Germany and War Responsibility


Alliances and War Plans

Following the victory of the German states in the Franco-Prussian war, and the creation of the new country of Germany, a system of alliances was put in place by Chancellor von Bismarck to protect the empire. Another motive was the complete isolation of France, who sought 'revanche' for their losses.

Dreikaiserbund (1881) - The league of the three emperors, aimed to maintain peace between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany.

Triple Alliance (1882) - Defensive alliance between Austria-Hungary, Italy and Germany.

Wilhelm II begins 'new course' in March 1890, refusing to renew Reassurance Teaty with Russia, signals instead a warmer relationship with A-H. Field Marshall Schlieffen (Chief of the General Staff, 1891-1905) begins to formulate plans for a war on two fronts - lightning strike through France, encircling Paris; French surrender before Russian mobilisation. Plan relied on extremely slow Allied mobilisation.

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Germany and Britain

Kaiser's attitude towards Britain was complex, as he was the grandson of Queen Victoria. In 1896, he antagonises British public opinion by sending a telegram to President Kruger of the South African Republic to congratulate him on the defeat of the British raiders.

Next, Flottenpolitik and subsequent Navy Laws act as a direct challenge to British naval supremacy, sparking a naval race. German support for the Boers in the Boer War (1899-1902) causes further upset.

In 1901, Britain approaches Germany for an alliance and is spurned by the German Foreign Office, who say they must instead commit to the Triple Alliance. Germans feel that Britain will not find other allies due to colonial rivalries.

However, Britain ends 'splendid isolation', forming an alliance with Japan in 1902, and a series of ententes with France (1904) and Russia (1907). Germany is over-reliant on Austria-Hungary.

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Limits to Weltpolitik

Weltpolitik does not achieve much in terms of new territory. In 1897, German involvement in China gains them a lease on the port of Kiaochow. In 1898, Germany buys the Pacific islands of the Carolines and Marianas from Spain. In 1899, an agreement is made with Britain, giving Germany possession of some of the eastern Samoan islands. Involvement in the Constantinople to Baghdad railway does not give much success.

Germany does not feel that it has its 'place in the sun'. Russia's loss in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and weakening by 1905 revolution however does see Germany gain a freer diplomatic hand in the near east.

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The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905-6

In March 1905, the Kaiser visits Tangier, within the French sphere of influence, despite German economic interests. Germans demanded an international conference on the future of Morocco. They hoped this would drive a wedge between Britain and France. The opposite happened.

They then hoped the Treaty of Björkö (July 1905) would prise the Russians away from the French. This failed due to opposition in the Russian Foreign Office, who feared damaging this friendship with the French. 

The Algeciras Conference and Act saw confirmation of Morocco as within the French sphere, and the ententes were strengthened.

This was a humiliation for the Germans, and Friedrich von Holstein (Head of the Political Office at the Foreign Ministry) was forced to resign. The only country that supported Germany at the conference was Austria-Hungary. 

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The Second Moroccan Crisis, 1911

In February 1909, French and German governments agree to respect one another's interests in Morocco. Disturbances in Fez in April 1911 however lead to French military intervention. Germany complains that this violates the Algecircas Act and thus they protest by mooring the German gunboat Panther at the Moroccan port of Agadir.

Summer 1911 sees much talk of war. Germany attempts to bully France into giving her the French Congo in return for the ceasing of all German interests in Morocco. Again the Germans try and prise apart the entente, and fail.

David Lloyd George (then Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer) warns Germany against further aggression in 'Mansion House' speech.

Germany does gain two strips of land in the Congo, but most promise to respect French control of Morocco.  

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Tension Increases

Germany believes that colonial rivalries will mean that they are able to divide and dominate France, Britain and Russia. This clearly is not the case and in 1907, Britain and Russia sign an entente to put disagreements over empire in Asia at rest. 

The naval race between Germany and Britain persists, despite Bülow and B-H's attempts to persuade the Kaiser to reach an agreement. In 1909, the British government create a budget to build nine dreadnoughts in a year. 

In February 1912, Lord Haldane travels to Berlin in the hope of improving relations. Germans would agree to limit fleet expansion only if Britain agrees to remain neutral in any European land war. But the Kaiser and Tirpitz were committed to increasing the size of the Naval Bill, proposing further expansion. The Haldane mission had failed, and this had marked the last chance for the countries to reach an agreement. 

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The Balkans

Germany was not a central player in the Balkans, but ally A-H was, thus Germany was drawn into the politics of Europe's most unstable region. Until the end of the 1800s, the Balkans had been dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The decline of this opens the way for both Russia and the Habsburg Empire (A-H) to stake a claim. 

It also provided a platform for nationalities such as Serbs to assert their identity and independence. This worries A-H as they are Slavs, meaning they were protected by and allied to fellow Slavs, the Russians. Pan-Slavism is popular and strong in Russia.

