What were the origins of the war and where does responsibility for its outbreak lie?
The Great War began with the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary against Serbia on July 28, 1914 and continued, despite popular belief that it would be “over by Christmas,” until November 11, 1918. In its wake, the First World War left ten million dead and twenty million wounded out of seventy million men mobilized and an untold number of civilian casualties from more than thirty-two combatant nations. After the war, disease, famine, civil uprisings and economic collapse added to the atmosphere of destruction. For those suffering, such devastation and loss of life required an explanation and a guilty party to take responsibility. The search for the origins of the war and the assignation of responsibility is not only a pursuit for historians, it was vital to the leaders of the nations and their people at the time as well. Even today, experts in foreign policy and international affairs continue to explore the origins of the war alongside historians in an effort to understand how such a war originated and to prevent another like it. Efforts to explain the origins and particularly to place culpability for its start on other nations began even before the war was declared. The leaders of these European nations may have seen the benefit of a war for their own national interests and even actively worked to promote one, but they recognized that their people would be more willing to fight if the war could be portrayed to them as a defensive war rather than one of aggression. With this goal in mind, five of the combatant nations created the “colored books,” collections of highly selective documentation displaying their own innocence in the start of the war and the guilt of their opponents. The German White Book is the most notorious but Austria-Hungary (Red), France (Yellow), Britain (Blue), and Russia (Orange) all created such collections that were often intentionally false but still convincing for the general public of that nation. After the war, an Allied Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcements of Penalties was created. It concluded culpability lay with Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria and led to the signing of treaties punishing these nations, particularly Germany, for causing the war.
Revisionist historians in the latter 1920s began the call to reassess our interpretation of the origin of the war. American historian Sidney Fay argued that all nations of Europe tried to avoid war but all also bear some blame for provoking it. The origin of the war could be found, he explained, in the long-term tensions caused by militarism and the arms race, nationalism and resulting conflicts over territory and control, economic imperialism, the system of entangling alliances, and the breakdown of diplomatic negotiations. Added to this were the immediate causes, the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo, the ultimatum sent to the Serbs in response, the “blank check” of support offered to Austria-Hungary from the Germans, the Russian mobilization of their military followed by the French mobilization, and the English refusal to take sides and therefore deter Austro-Hungarian war against Serbia. These were faults of all the European nations that made them all in some way culpable for the war. In 1967 Fritz Fischer would challenge this assessment that the war was not wanted by any nation and yet caused by all of them by arguing, using new archival evidence and the new perspective on Germany after WWII, that Germany had “willed” a European war and actively provoked a war of aggression to add to her territory. This interpretation continues to dominate the scholarship today but has been nuanced more recently by different approaches to the ongoing debate of where responsibility lies for World War I.
Leopold Baron von Andrian-Werburg, We Started the War (1918)
Leopold Andrian was a diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a trusted advisor of Count Leopold Berchtold who was the Imperial Foreign Minister in the years leading up to World War I. Baron Alexander von Musulin and Alek Hoyos were also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Musulin drafted the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and Hoyos negotiated the “blank check,” promise of military support from Germany in July 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Fritz Szápary delivered the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war to Russia on August 6, 1914.
We started the war, not the Germans and even less the Entente—that I know . . . I have the distinct impression that the war was decided on by that circle of younger talented diplomats who formed Berchtold’s political council, who influenced him strongly and who, if they were—as they were in this case—in agreement, decided things. Musulin, the impetuous chatterbox, who, when the prospects were good in the war, used to call himself ‘the man who caused the war’, Alek Hoyos, Fritz Szápary . . . they made the war. I myself was in lively agreement with the basic idea that only a war could save Austria. As the world situation was then, I am also quite sure that, two or three years later, war for Austria’s existence would have been forced on us by Serbia, Rumania and Russia, and under conditions which would make a successful defense far more difficult than at that time.
1. Who does Leopold Andrian blame for the outbreak of World War I?
2. How does he try to justify Austria’s choice at the end?
a. He believed that war would have been forced on Austria-Hungary later when they were less prepared for it if they hadn’t declared it in 1914.
b. He believed Germany would have continued to push them to enter a war if they had not themselves declared it.
c. He believed they could have secured a lasting peace for the whole region including Romania and Russia had they simply avoided the conflict with Serbia.
3. Why might Musulin have only called himself “the man who caused the war” when “prospects were good in the war”?
a. He only wanted responsibility for the war if it was going well and Austria-Hungary was winning, not if they lost.
b. When policy changed in the middle of the war he no longer recognized his original strategy and therefore distanced himself from its origin
c. He knew that he had not had any role in the origin of the war but he wanted publicity for others’ accomplishments
The Blank Check (1914)
On July 5, Alek Hoyos delivered a letter from Berchtold and Austro-Hungarian emperor Francis Joseph to German Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. The letter blamed the Serbian government for the assassination and asked for military support from Germany, their ally since 1879. The following day, Bethmann-Hollweg telegrammed the German Ambassador at Vienna, Heinrich von Tschirschky, a statement of German support that has become known as the “blank check” for its lack of any limitations on German support of Austria-Hungary’s war aims.
