Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The 100-Year Debate on the Origins of World War One

Article by: Annika Mombauer at the British Library Website

How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible. 

"Cupidity" by R.Ferro (1916) [Institute Centrale]

The need to fight a defensive war

Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.

The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs, and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to avenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbors had "forced the sword" into its hands. In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war?

From the victors’ war guilt ruling to a comfortable interwar consensus

For the victors, this was an easy question to answer, and they agreed at the peace conference in Paris in 1919 that Germany and its allies had been responsible for causing the Great War. Based on this decision, which was embodied in Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, vast reparations would be payable. This so-called "war guilt ruling" set the tone for the long debate that followed on the causes of the war. From 1919 onward, governments and historians engaged with this question as revisionists (who wanted to revise the verdict of Versailles) clashed with anti-revisionists who agreed with the victors’ assessment.

Sponsored by postwar governments and with access to vast amounts of documents, revisionist historians (many, but not all, German) set about proving that the victors at Versailles had been wrong. Countless publications and documents were made available to prove Germany’s innocence and the responsibility of others. Arguments were advanced which highlighted Russia’s and France’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war, for example, or which stressed that Britain could have played a more active role in preventing the escalation of the July Crisis.

Scenes from the Signing of the Versailles Treaty
In the interwar years, such views influenced a newly developing consensus that no longer foregrounded Germany’s war guilt but instead identified a failure in the alliance system before 1914. The war had not been deliberately unleashed, but Europe had somehow "slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war", as David Lloyd George famously put it. With such a conciliatory accident theory, Germany was off the hook, and instead of remaining a former troublesome enemy could become a potential future ally against the increasingly threatening-looking Soviet Union. And so a comfortable consensus emerged and lasted all through the Second World War and beyond, by which time the Great War (now known as the First World War) had been overshadowed by an even deadlier conflict. 

The Fischer school challenge to the revisionist consensus

There was little reason to question this comfortable orthodoxy after 1945. The first major challenge to this interpretation was advanced in Germany in the 1960s, when the historian Fritz Fischer published a startling new thesis on the origins of the war which threatened to overthrow the existing consensus. Germany, he argued, bore the main share of responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Moreover, its leaders had deliberately unleashed the war in pursuit of aggressive foreign policy aims which were startlingly similar to those pursued by Hitler in 1939.  Backed up by previously unknown primary evidence, this new interpretation exploded the comfortable postwar view of shared responsibility. It made Germany responsible for unleashing not only the Second World War (of this there was no doubt), but also the First – turning Germany’s recent history into one of aggression and conquest.

The German establishment, which included leading historians and politicians, reacted with outrage to Fischer’s claims. They attempted to discredit him and his followers. The so-called Fischer school was accused of "soiling its own nest", and in the context of the Cold War of the early 1960s, it is not difficult to see that the question of the origins of the First World War was of serious contemporary political significance. Those willing to question Germany’s recent past and those wanting to hide any potential wrong-doings by Germany’s former leaders clashed in a public dispute of unprecedented ferocity.

In time, however, many of Fischer’s ideas became accepted as a new consensus was achieved. Most historians remained unconvinced that war had been decided upon in Germany as early as 1912 (this was one of Fischer’s controversial claims) and then deliberately provoked in 1914. Many did concede, however, that Germany seemed to have made use of the July Crisis to unleash a war. But its government was not the only one to do so. In the wake of the Fischer controversy, historians also focused more closely on the role of Austria-Hungary in the events that led to war and concluded that in Vienna, at least as much as in Berlin, the crisis precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as a golden opportunity to try and defeat a ring of enemies that seemed to threaten the Central Powers.

New questions but no new consensus

In recent years this post-Fischer consensus has in turn been revised. Historians have returned to the arguments of the interwar years, focusing for example on Russia’s and France’s role in the outbreak of war, or asking if Britain’s government really did all it could to try and avert war in 1914. Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s roles are de-emphasized, and it is stressed that there were decision-makers in all the major capital cities who considered a general European war in August 1914 to be a risk worth taking. After 100 years of debate, every conceivable interpretation seems to have been advanced. In some of the most recent publications, even seeking to attribute responsibility, as had so confidently been done at Versailles, is now eschewed. Is it really the historian’s role to blame the actors of the past or merely to understand how the war could have occurred?

