[This is the text of a talk I gave on 20 March to the 6/20 Club in London. See also Part II and Part IV.]
I have heard that story with a few variations many times. And I find it deeply unsatisfying. The reason is because it doesn’t answer the fundamental question. Whose fault was it? Who was to blame?
Knowing more about the July Crisis doesn’t seem to help. What I have just outlined is a pretty short version. Christopher Clark’s version in his book Sleepwalkers stretches to over 600 pages with 100 pages of footnotes. University libraries groan with books on the subject. 25 years ago someone counted them all up and came up with a number of 25,000 books and pamphlets on the subject of the origins of the First World War. Seeing as this entire talk is based on books published since then one dreads to think what that number must be like now. There are even books on the history of the history. There is a lot of interesting detail. For instance, in the years leading up to the First World War something like 20 world leaders were assassinated. In most cases the perpetrator was an anarchist whom the authorities subsequently declared insane. You learn that Britain had a secret deal with France to protect the Channel in case of war; that in its declaration of war Germany made the entirely fictitious claim that France had bombed German cities; that the head of the Austrian counter-intelligence service was himself a Russian spy and that the French ambassador to London believed that French was the only language capable of “articulating rational thought”.
Perhaps more pertinently you learn that there is good evidence that the German government was planning for a war in 1914.
With most of the world colonised by Europeans who weren’t Germans, Germany hoped to be able to exercise influence over the declining Ottoman Empire. For instance a German general, Liman von Sanders had been sent out to take charge of the Turkish Army and there were plans to build a Berlin to Baghdad railway. They weren’t the only foreign advisers to Turkey. While a German was in charge of Turkey’s army, a Briton was in charge of its navy. Tellingly, the Hague Convention of 1912 called for a worldwide ban on opium. This eventually made its way into the Treaty of Versailles but in 1912 its opponents included Germany, Austria and Turkey.
Obviously, if Germany was to be able to exercise influence over Turkey it had to be able to get there. With hostility between Britain and Germany over Germany’s naval programme the only effective route lay through the Balkans. So, when Serbia massively increased its territory in the First Balkan War of 1912 Germany naturally grew disturbed.
On December 8 1912 a meeting was held with some of the major figures in the German government presided over by the Kaiser, Willhelm II. This has been dubbed a “War Council”. Whether it was or not who knows but it is interesting what followed next. First, Germany more or less accepted that the naval arms race with Britain was over and that Britain had won. Second, Germany massively increased the size of its army. Third, a succession of articles appeared in the press claiming that Russian military expansion was proceeding so quickly that by 1917 Germany could not hope to win a war. It is worth pointing out that the General Staff sincerely believed this. Fourth, the expansion of the Kiel Canal to allow battleships to sail between the North Sea and the Baltic was completed in 1914.
At about the same time General Bernhardi published his book Germany and the Next War. In it he essentially argued that might was right and that Germany should have not qualms about observing, for instance, international treaties. The book did especially well in Britain.
So, all this seems fairly clear cut until you learn that France and Russia were also pretty keen on war at the same time and made no efforts to diffuse the crisis that arose after Sarajevo. Indeed, Britain found itself in the uncomfortable position of not being able to deter Germany without simultaneously encouraging France and Russia.
The fact remains that after a hundred years there is still no consensus on who or what was to blame.
There are other mysteries. Explaining the Second World War is easy. You have a bad guy with bad ideas who started a war of conquest. But you look in vain for such a character in 1914.
Sure, the German government of the time has to bear a lot of the responsibility for the war but Kaiser Wilhelm is no Adolf Hitler. He was not a man espousing a foam-flecked, hate-filled, land-grabbing ideology. Sure, he had his moments but he quickly backed down and had a reputation for so doing. Similarly, the Tsar was no Stalin. He may have done stupid things like banning vodka and banning Jews from the boards of public companies but he wasn’t in the business of killing hundreds of thousands of people. Having said that it should be borne in mind that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, eagerly taken up by anti-semites around the world, was a Tsarist fabrication.
The truth is that the statesmen of Europe were acting rationally in the pursuit of limited objectives. Most of them were well aware of the likely consequences of a war. We can tell this in the hemming and hawing displayed by both the Russians and the Germans. Both Asquith, the British Prime Minister, and Churchill described the prospect of war as “Armageddon”. And yet despite this the disaster still managed to unfold. I tend to refer to this as the Michael Jennings question. How could such a disaster have happened when none of the leaders appear to have been particularly bellicose?
The conundrum gets worse. By November 1914, Germany had to all intents and purposes lost the war. The Schlieffen Plan had failed and they had been held at the Marne. Austria had suffered even worse disasters in Serbia and Galicia. So, why did it take them another 4 years to make peace?