Has Germany Been Unfairly Blamed For The First World War?
Throughout history, historians and contemporaries have had vastly varying opinions on the degree to which Germany should be held responsible for the First World War. While the Treaty of Versailles enshrined the notion that Germany was responsible solely for the War, it was followed by a wave of revisionist German historiography which aimed to combat the assumption that Germany bore the brunt of the guilt. Several decades after Versailles and its ensuing revisionism, the seminal writings of historian Fritz Fischer prompted a renewed belief that Germany deserves uniquely high, if not sole, responsibility for the outbreak of the War. The clash between those who blame and do not blame Germany is one of the most well-traversed yet simultaneously disputed topics in modern history.
The question of Germany responsibility broadly asks whether they should be blamed for the outbreak of the War, broadly asks the following questions – whether Germany was responsible for the short-term development of the July Crisis, and whether they bear responsibility for this then developing into the conflagration that became the First World War.
Germany does undoubtedly deserve a sizeable share of the blame for its role in the sparking and escalation of the First World War. Bethmann Holweg and Jagow actively encouraged Austria to respond decisively and aggressively towards the Balkan crisis due to concerns over the diminution of Austria’s prestige and power. This played a substantial role in actually compelling Austrian action. Perhaps even more importantly, the German Empire provided and provided a ‘blank cheque’ to Austria-Hungary.
While Austria-Hungary was a sovereign and independent state with its own agenda and desire to respond, it is unlikely Austria-Hungary would have responded in the intensely aggressive way it did without German support. Without Germany, Austria would have lacked the military credibility to responded brashly to a Russian ultimatum, and thus would have likely exacted vengeance upon Serbia in a far more limited manner. They almost certainly would not have allowed escalation into a general war. The unconditional support from Germany, coupled with active encouragement to go to war, thus represents substantial culpability for the original spark of the July Crisis.
Germany equally is in large part responsible for the escalation of the original regional conflict into a general war. It is abundantly clear that the rulers of Germany were willing to escalate the conflict into a pan-European war. Numerous documents, emerging from German archives in the decades following the Second World War and popularised in academic history by Fischer thesis, highlight that many German elites and leaders may have wanted an immediate war. An immediate general war could avoid greater Russian reconstruction, thereby providing an easier war than at some point in the future. This willingness to go to war was reflected in their diplomatic manoeuvres.
Germany’s excessively pugnacious ultimatum to Russia, coupled with a general unwillingness to utilise British mediation, was perhaps the main factor underpinning the decisions of France and Russia, and by extension Britain, to ready themselves for War. Germany’s ultimatum backed Russia into a corner, whereby they were forced to either go to War or suffer a crippling brow to their regional reputation and prestige. Germany was the first great power to attack another great power when it invaded France via the Schlieffen plan. If Germany had pursued greater compromise within the July Crisis, even after its original aggression, it is likely it would have been able to simultaneously bring Serbia to heel, restore a significant degree of Austro-Hungarian prestige, and avoid a general war. Germany’s refusal to seek mediation and reconciliation and concrete actions to escalate the conflict mean it deserves substantial blame for the escalation of the July Crisis into the First World War.
However, while Germany played a substantial role in the outbreak of the war, it is an error to believe that Germany should be held solely or uniquely responsible. Serbia likely deserves a similarly large portion of the blame for the original outbreak of the July Crisis. The Assassination of the Archduke, which was carried out by terrorists sponsored by the Serbian government, proved to be the ultimate spark for the war. While many historians assume that ensuing Austro-German action was merely taken as a pretext for the desired action. As Clark argues in ‘The Sleepwalkers’ the actions of the Black Hand Group roiled up nationalist anger and general panic within Vienna in a way that would have dramatically changed the priorities of the Austrian government and spurred them down the path of military aggression. It is perhaps apt to draw comparisons to the cataclysmic effects of 9/11. The way in which Serbia acted, which broadly fitted into a wider campaign to dismember the Habsburg empire, would likely have been inevitably met with some form of retaliation from Austria, and therefore deserves substantial blame for the short-term eruption of the regional Balkan conflict.
Equally, Austria also deserves a substantial degree of blame for the outbreak of the war. Austria, although backed by Germany, took most of the initial actions to first provoke war and had the capacity to end the escalation of the war at practically any stage before the conflict. Austria deserves blame for their decision to respond to the assassination in an excessively pugnacious and bellicose manner, and for refusing to compromise to any extent with Serbia following its limited rejection of their ultimatum.
It is also a mistake to hold Germany solely responsible for the escalation of the July crisis into the First World War. The most significant reason why the war snowballed in such a drastic and disastrous way was likely the rigid system of alliances and bellicose militarism which characterised Europe at the time. The system of alliances, spurred on by militarism, meant that, once Russia was involved, the conflict could hardly be channelled in any direction except general war.
The rigidity of European alliances and international should not be blamed on any single nation. The course of European alliances was above all a collective responsibility, with each major power containing the ability to change the status quo and depart from the established order. Therefore, Germany deserves no unique blame for the system of alliances which played a drastic role in escalating the conflict.
On one hand, it is clear that Germany did play a very substantial role in elevating the aggression of the Austrians. Without Germany, it is almost certain Austria would not have sought revenge upon Serbia in such a wanton manner and would have responded more willingly to international pressure for de-escalation. Moreover, through its ultimatum to Russia and decision to actually go to war, Germany in several instances does play a uniquely aggressive role. Germany without a doubt could have prevented the outbreak of a pan-European War if they truly desired to. However, it is worth noting that any one great power could have likely prevented the War being so cataclysmic and the immediate beginnings of the War were still above all directed by the actions of a rogue Serbian and vindictive Austro-Hungarian state. The War’s escalation was primarily due to the collective responsibility of a rigid system of alliances and militarism for which Germany deserves no unique blame. Therefore, Germany largely does not deserve the extreme levels of blame which it has often garnered, even if it does bear significant responsibility for the outbreak of War.