Key pieces of evidence for German responsibility for world war one

Key pieces of evidence for the Part B controversy on responsibility for World War One

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  • Created on: 19-05-14 19:15


  • Entailed seeking colonial expansion and a more dominant position in Europe
  • Kaiser believed that Weltpolitik would satisfy Germany's destiny which he aimed to do in the following ways:
  • Colonial aquisition
  • The establishment of economic spheres of influence
  • Expansion of the naval power to complete the strength of the army 
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Schlieffen plan

  • Military leaders recognised the weakness of their position - devised a plan for the possibility of war 
  • Involved an all out assault in the west to defeat France before Germany could mobilise 
  • Once France had been defeated (in an estimated six weeks) the German armies could face the east towards the Russians 
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First Moroccan crisis

  • Morocco had been an accepted French sphere of influence 
  • March 1905 the Kasier landed at the Moroccan Port of Tangier and made a speech in which he upheld the independecen of the SUltan and supported German intentions
  • Bulow demanded an international conference to review the question of Morocco - confident that it would show that the Anglo French relationship was flimsy and that Britain was not a reliable partner

At the Algeciras conference and in the subsequent Algecrias Act, Morocco was confirmed in the French sphere and the entente was strengthened. The episode had been highly humiliating for the Germans. At Algeciras the only country that supported Germany was Austria-Hungary, and the launching of HMS Dreadnought posed a real threat: for many in Germany, the fear of encirclement was real. 

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Second Moroccan crisis

  • Following French suppression anti-French uprising in Fez in Morocco 
  • Germany argued that France had exceeded their rights in Morocco and Germany ( foreign secretary Kiderlen) ordered a gun boat, the Panther, to be moored off the Moroccan port of Agadir as a threat to France and an indication of support for the rebels
  • The Second Moroccan crisis resulted in Germany gaining two strops of land in the Congo, but with Germany having to promise to accept French control of Morocco.
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The Balkan wars/Bosnian crisis

  • Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire both Russia and Austria Hungary tried to stake a claim for dominance in the region
  • It also allowed nationalities like the Serbs to demand independence. The Serbs were allied to the Russians. The Austrians feared that a strong Serba would lead to unrest and the breakup of the Empire
  • In 1903 a pro-Russia dynasty fame to power in Serbia; thus a more hostile relationship between the Serbs and Austria.
  • A-H believed that the best way to deal with the Serbs was to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, which they did in October 1908. The Serbs and Russian government were furious
  • A-H forced Serbia and Russia to recognise the annexation and it did so by threatening war against Serbia
  • Germany, due to their close alliances, offered their full support to AH (shows recklessness of AH and how Germany was tied to her aly -- perhaps the July crisis is just another example of AH reckless behaviour) 
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The Balkan war 1912

  • A Balkan League was set up with the purpose of seizing land from the declining ottoman Empire
  • In October Serbia launched her attack and invaded Albania 
  • The Austrians were horrified as this would allow them to have access to the sea 
  • The Austrians demanded an independent Albania
  • The Serbs, supported by Russia, ignored the Austrians, and the Germans pressed the Habsburgs to make thier point.
  • The Treaty of London (1913) ended the conflict. However, Germany became more obsessed that they were being encircled 
  • The Slav threat provided the context for the following policy. The Army Bill (1913) which increased the size of their army and this led to France and Russia doing the same. 
  • In the summer of 1913 the Serbs entered Albania again and Germany supported the Austrian government in another ultimatum.
  • Germany began to feel that the Entente countries were catching up with the size of their armies and so the best time for war was the present
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The 'War Council' meeting 1912

  • At a meeting of the Kaiser and military leaders in 1912, the possibility of a future war with Russia was discussed and plans were made to prepare Germany for such an eventuality 
  • This meeting provides supporters of the Fischer view conclusive evidence of German intentions to fight a war at a time more suitable to German military interests. 
  • Moltke observed that if Germany should go to war 'the sooner the better' and Wilhelm II called for increased armaments to confront the 'racial war' with Russia
  • At the meeting, the Kasier insisted that Austria Hungary should be supported in her actions against Serbia
  • However some historians have not been so convinced. They have highlighted the informal nature of the meeting which was simply another example of a hastily assembled gathering in response to an outburst by the Kaiser
  • Attention has been drawn to the fact that Bethmann did not even attend
  • Tirpitz warned against war and Muller commented that 'the result amounted to nothing' 
  • More generally it has been questioned whether the chaotic nature of Wilhelmine government was actually capable of such clear-sighted long-term planning 
  • Therefore, it does not seem that Germany was set on war in that meeting. War was not deliberately plannted for 1914; nevertheless, there was a feeling that it was just a question of time
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Naval expansion, Tirpitz