Such doubts did not trouble those who sought to attribute war guilt in 1919 and during much of this long debate, but this question will need to be asked as the controversy continues past the centenary. The current consensus on why it broke out is "that there is no consensus". After 100 years of arguing about the war’s causes, this long debate is set to continue.


  1. OK, I'll bite: it was the cigarette-making machine. This is obvious to all.

    Issue resolved.

  2. Remarkable discussion. It is absolutely amazing to me that after a century th debate rages among academicians and others. Failure to recognize that ech and every position taken in this debate reflects the biases and antipathies of those seeking to gore another side.
    The same juxtaposition of views can be advanced for warfare since time immemorial and well into the future.
    Suffice it to say that the issue will never be settled and its continued resurrection serves little more purpose than that of providing fuel to the debate among academicians, political and social scientists and political points of view with axes to grand.

  3. excellent & thought-provoking article.

  4. Excellent article. I plan to use it as a discussion starter in my World History class.

  5. There's a great one-stop-shopping book on the causes and responsibilities of WWI that was part of a collections of textbooks called "Problems in European Civilization Series" titled "The Outbreak of World War I" . . . Sixth Edition by Holger H. Herwig, c.1997. It's 165 pages long and filled with a number of journal articles by historians and theorists as to what may have happened. It's safe to say that there's no exact one cause. The time was ripe for a war.

  6. Why was Franz Joseph provoked into declaring war? He'd had many such tragedies in his long life. Was it that, at long last, one too many Habsburgs had been killed? Edmond Taylor discusses the question of War Guilt admirably in his 1963 work The Fall of the Dynasties, an excellent analysis of the outbreak of the war.

  7. When asking who started the war, and why, it might be appropriate to ask when it started and who the players were.
    1911: Italy invades Libya, provoking war with the Ottomans (Turkey).
    1912: Russia, with eyes on Constantinople (Czarograd), encourages the Balkan states to fight for their independence from Turkey. Bulgaria gets within 25 miles of Constantinople.
    1913: The newly independent Balkan states fight among themselves to move their boundaries. Russian backed Serbia vastly increases in size but is unable to annex Albania and its Adriatic ports. Austria, in particular, frustrates Serbia as the other European nations encourage the Balkan countries to behave nicely.
    1914: Serbian "intelligence" officers, psychopaths as such types are so frequently, foster the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, perhaps payback for Austrian meddling or perhaps a calculated effort to prevent the Austro-Hungarian Empire from granting its resident Serbs more autonomy (F.F. was in favor of that). If Serbia wanted to annex Bosnia, they did not want Bosnian Serbs to be happy in the A-H Empire. Russia wants a war between Austria and Serbia, because "the road to Constantinople leads through Vienna". The Austro-Hungarian Empire should fall so Russia can gain hegemony in the Balkans.

    Kaiser Wilhelm is clueless but wants to support his ally. Grey, the British foreign minister, bumbles. Franz Josef, 83 and possibly senile, thinks he is honor bound to declare war, even though he knows he will lose. The Russians have secretly begun mobilization, ready to take advantage of a Balkan war. Germany feels threatened and declares war on Russia and general war breaks out. Germany is branded as the aggressor, even though the first battles take place on German soil.

    We should not lose sight of the fact that countries do not start wars; individuals do. Specific politicians (generally psychopaths) make the decisions. In none of the countries did the legislature debate and decide whether to go to war; the armies were mobilizing before there could be any deliberations in democratically elected parliaments. (Were we not at war with Iraq before the congress voted for it?) To say that German children should starve, even after the armistice, because "Germany started the war," is morally indefensible.

  8. Emperor Franz Josef ordered Arch Duke to Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo to observe Austrian troops there. The Emperor made certain that Security was at a minimum. He managed to hired the Black Hand to do the assassination. The Emperor had told Wilhelm that the plan would bring Servia into a war which Franz Josefs' generals it would much needed.

  9. While there were many events of varying importance that lead up to the Great War, clearly the German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 started the WAR. From there it is simply historical speculation on HOW the war started. But what I find most interesting is why national interest prevented a just and lasting peace to stop the war from reigniting in 1939. In that, I think the victors wanted too many reparations instead of rebuilding all nations into a just league of nations. THAT us the sadist commentary on the 20th century.