His Majesty sends his thanks to the Emperor Francis Joseph for his letter and would soon answer it personally. In the meantime His Majesty desires to say that he is not blind to the danger which threatens Austria-Hungary and thus the Triple Alliance as a result of the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation. Even though His Majesty is known to feel no unqualified confidence in Bulgaria and her ruler, and naturally inclines more toward our old ally Rumania and her Hohenzollern prince, yet he quite understands that the Emperor Francis Joseph, in view of the attitude of Rumania and of the danger of a new Balkan alliance aimed directly at the Danube Monarchy, is anxious to bring about an understanding between Bulgaria and the Triple alliance . . . His Majesty will, furthermore, make an effort at Bucharest, according to the wishes of the Emperor Francis Joseph, to influence King Carol to the fulfilment of the duties of his alliance, to the renunciation of Serbia, and to the suppression of the Rumanian agitations directed against Austria-Hungary. Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence. The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.
1. In the blank check, who does Bethmann-Hollweg blame for the unrest in Europe after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand?
a. Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation
b. Austrian and German territorial aggression
c. English imperial conquests and industrial competition
2. Which new nation does he understand Austria-Hungary might now want to add to the Triple Alliance?
3. Many historians view this document as evidence of Germany’s culpability for provoking World War I. What line indicates this culpability?
a. “The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship”
b. “As far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.”
c. “His Majesty desires to say that he is not blind to the danger which threatens Austria-Hungary and thus the Triple Alliance as a result of the Russian and Serbian Pan-Slavic agitation.”
Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia, July 23, 1914
After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs drafted an ultimatum blaming the Serb government in Belgrade for supporting the terrorists who carried out the assassination. The ultimatum was sent from Imperial Foreign Minister Berchtold to the Austro-Hungarian diplomat in Belgrade, Baron Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, with instructions to deliver it to the Serbian government on July 23. The ultimatum demanded Serbia punish all associated with the assassination and quash all nationalist and anti-Austrian propaganda and organizations like Narodna Odbrana, a paramilitary organization created to protest the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia in 1908. The Serb government was given forty-eight hours to respond or risk declaration of war.
Now the history of the past few years, and particularly the painful events of the 28th of June, have proved the existence of a subversive movement in Serbia, whose object it is to separate certain portions of its territory from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This movement, which came into being under the very eyes of the Serbian Government, subsequently found expression outside of the territory of the Kingdom in acts of terrorism, in a number of attempts at assassination, and in murders.
. . . The Royal Serbian Government has done nothing to suppress this movement. It has tolerated the criminal activities of the various unions and associations directed against the Monarchy, the unchecked utterances of the press, the glorification of the authors of assassinations, the participation of officers and officials in subversive intrigues; it has tolerated an unhealthy propaganda in its public instruction; and it has tolerated, finally, every manifestation which could betray the people of Serbia into hatred of the Monarchy and contempt for its institutions. This toleration of which the Royal Serbian Government was guilty, was still in evidence at that moment when the events of the twenty-eighth of June exhibited to the whole world the dreadful consequences of such tolerance. It is clear from the statements and confessions of the criminal authors of the assassination of the twenty-eighth of June, that the murder at Sarajevo was conceived at Belgrade, that the murderers received the weapons and the bombs with which they were equipped from Serbian officers and officials who belonged to the Narodna Odbrana, and, finally, that the dispatch of the criminals and of their weapons to Bosnia was arranged and effected under the conduct of Serbian frontier authorities. The results brought out by the inquiry no longer permit the Imperial and Royal Government to maintain the attitude of patient tolerance which it has observed for years toward those agitations which center at Belgrade and are spread thence into the territories of the Monarchy. Instead, these results impose upon the Imperial and Royal Government the obligation to put an end to those intrigues, which constitute a standing menace to the peace of the Monarchy. In order to attain this end, the Imperial and Royal Government finds itself compelled to demand that the Serbian Government give official assurance that it will condemn the propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary.
1. Who does the ultimatum blame for the outbreak of war?
c. Austrian Royal Government
2. Why does Austria-Hungary blame the Royal Serbian government for the assassination?
a. It has not suppressed the nationalist movements and it has allowed nationalist utterances in the press.
b. It has glorified the assassins and allowed its officials to participate in subversive intrigues
c. It has provided weapons to the Black Hand and planned the assassination attempt
d. All of the above ms
3. What specific evidence of governmental support does it say it has obtained from its inquiry into the assassination?
a. The assassins confessed to getting bombs and weapons from Serbian officials
b. The assassination was conceived at Belgrade, the political capital of Serbia
c. The Serbian government has officially accepted responsibility for the attack on June 28
d. A and B are correct ms
Telegram July 29 from Sazonov to Isvolsky (1914)
Sergei Sazonov was the Russian Foreign Minister in the years leading up to World War I. Alexander Isvolsky was the Russian ambassador to France and also responsible for maintaining a strong Russian–British alliance. Supposedly Isvolsky cried out at the news of the outbreak of World War I, “C’est ma guerre!” [“This is my war!”] A flurry of telegrams were sent between Russia and Germany during the days after Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia July 28 and Germany’s declaration of war on Russia August 1. This telegram reflects the Russian reaction to German demands to demobilize.
The German Ambassador today informed me of the decision of his Government to mobilize, if Russia did not stop her military preparations. Now, in point of fact, we only began these preparations in consequence of the mobilization already undertaken by Austria, and owing to her evident unwillingness to accept any means of arriving at a peaceful settlement of her dispute with Serbia. As we cannot comply with the wishes of Germany, we have no alternative but to hasten our own military preparations and to assume that war is probably inevitable. Please inform the French Government of this, and add that we are sincerely grateful to them for the declaration which the French Ambassador made to me on their behalf, to the effect that we could count fully upon the assistance of our ally, France. In the existing circumstances, that declaration is especially valuable to us. It would be extremely desirable if England were also without delay to align herself with France and Russia, since only in this manner could she succeed in preventing a dangerous disturbance of the balance of power in Europe.