  • Despite the financial problems faced by the German imperial government, the Kaiser, Bulow and Tirpitz were still keen to expand the German navy and to put it on equal terms with Britain 
  • They successed in getting their porposal for two supplementary naval laws in 1906 passed by the Reichstag to build Germany its own deadnaught 
  • In the years 1910-13 the British government decided to expand its navy and the two main countries were drawn into an expensive arms race that worsened an already uneasy relationship 
  • Despite Bulow and Bethmann-Hollweg's attempts to persuade the Kasier to come to some agreement, the Kaiser would not compromise and in March 1909 the British government set aside a budget to build nine dreadnought-class battle ships in the year 
  • The failure of the Haldane mission in February 1912 marked the last chance for the two countries to come to some agreement 
  • Lord Haldane had travelled to Berline in the hope of improving relations between Germany and Britain. The Germans would agree to limit on fleet expansion, only if the British agreed to neutrality in any future European war. The Kasier and Tirpitz were committeed to increasing the size of the fleet. In March 1912 the Germans published a new Naval Bill proposing further expansion. The Haldane mission was well and truly sunk
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Kruger Telegram

  • In 1896 Wilhelm antagonised British public opinion by sending a telegram to President Kruger of the South African republic, congratulating him for the defeat of the British raiders led by Dr Jameson (British Jameson raid)
  • This can be seen to have damaged relations between Germany and Britain
  • There is a possibility that at this point Germany might have still been trying to woo the British into the triple alliance, but the following years saw a fundamental sea change in the relationship between Britian and Germany (Flottenpolitik [direct challenge to British naval supremacy], support for the Boers in the Boer war)
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Zabern affair

  • German soldier made a derogatory comment about Alsation locals - tensions mounted between army and local Alsation inhabitants - soldier aquitted from court - Kaiser backed the army and the chancellor (Bethmann Hollweg) recieved a vote of no confidence
  • This event revealed how powerless the Reichstag really was as despite giving the chancellor a vote of no confidence, he still had the Kasier's backing and remained in his post 
  • It is also seen as proof of how the Kaiser still ultimately controlled policy and political decision making
  • The public outcry against the army's action with the Kaiser's support also give strong evidence that popular movements were on the increase. 
  • Pressures were 'bubbling up' to bring about genuine democratic and social change 
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Blank cheque

  • Following the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand it was decided that the Austrian leaders take strong action against Serbia. 
  • The German pressure for swift and decisive action against Serbia (combined with the severity of the ultimatum being prepared against Serbia) suggests it was taking more than just defensive measures on behalf of its ally ...was Germany hoping for a localised war?
  • Many historians highlight how without German backing it is unlikely that Austria-Hungary would have acted so drastically.One suggests that: 'Without Berlin's encouragement of a strong Austro-Hungarian line against Serbia after Sarajevo - the "blank cheque" - WW1 would clearly not have broken out. So Germany does bear responsibility.' others reiterate this by emphasising how 'in order to implement their [AH] war against Serbia they needed support from their main ally Germany. Without Germany, their decision to fight against Serbia could not have been implemented.'
  • All this highlights how without the issuing of the blank cheque, Austria would not have acted as they did as they would not have had the backing they needed to do so.
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The Fischer Controversy

In 1961 a German historian, Fritz Fischer, launched a historiographical revolution. In his book 'Germany's aims in the First World War' he came to some sensational conclusions:

  • Germany had gone to war to achieve European and worldwide domination - it was a bid for world power
  • Germany had hoped that the 'Blank Cheque' given to Austria in July 1914 would result in war 
  • The roots of German expansionism were to be found in the social, economic and political tensions which troubled Germany before 1914 
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Fischer's evidence

Fischer based his evidence partly on a document found in the German archives written by Bethmann Hollweg's secretary on 9th September 1914, in which he outlines the Chancellor's plans for the peace negotiations, which he expected to take place in the near future 

Indeed the plans in the 9th Septembet programme represented a 'complete revolution in European political and power relations'. The logic was clear: plans for annexation that were being written down in September 1914 did not come from nowhere, they must have been already considered in July 1914. Therefore Germany was not the victim but the perpetrator of war. 

Fischer's thesis also placed Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg at the centre of the drive for expansion. It also linked foreign and domestic policy by suggesting that the proposed annexations were seen as a means of maintaining domestic dominance.

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The September programme

On 9 September 1914 Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg announced Germany’s ‘September Programme’ of war aims. Whether this statement of territorial demands and military and economic ambitions was a triumphant response to early victories, or a pragmatic recognition that the war would not be short, and that the German people had to be made aware of what they were fighting for in a lengthy life-or-death struggle, the pre-emptive formulation of war aims was and remains controversial.

