In August, 1914, 6 million men mobilised for war on the European continent. It was the bloodiest war that had been fought yet in history due to huge advances in weapons and technology. This question of who was to blame for the war has been debated many times by many historians. Germany was responsible for its beginning to some extent but that extent can be argued. Germany, on 28th June 1919, was forced to take all of the blame and responsibility for World War One, at the Treaty of Versailles.
However, I believe this was very wrong, because the start of “The Great War” was due to several reasons and so the responsibility of the war cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of Germany. On the other hand, a strong argument can be placed that it was due to Germany’s aggression which made the war happen sooner. I say this made the war happen sooner because a war was inevitable. There were several underlying, long-term reasons for this as well as the triggers that occurred in the early 20th century. Until 1914, there had been 40 years of peace in Europe.
However, it had been an armed peace; all of the major powers sought better security by having bigger armies and better armaments than their rivals. Peace was only maintained by the threat of war. Due to the loss of the Franco-Prussian war, the French were scared of German military might and so, they formed an alliance with the Russian Empire who also feared German power. Tensions between the Franco-Russian alliance and the German-Austro-Hungarian alliance soon became a fixed feature of European international relations. This can, to some extent, be seen as Germany’s fault.
One of these underlying, long-term causes of World War 1 was nationalism, the belief that your country was more superior/better than others. Many of the European superpowers including France, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia were nationalist. However, the most nationalist country in Europe was undoubtedly Germany. She was rising, and becoming more and more powerful at an alarming rate, due to her burning ambition to be the greatest country in Europe. Nationalism made countries more assertive and aggressive towards their neighbours; this led to increased tension between Germany and the other European nations.
Another of these underlying problems was imperialism, the desire to conquer other countries. This led to colonialism, the desire to create colonies in other parts of the world. The British Empire had become huge throughout the previous century or so and the French also owned much land in other continents. Germany, however, lacked colonies. This made them unhappy, and gave them the desire to make colonies and gain land in other countries. This led to the Struggle for Africa, when the main European super powers (Britain, France and Germany) struggled for dominance in Africa.
German ambition caused them to be imperialist and this was another cause of the war. Militarism was when military matters affected a country’s policy. It was the desire to make your army bigger and better than all others. Germany’s army was expanding constantly and rapidly. They led militarism; as they were rapidly expanding their army, other country’s felt that they needed their armies to be as big as Germany’s in case of a war against them. This led to the Arms’ Race, which was, as it sounds, just a huge European race for the best weapons.
There was also the Naval Arms’ Race, between Germany and Britain. At that time, Britain dominated the seas. However, Germany was trying to reach the high naval standard that had been set by Britain and the British felt threatened by this. This “Dangerous Arms’ Race” was foreseen by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II! ). He warned that “The accelerating arms’ race is transforming the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations, and if prolonged, will lead to the very cataclysm it seeks to avert. Germany clearly led militarism; this can also be seen as their fault and a cause of the war for which they should take much responsibility. Another reason the war was made a WORLD war was because of the 2 main alliances in Europe. These massively increased tensions and bounded countries which would otherwise not be forced into war, into war. The two alliances were those between the Central Powers /Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and those between the Triple Entente/Entente Cordiale (Britain, France and Russia).
The first was formed in 1882 and the latter by 1907. If certain countries had not joined alliances, they would not necessarily have got involved. Technically, the only reason Germany joined the war was to back up Austria-Hungary in their war against Serbia and Russia. However, it can also be argued that they would have joined anyway and used the assassination at Sarajevo as an excuse to join the war. There was also a secret alliance between Italy and France until 1915 when Italy officially allied with the Entente. The alliances were the fault of all 6 countries.
Although these were the four underlying, long-term causes of the war which made it inevitable, there were also some major incidents between 1900 and 1914 which led to the war, speeding it up by increasing tensions between the European superpowers. One of these events was in 1905; the previously mentioned promise of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Morocco of independence from France. This greatly annoyed the French. In 1908, Kaiser Wilhelm also offended the English by saying that they were “all mad”. He called Germany “anti-English”, which I think is quite ironic as he himself was a grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain.
