Who started the First World War?

20 mins read

Nigel Jones and Neil Faulkner take opposing sides in the long-ranging and recently re-energised debate over who was responsible for the outbreak of the Great War.

Germany is guilty as charged, says historian and regular MHM contributor Nigel Jones.

A grotesque – and very sexist- US army recruitment poster implying a primeval struggle against militarism

The First World War killed around ten million combatants and as many civilians. It led directly to the Second World War, which killed at least three times as many people again, left Europe in ruins, the world divided into two hostile power blocs, and brought us the permanent nightmare threat of nuclear annihilation. It was, in the words of The Economist, ‘the greatest tragedy in human history’. As such, the question of who caused the conflict is of much more than mere academic interest – though academics, amongst others, have been arguing about it ever since the guns stopped firing in November 1918.

In the brief 20-year truce between the two world wars, opinions about who started the first largely depended on the nationality of the writer. France, with her north-east provinces deliberately devastated by four years of war and occupation, insisted she had been invaded by an unprovoked aggressor, and that Germany must pay for her war crimes. Russia, under new Communist rulers, saw the war as the culmination of viciously competing capitalism.

Britain, relatively generous in victory, tried to moderate France’s demands for vengeance, and became increasingly sympathetic to a Germany mired in want and poverty by the post-war reparations decreed under the Treaty of Versailles – which also, to German fury, judged her guilty of causing the war. Germany herself, humiliated by Versailles, licking her wounds and, still shell-shocked by her sudden collapse in 1918, nursed a sense of injustice and a feeling that the rest of the world had ganged up to do her down – resentful feelings that fuelled the rise of Hitler and his brand of fanatical racial-nationalism.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany’s drive towards European hegemony, begun by Bismarck, continued by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s militarised court, and rudely interrupted by the catastrophe of 1914-1918, resumed at an evenmore intense tempo. The Second World War and its ruinous consequences were the result. In its wake, historians reached a somewhat groggy consensus: the First World War had been a dreadful aberration – a catastrophe caused by the build- up of two rival power blocs: the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy versus the Entente alliance of Russia, France, and Britain. Exacerbated by colonial rivalry in Africa and the Anglo-German naval race, this accumulation of highly combustible material had needed only a spark to set it off.

This had been provided by the pistol shots of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip when he assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, along with his wife in Sarajevo. The resulting crisis of July 1914 saw pre-arranged plans for military mobilisation literally put in train as the rival alliances squared up: Austria threatened Serbia; Belgrade’s Slav big brother Russia counter-threatened Austria; Austria’s ally Germany threatened Russia – and by extension, Russia’s ally France; and when Germany invaded France using neutral Belgium as a corridor, Britain waded in to defend Belgium and France.

Politicians and diplomats lost control of the crisis to the generals, and as Europe’s young men were called up en masse and carefully choreographed troop trains steamed towards the fronts, the crisis became, in historian A J P Taylor’s phrase, a ‘war by timetable’.

This cosy historians’ consensus did not last long. In 1961, the German historian Professor Fritz Fischer of Hamburg University, in his book Griff nach der Weltmacht (republished in English in 1967 as Germany’s Aims in the First World War), detonated a bombshell from which the staid world of German historiography has never recovered.

Fischer was the first historian to examine previously unopened Reich government files from the Kaiser’s time stored in both West and East Germany. These proved quite conclusively that Germany’s ruling elite had coldly decided to use the July 1914 crisis as an excuse to start a pre-emptive war against Russia and France. They knew that this risked a major conflagration, dragging in Britain, but they were prepared to run the risk, calculating that their Schlieffen Plan would knock out France before British troops could have an impact, and that they could then turn and deal with Russia at leisure. A short war would end with a triumphant Germany the unchallenged European hegemon. As we know, it did not work out quite like that.

Fischer marshalled a huge array of damning evidence in his 900-page book to support the thesis that Germany was the principal agent in starting the war. He claimed that the Kaiser’s men – backed by industrialists and even by the huge German Social Democratic Party – had continued an aggressive policy of aggrandisement which had begun with Bismarck and would conclude with Hitler.

