Germany Ww1 Responsible Essay Research Paper Was

Germany: Ww1 Responsible? Essay, Research Paper

Was Germany Responsible for Starting the First World War?


The question of Germany’s responsibility in initiating the first World War is one that has raised many differences of opinion among historians who have attempted to address the issue.

Holger H. Herwig, in his quest to answer this question has concluded;

“…The greatest measure of responsibility, however, remains with Germany. Planners, both civilian and military, were all too eager to resolve their perceived diplomatic encirclement by use of force — “now or never,” as Kaiser Wilhelm II put it.”

(Herwig, H. H., The Outbreak of World War I, 1991 )

Harry Elmer Barnes, an American scholar, expressing his discontent with the treaty of Versailles wrote;

“…. In estimating the order of guilt of the various countries we may safely say that the only direct and immediate responsibility for the World War falls upon Serbia, France and Russia, with the guilt about equally divided.”

(Barnes, H. E., Who Started the First World War?, 1989)

Other Historians tend to be less inclined to any one side, in favour of a position where every one is to be blamed almost equally;

“The unthinkable happened because in each of the Great States, leaders did certain things that inflamed the crisis, or failed to do things that might have eased it. All shared in some degree the responsibility for the general failure.”

(Marshall, S. L. A., World War One, 1985, page 25.)

The vast array of opinions make it incumbent that the issue be studied with delicate care and based on a systematic framework. Where as it is possible to study the immediate causes of the Great War, it is necessary that that these causes be looked at in the wider perspective of the dominant political atmosphere surrounding the whole of Europe at the time, as well as the historical factors that lead to the creation of this atmosphere. This is crucial, since on the International scene material actions often follow political decisions and not the other way round.

It was not possible for the war to come about without the influence of a host of extremely dangerous political ideas that comprised the international public opinion controlling the relation of the European nations with each other.

“Among the causes of the war were rising nationalist sentiment (manifested both in the chauvinism of the great European powers and in the unrest among the subject peoples of the multinational European empires), colonial and economic rivalries, the formation of hostile alliance systems, and arms races, all of which contributed to the growing sense of international tension during the pre-war years.”

(Ramsey RD. The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia – Release 6 – (World War 1))


The principle of nationalism did not rank high in the agenda of the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Germany and Italy were left as divided states, but strong nationalist movements and revolutions led to the unification of Italy in 1861 and that of Germany in 1871. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France was left seething over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. It was natural for the French to have a desire to regain this territory.

Nationalism also posed a problem for Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, areas that comprised of many conflicting national groups. The desire of many of the Slavs in the southern provinces to join neighbouring Serbia had intensified friction among the empire’s Germanic, Magyar, and Slavic peoples. The Austrians nevertheless hoped to increase their strength and territory in the Balkans at the expense of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, thereby antagonising Russia, which also hoped to absorb much of the Ottoman territory.


Furthermore, the prominence of Capitalism lead to economic and imperial competition amongst the European nations. Great Britain, Germany and France needed foreign markets after the increase in manufacturing caused by the Industrial Revolution. After 1870, the European nations greatly accelerated the acquisition of colonies in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Between 1895 and 1905 imperialistic expansion reached its climax. This colonial rivalry had many implications.

Colonial rivalry led to the straining of relationships among the European nations. All the European powers except Austria and Russia had colonies in Africa, a natural consequence of which was many clashes between France, Britain, Germany and Italy. As examples, France rivalled with Germany over Morocco and with Italy over Tunis. France and Britain nearly came to war over their rivalry in the Sudan in 1898.

A result of the colonial rivalry was an intensification of the arms race. The tensions and rivalries among the European nations induced them into thinking that their interests would be vitally at stake unless they were well capable of militarily dealing with their rivals. This mode of thinking saw a highly escalated arms race from 1871 onwards. The race was particularly serious between 1900 and 1914, as the international situation became much worse than before. There was a significant rise in the army and naval estimates of the European powers in these years. From 1910 to 1914 France increased her defence expenditure by 10%, Britain by 13%, Russia by 39%, and Germany was the most militaristic as she increased by 73%. Increased war expenditure enabled all the powers to raise more armies and improve their battleships.