The same year Austria annexed Bosnia. This very much annoyed Serbia who wanted it for themselves. Russia wanted to help Serbia but eventually backed down. In 1911 came the revolution in Morocco, the climax of tensions between the French and Germans; this led to the brink of war as the Germans took a gunship to Morocco to stop the French from conquering it. However, Britain and France managed to force Germany to back down. In 1912-13 there were two wars involving Balkan states and the Ottoman Empire in which Serbia, particularly, conquered much Turkish land.
This made them much more powerful and this worried Austria-Hungary, who were becoming hosts to a very powerful Slav minority among their multi-national population. And then, in 1914, came the final tipping point, the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo. However, until that point, it can be seen that Germany was involved in 3 out of these 4 events in which tensions increased. This puts more blame on their shoulders than any other countries. The assassination happened on the 28th June 1914, when the Archduke was visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia.
This was a double-insult to the Serbs because it was their national day. Seven young nationalist Serbs plotted to kill the Archduke. As the driver had not been told about a change in route, the car stopped to turn around when one of the seven conspirators, Gavrilo Princip, pulled out a gun and shot the Archduke. Almost one month later, on 23rd July, Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia, in the response of which Serbia accepted all conditions but one. Therefore, on 28th July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
In preparation to help the Serbs, the Russians began the mobilisation of their army. On 1st August, Germany, as an ally of Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. This could be seen in 2 ways; either Germany had to join the war as an ally of Austria-Hungary (due to the earlier promise that they would support any decision which Austria-Hungary made – “the blank cheque”) or that they just used the assassination as an excuse to fight the war they had clearly been waiting for. However, on the 3rd August, two days later Germany also declared war on France.
This more or less confirmed that it was the latter of the two possibilities. They declared war on France because they had already planned for a war on two fronts against France and Russia. They had prepared the Schlieffen Plan (right), a plan published in 1905 by the German general Alfred von Schlieffen. It had taken 10 years to make which just proved how long Germany had been planning for a war against these two countries. The Schlieffen Plan was the main reason that Germany can be held responsible for causing World War 1.
It was the very existence of such a plan which highlighted the fact there was going to be a war – Germany had clearly prepared for the war on 2 fronts, seeing as each step had been carefully calculated. This could, on the one hand, be seen as Germany’s fault. However, it can also be seen as a defensive plan, a last minute resort, only to be used if they HAD to fight a war against both France and Russia. In any case, by implementing the Schlieffen Plan, Germany brought both France AND Britain into the war. They made it a World War rather than just a mere war in the Balkans.
By declaring war on France on 3rd August 1916, they brought the war on two fronts upon themselves. And by ignoring the British ultimatum warning them not to go through the neutral Belgium one day later, they also brought Britain into the war. This is a major reason why Germany should take much of the blame for causing World War 1. The extent of Germany’s responsibility for World War 1, as one can see, is debatable. However, after the war, on 28th June 1919, Germany got forced to sign the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles.
There were 440 articles against Germany, and they got forced to accept all the responsibility for the war. They were punished in several ways including all of their colonies being distributed to France and England. Evidently, this was unfair, and they should not have been punished so severely as the war was not entirely their fault. Therefore, in 1920, there was a revolution against the Treaty. Although Germany is the country which can be said to have been the main cause of the war, they also suffered the greatest amounts of casualties, 1,770,000 (approx. Arguments for Germany taking responsibility for the war include: They made/caused all 3 declarations of war.
They gave unconditional support to Austria-Hungary, saying they would “support whatever decision they made”. The very existence of the Schlieffen Plan. Many triggers of the war were their fault. They were undoubtedly the most nationalist, imperialist and militarist country in the war. Their aggression caused tension in Europe. However, although they should be held more responsible than the other countries for the war, they certainly should not take all of the blame.
I think the War Guilt Clause was unfair and the Treaty of Versailles went too far in punishing Germany. It can also be argued that by the time of the war, war on the continent was inevitable. As for the Schlieffen Plan, one could say that it was an entirely defensive strategy. And so, all in all, I believe Germany should take much responsibility for causing the First World War, but not all responsibility for the war. I think that too much responsibility was put squarely on their shoulders when it was not their fault completely.
Courtney from Study Moose
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