Section 2: To what extent was Germany responsible for the outbreak of the First World War

The historical debate (pt.1)

In the aftermath of the WWI the victorious countries seemed in no doubt who had caused the war: Germany and her allies. The Treaty of Varseilles included a 'war guilt clause' which compelled Germany to accept repsonsibility for the war. Following WWII however, and in the context of reconciliation between France and Germany, the historical consenus was that WWI had been a collective European failure. It was argued that the European diplomatic system of opposing alliances and competition over empires and weapons had caused countries to move towards conflict: no single country could be singled out for particular blame.

The Fischer Thesis

  • This historical consensus was challenged in 1961 by German historian Fritz Fischer who argued in his book Germany's Aims in the First World War, that in the years prior to WWI Germany had a plan for European domination which led to the pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy and ultimately war. Fischer developed his arguments in 1969 War of Illusions.
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The historical debate (pt.2)

Arguments that Germany was responsible

  • Under Kaiser Wilhelm II's leadership, Germany pursued European hedgemony (dominance).
  • Before WWI, Germany's foreign policy was nationalistic and militaristic.
  • Germany planned to have a major European war in order to gain hedgemony in Europe.
  • Germany antagonised other Great Powers in Europe in the years leading up to the war and followed a course of confrontation with Russia, France and Britain.
  • Germany took decisions in the summer of 1914, following the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that led to war.
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The historical debate (Pt.3)

Arguments that Germany was not responsible

  • There is no clear evidence that Germany had a long-term plan of aggression in relation to WWI: they just planned for the possibility of a war. It could be argued that Germany felt that in the Entente powers they faced an aggressive and hostile coalition.
  • Other European powers participated in events that caused conflict in the years leading to WWI.
  • All European Great Powers were part of an alliance system that created tensions between nations in Europe before the war.
  • Britain, France, Russia and Germany contributed to the build-up of weapons before WWI.
  • The crisis following the murder of Franz Ferdinand that led to war in the summer of 1914 was not started by Germany and nor was Germany the only power to make decisions in July 1914 that caused the conflict to escalate.
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Did Germany have a long-term plan for European heg


  • From the 1890s, Germany followed a policy of world politics which entailed seeking colonial expansion and a more dominant position in Europe and the world. Germany built up its military might, particuarly through naval expansion, and acquired imperial possessions in Africa. From 1896, the Kaiser shaped his government to include ministers and Chancellors (such as von Bulow) who shared his vision.
  • Weltpolitik can be interpreted as confrontational as it challenged the status of other European powers. For many German nationalists, Weltpolitik was also about German expansion into Eastern Europe. For many German nationalists, Weltpolitik was also about German expansion into Eastern Europe.

The Schliefflen Plan 1905

  • Can be interpreted as a plan for a war of aggression, as it entailed potentially unprovoked German attacks on France and Belgium.
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The War Council

  • 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 the German public for such an eventuality. The Kaiser and Field Marshall von Moltke agitated for war and armaments development. For Fischer indicates that the Kaiser and his closest military advisors were planning for war in the east from 1912.

The September Programme 1914

  • Written by Bethmann Hollweg, was produced in the early days of the war and outlined Germany's warm aims. It contained a clear indication that Germany sought to subordinate France, and also far-reaching plans for German domination in Eastern Europe, incl. the annexation of large amounts of territory with a German sphere of influence that stretched all the way to Ukraine.


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Criticisms of Fischer's arguments

  • The Schlieffen Plan could be regarded as a plan for the possibility of a war on two fronts rather than a plan to start a war on two fronts.
  • Fischer may have placed too much weight on the War Council meeting: it was not attended by Bethmann and little action occurred in response to the meeting.
  • The War Council meeting was a response to Britain's declaration that they wuld support France unconditionally in the event of a war. The War Council may reflect German fears of encirclement rather than an aggressive desire for war.
  • The September Programme was written only after war had commenced and so cannot necessarily be taken as a clear indication of a plan of aggression and domination that predated the war.
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Did Germany destabilise peace in Europe before 191

Antagonising Russia

  • Bismarck had sought peace with Russia and so had established the Resistance Trety in whic Russia and Germany agreed not to attack each other. In 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II allowed this treaty to lapse and began to seek closer relationsh with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 
  • In 1908, during the Bosnian crisis, Germany's support for Austrian annexation of Bosnia antagonised Russia, who had demanded an international conference on the issue.

The Bosnian Crisis

  • The decline of the power of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans led to instability in the region. From 1878, Serbia was recognised as independent and the Austrian Empire had informal control over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Serbia regarded the Austrians as imperialists and when in 1908 the Austrians formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Austrian Empire, the Serbs and their allies, Russia were outraged. In 1909, Austria pressured Serbia and Russia to accept the annexation by threatening war on Serbia. In Germany, von Bulow's government supported Austria's actions and promised military assistance against Serbia.
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Did Germany destabilise peace in Europe before 191

Antagonising France

  • Relations between France and Germany were tense throughout the existence of the Second Reich. Germany's involvement in French colonial problems in Morocco in the early part of the twentieth century added to the strain and increased French and British suspicions about Germany.

The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905-6

  • Kaiser Wilhelm II made a speech in Tangier in Morocco demanding an international conference on France's role in Morocco, which the French were developing as a colony. The Kaiser hoped to isolate France and protect German economic interests in Morocco. At the subsequent congerence in Algeciras all countries accepted French influence in the area except Germany and Austria-Hungary
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Did Germany destabilise peace in Europe before 191

The Second Morocan Crisis,1911

  • Following French suppression of an anti-French uprising in Fez in Morocco, Germany argued that France had exceeded its rights in Morocco and Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered a gunboat, the Panther, to be moored off the Moroccan port of Agadir as a threat to France and an indication of support for the rebels. Eventually, Germany was given the right to control parts of the Congo in return for accepting French influence in Morocco.