He cited two crucial documents in his support. One was the ‘September Programme’, a memo written in September 1914 by Kurt Reizler, secretary to the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, setting out Germany’s war aims. These included the permanent annexation of buffer territory around Germany; an enforced customs union of European states to guarantee German economic supremacy; and confiscation of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, adding them to a greatly enlarged German Empire.

A second vital document discovered by Fischer was the minutes of a meeting ofthe Kaiser’s Cabinetin July 1912,at which the heads of the German Army and Navy enthusiastically backed Germany’s plans for a pre-emptive war before a rapidly industrialising Russia grew too strong. Admiral von Muller, the head of the Navy, said: ‘If Russia supports the Serbs, which she evidently does, … then war would be unavoidable for us too [as well as Austria]. We could hope, too, to have Bulgaria, Rumania, and also Albania, and perhaps also Turkey on our side. If these powers join Austria, then we shall be free to fight the war with all fury against France. The Fleet must naturally prepare itself for the war against England.’ General von Moltke, who would command the German armies in 1914, was keener still, telling colleagues, ‘I believe a war is inevitable, and the sooner the better.’

Faced with this overwhelming evidence of German aggression, Fischer’s thesis was rapidly accepted by historians around the world. Even Fischer’s critical colleagues in Germany, who had eagerly embraced the ‘we-are-all-guilty’ theory of the war’s origins, proved unable to refute him, and were reduced to questioning his motives. Elderly conservative historians like Gerhard Ritter and Golo Mann (son of novelist Thomas) implied Fischer was a Marxist and/or a traitor. He was denounced, too, by West Germany’s right- wing government, desperate to win back respectability by propagating the myth that the Third Reich was an unfortunate hiccup, the creation of one madman, rather than a continutation of a long- ursued policy by rather more robust means.

By 1972, Fischer’s ideas had been accepted by the younger generation of German historians, one of whom, Immanuel Giess, wrote: ‘The old innocence thesis from 1914 to 1960 is dead. The retreat to the position of ‘we-all-slithered-into-war’ is finally blocked. The predominant part of the German Reich in the outbreak of the First World War and the offensive character of German war aims is no longer debated and no longer deniable.’

A loud ‘Amen’ to that.



All major belligerents were rapacious imperialist powers and equally guilty, argues historian and MHM Editor Neil Faulkner.

Was Imperial Germany ‘to blame’ for the First World War? This was the charge levelled by the Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) at the time, to justify both the war itself and then the victors’ peace they imposed on the defeated. It was forcefully revived by German historian Fritz Fischer in 1961, and has since been enthusiastically reasserted by a new generation of revisionist historians, who argue that the war had to be fought because Germany was aggressive and militaristic, a ‘rogue state’ that threatened ‘the balance of power’ and ‘the peace of Europe’.

Some German leaders were certainly preparing for war, and, once it started, some aimed at a German- dominated continental empire. But it is equally true that other top Germans were much more cautious, doubting Germany’s ability to win, seeking to avert war, and later making overtures for peace (which were rejected). The German ruling elite of 1914-1918 was, in fact, divided. It is not difficult to understand why: the central issue was how to respond to the threat posed by the British Empire.

The British are often depicted as reluctant victims of forces beyond their control, attempting to mediate in the interests of peace, and entering the war only to defend the rights of neutrals (Belgium), and to restore ‘the balance of power’. Some German leaders were certainly preparing for war, and, once it started, some aimed at a German- dominated continental empire. But it is equally true that other top Germans were much more cautious, doubting Germany’s ability to win, seeking to avert war, and later making overtures for peace (which were rejected). The German ruling elite of 1914-1918 was, in fact, divided. It is not difficult to understand why: the central issue was how to respond to the threat posed by the British Empire.