1. Who does Sazanov blame for Russia’s decision to mobilize?
a. Austria because Austria mobilized against Serbia first.
b. Serbia because Serbia requested their assistance against Austrian aggression
c. Germany because German support for Austria required Russian support for Serbia
2. What does Sazanov admit continued Russian mobilization will lead to?
a. War will be inevitable if mobilization continues.
b. Russian mobilization will frighten Austria and deter further conflict
c. If Russian mobilization continues it will force England to enter the war
3. How does he describe the French declaration of support for her Russian ally?
a. The declaration said that Russia could count fully upon the assistance of their ally, France with no stipulations.
b. The declaration promised support for Russia but only if Russia were fighting a defensive war.
c. The declaration promised Russia support if Russia were to engage against Germany, but not if the war was only against Austria.
4. Why does he say that England must get involved too?
a. England must join to prevent a dangerous disturbance of the balance of power in Europe.
b. England must get involved to protect her colonial empire overseas.
c. England must get involved to protect the Belgian neutrality that Germany has violated.
Annika Mambauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (London: Longman, 2002) 22–33.
Annika Mambauer is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Open University in Great Britain. Her other books include a study on Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War.
Attempts to allocate blame for the outbreak of war in 1914 began even before the fighting had started. Understandably, all governments emphasized the defensive nature of their actions. For all combatant nations, it was imperative that their own population felt they were fighting a just and justified war, in which they were defending their country against an aggressive enemy. . . .
In Vienna the ‘disguise’ of an ultimatum to the government in Belgrade, worded to be deliberately unacceptable, attempted to put the blame for the outbreak of the war on Serbia. In Britain, France, Belgium, and Russia, people were in no doubt that the aggressors had been located in Berlin and Vienna, while their own nations were either defending themselves, as in the case of Russia, France and Belgium, or were coming to the rescue of a weaker neighbor and the defense of their alliance partners, as in the case of Britain. . . . Stating and proving one’s innocence in bringing about the war was of crucial importance both before and during the war, and was not just a product of the postwar peace agreement.
Conscious efforts were made in Berlin to make Germany appear threatened and ultimately attacked, with Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg blaming Russia for the escalation of the crisis. . . . When war had become a reality, the chief of the Kaiser’s navy cabinet, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, recorded in his diary: ‘Brilliant mood. The government has succeeded very well in making us appear as the attacked.’ . . .
Given the general conviction on all sides that the opponents had caused the war, and given the length and severity of the conflict, it was naturally becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to have a dispassionate debate about its origins. . . .
The Allies’ assumption of German guilt was transferred straight to the conference table once the war had come to an end. With relatively little actual evidence to back their claim, the victors agreed quickly in their decision on war guilt, blaming Germany and her allies for the war . . .
. . . It was with the Treaty of Versailles that the real need for explaining the origins of the First World War arose, and that the debate which was to continue for almost the rest of the century began in earnest.
1. What does Mambauer say about when the effort to place and avoid blame for the war started?
a. It began even before the fighting started.
b. It began when both sides tried to encourage the US to enter.
c. It began with historians debating the question as soon as the war ended.
2. Why was the question of origin of the war so important to argue at the beginning of the war?
a. Each country’s people needed to be convinced they were fighting a defensive war against an aggressor.
b. It was important to show Germany as the primary aggressor since they were the country that would be primarily punished.
c. As the historians began writing the history of the war, the first question they had to explain was why it had started.
3. Why was it important after the war ended?
a. The death and destruction needed to be paid for and the cost would fall on those who were blamed for starting the war.
b. The Allies argued Germany had caused the war since they planned to cripple the German ability to make war in the future with the Versailles Treaty.
c. It was important for the guilty party to be identified since they would most likely be the primary aggressor in the next war too.
d. A and B are correct ms
4. What does Müller’s diary entry suggest about the origins of the war?
a. Germany helped provoke the war but successfully convinced its people that they were the ones who had been attacked.
b. Austria was the true cause of the war but they shifted the blame to Germany.
c. Serbia was the true cause of the war and the Allies were right to place all the blame with their government officials.
Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1967).
Fritz Fischer is recognized as one of the leading German historians of World War I and his book Germany’s Aims in the First World War was one of the most controversial on the topic. His analysis completely overturned the interpretation of Sidney Fay, popular since the 1930s, that all the nations of Europe bore responsibility for the war and that Germany had been a victim of her alliances and had tried to prevent war through diplomatic channels in the weeks of the July crisis. Although Fischer blames German aggression for World War I, he was a patriotic German and fought in World War II for the Nazis (he resigned from the Nazi Party in 1942 despite personal risk in doing so). He was a professor at the University of Hamburg after the war and remained in Germany until his death in 1999.
There is no question but that the conflict of military and political interests, of resentment and ideas, which found expression in the July crisis, left no government of any of the European powers quite free of some measure of responsibility—greater or smaller—for the outbreak of the war in one respect or another. It is, however, not the purpose of this work to enter into the familiar controversy . . . over the question of war guilt . . .
. . . We are concerned solely with the German leaders’ objectives and with the policy actually followed by them in the July crisis, and that only in so far as their policy throws light on the postulates and origins of Germany’s war aims.
