Germany responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War
Question: To what extent was Germany (or Britain or Austria-Hungary) responsible for the outbreak of the First World War?
Maybe the war that broke out in 1914 was more of a break in world history than even the Second World War with its unprecedented mass annihilation. The First World War marked the dramatic beginning of the end of European predominance over the globe, which had lasted for five centuries.
While the European nations remained locked in a murderous struggle, nations in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Australian continent started to make up for the absence of European imports and lessened their dependence upon European products and know-how. New competitors for business and power emerged overseas (for instance in Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – in addition to the already competitive United States and Japan), and Europe never regained its superiority in those fields.
For the first time the United States mobilized its enormous industrial potential and intervened outside the American continent. Toward the end of the war a radical socialist group seized power in Russia and started to transform society in totally new ways, leading to a long and often painful process whose effects we still feel today.
The First World War was fought by armies whose size was unprecedented in history. At the same time, new weapons appeared such as machine guns, tanks, poison gas, airplanes, submarines.
The civilian population became a target of war; while the British blockade tried to starve the Germans and their allies into submission, German submarines tried to cut Britain off from its supplies. The new weapons created new horrors of war. Eight million soldiers died on the front lines or at sea. Millions of wounded soldiers remained handicapped, and millions never came to terms with the trauma of war. A single battle could claim hundred thousands of lives on both sides.
More than before, the war effort depended on the support and willingness to sacrifice of whole peoples. Women and children often took over the jobs of men in industry and agriculture. In Germany and Austria food became so scarce that famines occurred from 1916 on. To support more than four years of industrialized warfare, national governments almost everywhere faced tasks of an unexpected nature and magnitude.
They had to ensure industrial production for the fighting while millions of able-bodied men between age 18 and 55 served in the military; they had to organize the food supply and keep up morale at home and in the front lines; new administrative offices were created, and the state bureaucracy reached into new realms. All this was only partially reversed after 1918.
In short, the war was a catastrophe for Europe. That it had such a terrible impact was an effect of its sheer duration. Until the fall of 1918 both sides remained stuck in deadlock. Neither side could force a decisive victory and neither seemed so superior that the other would have been tempted to give up. Moreover, to conclude a truce and return to the status quo seemed intolerable to most people, as the war had demanded enormous sacrifices (human and material) already during the first few months.
Given these momentous changes and the high blood toll, the question of war guilt assumed special emotional and moral importance.
The victors of the war, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy, forced Germany and its allies to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans, however, reacted with indignation; up to the 1960s they considered the claim that Germany was the culprit of the war an outrage.
Most Germans at the time claimed either that the war was a logical outcome of an aggressive encirclement of Germany by the allies or supported the opinion of Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, who had said: “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war.” We therefore need to ask how such a dramatic historical event occurred and who was responsible for it.
In foreign politics, Germany was effectively isolated together with its last faithful ally, Austria-Hungary. In domestic politics, governing had become more difficult for the Imperial Governments because the Social Democrats had grown in strength and because Tirpitz’s costly fleet-building program had eroded much of the other parties’ solidarity.
Although they always feared the possible revolutionary consequences of an international conflict, German leaders had sometimes considered war as a panacea for foreign and domestic problems; war should split the alliances against Germany and unite the people in a wave of nationalism or even initiate some form of dictatorship based on the military.
Although pacifism existed both as an independent movement and as an idea attached to the socialist movement, most leaders and much of public opinion did not consider war necessarily as an evil thing, particularly if it meant to continue politics by other means. (This was true for all European countries.) However, nobody really knew what kind of war they had to expect.
Since the Napoleonic period (one hundred years ago) no war had ever affected large areas of Europe. The Franco-German war of 1870-71 had been the last violent conflict between industrially advanced nations in Europe. It had been decided within a few weeks. Fast mobilization, massive gun power, fast communications (telegraph), and the support of railroads seemed to have made war between industrialized nations a short affair. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 confirmed this.
Moreover, no nation in Europe seemed capable of surviving a long war. Industrialization and the concomitant reduction of agriculture had made national economies so dependent upon imports and international trade that a long war – to contemporaries – could only end in chaos, likely to be followed by a socialist revolution. Many people in Europe and in Germany, in particular, thus thought that war would be short, and that not all should be done to avert it.
War might as well come as a violent but short event, a heavy thunderstorm, and clear the air from the year-long tensions and problems. It was not uncommon among European intellectuals to think that their peoples had become lazy and — in a Darwinist sense — unfit, as they had enjoyed peace and material progress for so many decades.
The German government, in particular, felt under increasing pressure from the generals and from right-wing opinion to wage war at the next feasible opportunity. Diplomatic means to counteract the encirclement of the country had proven counterproductive and seemed exhausted. Russia, moreover, was industrializing rapidly, its population grew at a pace that alarmed Germans, and their concern heightened when Russia, with French money, began to build railways to the German border and alongside it. Germans now feared that they could be crushed within a few weeks if France and Russia decided to wage a two-front war against their common antagonist.