The main naval rivals in the region were Britain and Germany. Under Admiral Tirpitz, State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office from 1897, Britain began a long term ship building plan. On the other hand, the German Navy Law of 1898 increased the German battleships from nine cruisers to twelve, followed by a new law in 1900 which doubled the German battle fleet.

In the meantime, Britain produced her first Dreadnought. Dreadnoughts were large, fast and heavily armed battleships with twelve inch guns. They set a new standard in naval armaments with nothing to rival them. The intensity of the naval race is reflected by the fact that between 1909 and 1911 Germany built nine Dreadnoughts while Britain completed 18 Dreadnoughts. As Britain built new naval bases for the Dreadnoughts in northern Scotland in 1913, Germany widened the Kiel Canal to allow the easy passage of her Dreadnoughts from the Baltic to the North Sea.

As a result of the arms race, all the European powers were prepared for a war by 1914.

Colonial rivalry also led to formulation of the system of alliances. The feeling of insecurity lead to the countries in Europe seeking allies through signing treaties and pacts. Often, these treaties contained promises of support in case of military aggression against any one of the nations. The treaties and alliances between the European nations were many, including Dreikaiserbund, Dual Alliance, Second Dreikaiserbund, Triple Alliance, Reinsurance Treaty, Franco-Russian Alliance, Entente Cordiale and Anglo-Russian Entente.

The alliances lead to the emergence of two main camps in Europe. Italy turned to Germany and Austria as allies when she lost Tunis to France in 1881. Due to their mutual fear of Germany’s expansionist activities in the Balkans, Russia and Britain patched up their differences and formed an entente in 1907. The aggressive attitude of Germany in both the first and second Moroccan crises also gave rise to a closeness between Russia, France and Britain after 1907.

The alliances were originally strictly defensive but by 1910, many alliances had changed their nature. The Austro-German alliance of 1879 was an alliance that could clearly be considered aggressive. After the Bosnian crisis in 1909, the German government promised to give military aid to Austria-Hungary, if Austria invaded Serbia and Russia intervened on behalf of the latter. The system of alliances meant that even a relatively small conflict could escalate into a major war, as the alliances would force other nations to participate in the conflict. The alliances were also made in secret, which lead to an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust amongst the nations.

Economic Rivalries

From 1890 onwards many economic conflicts arose between Germany and Britain . Germany had been experiencing a period of rapid industrialisation and growth in economy since 1871. By 1890, German products were competing with British manufacturers globally and German merchant ships threatened Britain’s carrying trade.

Germany also had economic conflicts with France. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine that France lost to Germany in 1870 were both coal producing provinces. From 1871 onwards, France had to import coal from other countries. This lead to France having compete with Germany over Morocco, as Morocco was rich in resources.

Though the Russian economy was by no means among the stronger ones, but she stilled rivalled with Germany and Austria over commercial privileges in the Balkans. Russia hoped to control the area because half of her exports passed through it. On the other hand, Germany began to build a railway in the area as early as 1888. Austria regarded the area as a field for profitable investment and as a big market for her manufactured goods. Due to the weakness of the Russian exporting capacity and the low strength of her economy, her economic conflict with Germany and Austria was not as intense as Germany had with Britain or France.

For the more developed nations, economic rivalries undoubtedly played a considerable part in creating international tensions in the four decades preceding the First World War.

