In the immediate view, it seems that there are two main arguments attributed to the origins of the First World War. One is that the war was planned, the other that it occurred due to accident and miscalculation. I aim to give a detailed analysis of these two arguments with the focus being on the main European powers at the time – Germany, Great Britain, France and Russia. It is my view that the First World War was effectively planned, all be it for a later date, and that due to some miscalculations, it was then brought forward so that war would break out in Europe in August 1914. Using sources from various historians, I will argue this point of a planned war blaming it almost solely on the part of the German Empire and bringing in the other side of the argument, that the First World War was the result of accident and miscalculation. The most important idea in the argument that Germany planned the First World War is to be found in the Foreign Policies that she pursued from the late Nineteenth Century to the outbreak of war in 1914. It was the view that no matter how achieved, a German dominated Europe would provide a successful base for the ideal of Weltpolitik. This idea of Weltpolitik was the aim at the head of the hierarchy of German Foreign Policy; it gave the notion of a world mission, but an aggressive one, a mission where no man or nation would stand in the way of its objectives.
The key point when describing German Foreign Policy before 1914 is of their willingness to risk war for their own gains in order to achieve world domination and the status of a major power. Michael Gordon argues that this war Germany risked did not, in their minds, involve Britain – their greatest rival; As far as German policy is concerned, its readiness to risk war for its own ends – either a local Balkan war fought by its ally in Vienna or a larger, continental-sized war in which it, France and Russia participated – now seems unshakably established. therefore it seems that by 1914, the Germans had already decided that some form of war would occur. It is also evident that she had a clear plan of her ambitions and military aims – later undone by her miscalculation of British and Russian policy – which would result in a German dominated Europe; By either one of these two wars the German government thought its interests would be served: at minimum, a successful localised war – kept limited by Russia’s backing off in fear – would in the German view probably break up the Franco-Russian alliance, shore up the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire, and clear the way in Central Europe for an eventual German breakthrough to successful Weltpolitik.
It is my view that German Foreign Policy therefore dictated a planned war. This planned war may have been intended to be a fairly localised affair, but then the Germans had obviously either been misled or been ignorant to the stances of both Britain and Russia concerning this idea. Gordon argues that ‘German leaders did not consciously aim at it’ , but that world war merely emanated from continental war in 1914. The previous German generation were ‘devotees of the world policy’ , devised by Bismarck but taken up and massively extended by his successor Kaiser Wilhelm II. On his accession to the German throne in July 1888, Wilhelm quickly laid out his programme for country; he wanted ‘to secure Germany a place in the sun’ . This could have meant anything, but translated, it meant that ‘the basic and primary idea was to destroy England’s position in the world to Germany’s advantage’ . Further translated, the Kaiser’s ideas aspire to the German jealousy of Britain and her wealth, colonial rule, industrialisation and above all, world naval supremacy. Previous wars of the early Twentieth Century, for example, the Sino-Japanese and Boer Wars had proved the importance of sea power. Fritz Fischer argues that the construction of a great fleet was at the centre of Germany’s political plans and that to build such a supreme fleet was the ‘only way of catching up with Britain’ and being equal to other world powers.
Again this jealousy is re-iterated by the lack of self-belief from the German government. We can see therefore, that her Foreign Policy was aggressive when it need not have been and that the idea of Weltpolitik was based on insurances from her huge army and navy. The government now had the full backing of groups of industry, which now heavily concentrated on shipbuilding. Pre-war German Foreign Policy can be summed up by Max Schinkel, the director of Germany’s second largest bank; the broader basis in Europe was necessary for laying economic foundations of German world policy It can be argued that this world policy originated under Bismarckian rule, but it is my view that Bismarck merely fuelled the German people with ideas and the accession of Wilhelm made sure that these changes were not only made, but also radically altered and put harshly into place. All armies make plans. However do they make such specific and intentional plans as the Germans did before the First World War? The main reason that people think Germany planned the war is due to the Schlieffen Plan. However, as John Keegan argues, the Schlieffen Plan was merely a military affair with military objectives if such a conflict in Europe arose.
