Assess the argument that Germany should be held largely or solely responsible for the outbreak of World War One. The extent of which Germany should be held responsible for the outbreak of World War one is debatable. One could argue that Germany and her aggressive and competitive nature towards the other European powers, highlighted by the Schlieffen plan, make Germany largely responsible for the outbreak of war. On the other hand, being in the middle of several great powers, it is fair to suggest that Germany was merely protecting itself against encirclement and aggression from others.
One could even argue that Germany was merely trying to ‘fit in’ with the rest of Europe by increasing its military might and had neither offensive nor defensive intentions and should therefore not be blamed for the outbreak of war. After all, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the trigger for war, had no influence from Germany although the German reaction might be considered as unnecessary and somewhat aggressive. Either way it is clear that that Germany did have a big part to play in the outbreak of the First World War but whether they should accept the majority of responsibility is questionable.
It is easy to suggest that Germany were primarily responsible for causing the First World War because of many reasons: Their seemingly aggressive nature towards other nations and the Kaiser’s imperial ambitions being the two most primary. The former of these arguments, the aggressive nature of Germany’s foreign policy is demonstrated by the huge increase (142%) in Germany’s defence budget between 1905 -1914. One could further argue that the mere existence of the Schlieffen plan and the fact that Germany had planned for an attack on two fronts, shows that Germany were prepared for war and were not drawn into it.
Furthermore, with Tirpitz preferring to postpone the “great fight for one and a half years” in the War Council meeting of December 1912, one can only look at the timing of Germany’s declaration of war on both Russia and France (just over one and a half years later) with strong suspicion. This isn’t to say they wanted a war, but they were certainly prepared for one and a ‘great’ one at that. It is also not surprising that it is of popular opinion that Germany were aggressive and up for war.
This aggressiveness is exemplified by the Pan-German League, an ultra-nationalist pressure movement which promoted the idea of an “inevitable conflict of nations. ” And that Germany should “expand from being a mere continental power to a world power, if necessary by means of war. ” Although an influential movement, and not too different from the Kaiser’s own ambitions, its popularity is not as widespread as many think and there were many Germans that did not want a war.
They even suspected the government would “steal their money to finance it. ” The people in power however believed that German expansion was for the good of the people and that as well as boosting their prestige in Europe they would create trade and make Germany much wealthier as a nation. Fisher highlights this ambition to be a world power claiming that Germany “embarked on a course aiming at nothing less than parity with the British world empire, if not more.”
Here Fischer highlights Germany’s competitiveness as a main factor in expansionism and Joll expands on this by stating that “a powerful navy was the one means available of readjusting the balance of World power in Germany’s interest. ” Layton however, in contrast with Fischer, argues that Weltpolitik and German expansionism was not a major factor in the build-up to World War One, instead claiming that Kaiser’s policy secured the entente’s alliance and merely led to further anti-German feelings around Europe. Therefore having a more indirect influence.
Layton argues against German aggression as being a main factor and looks at their actions from a more defensive line. Bond on the other hand, while disagreeing that Germany’s actions were defensive, suggests it wasn’t just Germany promoting military might, the British too were culpable for engaging in a naval race with Germany and promoting military values through youth groups such as Boy Scouts. Bond does however go on to say the naval race was not a cause for the outbreak of war but merely “played a significant part in preparing for an explosive situation.”
This was seen by Bethmann-Hollweg who tried to “bring about a detente” between the British and Germans but his attempts were futile as the implementation of the 2nd Naval Law meant Britain didn’t trust Germany so it was probable that, should they be involved in the war, they would be against Germany. Although one could blame German expansionism as a root cause for World War One because it equipped them for war and in-turn made other countries strengthen their defences it is unfair to blame Germany for doing so as Robbins argues, “rivalries characterised the European state system.”
Germany was merely trying to fit in. From another standpoint one could view the British actions and involvement in the war as hugely significant because, as Robbins argues, British involvement “expanded the war and prolonged it. ” Germany didn’t believe the British would get involved in the war because Britain had refused to sign any documents obliging them to defend any members of the entente and because of the Anglo-German settlement in Africa. “Britain would be neutral.”
