The outbreak of the First World War is a very contentious issue; historians have debated it ever since the war began. Some blame the alliance system of Europe and the dangers of it, some cite the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the principal cause, and some believe that guilt rests squarely on Germany’s shoulders. These opinions and views changed frequently throughout the twentieth century. It is well known that history is recorded by the victors so one would assume that the German nation would be held accountable. This is certainly emphasised by the Treaty of Versailles.

However, historians have very conflicting views on this subject, B. E. Schmitt claims that : “All the governments were responsible, in greater or less degree”, Schmitt obviously believes that Germany was not the only country culpable. There is much evidence that would suggest that Germany was at fault, of course as a ship only follows the course set by the captain, a country is only as good, or bad, as it’s leadership. Kaiser Wilhelm II was extremely envious of the British Navy and their fleet, he wanted to build a fleet that was at least second to the British.

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s ‘Risk Theory’ put forward that the German navy would be so large that Britain would face permanent risk of a naval war. And even if she won, she would be left so weak that she would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the other leading naval powers of Europe. The former German chancellor, Bismarck, also had a hand in the outbreak of war. He was one of the key figures involved in the alliance system. The alliance system was based on two large armed camps that would oppose each other, if war did break out then the entire continent would be plunged into it.

The principle is called Mutually Assured Destruction, i. e. if one person dies, everybody dies. This was fine in principle except for the fact that it led to highly increased tension in Europe and when the flash point came it would throw the major European powers into a war. One of Bismarck’s roles as Chancellor was international diplomacy and maintaining this fragile system of co dependency. It could be argued that the Kaiser was aiming for war and was eager for it to break out. The Moroccan issue caused much tension and would have led to war if it were not for the Germans backing down.

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The first Moroccan crisis of 1905 was due to German interest in Morocco. Agreements between France and Britain (April 1904) and France and Spain (October 1904) had secretly provided for the eventual partition of Morocco. The Germans had previously stated that they had no interest in Morocco, however, the current Chancellor of Germany, Bulow, was insisting on the independence of Morocco. This was mainly due to his desire to prove that the Anglo French Entente had no permanency. This came to a head when Kaiser Wilhelm II landed at Tangier (31 March 1905) and declared Germany’s support for the Moroccans.

Germany wanted a full blown diplomatic conference to discuss Morocco. This obviously alarmed the French. Britain sided with France and when the USA also declared support for them the French agreed to have the conference. This was held from January to April 1906 in Algeciras and this is what it became known as the Algeciras Conference. It resulted in a strengthening, rather than weakening of the Entente. The second Morocco crisis centred around the port of Agadir when, on 1 July 1911, the German gunboat Panther was sent to the port to protect German interests ‘menaced by French expansion in Morocco’.

Germany believed that France had breached the terms of the ‘Act of Algeciras’ and that a display of strength would gain compensation for Germany. This alarmed Britain however, they did not want a show of German force so close to Gibraltar and her trade routes; she feared that the Germans wanted to turn Agadir into a naval base. On 21 July, Lloyd George, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a strong warning to Germany in a speech at the Mansion House. The Germans denied any intention of annexing Morocco. The French continued talks with Germany in an attempt to find adequate ‘compensation’.

In September the talks almost broke down and war seemed inevitable when eventually the Germans gave way and signed agreements on the 3-4 November. These stated that Germany renounced all claim to Morocco and, in return, Germany received two strips of territory in the French Congo. The German Navy promptly withdrew its gunship. The German army obviously needed to be well prepared for the outbreak of war. This led to creation of the Schlieffen Plan. General Count von Schlieffen retired in 1891 and as a final testament; he competed an operational plan for war with France.

This formed the basis of the German assault in 1914. There were four major points to the plan; the war would have to be fought against France and Russia, possibly Britain as well, the decisive victory would be against France and Germany should remain on the defensive against Russia until they were ready to strike, once France was defeated her allies would offer little resistance, French fortifications against Germany were impregnable, so the German army must make a lightning strike through Belgium and Luxembourg and attack Paris.

This was obviously a very aggressive plan by Germany. It was their method for attacking the Triple Entente and it worked on the assumption that France could be neutralised within six weeks. Then the German forces could move to the Eastern Front to combat the Russians. The presupposition was that the Russian forces would take much longer to mobilise and so could be held off until the French had been defeated and the main German force could move to the Eastern front to attack the Russians.

Historians have used the Schlieffen plan to ‘prove’ that the Germans had long planned an aggressive war. The build up of the German Fleet ‘had become a positive mania with the Kaiser’. He listened to the advice of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and in 1897 the construction of a high seas fleet began. Tirpitz based his strategies for the use of the fleet on a war with Britain. Germany did not just expand their navy though, expansion of the army was very important to Germany at this time. They were a newly emerging world power and needed to demonstrate their military might.

Germany’s geographical position in Europe meant that she was surrounded by potential enemies and needed a strong army to cover both the East and West (or France and Russia respectively). Bismarck’s alliance system depended on the threat of mutually assured destruction so Germany needed to appear strong in order to deter attackers. She also needed to present a strong image to her allies to ensure that they would be capable of an armed conflict if it were to happen. As Bebel put it in 1913 “Nobody in Germany wanted to expose a defenceless and weak Fatherland to foreign attack”

After the Franco Prussian war of 1870, the country of Germany was formed. Stirred by national loyalty, the south German states joined forces behind Prussia, whose seasoned armies conquered the disorganized French at Sedan and, after a long siege, took Paris in 1871. With these events Bismarck convinced the south German states that Prussian hegemony was inevitable. At Versailles in 1871 he persuaded a reluctant William to take a new title as Head of the German Empire, the Second Reich. Largely to please the merchant class, Bismarck consented to Germany’s acquiring colonies in Africa and the Pacific.