The Immediate Causes of the Great War

On June 28, 1914, a Serb nationalist in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Austrian government, eager to expand in the Balkans and having secured unlimited German support on the issue, accused the Serbian government of having instigated the assassination. On July 23 1914 Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a virtual protectorate over Serbia. Serbia refused to meet with one of the demands. Austria-Hungary declared the Serbian response to be unsatisfactory. Refusing to submit the disputed terms to international arbitration, Austria-Hungary, on July 28, 1914, declared war on Serbia. The next day Austrian artillery bombarded Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

The Serbian ally, Russia, learnt of the ultimatum on July 24. On July 26 the Czar reassured the Serbian crown prince that “Russia will in no case be indifferent to the fate of Serbia.” Russia immediately ordered mobilisation against Austria, whereupon, on August 1, Germany declared war against Russia. Russia’s ally, France, then began to mobilise, prompting Germany to declare war against France on August 3. Germany feared attack on two fronts–France in the west and Russia in the east. The result was the Schlieffen Plan. This military plan was drawn up by Count Schlieffen, the Chief of the German General Staff. It was based on the premise that Russia would need at least six weeks to mobilise before she could be ready to attack. In the meantime, Germany could concentrate her military forces against France, which might be subjugated within six weeks by an overwhelming attack through neutral Belgium. Germany could then turn to attack Russia.

In line with the Schlieffen Plan, the German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on August 4. The response was an immediate declaration of war on Germany from Britain. There were two reasons which prompted Britain to take action at once. Firstly, Belgium had been guaranteed as a neutral state by all great powers in 1839 in the Treaty of London. The German invasion clearly violated the treaty. The second reason was the danger this caused to the security of Britain. Belgium was separated from Britain by a narrow channel only.

Hence within a matter of a few days, nearly the whole of Europe was involved in a massive military conflict that soon engulfed the whole of Europe and eventually the world at large. The First World War had effectively begun.

Analysis and Conclusion

Though the immediate cause of the war was the murder of the ruler of Austria-Hungary, it was the long term causes, as elaborated throughout the course of this essay, that were the real reasons for the start of the First World War. These causes were the nationalist sentiment, colonial and economic rivalries, the formation of hostile alliance systems and the arms races. These long term causes were the fuel, whereas the immediate causes provided only the spark that lit the huge fire.

Hence, blaming the start of the Great War solely on Germany could only be possible if it can be proven that Germany was the only one responsible for creating all of these causes. Such a task would be impossible by any standards.

If Germany is blamed for extending military support to Austria against Serbia, then should the French and the Russians not be equally blamed for extending their military help to Serbia? If the Austria-Hungary Empire had ambitions to retain control over the Slavs as well as annex Bosnia to itself, could the same not be said of Serbia for its desire of uniting all the Serbs of Serbia, Austria-Hungary and even those under Ottoman rule into the one state of Greater Serbia?

The Serbian claim was laid on the basis of nationalism. If this claim is justified, then how could the clauses in Versailles Settlement be justified, where the principle of nationality was abandoned in the making of some territorial settlements for example, Italy obtained South Tyrol which contained 250,000 Austrian Germans and Rumania obtained Transylvania where more than half of the population were Hungarians.

The German interest in the Balkan region was on purely economic grounds. If this was a crime, then the same should be said of France and to some extent Russia, which also had an economic interest in the Balkans.

As for the colonial rivalries that roused the tensions in Europe, then it is clear that other nations were equally responsible than the Germans. For example, France was equally involved in the conflict over the colonization of Morocco as was Germany. Furthermore, colonial rivalries also existed between France and Britain, independent of Germany.

The facts are a clear witness that that Britain was as much a part of the arms race as was Germany. Similarly if the alliance system dragged the Germans into war then it was the same for Britain, when the German armies marched through Belgium, or for France and Russia when they took on the task of protecting Serbia from Austrian attack.

In the final conclusion, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of the historian SLA Marshall, “The unthinkable happened because in each of the Great States, leaders did certain things that inflamed the crisis, or failed to do things that might have eased it. All shared in some degree the responsibility for the general failure.” Except that the Great War was hardly unthinkable as the contributing nations had made it quite inevitable, decades before its actual materialising.


Herwig, H. H., The Outbreak of World War I

Barnes, H. E., Who Started the First World War?

Marshall, S. L. A., World War One

Ramsey, R. D., The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia (World War 1) – Release 6



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