One could also blame the British for sheer size of the war as British involvement took the war front to Africa as well as India. Although it is a valid argument that British involvement turned a European conflict into a world war it is also fair to assume the war would have taken place with or without British involvement and they should therefore bare little blame for the outbreak of war in 1914 as Germany didn’t even think Britain would be involved. Indeed neither did Britain as Grey suggested an international conference, indicating that they didn’t want to intervene.
Instead of blaming Germany or Britain one could be more specific and blame the mere existence of the Schlieffen plan as a root cause for a world war. This is because the rigidness of the plan meant Germany had to break the neutrality of Belgium despite British objections which in turn involved Britain in the war. Another failure of the plan was that all countries knew of the Schlieffen plan which enabled them, especially Russia, to keep two steps ahead of it which they did by mobilising early.
In light of this one could blame Russian mobilization for the outbreak of war as Martel does by pointing to the fact that the Russians were the first to mobilise. In addition to this, Martel argues that Russian mobilisation was a main factor in the Germans involvement highlighting the fact that they wanted the Austrian/ Serbian conflict to remain local. One support for the argument that Germany’s actions in the build-up to World War One were defensive is the diary of Riezler, Bethmann’s secretary.
Here it is clear that Germany were indeed concerned about encirclement as Austria were their only ally and should they not defend them, they may be faced with isolation as well as encirclement. One can also look at Robbins in the defence of the Germans as he suggests that the Kaiser tried to keep the conflict minimal between Austria and Serbia and telegraphed the Tsar for help in smoothing things over which was denied. Davies also agrees with Robbins that Russian mobilization was a major influence in the outbreak of war.
This is partly due to the fact that neither Britain, nor France were consulted about the Russian’s involvement or mobilization and the Russians themselves had no obligation to help Serbia. One could argue from this that Russia were a main cause because they dragged the entente as well as Germany into fighting what could have been a local war between Serbia and Austria. Germany’s seeming innocence in this matter is somewhat one-sided however. Looking at Davies and other historians we learn that Germany promoted the idea for war and encouraged Austria.
This is backed up by Joll who claims that “the German leaders repeated on several occasions their support for Austria- Hungary” Further arguing that they should act rapidly as Russia were not as strong as they would be a few years later. Wilhelm himself declaring “We must finish with the Serbs, quickly. ” In addition to this he claims that Austria would only enter a war with Serbia with the backing of Germany because they were well aware of the threat from Russia and thought Germany’s commitment to them might deter Russian involvement.
Kayson echoes this opinion stating that “Vienna probably would not have gone to war without German assurances of support. ” This however only turns our attention to Austria’s part in all this. Looking at the catalyst for war, i. e the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it is very harsh to blame Germany for this occurrence and neither is it fair to blame them for Austria’s reaction which some historians claim as warmongering. In Kayson’s words, “peace had little chance once Vienna decided war was an acceptable option.”
Ferdinand wasn’t even popular in Austria and the people there “didn’t even mourn his death. ” Which highlights the insignificance of the event itself and points to other factors. Indeed when the assassination occurred “there was no feeling that it must inevitably lead to a European crisis. ” “The German decision had many fatal consequences. ” In summation, it is clear that Germany is largely to blame for the outbreak of World War One but not through their apparent aggressiveness or ambitions for world domination.
Instead it was there blind faith and false assumptions that led the Kaiser and his men to declare war on France and Russia and try to invade Belgium. The assumption that that Britain would not want to go to war; that the Russians would take longer to mobilize and the assumption that Belgium wouldn’t fight back. Indeed had Russia not got involved by backing Serbia which they were by no means obliged to do so; Germany wouldn’t have declared war on Russia and in turn France; They wouldn’t have initiated the Schlieffen Plan and entered Belgium and Britain wouldn’t have needed to keep to a pact they had made almost a
hundred years previously. Overall then it is clear that Germany were unnecessarily aggressive and made the key movements to initiate a full blown war so should except a large chunk of the responsibility, but the other major European powers should also take responsibility as none of them were obliged to fight for anyone and they all had chances to avoid war. “All countries are guilty - Germany bears a large part of the blame” – Theobald Von Bethmann Hollweg, German Chancellor, 1909 – 1917