Antagonising Britain

  • British and German relations were strained by German supprot for the Boers during the Boer War 1899-1902. German naval expansion also caused tensions. The Second Naval Law in 1900 increased the German navy to 38 battleships and further expansions occurred in 1906, 1908 and 1912. The British introduced a new and more manoeuvrable form of warship, the dreadnought, in 1906. The British regarded naval supremacy as crucial to British security and status and were concerned to maintain the principle that the British navy should be at least equal to the size of the next two naval powers. In 1912, Britain tried to negotiate with Germany to limit their naval expansion, but no avail.
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Did German actions in the summer of 1914 cause war

The July Crisis and the 'Blank Cheque'

  • On 5-6 July, encouraged by Generals Lundendorff and Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg gave their full support to the Austrians in pursuing a tough line against Serbia, despite the fact that there was no clear evidence that the Serbian government was involved in the assassination.
  • Bethmann Hollweg urged the Austrians to take swift military action against the Serbians, and offered whatever financial and military assistance the Austrians required.
  • The unconditional German support for the Austrians has been termed the 'Blank Cheque' and it madde armed conflict more likely.
  • The Austrians subsequently issued an ultimatum to the Serbians and when one of their ten demands was not met, declared war on Serbia.
  • Support for Austria in a local war did not necessarily mean that Germany sought a major European conflict, however, although Bethmann Hollweg certainly seems to have considered the possibility that this would occur, and Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg were interested in using conflict to create a war with Russia and gain territory at Russia's expense.
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Did German actions in the summer of 1914 cause war

The declaration of war on Russia

On 28 July, Austria declared war on Serbia and in response Russia, who was allied with Serbia and concerned to prevent Austria expanding in the Balkan region, began to mobilise her army. On 31 July Germany declared war on Russia.

The Schliefflen Plan and the invasion of Belgium and France

  • Despite the conflict only being on the Eastern Front, the German political and military elite decided to enact the Schliefflen Plan, as war with Russia might have meant war with France. Germany demanded that Belgium allow German troops to cross their territory and on 3 August 1914 declared war on France. When Belgium refused, Germany launched an invasion of Belgium on 4 August and Britain, an alliance of Belgium, declared war on Germany.
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Did German actions in the summer of 1914 cause war

The Schliefflen Plan

  • Was a plan to prevent the possibility of engaging in a war on two fronts: that is, fighting a war simultaneously against France and Russia. The plan assumed that, in the event of war with France and Russia, the size of the Russian army and inefficiency of Russian infrastructure would mean that it would take Russia six weeks to be fully mobilised and ready for war. The plan envisaged the German army using this 6 week period to quickly attack and defeat France, and then turn their affection to fighting Russia.
  • In order to make such a quick victory feasible, the Schliefflen Plan entailed Germany invading France via Belgium, as the French border with Belgium was not properly defended and the terrain through Belgium and north-eastern France was fairly flat and easy to cross.
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The actions of others and the European system (Pt.

The actions of others

  • Britain participated in the naval race with Germany and launched the dreadnought class of warship in 1906, provoking Germany to expand their navy in the Third Naval Law. Britain was determined to maintain naval supremacy.
  • France also contributed to the arms race by expanding her army.
  • Russia's decision to mobilise her army in July 1914 pushed Germany to enact the Schliefflen Plan.
  • Without consulting Germany, Austria-Hungary created an international crisis by 1908 by annexing Bosnia. Austria antagonised Russia and Serbia during the crisis by threatening them with war. In 1914, Austria-Hungary was ultimately responsible for the decision to go to war with Serbia following the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
  • The evvent that triggered the crisis that eventually caused WWI did not originate in Germany: members of the Serbian Black Hand organised the assassination.
  • The Balkan Wars destabilised peace in Europe and these conflicts did not involve Germany. In 1912-3, countries incl. Serbia and Romania fought against the Ottoman Empire and among themselves for territorial control over the Balkan region.
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The actions of others and the European system (Pt.

The European System


  • In 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance and agreed to support each other in the event of an attack by France or an attack by two or more other powers.
  • In 1894, Russian concerns about the lapse of the Reinsurance Treaty and the Triple Alliance and France's desire to increase her security against German attack led France and Russia to create the Franco-Russian Alliance.
  • In 1904 France and Britain later negotiated a co-operation agreement called the Anglo-French Agreement.
  • In 1907, Britain and Russia resolved some long-standing colonial agreements in the Anglo-Russian Entente.
  • The agreements between Britain, France and Russia constituted the Triple Entente, a kind of loose alliance. None of the agreements were specifically aimed at challenging Germany, but the Triple Entente was interpreted by Germany as a threat. Many German military thinkers worried about encirclement.
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The actions of others and the European system (Pt.

The arms race and imperialism

  • In addition to the tensions caused by Britain and Germany's naval expansion, Germany, France and Russia were all involved in a buuild-up of their armies in the years before WWI. The Army Bills of 1912 increased the size of the German army by 20%.
  • In response, France decided to increase conscription from two to three years from 1916. 
  • Russia also had plans to increase their army by 500,000 from 1916.
  • Furthermore, Britain, France and Germany had also been engaged in imperialist projects to build their empires. This imperial competition caused tensn between the Great Powers and Europe.
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