However it did contain very specific aims in accordance with where the first attacks would be made and then where the majority of fighting would take place; In no sense did it precipitate the First World War… Neither did its failure… it was a plan for a quick victory in a short war… Nevertheless, Schlieffen’s plan… dictated… where the war’s focus would lie… and through its innate flaws, the possibility of its protraction. I believe that what Schlieffen had in mind was a purely military plan, if, by chance, such a crisis arose. I do not believe that Schlieffen himself had anything to do with how the war came into being; he was purely commissioned to draft such a plan. However, the Kaiser, who wanted this war plan drawn up, did have many ulterior motives. He is the main figure in Germany at this time and it is very much as “what he says goes”. No one would dare question him due to his absolute intolerance of argumentative characters.
What Schlieffen came up with was; a plan pregnant with dangerous uncertainty: the uncertainty of the quick victory it was designed to achieve; the greater uncertainty of what would follow if it did not attain its intended object. it seems, therefore, that the Germans, although they had this plan, had no kind of backup or alternative strategy. That idea is typical of the Kaiser’s character. On many occasions he would just throw everything out of the window and go for his objectives by the shortest possible route. This also confirms and is confirmed by the definition of Weltpolitik – that no man or nation would stand in the way of Germany. Did other countries have war plans? Yes, of course, but none were as grandiose and as specific as the German idea. The French war plan confirmed her timidity in the face of her great enemy Germany. At first, they toyed with the idea of ‘defence of the common frontier in the event of war’ , as; A French attack was though impossible by reason of disparity of numbers. A static French population of forty million could not challenge an expanding German population already fifty million strong and rising fast ..
However, this was later disposed of and after some altercation concerning which was the best form of attack, Plan XVII was created in April 1913 – but kept secret until the outbreak of war – which dictated ‘a headlong attack across the common Franco-German frontier, into Lorraine and towards the Rhine’ . This then became the French war plan. It was minimal and uncomplicated compared to that of Germany and in my opinion how a war plan should be set out. I believe a war plan should contain certain objectives, but mostly a lot of room to manoeuvre as there is always the problem of miscalculation (which Germany will later become the victim of). It is Fischer’s view (and I am inclined to agree with him) that it is the idea of world power and German domination that led to the outbreak of war. He argues that ‘Germany’s claim to world power was based on her consciousness of being a young, growing and rising nation’ . This national expansion on all fronts meant that Germany was developing into a ‘highly industrialised exporting country’. However she was running out of options, with so many enemies, of finding markets and raw materials.
This did not affect the Germans and played right into their hands and their world mission idea. Through this forced change of markets, she shifted her trade from the traditions of Britain, France and Europe to a worldwide trade; …in 1913 the share of Europe in her imports and exports had gone down by 30 per cent; overseas countries, the tropics and above all South America, were supplying an increasing proportion of her raw materials. This advance of Germany in the world of business was based on the expansion of the great iron and steel industry, however new industries, including global communications, were starting to become successful. Therefore this reinforces the view that Germany was becoming a great power and that the people themselves – through the Kaiser’s erratic ideas – thought that they were becoming a real force and that the world mission was now a realistic target. It had already been proven that naval power was an incredibly important asset for a country to own; to free herself from dependence on British ships.., to enable her to bring her exports, financed by her own capital, to their markets abroad without British middle-men, Germany had to have her own merchant marine. the idea of this new naval power was that it would protect shipping and force Britain to regard her as an equal.
However I believe that the new German Navy was a status symbol as much as it was a powerful weapon, as all of these domestic policies were geared towards strengthening Germany and therefore, it being easier to weaken other countries. Moreover, with her lack of raw materials, it became difficult for Germany to maintain her penetration of world markets; the narrowness of her raw materials market became increasingly apparent, and as she penetrated more deeply into world markets, this narrowness became more irksome. by now we can see the extent of Germany’s (but predominantly the Kaiser’s) ideas. It is clear that there are no alternatives but to go for the highest objective by the quickest route, ignoring all other possibilities. I believe that these policies were absurd considering how close they were to fulfilling their goal of Weltpolitik. When taking into account the second argument; that the First World War was the result of accident and miscalculation, I do not believe that any causes of the war can be attributed to accident, because when nations have such rigid policies and plans concerning Foreign and Domestic Policies and long-term war plans, it is impossible to see how any accidents can happen.
