Looking back it was ironic it took a peace process to wage another war. A war of another kind, thankfully, this time a war of words, carried condemnation by the victors for finding Germany to blame for the start of the War. With equal zeal, Germany was determined to disprove the war-guilt ruling and the penalties imposed upon it at the peace treaty in Versailles at the end of the war in 1918. This Sunday, November 11th 1918 celebrates its centenary, Armistice Day. What concerns this piece is not so much about the war itself or remembrance of the millions of men and women who died. It is to discuss the underlying trends and some of the more immediate, specific, short-term events in circumstances that lead to a war, which helped to set the belligerent nations on a yet new warpath. We examine the occurrences that might unravel the puzzle of who started the War. What country must carry its share of the blame that led to unprecedented destruction and changed the map of Europe?
The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of Imperialism, Colonialism and vying for political power and the economic globalisation that came with it. By the turn of the century, much of the world had been carved up; in its last decade, almost all of Africa was shared among Britain France and Italy. The rising star was Germany, as a latecomer who also wanted a share of the pie. European Governments from the same period shared a strong tendency to employ the standard narrative of modernisation as a framing structure to economic success which also meant an explosion of imperial rivalries in the industrial age of pre-war period. Late nineteenth century was also The Belle Époque a time of economic prosperity, new ideas in Art, Music and Theatre as well as innovation in technology and science. Indeed by comparisons to the horrors of World War I, it was the “Golden Age”.
To understand why Europe and the world went to war is the subject of this essay. It is essential to bear in mind, however, that people at the time regarded war not as they do now with the benefit of hindsight of two destructive wars. But, wars then, were the legitimate course of action as the continuation of politics or to settle differences when politics fail.
Aside from death, destruction and atrocities such as rape, looting and genocidal violence, committed by soldiers, there were good things that emerged from the war. Modernity; whether a blessing or a scourge resulted in the development of new ideas; in Armaments and technology, although often disparagingly referred to as the science of destruction. Also, inspiration in medical advances such as the 'Thomas Splint'and 'shell shock trauma' treatments, also Anaesthetics, for example, both made a significant impact on injured soldiers. Mass Communication and production, Political ideas, Art and Architecture, Propaganda and of course the emergence of America's superpower status.
The crucible of War was a chain reaction raised from fear of the Arms potential of one’s neighbour. A build-up to an arms race; where one country increase in military and naval hardware led to another to do the same. A sense of fear and insecurity was setting in among both the people and governments alike especially Germany and Russia, each of which was racing in a desperate bid to keep its armed forces and armaments ahead of the other. By 1913 their annual spending was 78 million and 73 million pounds respectively in their race for dominance. In 1914 the British Royal Navy remained the largest in the world. Although efforts of Germany's Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, had attempted to create a German navy that could match Britain’s; the British had comfortably maintained their lead.
As if that is not enough underlying reasons for triggering the war, controversies persist to this day, especially amongst historians as to what were the real reasons that led to war by those key players that were to take a global dimension and it's catastrophic geopolitical and social consequences. To borrow from Lord Grey, the British foreign secretary at the time, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime"; indeed around twenty million people, never did.
The unfolding events were many, but no doubt what mainly unleashed this war of unprecedented scale was the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, the heir to Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, Sofie, in Sarajevo that hot summer day of June, 28th 1914 by Gavrilo Princip. A terror attack perpetrated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist as an act of defiance.
That terror attack was not the cause, but the trigger since preparation for war had been going on and anticipated by many for some time. A relationship existed between states primarily built upon realism, an International relation based on Politics and Machiavellianism, that includes suspicion, doubt, mistrust, security and power. To fill more of this background, the principal actors in this theatre forged two opposing alliances; one between Britain, France and Russia called the Anglo and France Russian Entente. The other was made up between Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary called the Triple Entente. A study of the map shows the Triple Entente were encircled but with Italy in the fold, opened the route to Suez and the Middle East, left the passage to India vulnerable, the jewel in the British crown.
In the background to this dangerous military build-up, there was belligerency and resentment and pent-up tensions by all concerned. France attempted to extend its North African territories continuing the African carve-up of the time without consulting the other powers. In reply, Germany wanted its ‘place in the Sun’ led to two Moroccan crises in 1905 and 1911. Ironically this brought Britain to the side of France, the affair was, in fact, a diplomatic defeat for Germany, whose leaders were becoming increasingly worried that the country was diplomatically becoming isolated. Britain and Germany were engaged in Naval supremacy while France resented Germany for the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. Russia meanwhile in 1905 emerged from its war with Japan defeated and weakened by revolution and in desperate need of allies. Austria was highly suspicious of Russia for its support for its fellow Slavic countries such as Serbia. Italy, on the other hand, had disputes with Austria over the South Tyrol, Trentino and Trieste. Also, the side issue to all this was ideas of Social Darwinism and the master race for each European country to perceive individually for itself, such accolade. Given such bellicose and combative situations, war was expected and many would fight willingly and voluntarily for such a defensive war.