. . . As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and, in her confidence in her military superiority, deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of general war in 1914. This responsibility is not diminished by the fact that at the last moment Germany tried to arrest the march of destiny, for her efforts to influence Vienna were due exclusively to the threat of British intervention and, even so, they were half-hearted, belated, and immediately revoked.
It is true that German politicians and publicists…have invariably maintained that the war was forced on Germany or at least . . . that Germany’s share of the responsibility was no greater than that of the other participants. But confidential exchanges between Germany and Austria, and between the responsible figures in Germany itself . . . throw a revealing spotlight on the real responsibility.
A few weeks after the outbreak of war . . . the Austrians asked urgently for German help against the superior Russian armies facing them. It was refused. Count Tisza then advised Berchtold to tell the Germans: “That we took our decision to go to war on the strength of the express statements both of the German emperor and of the German Imperial Chancellor that they regarded the moment as suitable and would be glad if we showed ourselves in earnest.”. . .
The official documents afford ample proofs that during the July crisis the Emperor, the German military leaders and the Foreign Ministry were pressing Austria-Hungary to strike against Serbia without delay.
1. What does Fischer say initially about the origins of World War I?
a. Every country bears some responsibility for its outbreak.
b. Only Serbia and Austria should bear any blame for World War I.
c. The war was accidental and inevitable and therefore no country bears the blame for its origin.
2. How does he describe Germany’s role?
a. Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and deliberately faced war with Russia and France therefore they bear a substantial share of the responsibility for the war.
b. Germany had offered the support for Austria as required by their alliance but they were then pulled into a war they did not want to fight.
c. Germany was looking for a way to strike against Serbia and end their petty quarrels once and for all with a major offensive.
3. Why does he not believe Germany’s negotiations for peace in the last days of July rid her of her responsibility?
a. Germany’s negotiations to find a peace were half-hearted, belated, and immediately revoked
b. Even though Germany was desperately trying to find a peaceful solution and avoid the war, it does not erase the blame they bear for its origin.
c. The German efforts to find a peaceful solution were not successful despite their best efforts therefore they must still be held accountable for the war.
4. What does Fischer say Count Tisza, Prime Minister of Hungary, believed was the reason Austria-Hungary declared war?
a. Because both the German emperor and the German Imperial Chancellor encouraged them to go to war
b. Because their anger with Serbia over the assassination was so great that they felt obligated to declare war.
c. Because they believed that the war would remain contained and that Serbia would be their only opponent.
Keir Lieber, “The New History of World War I and What It Means for International Relations Theory,” International Security 32, no. 2 (Fall, 2007) 155–91.
Keir A. Lieber is Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His work explores the causes of war, international relations theory, deterrence, nuclear weapons, and US foreign policy.
Most scholars acknowledge Germany’s key role in the outbreak of the war and assign Germany a greater share of the blame, though almost always in qualified terms. For example, the common account holds that German leaders preferred a local war in the Balkans and may have been willing to risk a continental war against France and Russia, but they never sought or expected a broader European war involving Great Britain. Similarly, international relations scholars often state that the Germans . . . were unprepared and overwhelmed by crisis escalation dynamics on the eve of war and did not expect the cataclysm that ensued.
Newly available primary source material challenges many of the long-held assumptions about the origins of World War I . . . The evidence suggests that German leaders went to war in 1914 with eyes wide open. They provoked a war to achieve their goal of dominating the European continent, and did so aware that the coming conflict would almost certainly be long and bloody. They neither misjudged the nature of modern military technology nor attacked out of fear of Germany’s enemies moving first. . . .
. . . The German innocence campaign gained ground in the interwar period in part due to the work of the American revisionist Sidney Fay, who argued that no one country was to blame for war, and Harry Barnes, who portrayed Russia and France as the aggressors and Germany and Austria-Hungary as the victims. . . . By the 1930s, the consensus view in much of Europe held that no country wanted war in 1914 and that all the major powers deserved blame for allowing the diplomatic crisis that summer to escalate out of control.
Two hugely controversial books by Fritz Fischer, however, challenged this consensus. . . . Germany’s Aims in the First World War argued that World War I was a war of aggression engineered by Germany. German leaders not only willed a local war in the Balkans but also launched a “grab for world power” [Weltpolitik] that would likely result in a wider European war. . . .
The newest evidence about decision making during the July crisis, however, suggests that German leaders did not lose control of events on the eve of war, but rather capitalized on what they viewed as a golden opportunity to start the war they wanted.
1. What does Lieber say most scholars believe about Germany’s initial expectations for the scope of the war?
a. They wanted a limited war in the Balkans.
b. They knew they risked war against France and Russia.
c. They did not expect war with Great Britain too.
d. All of the above MS
2. How does he say the most recent research views their entry into war?
a. They went into the war with their eyes wide open knowing the war would be long and bloody.
b. They were caught off guard and did not expect a war with any powers other than Serbia.
c. They assumed the war would be over within six months and that only a few combatant nations would be involved.
3. What does he say was Fay’s original thesis?
a. That no one country was responsible for the war.
b. That Germany bore full responsibility for the start of the war.
c. That only Serbia should be blamed for the war.
4. What was Barnes’s thesis?
a. He showed Russia and France as the aggressors.
b. He showed Germany and Austria-Hungary as the victims.
c. He showed France and England as the victims.
d. A and B are correct ms
5. How did Fischer challenge that interpretation?
a. Fisher argued that World War I was a war of aggression engineered by Germany to gain control of Europe.
b. Fisher argued that World War I was the result of every country of Europe intentionally provoking hostilities for their own benefit.
c. Fisher argued that World War I was an inevitable result of the build up of weaponry and the competition for colonies in Europe.