However there were a miscalculations made, although I do not believe that these miscalculations were direct causes of the First World War. The idea of a German dominated Europe and all of Germany’s war plans were greatly undone by her total miscalculation of British and Russian policy. As previously mentioned German Policy makers believed that their fight would be a short, successful and localised affair, due to Russia being too weak to try to deal with Germany – now this Great Power; …at minimum, a successful, localised war – kept limited by Russia’s backing off in fear it is clear that the Germans really thought that Russia was basically insignificant. They drew this conclusion from the fact that Russia had already fought in a large war less than ten years earlier – the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 – as Russia’s drive across Asia and the Far-East continued. However, either by Russia’s secretiveness or by Germany’s lack of detailed research, the German government did not realise that Russia would be able, not only to defend herself, but also to attack Germany. After much confrontation in the Balkans, Kaiser Wilhelm II was convinced that ‘we shall soon see the third chapter of the Balkan wars in which we shall be involved’ .
He was convinced that the balance of powers depended on that in the Balkans. It was to be these relatively small Balkan Wars that would lead to world war. The Kaiser gave the notion that Germany could deal with that though and therefore started to lay out diplomatic ideas for war with Russia. I believe that a German-Russian war was always going to occur; it was just a matter of when. In conversation with Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the German Ambassador to Serbia – the Kaiser argued that it was vital for Austria-Hungary – her great ally – to take action against Serbia, and that Russia wouldn’t oppose, as she ‘was by no means ready for war’ . However, with the assassination of Ferdinand by the Serbs, Germany agreed that the Balkan crisis was irreconcilable. Therefore, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and this was a move designed to improve Germany’s position for eventual war with Russia. However, German assumption that Russia wasn’t ready for war and wouldn’t oppose Austria-Hungary’s actions proved to be mistaken. Therefore, this eventual German-Russian war followed by four days and not four years as it had been laid out to do in 1917 in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. However, Wilhelm’s arrogance and stupidity grew further.
He saw the German-Russian war merely as a nuisance and that the Russian recovery gave them an unexpected problem, as their main objective was to acquire extra European Empire at Britain’s expense. I believe it was Russia’s attitude that Germany miscalculated, as she was and always has been a very secretive nation. We can also see through the alliances, how this conflict merged into world war. Moreover Germany underestimated Britain. She saw her archrival as being merely a diplomatic power, which was not big enough or daring enough to risk war for the sake of others. I believe it was this German attitude and her supposed increased threat that caused Britain to intervene militarily, more than her alliance with Russia. Therefore due to these great miscalculations, the Schlieffen Plan became void and Germany found herself encircled and in a world war situation. I have already mentioned that Schlieffen’s plan was ‘pregnant with dangerous uncertainty… of what would follow if it did not attain its intended objectives’ , and that is precisely what happened. Since the Germans had no backup plan, they forced themselves into a situation for which they weren’t prepared.
Keegan finally points out that ‘Secret plans determined that any crisis not settled by sensible diplomacy would, in the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914 lead to general war.’ In conclusion, I agree with Keegan, that through all events, war became an inevitable prospect. However through my arguments and chosen sources we can see that the First World War was ultimately planned and due to miscalculation on Germany’s part, brought forward to August 1914. Moreover, her argument that the war was the result of accident and miscalculation does not stand up. This is shown mostly in Fischer’s argument that ultimately she could have prevented a world war – even though she planned some kind of war – such was her control over Europe at this time.
FISCHER, F., Germany’s Aims in the First World War (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967) GORDON, M., ‘Domestic Conflict and the Origins of the First World War: The British and the German Cases’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 46 (1974) KAISER, D., ‘Germany and the Origins of the First World War’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 55 (1983) KEEGAN J., The First World War (London: Pimlico, 1999) KEIGER, J., France and the Origins of the World War (London: McMillan, 1983) WEHLER, H-U., The German Empire 1871-1918 (1985) WILSON, K., ‘European Diplomacy 1871-1914’, in PUGH, M, ed, A Companion to Modern European History 1871-1945 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)