The Outbreak of the First World War: Who Was Responsible?

The Outbreak of the First World War: Who Was Responsible?

The Outbreak of the First World War: Who Was Responsible?

The Outbreak of the First World War: Who Was Responsible?

Excerpt

The origins of the First World War have become a major historical problem not merely because the event seemed to be of great significance as a turning point in world history, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the question of who was responsible, raised during the war and answered in the peace settlement, became a vital and passionately argued issue in both domestic and international politics.

By placing the blame for the war on Germany and its allies and thereby justifying reparations, the victorious powers supplied one of the major factors utilized by Hitler in his rise to power in Germany. The reaction to the Versailles verdict which occurred in the victorious countries as well as in Germany resulted in an attack upon Article 231 of the Versailles treaty in the name of "revisionism." Thus there arose a battle whose front extended from newspapers and popular magazines, through the offices of propagandists and politicians and the quieter studies of scholarly historians, to the halls of parliaments and the green baize tables of international conferences. By the middle of the 1930's the excited conflict of opinion had cooled down and the issues had receded into the background of political discussion as reparations payments stopped and Hitler achieved revision. The study of the problem, however, has inevitably continued, albeit at a slower and soberer pace.

For the historian the judgment of the peacemakers proved to be a boon because the Germans immediately undertook to refute the charges against their nation by publishing a huge collection of documents from their foreign office archives covering the period from 1871 to 1914. Since this action could not go unchallenged, other governments had to follow the German example and produce their records. As a result, and even though the publications of France, Italy, and Russia are still incomplete, the historian has had at his disposal a vast store of primary source material with which to work. Thus, when normally the scholar would have had to wait at least a hundred years to get at the secrets of government offices, he has been embarrassed with the riches of documentary evidence for the backgrounds of the First World War. Of course, the first decade of the "revisionist" battle was fought without the complete body of primary sources, and that is one reason why study must go on if we are ever to assess the evidence and draw conclusions fairly.

Another reason for the continued study of this, as of other historical problems, is that viewpoints change and with them the questions which historians seek to answer. Article 231 of Versailles fixed the searchlight of the 1920's upon the question "Who was guilty?" As the smoke of the revisionist battle gradually drifted away, it became obvious that this was not a proper question for the historian because the answer would scarcely contribute to a better understanding of historical processes nor help us to improve the chances of peaceful development today. For, even if Germany were guilty in 1914, it would be absurd to believe, especially after 1947, that by punishing and fettering Germany we could prevent war. As time went on, therefore, more and more attention was devoted to such . . .

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