in the 1890’s when he began to demand Germany’s ‘place in the sun’ to create an Empire to rival that of Britain’s and France. He also had ambitions to dominate international diplomacy through his policy of Weltpolitik. His zealous nationalism also brought Germany into conflict with Britain, Russia and France. Germany had calculated that her security would be best served by an alliance with 2 other continental powers. Thus an alliance system emerged as the Triple /dual alliance between Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy. Russia and France also realised the value of an alliance, with Britain remaining on the edge, committing to very little until it really had too. The alliance system coupled with the naval and military arms race meant that all Great Powers spent millions on strengthening their defences and preparing for possibility of war. There had even been instances in 1905 and 1911 where clashes between Germany and France came close to war over Morocco but war was averted. Equally the Balkan league wars of 1912 and 1913 were encouraged by alliances working together. It is also true that the Great Powers devised detailed war plans through the early part of the 20th century which again suggests an expectation of war in the near future. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan in particular was conscious of the need to act decisively and speedily if war were to break out. However this is not sufficient to explain why war broke out in August 1914.

The July Crisis of 1914 that was sparked by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th in Sarajevo did not initially raise alarm bells with all the Great Powers. A continental war was not inevitable even if a localised regional war in the Balkans was looking likely. Indeed in France and Germany, leaders went off to enjoy their summer holidays. Austria Hungary however, was keen to exert its power in the region. It was the dominant Great Power in the region since 1908, much to the chagrin of the Russians, but it was facing strong Slavic nationalism from the Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia itself. Emperor Franz Joszef wanted to deal with the Serbs once and for all and knew that if he started a war with them, then Russia may well get involved. He knew they wanted to avenge the humiliations of 1908 when Austria had outwitted them. It was the call for German support that was pivotal in turning this local crisis into a European conflict. Germany issued a statement to Austria that was described as a ‘blank cheque’ and this emboldened the Austrians to issue their ultimatum to Serbia. This was simply pretence at resolving the dispute peacefully as Austria had no intention to follow a diplomatic route. If Germany had tried to advise Austria to do so then it is unlikely that Austria would have gone alone and risked Russia getting involved.

There is no doubt that Austria and Russia did make prospect of war in the region possible but it was Germany who ensured it became something much more. The key question therefore, is why Germany provoked war knowing that it would lead to a wider conflict. The research of Fritz Fischer and his colleagues in the 1960’s points to the need for war sooner rather than later. Germany was acutely aware that it was losing ground to Russia and France and that both would be much better prepared for war in 1915 and beyond than they were in 1914. This would put pay to any of Germany’s long held ambitions. The Admiral Müllers diary entry and Moltke memorandum in 1912 both make clear that a ‘war sooner rather than later’ was inevitable. It would enable Germany to fulfil its foreign policy ambitions to be the dominant power in the world. It was also clear that the Schlieffen Plan’s effort to avoid fighting on two fronts simultaneously would be defunct if both France and Russia could mobilise quickly. Fischer also argues that a war was good distraction from the social and economic problems in Germany and would unite all Germans behind the Kaiser instead of challenging him.



Germany saw an opportunity to bring about a war and therefore the very high risk gamble of the chiefs of staff to back Austria and to partially mobilise German forces set the train in motion. AJP Taylor described it as war by timetable and July 28th 1914 is the key turning point when war became inevitable. It is true that other countries could have made different decisions and avoided war in 1914 but the balance of power would have shifted very favourably towards Germany. A situation none of the Triple entente could tolerate. Germany knew this and still Germany forged ahead. The Kaiser’s argument that Britain would not risk war with its ‘contemptibly small army’ over a little scrap of paper’ to defend Belgium neutrality was naive at best. Germany wanted a war and Germany engineered the situation to provoke war. The Kaiser’s long held ambitions for imperial, military and political dominance provided the coals for war and the Balkan crisis of 1914 provided the spark. Therefore Austria, Russia and Serbia should some responsibility for causing a localised regional war but Germany shoulders the most responsibility for a European wide conflict we know as the Great war/ First World War.


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