Dominic Tierney, “Does Chain-Ganging Cause the Outbreak of War?,” International Studies Quarterly 55, no. 2 (June 2011) 285–304.
Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. In the past ten years, he has published four books on international politics, history, and warfare. His work in this article challenges the perception of World War I as a result of entangling alliances and sees the war instead as provoked and intentional.
States have often feared that alliances could entrap them into unwanted wars . . . [that] when “one member of the chain gang stumbles off the precipice, the other must follow.”
Does chain-ganging cause the outbreak of war? The short answer is no, or at least not very often. The logic underpinning realist chain-ganging theory is unconvincing, and the paradigmatic case—World War I—is not an instance of chain-ganging as a cause of war. The chain-ganging metaphor is quite apt: allies in hardened coalitions act as if they were members of a chain gang, with their destinies tied together. . . .
According to realist scholars, World War I was the product of a spiral effect arising from chain-ganging. The fear that an ally would defect or be defeated led states to make unconditional commitments, which ultimately forced them into war, against their broader interests. Waltz suggests that “If Austria Hungary marched, Germany had to follow: the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have left Germany alone in the middle of Europe. If France marched, Russia had to follow; a German victory over France would be a defeat for Russia. And so it was all around the vicious circle.” . . .
The war began, not as a result of chain-ganging, but because of coordinated aggression by Germany and Austria-Hungary. The latest historical research on the origins of World War I is inconsistent with the chain-ganging hypothesis. Since the 1960s, historians have moved away from the notion that there was “slide to war” despite the peaceful motives of the great powers, and now favor an interpretation that Germany and Austria-Hungary deliberately orchestrated the conflict.
Far from being chain-ganged into fighting, Austria-Hungary intentionally unleashed war. Almost as soon as Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, Austrian officials determined that this was the moment to settle decisively with its enemy Serbia. . . . The subsequent ultimatum to Serbia delivered on July 23 was designed to be unacceptable, and therefore provide a pretext for invasion. As Hamilton and Herwig conclude, “in July 1914 Austria-Hungary’s leaders were the first to opt for war, and they did so with plan and foresight.” . . .
. . . Without backing from Germany, Austria “could not have moved to war”. Decision makers in Berlin did not employ their veto because they believed that Germany’s broader interests were served by war.
1. What is chain ganging?
a. A system of alliances where if one nation goes to war the others must follow.
b. A system for assigning guilt and criminality to countries after a war.
c. A method of bringing in a larger power to help fight a war the way Serbia did with Russia.
2. How do realist scholars connect chain-ganging to World War I?
a. They claim that Germany had to support Austria-Hungary and Russia had to support France.
b. They claim that Serbia had to attack Austria and that Russia should not have supported them.
c. They claim England was required to support Belgian neutrality but France should not have mobilized against Germany.
3. Does Tierney agree that the war was the result of chain ganging?
a. No. Tierney says the war began due to coordinated aggression by Germany and Austria-Hungary not chain-ganging.
b. Yes. Tierney says the chain reaction of the alliances was a major contributing factor in the origin of the war.
c. Yes Tierney says the war was only the result of Serbian terrorism and Russian mobilization in support.
4. What does he argue about the origins of the war and the culpable parties?
a. Germany and Austria-Hungary intentionally orchestrated the conflict.
b. Serbia intended a European-wide war and provoked Austria to get it.
c. France and England desperately attempted to bring about a peaceful negotiation.
Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011) 1-5 and 242-243.
Sean McMeekin taught in Turkey as an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Russian Studies at Bilkent University in Ankara and in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities of Koç University in Istanbul . He is now professor of history at Bard College .
It has been fifty years since the publication of Fritz Fischer’s . . . Germany’s Aims in the First World War . . . and, judging by the Fischer-esque tone of a recent boomlet in popular books on the First World War, historians are still in Fischer’s shadow, massaging the same basic argument about German responsibility for the conflict. . . . Histories of the war’s outbreak still invariably focus on decision making in Berlin. . . . As for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honor, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.
. . . From the perspective of [the former Ottoman empire], the First World War appears. . . like a deliberate plot to disrupt and dismantle the last great Islamic power on Earth, Ottoman Turkey. . . .
This is the story told in the records of the Imperial Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a story that has been hiding in plain sight. . . Drawing on these materials . . . I contend in this book that the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny. The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s. . . .
There was no mystery about Russia’s war aims against the Ottoman Empire. . . . The Straits question, long a delicate business for Russia’s diplomats in dealings with her jealous allies was now fair game. The Bosphorus, Constantinople, and the Dardanelles were nearly in Russia’s grasp: the only question was when they would be seized from the Turks, and by whom. . . .
The Russian statesmen who helped plunge Europe into war have entirely escaped the opprobrium which has been showered on their German counterparts ever since 1918. . . . These men . . . chose consciously to mobilize Russia’s colossal armies in full knowledge that they were risking war with Germany by doing so. . . . Neither a deliberate German plot nor an avoidable accident, the First World War was the inexorable culmination of a burgeoning imperial rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia in the Near East, each lured in its own way down the dangerous path of expansionist war by the decline of the Ottoman power.
1. What does McMeekin criticize about most recent histories of the origins of World War I?
a. They still focus on German and Austro-Hungarian war aims thanks to Fisher’s book.
b. They still put most of the emphasis on the Allied war effort rather than the Central Powers.
c. They still focus too much on the Russian and Serbian war aims instead of placing blame on Germany.
