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

Monday, March 7, 2022

10 Interpretations of Who Started World War I (Part 2, 6-10)

The March to War


Originally Presented by the BBC, 12 February 2014
(Part 1, 1-5 was presented yesterday on Roads to the Great War

6. Dr Annika Mombauer—The Open University

Austria-Hungary and Germany

Whole libraries have been filled with the riddle of 1914. Was the war an accident or design, inevitable or planned, caused by sleepwalkers or arsonists? To my mind the war was no accident, and it could have been avoided in July 1914. In Vienna the government and military leaders wanted a war against Serbia. The immediate reaction to the murder of Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 was to seek redress from Serbia, which was thought to have been behind the assassination plot and which had been threatening Austria-Hungary's standing in the Balkans for some time. Crucially, a diplomatic victory was considered worthless and "odious." At the beginning of July, Austria's decision-makers chose war.

But in order to implement their war against Serbia they needed support from their main ally Germany. Without Germany, their decision to fight against Serbia could not have been implemented. The Berlin government issued a "blank cheque" to its ally, promising unconditional support and putting pressure on Vienna to seize this golden opportunity. Both governments knew it was almost certain that Russia would come to Serbia's aid and this would turn a local war into a European one, but they were willing to take this risk.

Germany's guarantee made it possible for Vienna to proceed with its plans—a "no" from Berlin would have stopped the crisis in its tracks. With some delay Vienna presented an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July which was deliberately unacceptable. This was because Austria-Hungary was bent on a war and Germany encouraged it because the opportunity seemed perfect. Victory still seemed possible whereas in a few years' time Russia and France would have become invincible. Out of a mixture of desperation and over-confidence the decision-makers of Austria-Hungary and Germany unleashed a war to preserve and expand their empires. The war that ensued would be their downfall.

7.  Sean McMeekin—assistant professor of history at Koc University, Istanbul

Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, Britain and Serbia

It is human nature to seek simple, satisfying answers, which is why the German war guilt thesis endures today.

Without Berlin's encouragement of a strong Austro-Hungarian line against Serbia after Sarajevo—the "blank cheque"—WWI would clearly not have broken out. So Germany does bear responsibility.

But it is equally true that absent a terrorist plot launched in Belgrade the Germans and Austrians would not have faced this terrible choice. Civilian leaders in both Berlin and Vienna tried to "localise" conflict in the Balkans. It was Russia's decision—after Petersburg received its own "blank cheque" from Paris—to Europeanise the Austro-Serbian showdown which produced first a European and then—following Britain's entry—world conflagration. Russia, not Germany, mobilised first.

The resulting war, with France and Britain backing Serbia and Russia against two Central Powers, was Russia's desired outcome, not Germany's. Still, none of the powers can escape blame. All five Great Power belligerents, along with Serbia, unleashed Armageddon.

8.  Prof Gary Sheffield—professor of war studies, University of Wolverhampton

Austria-Hungary and Germany

The war was started by the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna seized the opportunity presented by the assassination of the archduke to attempt to destroy its Balkan rival Serbia. This was done in the full knowledge that Serbia's protector, Russia, was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war.

Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences. Germany sought to break up the French-Russian alliance and was fully prepared to take the risk that this would bring about a major war. Some in the German elite welcomed the prospect of beginning an expansionist war of conquest. The response of Russia, France and later Britain were reactive and defensive.

The best that can be said of German and Austrian leaders in the July Crisis is that they took criminal risks with world peace.

9. Dr Catriona Pennell—senior lecturer in history, University of Exeter

Austria-Hungary and Germany

In my opinion, it is the political and diplomatic decision-makers in Germany and Austria-Hungary who must carry the burden of responsibility for expanding a localised Balkan conflict into a European and, eventually, global war. Germany, suffering from something of a "younger child" complex in the family of European empires, saw an opportunity to reconfigure the balance of power in their favour via an aggressive war of conquest.

On 5 July 1914 it issued the "blank cheque" of unconditional support to the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire (trying to reassert its dominance over the rebellious Serbia), despite the likelihood of this sparking war with Russia, an ally of France and Great Britain. However, Austria-Hungary's actions should not be ignored.

The ultimatum it issued to Serbia on 23 July was composed in such a way that its possibility of being accepted was near impossible. Serbia's rejection paved the way for Austria-Hungary to declare war on 28 July, thus beginning WW1.

10.  David Stevenson—professor of international history, LSE


The largest share of responsibility lies with the German government. Germany's rulers made possible a Balkan war by urging Austria-Hungary to invade Serbia, well understanding that such a conflict might escalate. Without German backing it is unlikely that Austria-Hungary would have acted so drastically.

They also started wider European hostilities by sending ultimata to Russia and France, and by declaring war when those ultimata were rejected—indeed fabricating a pretext that French aircraft had bombed Nuremberg.

Finally, they violated international treaties by invading Luxembourg and Belgium knowing that the latter violation was virtually certain to bring in Britain. This is neither to deny that there were mitigating circumstances nor to contend that German responsibility was sole.

Serbia subjected Austria-Hungary to extraordinary provocation and two sides were needed for armed conflict. Although the Central Powers took the initiative, the Russian government, with French encouragement, was willing to respond.

In contrast, while Britain might have helped avert hostilities by clarifying its position earlier, this responsibility—even disregarding the domestic political obstacles to an alternative course—was passive rather than active.

Source: BBC, 12 February 2014


  1. That's a good survey of historiography.
    Germany seems to take the lead, followed closely by AH.
    I'm glad to see McMeekin there, bringing in the Russia side

  2. In Kissinger's book a few years back, he makes a good case for the absence of Bismarck as a significant factor. Bismarck understood Grand Strategy and was able to play the Great Power Game. Once gone, Germany was hapless and stumbled into a tragedy.