The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set events in motionImage: AP
Historians Split on German WWI Role
July 29, 2004
Aug. 1 marks the 90th anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm II's declaration of war against Russia. But the role of imperial Germany in unleashing the horrors of World War I continues to divide historians nearly a century later.
Nine decades down the line, the question that still plagues scholars is how "civilized" Europe could plunge itself into one of the most atrocious conflicts in the course of humanity.
Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the Great War put the sole responsibility for its outbreak firmly with Germany and its allies, largely due to decisions made during the so-called July Crisis of 1914. On July 5 of that year, German Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his blessing when an Austro-Hungarian envoy asked him to back reprisals against Serbia after the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo the week before.
The "blank check" for Vienna's actions that fateful summer is considered by historians to be the decisive first step on the march to war. Other German sins included its refusal to join last-ditch crisis talks proposed by London and later, its invasion of neutral Belgium -- decisions that appeared to set off an inexorable chain reaction.
In that age of alliances, the sword-rattling by central Europe's monarchies served as a provocation to the designated protector of the Slavs -- Russia -- and its wake, France and Britain, united in their "Entente Cordiale". But although history has traditionally placed the bulk of the blame on Germany, some scholars such as Oxford professor Hew Strachan call such analyses simplistic. "The complexity of events makes it impossible to attribute fault to one country in particular," Strachan was quoted by Der Spiegel news weekly as saying.
"The Entente overestimated the decision-making process in Germany," which was itself reacting to the action of others, Strachan said. He noted that the Russian decision for a partial mobilization of troops on July 24 "was perceived by Germany as a declaration of war".
On July 31, Berlin asked Saint Petersburg to hold off on its mobilization, and a day later, it deployed its own troops, followed by France. In 1914, all of Europe was on guard. The system of alliances split the continent down the middle with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on one side versus Britain, France and Russia on the other.
Colonial ambitions, hegemonic delusions and an accelerating arms race fed the tensions that had already brought Europe to the brink of war three times since 1905. For decades, Germany looked to this explosive backdrop to deny its own responsibility in the war. It took historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s to point out the unflattering image in the mirror.
Fischer accused Germany of unleashing a preventative war to break the country's prevailing isolationism. Britain and Russia's military force made Berlin fear a shift in the balance of power toward the Entente. The scholar cited in particular the meeting of a German war council on December 8, 1912 during which the option of a preventative war against Russia was floated.
21st century theories
After creating a scandal with his analysis, Fischer was later seen as having opened the door to Germany's recognition of its central role in instigating the bloody conflict. But today, the pendulum has swung back slightly due to the work of modern historians who draw attention to the contradictions in Fischer's theories. For example, why did German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg -- presented as the architect of the war by Fischer -- send a message to Vienna on July 29 ordering it to "stop at Belgrade" with its military action?
And why did Wilhelm II go on a pleasure cruise in July if a major war was being plotted? "There were immediate and profound causes of the war, the mobilization of millions of soldiers... that were the result of decisions and orders formulated by men...from the small circles around the monarchies of Vienna and Berlin... and to a lesser extent, London, Paris and Saint Petersburg," wrote German historian Volker Berghahn.