This is a travesty. The British already controlled the biggest empire in the world. The oft-repeated claim of revisionist historians that ‘democratic’ empires like Britain were somehow preferable to ‘autocratic’ ones like Germany is whitewash. The British could match the Germans atrocity for atrocity. While the Germans were exterminating the Herero people of South West Africa, for example, the British in neighbouring South Africa were machine-gunning Zulu farmers to enforce a poll-tax designed to drive them off the land and into the gold-mines. The British, moreover, would use their eventual victory in the war to grab a whole lot more colonies, adding another 1.8 million square miles and 13 million people to the empire, including Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.

This outcome must be stressed. Some German hawks before and during the First World War planned to extend the German Empire at the expense of its rivals. But it was the British and the French who actually did extend their empires massively under the terms of the Versailles Treaty after the war.

In the years before 1914, Britain’s rulers, while feigning injured innocence, pursued a provocatively anti-German policy. They formed alliances with France and Russia to ‘encircle’ Germany and threaten her rulers with the war on two fronts they so feared. It was this that forced German military leaders to plan for a pre-emptive strike against France as soon as war was declared – allowing their enemies to cast them as ‘aggressors’. The British also began building huge new ‘dreadnought’ battleships, quickly outpacing Germany in a naval arms race, and they soon had the bulk of their fleet concentrated in the North Sea, where it threatened the German coast.

Anglo-German rivalry fuelled the drive to war. The other great powers also clashed increasingly over borders, colonies, and commercial opportunities. Why had the geopolitical competition between states reached such intensity by 1914 that it erupted into world war? Several earlier crises had passed off peacefully, and there had been no general European war since 1815. What had changed?

All guilty? This contemporary image shows a gallery of European leaders in 1914. Were the Germans the real aggressors, or were all these men, as empire-builders and nationalists, responsible for war?

The critical underlying factor was globalisation. People talk about it today as if it were new. In fact, the European economy was dominated by giant firms operating on a global scale a century ago. Continuing profitability and business growth had come to depend on global sourcing and sales, and the nation-state had acquired a central role, its arms spending and wars designed to advance the interests of its own business class. Economic competition between blocs of capital and geopolitical competition between states had therefore fused – producing the titanic confrontation that was the First World War.

Accidents of history and geography determined the different stances of the great powers. Germany was a continental power recently unified and fast developing. Britain was an island with an established overseas empire – and, crucially, an economy in relative decline. In the middle of the 19th century, Britain had produced half the world’s iron and steel. By the mid 1890s, Britain produced less iron and steel than either Germany or the USA. The gap between Britain and her rivals was even greater in new industries like chemicals and electro-technics.

The British had always been prepared to intervene aggressively in Europe to prevent any one power dominating the continent. In 1914 that traditional policy was linked with a new determination to beat back the competition from German industry. Britain’s rulers aimed to use military power to protect a weakening economy from faster-growing rivals.

Germany’s leaders found themselves trapped in 1914. Their only secure ally, Austria-Hungary, was threatened with disintegration as a result of nationalist revolt (which, of course, is precisely what did happen in 1918). To prevent this, the Austrians declared war on Serbia, the main centre of ‘terrorist’ activity. The Russians could not allow the balance of power in the Balkans to be overturned by the destruction of Serbia, and therefore moved to support their ally. Germans could not allow Austria to be crushed by the combination of Serbia, Russia, and likely internal disaffection. But when Germany backed Austria against Russia, the eastern crisis went global – because Russia was linked to France.

The French, in their turn, could not allow Russia to be overwhelmed by Austria and Germany; that would have overturned the entire European balance of power at their expense. Germany knew this. Germany also knew that a) a war on two fronts would be national suicide, and b) France could be beaten quickly, but Russia could not.

Germany therefore implemented the Schlieffen Plan because the diplomacy of Britain, France, and Russia had left her encircled and threatened in the centre of Europe. He who fires the first shot is not necessarily he who causes the conflict.


1 Comment

  1. I recently saw a documentary and which it was said the Kaiser reached out to his cousin Lazar in an attempt to avert the war but was rebuffed. Is this true?

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