Germany and the Causes of the First World War

Germany and the Causes of the First World War

Germany and the Causes of the First World War

Germany and the Causes of the First World War

Synopsis

This book reassesses the critical role played by Germany in the events leading to the First World War. Contemporary historians have argued that German leaders acted defensively in 1914, conscious of the Reich's deteriorating military and diplomatic position. Hewitson challenges such interpretations, placing new emphasis on the idea that the Reich Chancellor, the German Foreign Office and the Great General Staff were confident that they could win a continental war. Accordingly, they pursued offensive policies--at the risk of war--at important junctures during the 1900s and 1910s. Hewitson contends that the decade before the First World War witnessed critical changes in German foreign policy. During the July crisis of 1914, for example, the perception of enemies had altered, with Russia becoming the principal opponent of the Reich. German leaders could now pursue their strategy of brinkmanship, using war as an instrument of policy, to its logical conclusion.

Excerpt

To Erich von Falkenhayn, speaking on 4 August 1914, the outbreak of the First World War, in which almost 10 million soldiers were to die, was 'beautiful', 'even if we perish because of it'. Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg later condemned the War Minister's opinion as frivolous and irresponsible. In his view, the impending conflagration was a 'crime' and a potential 'disaster'. In an emotional exchange with the British ambassador, which took place on the same day as Falkenhayn's indiscretion, the Chancellor declared that the war had become 'an unlimited world catastrophe'. He went on to contend that Germany had been forced into taking part in the catastrophe by Britain and Russia. A year earlier, he had argued that 'the odds of a war of the future, in which armies of millions will be led into battle against each other, equipped with the most modern weapons, are now even more difficult to predict than before'. Yet he had also admitted, in words redolent of those of his Minister of War, that 'one thing will remain true: the victor, as long as the world has existed, has always been that nation (Volk) alone which has put itself in the position of standing there with its last man when the iron dice of its fate are cast, which has faced up to the enemy with the full force of its national character (des Volkstums)'. Like many of his contemporaries, the Reich Chancellor was both excited and sickened by the prospect of war.

This study tries to make sense of such confusing testimony in order to discover what caused the First World War. Surprisingly, despite nearly a century of exhaustive research, carried out by governments, survivors and scholars, the question of the war's causes remains a perplexing mixture of consensus, ignorance and contestation. Even the notion that the conflict could have specific and definable 'causes', or antecedent actions which brought it about, is a matter of dispute. Partly, this is the result of a broader post-

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