Germany found its colonies valuable chiefly for prestige, however. The German people were very keen on the idea of a ‘place in the sun’; they wanted foreign colonies not only for expansion of their borders but to demonstrate to the world that they were powerful. Most historians agree that the flash point for the First World War was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in June 1914. The repercussions of this event began the rapid descent to war. The Austrian government could obviously not ignore the assassination of their heir.

AJP Taylor is of the view that “The obvious thing to do was to blame the nationalists and particularly to blame Serbia who really had nothing to do with it”. The Austrian government was reluctant to take any decisive action without the support of their ally, Germany. Wilhelm, supported by Imperial Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, gave a firm response: Germany would support Austria in her claims against Serbia and would stand by even if the patron of Serbia, Russia, intervened. Neither the Kaiser nor the Chancellor consulted generals of any importance regarding the readiness of Germany for war.

Many historians quote the assassination as the chief cause of the war, but perhaps it was the atrocious diplomatic and military incompetence of the German leadership? While it is true to say that Germany played a large role in the outbreak of war, they were not the only country that is to be held accountable. The majority of countries in Europe were guilty of increased militarism in one form or another. Britain for example in response to the German’s ‘Big Navy’ programme, commissioned eight ‘Dreadnought’ class battleships in a single financial year.

HMS Dreadnought was the first in a new class of fighting ships, which she gave her name to. Effectively the first modern battleship, she was launched in 1906. She also gave rise to the so-called Dreadnought Race, in which the Great Powers of Europe, especially the British and German Empires, raced to launch more and more battleships of her class. Until the introduction of the German ‘Big Navy’ programme headed by Tirpitz, the British navy was relatively unchallenged in naval power.

The dreadnought race would certainly have angered Britain as they were an ‘enclosed’ island, they relied heavily on their navy for defence and now they were being challenged. Schmitt manages to explain how one cause of the war influenced another: “The faster the German fleet grew, the more alarmed the British became, the closer they grew to the French and the Russians – and the more the Germans complained of ‘encirclement’ ” Encirclement may have just been the Germans being paranoid about the potential enemies that were to the West and East of them, or perhaps the fear was well founded.

Whether it was intentional or not, Germany did have to face the possibility of fighting a war on two separate fronts at the same time. However it was not true encirclement as they had Austria Hungary to the south and an outlet to the North Atlantic Ocean to the North, however Germany still maintained that they were being treated unfairly by the Entente. The events of the Moroccan Crises would not have helped quell tensions either, France had been forced to relinquish more territory to Germany, the French Congo, in order for Germany to recognise the French claim to govern Morocco.

They had also increased their military; the French defeat of 1870 in the Franco Prussian war affected its military plans, their first priority was to recover the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and it was expected that the French armies would have to withstand a German attack at the beginning of the war. The actions of the Dual Monarchy after the assassination of it’s heir can also be construed as confrontational, after they had gained support from Germany they made demands on Serbia, demands that could not possibly be met.

Vienna decided, with German backing, that the survival of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the ranks of the Great Powers demanded extirpation of South Slav terrorism by the reduction of Serbia to the status of an obedient satellite. This in turn seemed to St Petersburg to challenge the Great Power status of Russia as Serbia’s protector, and World War I ensued. Austria Hungary knew that the demands they had made on Serbia would be refused, they were counting on it. They knew they had the support of Germany and would be capable of defending themselves against Serbia, and with German support, Russia too.

On July 28 Austria declared war against Serbia, either because it felt Russia would not actually fight for Serbia, or because it was prepared to risk a general European conflict in order to put an end to the Greater Serbia movement. Russia responded by partially mobilizing against Austria. Germany warned Russia that continued mobilization would entail war with Germany, and it made Austria agree to discuss with Russia possible modification of the ultimatum to Serbia. Germany insisted, however, that Russia immediately demobilize. Russia declined to do so, and on August 1 Germany declared war on Russia.

The French began to mobilise on the same day; on August 2 German troops traversed Luxembourg and on August 3 Germany declared war on France. On August 2 the German government informed the government of Belgium of its intention to march on France through Belgium in order, as it claimed, to forestall an attack on Germany by French troops marching through Belgium. The Belgian government refused to permit the passage of German troops and called on the signatories of the Treaty of 1839, which guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium in case of a conflict in which Great Britain, France, and Germany were involved, to observe their guarantee.

Great Britain, one of the signatories, on August 4 sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding that Belgian neutrality be respected; when Germany refused, Britain declared war on the same day. It is interesting to note that the Treaty of 1839 which established the neutrality of Belgium gave the guarantor countries the right to intervene to defend the neutrality of Belgium, however there was no written obligation that forced intervention. The only obligation was moral, what sort of image would Britain be presenting to her allies if she allowed her allies to be invaded?

B. E. Schmitt introduces his pamphlet with the sentence ‘The First World War broke out suddenly and unrepentantly in midsummer 1914’. This remark is heavily contradicted by James Joll, “As a French observer in 1912 put it, ‘ how many times in the last two years have we heard people repeat “Better war than this perpetual waiting! ” In this wish there is no bitterness, but a secret hope. ‘ ” Joll obviously believes that the majority of Europe knew war was coming and was likely to be inevitable.

However as soon as one power, in order to reinforce its stance, began to mobilise, its action made military men everywhere nervous as no general staff was willing to allow a rival to get a head start. As the German chancellor said “Once the dice were set rolling, nothing could stop them. This is quite a popular view of the war, that it was inevitable when the short and long term causes combined with the flash point. Many historians have written about this subject throughout the twentieth century and none have been able to sum up the simplicity of the outbreak of war as well as Lloyd George himself; “We all muddled into war”.


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