The Hapsburg Empre contains many nationalities, including Serbs, and A-H fears a breakup of the multi-ethnic empire. In 1897, the Russians and A-H had agreed to work together to maintain the status quo but this seemed unlikely to last under new circumstances. 

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Bosnia Herzegovina

In 1903, a pro-Russian dynasty comes to power in Serbia, creating a more hostile relationship with A-H. In 1906, a trade agreement is not renewed, leading to trade war The Pig War (so called as A-H blocks the import of Serbian pigs). 

The real turning point comes later in 1906 when Count Aehrenthal is appointed as Foreign Minister for A-H. His view is that the best way to deal with the Serbian problem is to annex the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is supported by Chief of the General Staff, General Conrad, and thus in October 1908, the plan goes ahead. 

Russian Foreign Minister Izvolski attempts to trade Russian approval of this action for Austrian recognition of Russian rights in the Dardanelles Straits. The deal falls through. Serbs and Russians are furious and the understanding of 1897 is finished. 

In February 1909, A-H forces Serbia and Russia to recognise the annexation of B+H by threatening war against Serbia. By this point, it has the full support of Germany. 

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The First Balkans War 1912

The attack by Italy against the Ottoman Empire in Libya (1911) highlights the growing decline of Ottoman influence. The Balkan League forms, comprising Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, who all seek to seize territory from the collapsing empire. In October 1912, the Balkan League launches an attack, horrifying A-H, especially when the Serbs invaded Albania. They felt they had to prevent Serbia having access to the sea. 

In November 1912, A-H demands the creation of an independent Albania. The Serbs, supported by the Russians, ignore them, and Germany encourages A-H to press the matter. The Kaiser calls a council of military advisers on 8th December to consider options. He says to the Swiss ambassador on the 10th that 'racial war, the war of Slavdom against Germandom' was unavoidable, though he did not believe it would happen just yet. The Treaty of London (1913) ends the First Balkans War, but the Slav threat provides context for much subsequent German policy. 

The Army Bill (Jun 1913) increased the army's size by 170,000 troops. France and Russia respond by increasing the length of service in their own. A brief Second Balkans War strengthens the position of Serbia. Germany supports A-H in issuing another ultimatum (Oct 1913) after invasion of Albania. All powers are increasing the sizes of their armies. War is coming. 

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July Crisis

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the A-H throne, is shot by Gavril Princip on the 28th June 1914. Princip is a member of the Serbian terrorist organisation, the Black Hand. On the 5th July, A-H diplomat, Count Hoyos, travels to Berlin to seek German support. This is extended as unconditional support, known as the 'Blank Cheque'. Bethmann-Hollweg supports the move, but labels it a 'leap in the dark'. 

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Outbreak Events - July

23rd - A-H issues Serbia with an ultimatum. Serbia rejects the notion of Austrian officials taking part in the investigation on the assassination.

25th - Russia comes out in favour of Serbia. France promises to support Russia. 

26th - British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey proposes a conference to deal with the issue. A-H refuses to take part.

28th - A-H declares war on Serbia. 

29th - B-H urges the resumption of Austro-Russian negotiations and fails to persuade British into neutrality. The Kaiser contacts his cousin the Tsar, who downgrades his orders to from general to partial mobilisation.

30th - The Tsar changes his mind after being told this is not possible.

31st - Events were now set by the Schlieffen Plan. Germany sends an ultimatum to Russia, giving them 12 hours to cease war preparations on Germany's frontier. Germany refuses a request to respect Belgian neutrality. 

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Outbreak Events - August

1st - France and Germany mobilise their troops for war. Germany declares war on Russia.

2nd - German armies invade Luxembourg and demand Belgium to give them access through their country to France. Belgium refuses. The British assure France of their support.

3rd - Germany invades Belgium and declares war on France. 

4th - Britain declares war on Germany in protection of Belgian neutrality, as agreed in 1839.

6th - Austria declares war on Russia. 

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Debate on Responsibility

The debate on responsibility begins almost immediately after the war ends. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) places blame solely on the Germans in Article 231. Thereafter, German authorities publish a series of documents aiming to shift the blame. 

By the late 1930s, most agree that all of the Great Powers had 'slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of fire' (David Lloyd George). This consensus lasts until after the Second World War even. In 1951, a Franco-German Historians' Commission meets and discusses the outbreak. They conclude with similar peaceful beliefs, aiming to build lasting positive relationships between France and Germany. 

