There has been lots of analysis and debate over the origins of the First World War and Germany’s role in it. Fritz Fischer, Gerhard Ritter and Konrad Jarausch are three historians who talk about the July crisis and the role played by the powers involved in the crisis. Each historian has a different view on Germany’s role in causing a world war. The purpose of this essay is to evaluate these views and find some key similarities and differences in their arguments.
Fritz Fischer’s theory is that Germany played major role in the July crisis and was perhaps the sole reason Austria-Hungary went to war against Serbia. He says that Germanys eagerness for conflict or a ‘preventive war’ seemed necessary for the chancellor and the Kaiser, as the invincibility of their army strength was being shaken by rapid growth of both French and Russian military. As German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke said ‘ We are ready, and the sooner it comes, the better for us.
His view was shared by most of the German government that Germany was ready for war now, and waiting too long would only weaken the Prusso-German state. They felt with France and Russia industrializing so rapidly, Germany might be faced with a two-sided war in which they would be encircled.
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not big enough to cause a continent wide war and according to Fischer was actually a relief to both Germany and Austria-Hungary as the Archduke’s monarchy was favorable to Slavonic elements.
However it was the perfect opportunity for Austria to end Serbia’s existence as a sovereign state with Germany backing them. Austria-Hungary was not prepared to risk war without help from Germany, and so ultimately the final decision was up to Germany. Austria-Hungary’s hesitance was also altered by German policy of acting quickly so that they could ‘ finish the Serbs, quickly’2. With the idea of a preventive war and Germany’s presumption that Anglo-German settlements in Africa would keep Britain away from Europe, Fischer claims that Germany pressured Austria-Hungary into sending Serbia the ultimatum with reports that the Kaiser ‘would regret it if we (Austria-Hungary) let this present chance, which was so favourable for us go by without utilizing it’.3
Gerhard Ritter’s view of the German role in the July crisis disagrees for the most part with Fischer’s argument. Ritter feels that the major part of the blame should fall on Austria-Hungary and not Germany, as Austria-Hungary made all the major decisions and Germany was only backing up its ally. Ritter feels that Austria-Hungary were the ones anxious for an ally to back them up against Russia and requested the support of Germany, not vise-versa. In Ritter’s point of view it was Germanys duty to back up Austria, and would be considered cowardly with they didn’t. If the Germans did not respond to the Serbian Crisis, their empire would be seen as weak and indecisive.
Ritter also says that it was Austria-Hungary’s indecisiveness and hesitancy that caused the others powers to buildup their armies and mobilize. If Austria-Hungary had listened to German advise of preparing the ultimatum quickly, then they would not have let the other powers get too powerful.
Ritter’s main point here is that it was not the German’s idea to go ahead with the attack on Serbia but its faithfulness as an ally that kept them backing up all the Austrian-Hungarian decisions. He claims that even Prince Lichnowsky, London’s ambassador to Germany who was the sharpest critic of Berlin’s policies said that ‘ the military punishment of Serbia was a thoughtless folly of Viennese policy’.4
Konrad Jarausch view on the origins of world war 1 can be summed up adequately by German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s quote ‘all nations are guilty; Germany, too, bears a great deal of the blame’.5 This quote supports Jarausch’s arguments that Germany did play a part in the July crisis, but it was not a major role. Jarausch thinks (like Fischer) that Britain’s involvement in the crisis was the reason the triple alliance fell. Germanys underestimation of their neutrality ultimately led to their downfall.
Jarausch saw Germany’s role not so much as having direct influence and decisions in the conflict, but supporting its ally, which was vital to its own interests.
We can also tell that Jarausch focuses his views on Bethmann Hollweg; who played a major part in the crisis. He feels that rather than Hollweg giving ‘a blank cheque’ to Austria, Hollweg took a calculated risk but did not account for Britain entering the war.
He also feels that Germany should not accept all of the blame for the crisis as they were put into a very difficult situation. If they encouraged Austria-Hungary it would seem as if they were pushing them into war, if they discouraged them, Germany would be seen as weak and cowardly by leaving them all alone.
Jarausch basically feels that Germany did take a calculated risk, and were involved in the crisis to some extent but their intentions were good. He thinks that Germany did back up their ally Austria and encourage their discussions but did not actively engage in the decision making. Bethmann Hollweg denied the fact that Germany ‘encouraged Austria to attack Serbia’. He claimed ‘it sounds as if we had taken the initiative. That is absolutely false.’6
Each historian and their arguments differ from each other in some way. Each historian has a different argument about Germany’s role in the July crisis, some critical it of it and others more sympathetic to it.
The two main arguments differing in opinion are Fischer’s discussion and Ritter thesis which oppose each other totally. Fischer blames Germany fully for its involvement in the crisis and the fact that it influenced and pressurized Austria-Hungary into creating an ultimatum. Ritter on the other hand says that Fischer does not look at all the available sources and instead leans towards the facts he wants to hear. Ritter puts the blame mostly on Austria-Hungary and sees Germany just as the faithful ally keeping its promise to Austria-Hungary. The time period in which these arguments were written probably contributed to this rift in ideology between the two historians. Since Gerhard Ritter lived through the world war and even served in it, he like most Germans feels strongly resentful to the war-guilt that was placed on Germany. Fischer on the other hand wrote his argument in the 1960’s, many years after the conflict, which gave him time to look and back and reflect on crisis without letting his feelings get involved.
Konrad Jarausch’s arguments differ from Fischer and Ritter as it doesn’t openly blame Germany or Austria but says it’s a combination of powers that were involved in the July crisis. Like Ritter, he sees Germany being an ally to Austria but he thinks they were doing it because it would benefit them in the long run, not help Austria-Hungary.
There is not much similarity in the three arguments, though they all agree that Germany helped bring about the outbreak of World War 1. However the all disagree on the intentions of German policy then. Fischer claims Germany wanted a preventive war and manipulated Austria to achieve war they had been waiting for. Ritter said that Germany was forced to help Austria as an ally to show their loyalty and wanted a defensive war. Jarausch agrees that Germany helped Austria-Hungary with the ultimatum but also said that German intentions were just justified because they were encircled between two enemy countries. We can also tell that Jarausch and Ritter both blame Austria-Hungary over Germany as the main problem.
All three historians give different but valid arguments on the role of Germany in the July crisis. Fischer leans to the view that Germany’s role in the July crisis was the major/sole reason that World War I broke out. Ritter, in opposition to this theory, feels that it was Austria-Hungary that pressurized Germany into backing them up and it was mostly the fault of Austria-Hungary. He blames Austria-Hungary for not listening to German advise of acting quickly before the other powers got too strong. Lastly Jarausch takes a bit of both theories and says that Germany’s role in the crisis was prominent but their intentions were good. Jarausch also blames Britain for joining the triple entente, because war could have been averted if they had stayed neutral.