The First World War, for many years known as the Great War, or even European War, raged for four years; it devastated parts of Western Europe, destroyed three Empires, killed 9 million men and caused feelings of such bitterness and resentment that attempts were made to find a scapegoat who could be made responsible for the grotesque losses. This scapegoat was Germany, who was made to sign the Versailles Treaty with its war-guilt clause, placing the blame for the war squarely on Germany’s shoulders. In many ways, the posturings, ambitions, and sheer recklessness of Germany’s governments, and most particularly the Kaiser himself, created an atmosphere in which war could easily break out.
The Kaiser was a young man with a mission to prove to his European cousins and neighbours that his country was a first-class world power, ready and able to take its place in events on the world stage. The dramatic increase in Germany’s industrial strength enabled her to embark on grandiose schemes that brought her into direct conflict with her neighbours.
The Franco-Prussian war of 1870 had been a foretaste of what German military might could perpetrate on Europe. The so-called Naval Race with Britain, was part of the Kaiser’s personal ambition to challenge the supremacy of GB on the world’s oceans. His meddling in the affairs of Morocco on two separate occasions brought him into conflict with France, antagonised other nations with his bullying tactics, and achieved a remarkable Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, which saw them enter into amicable and fateful collaboration in the years that preceded 1914.
The Kaiser inherited a legacy of European tension from Bismarck, caused through his system of alliances.. Bismarck, a wily master of diplomacy, sought ways to prevent an encirclement of Germany by a series of treaties which committed Russia, Austria and Italy to mutual friendship and support in times of trouble. However, instead of creating a climate of peace, his secretive dealings created suspicion and mistrust of Germany’s motives and this lack of openness was to have disastrous consequences when more serious issues were at stake following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
As Liddell Hart has stated, it was the weaknesses of the participants that caused war rather than their strengths. Apart from Turkey, known for its terminal signs of decay as the Old Man of Europe, Germany’s other main ally in the war was Austria-Hungary. Here too, the aspirations for national independence were battering this once mighty power. Forced to concede equal partnership to Hungary 50 years previously, Austria-Hungary was now under intense pressure in the Balkans to give up its position of power and prestige.
A series of wars and unrest involving Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Bosnia threatened her personal pride. Her attempts to maintain influence amongst the Slav nations increased tensions with Russia. This posed a potential threat to stability. Austria-H would have been wiser to have adopted a more realistic policy towards the nationalist agitators, but the Old Guard of aristocratic politicians, ruled by the decrepit Emperor Jozeph, decided that a showdown with Serbia was the only possible course of action. Emboldened by the “blank cheque” that was rashly promised by the Kaiser, Austria-H pressed ahead with its claims for retribution against the perpetrators of the crime against the heir to the Austrian Empire.
This was one of the serious miscalculations that can be levelled against Germany as a real cause of war. The Kaiser, holidaying on his cruise ship, realised too late how his support had been interpreted by his Austrian allies. Desperate attempts at the last moment to pacify the belligerents were simply, too late. Germany had allowed herself to be dragged into supporting Austria in a conflict that would involve Russia, and, through the system of alliances, Russia’s ally, France. At this stage, a less ambitious ruler could still have drawn back. But the Kaiser had ambitions.
His, largely, military advisers were not downhearted at the prospect of war. Noone could foresee the scale and outcome of the conflict that lay ahead. Indeed, all protagonists expected the whole thing to be “over by Christmas”. A quick war to consolidate Germany’s position as a Great Power was not seen as a bad thing. The wars against Austria and France in the last century had brought Germany to a position of pre-eminence which she now wished to advance still further. It can also be stated that without German money and military might the war would not have lasted so long. Austria was anxious to seek peace half way through the terrible conflict. By that time, Germany’s prestige would not allow talk of surrender.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the war, which provoked most of Europe into conflict, was caused inadvertently. Nations found it hard to explain to their populations why fighting was taking place at all. Rallying cries of “la patrie en danger” or “Save Belgium” were necessary to convince the allies of the justice of their cause. Germany’s aggression certainly had a more sinister motive; she intended to incorporate Belgium and much of France’s NW region into an extended Germany and as much of eastern Europe as she could. Germany should have realised that its pre-emptive strike on Belgium would drag Britain into the war with its “contemptible army”.
She realised too late that unconditional support of Austria would involve her in a conflict that extended much further than the local trouble spot in the Balkans. It was the fact that she appeared to relish the prospect of war that caused so many criticisms of her actions in the build up to war. In addition, Germany had contributed to many of the misunderstandings and tensions at the beginning of the century through her “sabre rattling” in Morocco and her rush to participate for a “place in the sun” in Africa. The development of her navy was a direct challenge to Britain’s supremacy; the ships that were built were built for warfare; they were not merchant ships designed to service a German overseas empire.
Germany was to blame for the war in that she did not do enough to avoid it and had systematically destroyed the stability and mutual trust in Europe that had lasted since the time of Napoleon.