Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview
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The July Crisis: Brinkmanship
and War

Few events have been scrutinized as closely as those leading to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. During the war itself, the various powers published their respective 'coloured books', including the Deutsches Weissbuch on 3 August 1914, followed by much more extensive collections of documents during the 1920s and 30s. Most notably, Die Grosse Politik der Europdischen Kabinette was sponsored by the German Foreign Office in order to answer the charge of the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) that the Reich had been guilty' of starting the war (Article 231). Its forty volumes became a template for other similar series, such as The British Documents on the Origins of the War.1 Since the Fischer controversy in the 1960s, historians have expended much time and effort uncovering further documents, including the private diaries and correspondence of personal assistants such as Kurt Riezler, military men such as Erich von Falkenhayn, courtiers such as Georg Alexander von Müller and journalists such as Theodor Wolff, which have been used to 'correct' the self-justificatory biases of the official account of the Auswdrtiges Amt.2 The new documents, the majority of which relate directly to the July crisis, seem to have established consensus amongst historians that German leaders self-consciously risked war in 1914. Scholars still fail to agree on how 'desperate' or 'defensive' particular actions were, whose actions those of diplomats, the Chancellor, the military, or the Kaiser were decisive, and to what extent such actions were affected by public opinion and political parties.3

Most historians would concur that sections of public opinion or German political parties played only a secondary part in pushing the government to war during the July crisis itself. Thus, when the critical decisions were made in the week after the assassination at Sarajevo, many politicians were away from Berlin on holiday, and most of the press was optimistic about the prospects of peace. On the Baltic


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