Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview

1

Introduction: Historiography
from Fischer to Förster

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'.1 Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg later condemned the War Minister's opinion as frivolous and irresponsible.2 In his view, the impending conflagration was a 'crime' and a potential 'disaster'.3 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'.4 He went on to contend that Germany had been forced into taking part in the catastrophe by Britain and Russia.5 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'.6 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)'.7 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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