2. What does he focus on instead?
a. He argues the war was more the result of Russia’s war aims against the Ottoman Empire than the war aims of Germany or Austria-Hungary.
b. He argues that Russia was attempting to avoid a European war and made strong efforts to negotiate a peace.
c. He argues that the war was primarily instigated by the Western powers including England and France and Germany.
3. What did Russia want out of the war?
a. Russia wanted to take control of the Bosphorus, Constantinople, and the Dardanelles from the Ottoman Empire.
b. Russia wanted to support Serbia’s conquest of Bosnia.
c. Russia wanted to take some of the German colonies in the Pacific.
History Through Literature
Heinrich Mann, The Patrioteer tr. Ernest Boyd (New York: Harcourt, 1921).
Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan, translated as The Straw Man or The Patrioteer was completed during the July crisis of 1914 but not published until after the war. The main character, Deiderich Hessling is a fool whose obedience to and adoration of the German Kaiser, the German army, and German nationalism is so extreme it is ridiculous.
Diederich . . . made a speech in which he touched upon the difficulties with which the new Army Bill was meeting in the Reichstag. “Our sharp sword alone” cried Diederich “assures our place in the world and his Majesty the Emperor appeals to us to keep it sharp. When the Emperor commands it will fly from its sheath! These politician fellows, who want to butt in with their talk had better take care that they are not the first to feel it. You cannot fool with his Majesty, gentlemen, I can tell you that!”
. . . The following evening at the gala performance at the theater the Emperor looked more serious than usual. Diederich noticed it, and said to Guste: Now I know why I spent our good money coming here. Just watch, this will be an historic occasion!” His premonition did not deceive him. The evening papers spread round the theater, and it was learned that the Emperor was going away that night, that he had dissolved the Reichstag. Diederich, no less serious than the Emperor, explained the significance of the event to everyone near him. The revolutionaries had voted against the Army Bill. The patriotic parties were entering into a life and death struggle for their Emperor! He himself was returning home on the next train, he assured them. . .
For a long time he could not sleep for excitement. Guste snored peaceably on his shoulder while Diederich, as the train roared through the night, remembered how at that very moment, on another line, the Emperor himself was being carried by a train which roared similarly towards the same goal. The Emperor and Diederich were having a race! And, as Diederich had more than once been privileged to utter thoughts which seemed in some mystic way to coincide with those of the All-Highest, perhaps at that hour his majesty knew of Diederich, knew that his loyal servant was crossing the alps by his side, in order to show these degenerate Latins what loyalty to king and country means.
1. What does Diederich say about the German military by defending the Army Bill that is before the Reichstag for a vote?
a. That the German military might (sword) staying strong is the only reason Germany keeps its position in the world.
b. That the German military is humiliated in front of the world and must be publicly defended by its own legislative body.
c. That the German military is too afraid to go to war unless the legislative body forces it to go.
2. What does he learn has happened to the bill while at the theater?
a. It was voted down.
b. It was passed.
c. It will be sent to the general public to break the tie.
3. What did the Kaiser do in response and how does Diederich feel about this?
a. The Kaiser dissolved the Reichstag and Diederich is excited by this.
b. The Kaiser left the theater early and Diederich is disappointed in him for this.
c. The Kaiser declared war on France and Diederich is worried he will be drafted.
4. After reading the last section about the train, how does Diederich seem to feel about the Kaiser?
a. He is almost fanatically devoted to him
b. He identifies himself as a loyal servant of the Kaiser.
c. He imagines they understand one another’s thoughts.
d. All of the above ms
5. How do you think Mann felt about the Kaiser, the support for the army, and extreme German nationalism?
a. He finds it all foolish and laughable
b. He agrees with Diederich.
c. He wants all Germans to feel as Diederich does.
John Masefield, “August, 1914” (1914)
John Masefield was a British poet and writer who was named British Poet Laureate in 1930. His poem “August, 1914” was written in August 1914 and reflected both the patriotism for home country and the loss that war would involve. Masefield was not accepted into the military initially but was later accepted into the Reserves and served in battle with the Red Cross.
These homes, this valley spread below me here, The rooks, the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen, Have been the heartfelt things, past-speaking dear To unknown generations of dead men,
Who, century after century, held these farms, And, looking out to watch the changing sky, Heard, as we hear, the rumours and alarms Of war at hand and danger pressing nigh.
And knew, as we know, that the message meant The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends, Death, like a miser getting in his rent, And no new stones laid where the trackway ends.
The harvest not yet won, the empty bin, The friendly horses taken from the stalls, The fallow on the hill not yet brought in, The cracks unplastered in the leaking walls.
Yet heard the news, and went discouraged home, And brooded by the fire with heavy mind, With such dumb loving of the Berkshire loam As breaks the dumb hearts of the English kind,
Then sadly rose and left the well-loved Downs, And so by ship to sea, and knew no more The fields of home, the byres, the market towns, Nor the dear outline of the English shore,
But knew the misery of the soaking trench, The freezing in the rigging, the despair In the revolting second of the wrench When the blind soul is flung upon the air,
And died (uncouthly, most) in foreign lands For some idea but dimly understood Of an English city never built by hands Which love of England prompted and made good.
1. What have previous generations of British citizens also faced?
a. The threat of war and possibility of death.
b. Loss of territory and economic collapse.
c. A decision about whether to go to war against Germany and Austria.
2. How have they reacted to the news initially?
a. They have gone home sadly to brood on leaving their homes.
b. They have gladly marched off to war.
c. They have rioted and refused to serve.
