The Causes of the First World War

I The Fritz Fischer thesis – the Structuralist interpretation A.J.P. Taylor’s thesis in The Course of German History (1945) was that “the dynamic unleashed by the process of unification .. gave way to the imperial ambitions of Wilhelm II and logically culminated in the tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich..” Initially, German historians were unsympathetic to this view. Then in 1961 Fritz st Fischer maintained that Germany was responsible for the 1 World War and that there was a clear line of continuity between the foreign policy aims of Imperial Germany in 1914 and Nazi Germany in 1939. This gave rise to the “structuralist” interpretation “which sought to explain history through a detailed examination and synthesis of social, political and economic forces..” H.U. Wehler (1973) upheld the idea of a German Sonderweg or ‘special path of development’ - that Germany’s process of modernisation had somehow diverged from other countries and was somehow ‘peculiar’.” Thus in explaining the origin of the war there are two extreme positions: (1) ‘Germany willed the war’; (ii) ‘The nations of Europe stumbled into war.’ There is a range of intermediate views. It is possible, also, to differentiate between man-made forces and impersonal forces. Hinsley argues, “The German government was primarily responsible for the pre-war tension - and was far more responsible for the war because of the decisions it took between 1904 and 1913 than on account of anything it did after Sarajevo.” Fischer claims Germany willed the war. It was a reaction to mounting socialism - the fear engendered by the fact that in 1912 the SPD became the biggest party in the Reichstag. He also argues that Germans had come to believe that war between Tuetons (pan-Germanism) and Slavs was destined. Germans feared encirclement as a result of the Triple Entente, and were worried by the prospect of the reform of the Russian army, scheduled to be completed in 1916/17. Fischer believes the Germans took the decision in December 1912 to seek for the earliest opportunity to start a war. The German war aims were to create ‘empires’ in central Europe (Mitteleuropa) and central Africa (Mittelafrika). Thus Germany instigated Austria to respond aggressively to Serbia. They also sought to keep Britain neutral and make Russia appear to be the aggressor. Fischer’s view is supported in detail by such authors as Geiss and Berghahn, and it appears to make sense of German foreign policy from 1897 to 1913. However, in reply it is possible to argue that there was no consistent German foreign during this period. Futhermore, Fisher’s methodology is suspect. For example, he uses

Copyright © Blacksacademy – January 2003


it is said that the British underestimated the gravity of the July crisis. The brevity of the ultimatum finally issued is also said to have been a factor in bringing on the war. Additionally. in reply it can be said that this was not a full cabinet meeting. and that secret naval talks between Britain and Russia in July 1914 undermined Gray’s claim to act as a mediator. Most historians do not regard France or Britain as culpable for the outbreak of the war. Blackbourn & Eley (The Peculiarities of German History) study German society in general.Rohl (The Kaiser and His Court) focuses on personalities. for example. However. Austria’s lengthy delay to the Sarajevo incident is also said to have contributed to the July crisis. Some historians. regard Russian foreign policy as aggressive. Serbian nationalism posed a real threat to the survival of Austria-Hungary. Russia is also blamed for unreflective support of Pan-Slavism and for not controlling Serbia. (2) war with Russia. II The Responsibility of Other Powers It is argued that Austria-Hungary did not need Germany to provoke her into an aggressive response to Serbia. But some historians believe that the Balkan crisis was more significant. However. Turner and Remak. Revisionism British & American historians have led a revisionist tendency .statements about war aims that were made long after the declaration of war to explain intentions before the war broke out. Russia was seeking to preserve her prestige in the Balkans. The imperial chancellor was not present. both Bülow and Bethmann Hollweg clearly stated that war was not a solution to the problem of rising socialism. Austria and Russia are accused of ‘brinkmanship’ during this period. Copyright © Blacksacademy – January 2003 2 . Was the Balkan crisis the cause or the occasion of the war? Fischer aruges that the Balkan crisis was the excuse that Germany was looking for. The Sarajevo incident forced Austria to choose between (1) renouncing Great Power status. There was a meeting of the German emperor and generals in December 1912 at which there was a decision to promote war.

Such a situation would unquestionably lead to war. The British were deeply suspicious of the German navy. International Anarchy and Armaments. But actually. for example. They are said to reflect ‘international anarchy’ . After 1906 the Algeçiras conference showed the Germans that they were isolated and that their only ally was Austria. The arms race is also a symptom and a cause of impending war. Imperialism is also linked to nationalism. It was Russia that took the decisive lead in increasing army strength in 1905 . Lenin claimed that imperialism caused the war. Anglo-German commerical rivalry is cited as an example of imperialist conflict. It is clear that colonial rivalry contributed to the outbreak of war . Taylor also argues that the defeat of Russia in 1905 demonstrated the weakness of Russia and upset the power balance in Europe. There were unsuccessful disarmament conferences at the Hague in 1898 and 1907. “I must explicitly repudiate the suggestion that Great Britain can ever allow another naval power to approach her so nearly as to deflect or restrict her political action by purely naval pressure. reduced her period of service in 1905 from 3 to 2 years. Fischer also claims that Mittleafrika was an aim of Weltpolitik. Alliances Alliances help to explain why the July crisis escalated. In 1911 he said. ‘Wars are inherent in the nature of capitalism. For example.0 million.’ This is (1) because industrialists benefit from war.France.5 to 2. The alliances arose in response to international security. France had given Russia the promise of support even in an offensive war. in 1912. Copyright © Blacksacademy – January 2003 3 . Naval Rivalry There was rivalry between Britain and Germany over the building of naval ships.for instance. (2) capitalism creates imperialist conflict. they will only cease when the capitalist economy is abolished. Likewise. Winston Churchill was at this time First Lord of the Admiralty. Italy did not agree to support her allies in the Triple Alliance and Britain also refused to clarify her support for France and Russia until the declaration of war. The Germans did not spend money on the army as they were committed to the navy. there was no real race in land forces .III Alliances.planning to increase from1. and Germany followed suit.” From 1906 onwards Britain started building Dreadnoughts. IV Marxist interpretations Marx wrote. Franco-German conflict over Morocco.this is the idea that Europe was a powder keg waiting to go up. However.

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