Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview

10

Conclusion: Germany and the
Question of Guilt

Since August 1914, the debate about the causes of the First World War has included the ascription of moral responsibility for the events leading to what contemporaries like the satirist Karl Kraus perceived to be 'the last days of humanity'.1 The question of guilt was posed most starkly at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. The Allied powers' answer in Article 231 of the Treaty – 'that Germany and its allies are responsible for all losses and damages' – was rejected by the German government and most German political parties at the time, and has been debated by historians ever since.2 The Allied Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcements of Penalties, which reported to the conference, concluded that Germany and Austria-Hungary had consciously and successfully caused the outbreak of a catastrophic conflagration: '1. The war was premeditated by the Central Powers together with their allies, Turkey and Bulgaria, and was the result of acts deliberately committed in order to make it unavoidable. 2. Germany, in agreement with Austria-Hungary deliberately worked to defeat all the many conciliatory proposals made by the Entente Powers and their repeated efforts to avoid war.'3 By singling out Germany and referring to Austria-Hungary Turkey and Bulgaria collectively, the peace-makers implied that the Reich had been primarily responsible for the outbreak of war.

Between the 1920s and 1960s, such allegations were widely and summarily dismissed, especially by German historians. Fritz Fischer's criticism of Gerhard Ritter and of post-war historiographical orthodoxy in the Federal Republic re-established the idea that Germany had been largely responsible for the First World War, as part of a more general case about a German Sonderweg during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Expansionism in the 1930s under the Nazis, argued Fischerites, was closely linked to that of the Wilhelmine era.

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