3. What do they know they must do despite this initial reaction?
a. They must go fight in the trenches and at sea.
b. They must refuse to serve in order to stop the carnage of war.
c. They must become extreme nationalists .
4. What will happen to many of those who go?
a. They will lose their lives for a cause they don’t fully understand because they love their country.
b. They will learn exactly why they are called to fight and will take up arms willingly.
c. They will become pacifists and anti-war protestors after the war ends.
H. G. Wells The War That Will End War (1914)
H. G. Wells, popular English author of novels like The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds, wrote a series of articles in 1914 that were eventually gathered into a book called The War That Will End War.
We find ourselves at war with that huge military empire with which we have been doing our best to keep the peace since first it rose upon the ruins of French Imperialism in 1871. And war is mortal conflict. We have now either to destroy or be destroyed. We have not sought this reckoning, we have done our utmost to avoid it ; but now that it has been forced upon us it is imperative that it should be a thorough reckoning. This is a war that touches every man and every home in each of the combatant countries. It is a war, as Mr. Sidney Low has said, not of soldiers but of whole peoples. And it is a war that must be fought to such a finish that every man in each of the nations engaged understands what has happened. There can be no diplomatic settlement that will leave German Imperialism free to explain away its failure to its people and start new preparations. We have to go on until we are absolutely done for, or until the Germans as a people know that they are beaten, and are convinced that they have had enough of war.
We are fighting Germany. But we are fighting without any hatred of the German people. We do not intend to destroy either their freedom or their unity. But we have to destroy an evil system of government. . . .
And never was war begun so joylessly, and never was war begun with so grim a/ resolution. In England, France, Belgium, Russia, there is no thought of glory.
We know we face unprecedented slaughter and agonies ; we know that for neither side will there be easy triumphs or prancing victories. Already, in that warring sea of men, there is famine as well as hideous butchery, and soon there must come disease. . . .Through this war we have to march, through pain, through agonies of the spirit worse than pain, through seas of blood and filth.
I find myself enthusiastic for this war against Prussian militarism. We are, I believe, assisting at the end of a vast, intolerable oppression upon civilisation. We are fighting to release Germany and all the world from the superstition that brutality and cynicism are the methods of success, that Imperialism is better than free citizenship and conscripts better soldiers than free men.
1. How is Germany depicted in HG Wells’ novel?
a. A huge military empire that has been gaining strength since 1871.
b. A generally peaceful nation that is more focused on industry than expansion.
c. A nation whose aim is to gain more overseas colonies rather than European territory.
2. Why can there not be a diplomatic end to the conflict now?
a. Only a military defeat will prevent Germany from starting preparation for another war.
b. No one is interested in solving the crisis peacefully because all nations hope to benefit territorially at the end of the war.
c. Once a nation declares war the other nations are obligated by their alliances to enter the fray even if they disagree.
3. How does Wells describe the coming war?
a. There will not be glory, there will be slaughter and agony, butchery and disease.
b. The war will rejuvenate nations and revitalize the youth.
c. The war will bring economic benefits and solve the colonial disputes of the last century.
4. Why is he enthusiastic despite knowing what the war will be like?
a. He believes by defeating Germany they are bringing to an end the German’s intolerable oppression upon civilization and freeing its people.
b. He believes that this war will be the war to end all wars and that no European nations will engage in armed conflict afterward.
c. He believes it is necessary for the people of every nation to be reminded of the horrors of war so that they are not so eager to start another in the future.
Visual Source Materials
Destruction of Serb Property
Immediately after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian government encouraged a series of anti-Serb riots in its territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina that resulted in two deaths and destruction of property. This photo shows the destruction of Serb property in Sarajevo, now Bosnia. Over 5,000 Serbs would be arrested and hundreds executed in the weeks that followed. In early 1914 the soldiers and the general public believed the war would be over quickly.
1. What does this image of destroyed Serbian property indicate about how Austria-Hungary viewed the assassination?
a. They believed it was a result of widespread Serbian nationalism and Serb government support.
b. They believed it was the result of a small terrorist cell, not supported by the general Serbian people or its government.
c. They used the assassination as an excuse to annex Serbia.
2. What might it also say about the relationship between the Serb and non-Serb population of these Balkan territories like Bosnia?
a. Relationships between the two groups were already tense and easily turned to violence.
b. The Balkans had seen centuries of peace before the 1914 provocation by Austria.
c. The non-Serbs had been persecuted as a minority population by the Serbs.
German Reservists Traveling to the Western Front, 1914
The graffiti on the train car says “trip to Paris,” “see you soon on the Boulevard” and “my sword tip is itching.”
1. What does the graffiti on the train car indicate about how German soldiers and the general public saw the coming war?
a. It would be an exciting adventure.
b. It would be over quickly.
c. It would end with victory for Germany.
d. All of the above ms
2. How does this conflict with what Lieber says about how the German leadership understood the coming war?
a. Lieber says the German government knew the war would be long and devastating when they started it.
b. Lieber says Germany did not want to be involved in the war and actively attempted to negotiate a peace to avoid it.
c. Lieber says Germany was pushing for a war because they believed it would revitalize the country and be over quickly.
John T. McCutcheon, “The Crime of the Ages–Who Did it?”
The political cartoon from the Chicago Tribune shows the shared desire among the combatant nations to shift blame to their opponents.