It was at the Treaty of Versailles, at the end of the War in 1918 that debates started on the origins of the war. A dispute arose when the new German Government, the Weimar Republic, were not invited come before the victors were later obliged to conform under pressure of renewed hostilities. They were outraged on the conditions being imposed and disputed the blame clause they were the guilty party in starting the war. The guilt question would later arise and hence the debate that has gone on ever since. One significant condition in the treaty was the ‘war-guilt clause’, which placed the blame on Germany and its allies, and suggested that Germany accepts this blame. That also meant that Germany had to pay 20,000,000,000 gold Marks in reparations and was forced to sign the peace treaty- effectively an admission of guilt.
A massive task by the Germans was then undertaken to prove Germany was not guilty and the penalties were wholly unjustified and aimed to establish a collective responsibility for starting the war. There was an urgent need to revise the Treaty, and to a certain extent, it succeeded. Following the Dawes Plan (1924), the Locarno Treaty (1926) and the Young Plan (1929), the reparations were reduced to a fraction. The outlook in the 1930’s was beginning to change a new orthodoxy was emerging. In his memoirs British wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd George summed it up “all nations slithered over the edge of the boiling cauldron of war in 1914”. That became widely accepted as an inevitable accidental outcome to the rivalries that preceded it. Allocating blame to any one nation would be unwise. Nevertheless, 1933 saw a new Nazi Government in Germany, under Adolf Hitler, ignored the Versailles findings, stopped reparations payment altogether and embarked on a further military build-up contravening the impositions of the Peace Treaty.
The orthodoxy that was established in the 1930’s, however, was shattered in 1960 by an eminent German historian by the name of Fritz Fischer, putting the blame squarely on Germany. He went on to say that Hitler was not an aberration in German history but his war aims were similar to those of Keiser Germany leading up to 1914. In fact, the war had been designed by German policymakers and the German ruling elite to grasp at world dominance and power. He did not, however, focus on the fact that Austria’s ultimatum and the subsequent declaration of war on Serbia perpetrated by the Balkan crisis since 1908 plagued this troubled region; or, the part played by any of the other key players. His interpretation was not so much of conflict awareness by an eagerness as by to go to war. The mainstream, however, still interpreted the pre-war circumstances as a consequence of carelessness caused by overconfidence and back to the David Lloyd George argument.
The Domino effect that spiralled the events out of control had also its roots in the short term effect in what came to be called the July Crisis. The immediate crisis that resulted following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand meant that the war that finally began was far less the product of lousy fortune than the result of intention sparked by the event. Vienna and Berlin instigated the crisis while Britain, France and Russia had an observer role until a combination of obligations and alliances lured them into taking an active part. Following the assassination, Austria’s German ally encouraged Vienna, giving it a ‘blank cheque’ (German promise of support), a momentous assurance to wage war on Serbia. Despite the expectation that Russia might express a hostile attitude in response, it was perceived too weak to take military action to protect its fellow Slavic country. Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia to stop all nationalist activities, the suppression of anti-Austrian propaganda and to allow Austrian authorities to investigate the killing of the Arch Duke. Britain was eager to solve the issue on the conference table, but both, Berlin and Vienna would have none of it. Only when it became apparent that Britain would become involved did the German Chancellor exercise restraint but his mediation proposals were too little too late.
By then it transpired Germany had prepared for the invasion of neutral Belgium of which both France and Britain had guaranteed its neutrality in a treaty. Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28 and mobilisation were set in motion. Deterred by Britain’s naval power, Italy realised the threat it presented having a long shoreline, it declared neutrality until 1915 came on the side of the allies. The Domino effect by the key players was taking hold and mobilisation orders, and declarations of war by Europe’s major powers went ahead, that was to engulf the rest of the world for the next four years.
Those decision makers that took their respective countries to war are blamed for misinformation, misjudgement, ego--strength and weak nerves. In the end alliances and treaties are defensive policies they do not oblige the country to resort to war and Vienna declared war independently. The end, however, couldn't come soon enough. There was no surrender, but Germany sued for an armistice on the basis of US President, Woodrow Wilson's seemingly liberal Fourteen Points. The Great War finally came to an end on 11th November 1918.