Historical story

Blame the trenches

Once, in 1918, it was very clear:Germany was solely to blame for the First World War. For more than ninety years, historians have been knocking each other over with the question whether this is true. Wasn't France just as guilty? Or even England? An overview with the most intriguing theories about the origin of an almost forgotten war in the Netherlands, which nevertheless cost the lives of 10 million soldiers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the 'mother of all wars'.

It is June 28, 1914 when the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand visits Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary was a gigantic multi-ethnic empire in Central Europe at the time. He is shot by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Then events follow each other in quick succession. Austria-Hungary declares war on neighboring Serbia. Russia pledges to support the "Slavic brothers" and mobilizes its army. Germany declares to assist Austria-Hungary in case of war and demands that Russia stop its mobilization. This does not happen and Germany declares war on Russia.

It soon turns out that Germany also has plans to attack France via neutral Belgium. France mobilizes its army and Germany declares war on the French. England demands that Germany not violate Belgian neutrality. However, the German war plans provide for an advance through Belgium and so England also declares war on Germany. It is now August 4, 1914.

But wait a minute. What could have remained a local conflict has turned into a European war within a month. How could this happen? And who was to blame for this?

Shady diplomatic games

“The Allied governments declare, and Germany acknowledges, that Germany is responsible for all loss and damage suffered by the Allied governments and their subjects as a result of the war imposed on them by German aggression.”

Paragraph 231 of the Versailles peace treaty could not have been clearer about who is to blame for the First World War, which had killed at least 10 million soldiers. Germany alone is to blame for the outbreak of this war, that should be clear. There was therefore no question of negotiations. The German armies were defeated. The delegation was presented with the text and a pen was pressed in their hand.

While Germany experienced a violent revolution between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II, it was – remarkably enough – mainly British historians who tried to nuance Germany's unilateral war guilt. In the 1920s, the idea slowly emerged that not one country, but the "international diplomatic system" was to blame for the outbreak of war. In the years leading up to the war, shadowy diplomatic games created a complex system of alliances. As a result, European countries were obliged to support each other militarily, without the national parliaments being able to exert any influence on this.

During the 1920s, Germany, Austria, the fledgling Soviet Union and England released huge piles of diplomatic traffic. Prominent European historians, led by the British classicist Lowes Dickenson, who wrote ‘The international anarchy 1900-1914’ in 1926. wrote, agreed that diplomacy had failed. It was the first time that European countries released such a large selection of their archives.

Research into European diplomacy before the war became one of the most prestigious fields of research among historians. Only in this way could the deeper cause of the war be found, they thought.

Grab for world power

After the Second World War, the discussion took on a slightly different light. To what extent did the Treaty of Versailles and the unilateral German war debt included therein have to do with the rise of Adolf Hitler?

Was it perhaps the case that the German war objectives in 1914 were not so different from those in 1939? Or in the jargon of historians:is there a continuity between the two world wars? Even German historians after 1945 had no choice but to acknowledge the German debt to the Second World War. However, this was still very sensitive to the debt to WWI.

The Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer therefore had almost the entire German academic world over him when he published the book ‘Griff nach dem Weltmacht’ in 1961. published. According to Fisher, in both 1939 and 1914, Germany wanted only one thing, which was to annex a large part of Europe. Inevitably it followed that in 1914 the German emperor deliberately aimed for a war. There was little difference with Hitler in 1939.

Fischer set out his ideas further in his next book, 'Krieg der Illusionen' (1969), where he came up with the idea that Germany was not so much reacting to a foreign threat (‘Primat der Aussenpolitik’), but rather was driven by domestic political pressure ( 'Primat der Innenpolitik' ), pressure groups and economic interests. Anyway, according to Fisher, Germany was the main culprit in the war.

Inevitable war?

In 1984 the Briton James Joll wrote ‘The origins of the first world war’. Joll was the first to come up with a systematic approach, taking into account all the factors that played a role during the July Crisis of 1914 (and there are many) in his analysis. Joll begins with the actors (government leaders, generals, diplomats) in the weeks in question, and then examines the factors that influenced those decisions, such as diplomacy, the arms race and finally the 'ideas of 1914'

Joll concludes that the room for maneuver for politics was rather limited in 1914. All national and international circumstances had made a major war almost inevitable. The war was a "product of circumstances". He does not point to one main culprit. That seems like a nice, academic and impartial approach from Joll, but not all his colleagues could agree with this.

British aggression

In 1998, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson began to meddle with the causes and guilt of the First World War. Ferguson could be called a "pop star" among historians in America and England. He seems to be able to talk about history in an almost erotic way. In 1998 he published ‘The pity of war’. It was not until 2010 that a Dutch translation appeared under the title The wretched war . According to Ferguson, the war was far from inevitable. And in his eyes the main culprit is not Germany but England!

England and Germany had been close to allying themselves in the years leading up to the war. The only reason this didn't happen was because Germany, unlike France or Russia, posed no threat to the British Empire. Germany lagged far behind England and France in economic and military terms. According to Ferguson, the Germans therefore acted out of despair rather than pride.

The myth that England went to war to defend Belgium's neutrality is also allowed by Ferguson to die in the meat grinder. A neutral Belgium only stood in the way of British foreign policy. In fact, if Germany hadn't violated Belgian neutrality, England would have, he writes.

In a few years it will be a century since the war started. The debate still rages on and historians take completely opposite positions.

Fair accusation?

In 2004, Mark Hewitson, an authority on World War I, concluded after an extensive new study that German leaders did believe they could win a war from both Russia and France. The High Command and Kaiser Wilhelm II therefore deliberately aimed for a war. Via Hewitson, the debt question is returning to where it originally lay after ninety years:with Germany.

The First World War shaped the twentieth century. Even if only because the Second World War stemmed almost directly from the German humiliation at Versailles. But whether the accusations against Germany in 1918 were justified, we may never know for sure.