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The Fischer Controversy

In 1961, German historian Fritz Fischer prompts a historiographical revolution - a turning point in the writings of history by providing a new idea that changes existing beliefs. In his book, 'Germany's Aims in the First World War' (the English version, published 1967) he states his beliefs that:

  • Germany sought European and worldwide domination by entering the war.
  • They had hoped that the 'Blank Cheque' would result in war.
  • And that the roots of German expansionism stemmed from social, economic and political tensions within Germany itself. 
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Fischer's Evidence

Fischer bases his evidence partly on a document found in the German archives. It was written by B-H's private secretary, Kurt Riezler on the 9th September 1914. The document outlines the Chancellor's plans for the peace negotiations, which he expected to come soon. Fischer believed that these plans were the continuation of policy which had the support of the wider nation. The plans represented 'a complete revolution in European political and power relations'. It was clear that plans for annexation were being written down in September 1914, and it was suggested that they were already considered in July. Therefore, in Fischer's logic, Germany was not the victim but a perpetrator. 

The thesis also broke ground in other ways. It put B-H at the centre of the drive for expansion. It removed the distinction between the expansionist military and the perceived more moderate politicians. It also linked foreign and domestic policy by suggesting that the proposed annexations were seen as a way of maintaining domestic dominance. 

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Fischer Challenged

His analysis brought a storm of protest, including attacks from Gerhard Ritter and Egmont Zechlin. They objected largely to his placing B-H in the centre of the push for war. The diaries of Kurt Riezler were published in the 1980s by Karl Dietrich Erdmann. He believed that Germany had slipped into war in 1914. To him the diaries suggested that Germany was a part of the push for war but had not been planning since 1912. Furthermore, some historians suggest that the diaries had been tampered with.

Additionally, there was very little evidence of German desire for world power. Historians such as Klaus Hildebrand, Andreas Hillgruber and Gregor Schöllgen believe that war breaks out due to German fear of encirclement, particularly after failure in the First Moroccan Crisis, and the closer relationship between Britain and Russia. They state that German policy obsessively sought to solve these fears between 1909 and 1914. This mentality likely stemmed from Germany's origins, having been born out of war, partially from the geography which placed Germany centrally, surrounded by those it had antagonised, and also from the way events unfolded. They claimed that this made Germany's bid for war defensive rather than aggressive. 

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War of Illusions (1969)

In this book, Fischer stresses even more the link between foreign and domestic policy. He argues that the German government used war as a solution, and that there was a strong national 'will to war'. He said that war was a bold leap foward - 'flucht nach vorn' (flight or push forward); an attempt to establish German dominance, thus keeping domestic peace through national unity and patriotism. He also stated that all of Germany's decision makers had to take responsibility, not just the military.

He made use of the diaries of Admiral Müller, published in 1965, which referenced a meeting on the 8th December 1912 of the Kaiser and top military advisers. He called this the 'War Council' of 1912, and saw it as evidence that war had already been decided upon. He said that it had only been postpomed due to B-H's desire to prepare Germany diplomatically and Tirpiz's desires to wait for the opening of the Kiel Canal. 

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The 1912 'War Council'

Tensions in Europe by the end of December 1912 were increasingly apparent. Serbian expansion to the sea alarmed A-H, leading to them announcing their opposition to such expansion in November 1912. In response, the Russian government begins mobilisation, and A-H seeks German and Italian suppport in a general European war. The Triple Alliance was renewed on the 5th December. Two days before, British Minister of War, Lord Haldane, warned the German Ambassador in London that Britain would not tolerate the defeat of France if a war between Russia and Austria led to a German attack on the French. 

The Kaiser called a meeting of his top military staff, such as Moltke, Tirpitz and Admiral Georg von Müller, whose diaries gave insight into the event. The Kaiser insisted that all support should be given to A-H in its action against Serbia. If Russia decided to fight, so be it. A-H would be supported in the east by Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, leaving Germany to fight France (land) and Britain (sea). Moltke believed that war against Russia was inevitable. Tirpitz said that the navy required another 12-18 months to prepare the fleet and for the newly widened Kiel canal to have opened - allowing passage into the North Sea.

Many historians praised 'War of Illusions' over Fischer's previous works, but debate still remained on the importance of the so-called 'War Council'.

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Aussen or Innen?

One thing commonly noted about German history was that foreign policy was dictated by events outside of Germany. This is known as the 'Primat der Aussenpolitik' (the dominance of foreign policy). Fischer flips this, focusing on the impact of internal pressures on foreign policy; 'Primat der Innenpolitik' (the dominance of internal policy).

The concept has been developed by other historians such as Hans Ulrich Wehler. He argued that the destructive impact of industrialisation caused tensions in Germany's social and economic structure. The Junkers and upper classes resisted the attempts of the middle class to gain greater political power. The growth of the SPD too represented a great challenge, especially after the success of 110 seats in the 1912 election. These tensions were diverted outwards into foreign and diplomatic policy to preserve the status quo. 


There are also suggestions that Germany was more or less dragged into war by her closest ally, Austria Hungary. This is due to their over-reliance on one another, and the racial divides that brought the two Germanic nations to stick together against the Slavs. 

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