1. What does the political cartoon suggest about how each nation saw the origin of the war?
a. They all argued it was their opponent’s fault.
b. No one was clear about who had started it.
c. Each one wanted to take credit for starting the war.
2. What is lying in the background and what has happened to it?
a. The peace of Europe has been killed with a sword.
b. A statue of America that Europe has toppled over.
c. A woman representing the home front that is forgotten by soldiers at war.
3. Who is Germany pointing to?
4. Who does Serbia blame?
c. The Black Hand
5. What is Italy doing and why?
a. They are refusing to point because they are withdrawing from the alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.
b. They are sneaking away since they are the only ones intelligent enough to avoid the war entirely.
c. They are moving closer to England and France since they plan on joining the Allies soon.
The cartoon of the Emperor stubbing his toe on the rock comes from the British journal Punch August 2, 1911 and came with the caption: “Solid. Germany: “Donnerwetter! It’s rock. I thought it was going to be paper.”
1. What does the Punch cartoon of the German Emperor suggest he assumed about the Entente?
a. It was just an agreement on paper
b. It would not present any real resistance to his aggression.
c. It would be dangerous and destroy his empire
d. A and B are correct ms
“Remember Belgium, Buy Bonds”  and A. B. Walker Cartoon (1915)
The US propaganda poster invokes the “Rape of Belgium” to call for support for the war. The second image—from Life magazine—depicts the popular myth that German soldiers were bayonetting babies as part of their atrocities in Belgium.
1. How do the two propaganda images justify France and England’s involvement in WWI?
a. France and England claimed they needed to defend Belgium against German atrocities.
b. France and England argued Germany was an aggressor against Serbia and had to be stopped.
c. France and England warned that the German birthrate was increasing while other nations’ birthrates were declining
2. Why are the Germans depicted this way?
a. It makes them seem aggressive, inhumane and barbaric.
b. It makes them seem strong and responsible leaders of Europe
c. It suggests that Germany is only a threat to Belgium, not France or England
3. Why is Belgium depicted as a woman in one image and infants in the other?
a. To show Belgium as vulnerable, innocent, and in need of protection
b. To show that Belgium didn’t have a strong army or any men to defend it
c. To show that Belgium had not protected its women and children from the war
History and the Other Disciplines: Education and Textbooks
Charles Jelavich, “The Issue of Serbian Textbooks in the Origins of World War I” Slavic Review, 48: 2 (Summer, 1989), 214–33.
In the excerpt below, Jelavich explains the importance that education and specifically the textbooks and readers used in classrooms had in the origins of World War. Why does he say that these textbooks were causing tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia? What evidence indicates how seriously leaders in the Austro-Hungarian empire took these textbooks? What does this say about the power of education and the way in which it can be biased?
Geography and history textbooks used in Serbia contributed to the origins of World War I in probably the first instance in which one country used the contents of textbooks as one of its justifications for declaring war on another. Much has been published about Austro-Hungarian reactions to provocative statements by prominent individuals in Serbian newspapers and journals; however, no study has been made of the textbooks to which reference is made in the Habsburg ultimatum of 23 July 1914. The ultimatum listed ten specific demands. . . Point three, which is the focus of this study, called for the elimination “without delay from public instruction in Serbia both as regards the teaching body and the methods of instruction, all that serves or might serve to foment propaganda against Austria- Hungary.”
. . . With this agreement Serbia would permit Austria-Hungary to dictate its educational policies and to prescribe how Serbian history should be taught. Specific textbook references to Serbian lands under Austro-Hungarian rule and their place in the future unification of the Serbian nation, the major Serbian goal since 1804, would have to be eliminated.
. . . The textbook stated that “not even one-third of the nation was free and united. Our thirteen lands belong to four different states. The liberation and unification of our people is hindered by the enemy who wishes to keep them under their control; in some places we hinder one another because of a lack of unity. Until recently the Serbs and Croats hated each other as enemies. Austria was pleased that these two brother nations quarreled so that she could rule over them more easily, hence she abetted this discord.”
. . . The implications of the volume were clear. Austria-Hungary was depicted as the real enemy of the Serbian nation; it was the power that held “our people” in bondage. . . . Serbia was to be the nucleus of southern Slavic unification, a goal that, of course, threatened the territorial integrity of the monarchy.
. . . More important, however, is that the issue of textbooks became a part of Hapsburg diplomatic communications during the crisis following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, when the authorities were assembling material to justify their ultimatum. On 6 July 1914, Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, sent a telegram to Storck, instructing him . . . to obtain Serbian schoolbooks and have them examined as soon as possible for their Greater Serbian or anti-Austro-Hungarian content.
Historical Thinking Prompts
1. What were the origins of World War I? How did contemporaries of the war try to explain its origin and how have those accounts been supported or refuted by later scholars? Use several primary and scholarly documents from this collection in your response.
2. How do Tierney, Lieber and Fischer all agree on the origins of the war? How do their assessments of origins differ from that of McMeekin? What evidence do they provide for their assessment? Do any of the primary sources seem to indicate where the origins of World War lie?
3. What does Mambauer say about how the participating nations explained the origins of World War? How is this approach to the question different from that of Tierney, Lieber, Fischer and McMeekin? What evidence does she provide that supports Tierney, Lieber, and Fischer? How, according to Mambauer, would the small selection of primary sources for this textbook affect our understanding of origins?
4. How do the works of literature suggest the different ways the general public viewed the coming of war? How do the visual sources suggest people viewed the war?
5. How does Jelavich’s essay on education and textbooks indicate one of the origins of war?