Germany’s war aims were expansionistic. Territorial annexations, economic domination and military control would provide, Bethmann Hollweg promised, ‘security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time’.As such, Germany’s war aims were an expression of the social-Darwinist philosophy of imperialistic competition which had underpinned pre-war arms races and colonial rivalries. Weltpolitik may have failed in peacetime, but war presented an opportunity to achieve Germany’s global ambitions.

In the 1960s the historian Fritz Fischer famously argued that Germany’s September Programme of war aims represented the climax of a conscious policy of German expansionism which had its roots in the Weltpolitik of the pre-war years; that Germany had sought war as a means to assert her world power. 

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Challenges to Fischer's thesis

  • There is very little evidence that the outbreak of the war constituted a grasp for world power. Instead a group of historians maintain that the war started because of a sense of encirclement in Germany, especially after the failure of the first Moroccan crisis and after the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 
  • They argue that between 1909 and 1914 German foreign policy was almost obsessively focused on the need to break this encirclement. This mentality was partly born from the manner in which Germany was born out of war, partly from geograhy and partly from events as they unfolded. 
  • However, it stresses that the reasons for going to war were defensive, rather than aggressive. 
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Extracts from 'The pity of war': Niall Ferguson

  • 'It is true that during July the German decision-makers repeatedly expressed the hope that the conflict would be localized: in other word that Austria would be able to vanquish Serbia without Russian intervention'
  • In February 1913, for example, Bethmann had rejected the idea of a preventative war against Serbia because "Russian intervention...would result in a war-like conflict of the Triple alliance....against the Triple Entente, and Germany would have to bear the full brunt of the French and British attack"'
  • 'Sazonoc made it clear from the moment the Austrian ultimatum was published that Russia would react...Grey had restated the British position of December 1912: should 'the position of France as a power' be threatened, England would not stand aside'
  • 'Given these indications that the war would not be localised, there were ample opportunities for Berlin to back down'
  • 'As events proved, there was a good reason to doubt the Triple Alliance's dependability; and the Triple Entente was indeed fragile, especially where England was concerned....its is therefore possible that despite being well aware of the implications of war with respect to Belgium, Bethmann and Jagow discerned just enough evidence to hope for British neutrality...They knew the risks with respect to Beligum' 
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Extracts from 'The pity of war': Niall Ferguson

  • ''At this point the military historian offers an explanation, based on the German General Staff's pessimistic calculations aout the relative present and future strengths of the European armies, on which depended thier argument for a pre-emptive or preventative war'
  • 'Prospects could never be better for us' argued the Chief of General Staff....Kaiser 'Russia is at the present moment militarily and financially totally unprepared for war'
  • Moltke 'the military situation is becoming from day to day more unfavourable for us' ...Thus what becgan as an argument in favour of war this year rather than in two years became an argument for mobilisation today rather than tomorrow 
  • Though Bethmann sometimes dreamt of British neutraility, the German generals were indifferent: they doubted that Britain's small army could influence the outcome of a war 
  • The Russian ambassador in Vienna made it clear as early as 8 July that 'Russia would be compelled to take up arms in defence of Serbia' if Austria 'rushed into war'
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Key quotes from leaders at the time

Bethmann-Hollweg, July 1914: 'If war must break out, better now than in two years when the Entente will be stronger'

Moltke, July 1914: 'The military situation is become from day to day more unfavourable for us...'

Deputy Chief of General Staff, 3rd July 1914: 'Prospects could never come better for us'

Kaiser, 6th July 1914, 'Russia is at the present moment militarily and financially totally unprepared for war'

Molke, July 1914: 'We shall never again strike as well as we do now...'

Russian ambassador in Vienna, 8th July 1914:  'Russia would be compelled to take up arms in defence of Serbia' if Austria 'rushed into war'

David Lloyd George: 'All the Great powers had slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of fire'

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Key statistics

  • In the 1912 elections, the SPD polled 4,200,000 votes and became the largest party in the Reichstag with 110 deputies (evidence for roots of Germany waging war/or being willing to risk it lying within the domestic situation)
  • In early 1913 Moltke, the Chief of Staff, pushed for increases in the Army law of 1912 and 1913 which increased the peace time strength of the army by 20% from 663,000 to 800,000 men in 1914 (possible evidence for Germany planning war/aggressive foreign policy/contributed to the decision Germany made as in 1914 they believed they were as ready as they could be for a war -- willing to risk it)
  • Increase in arms expenditure cannot be used to suggest that Germany had been directly planning war as Austria-Hungary spent the least of its GDP on war (1.9%) yet was determined to fight. Britian spent large amounts on increasing the size of their navy - they wanted war the least - (this illustrates how Germany had many motives and wanting war cannot be seen as the principle drive for their policies and foreign policy) 
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