The Treaty of Versailles had as one of its principal clauses what became known as the ‘Guilt Clause’ whereby Germany admitted responsibility for the war and accepted to pay indemnities and compensation to many countries in Europe, but especially France. Such a clause was rare in international treaties to resolve conflicts, because it created a massive psychological and economic impediment to future peaceful relations in trade and diplomacy. Countries that have gone to war in the past have become great friends in the future. Such a clause appeared to set the stage for another war in a generation.
The assassination of the Austria-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist was the spark that lit all the political tinder. The Austria-Hungarian Empire demanded some form of compensation and retribution, but Serbia’s reluctance or refusal was the pretext used to invade her. What was the aforementioned political tinder? It was made up of France’s desire for revenge following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1, a colonial crisis over Morocco, and two wars in the Balkans in 1912-3. The last piece to the puzzle was a system of interlocking alliances obligating countries to militarily support each other in cases of extreme need.
The easy answer to whether Germany started World War I is yes, because they were the first country to invade another one, Belgium, who had clearly announced itself as neutral, although Austria-Hungary was the first to officially declare on another country, but there are more complex issues at work that will be investigated in the following two parts; firstly, that tensions had risen to an unforeseen level making it difficult to avoid war, and secondly economic development had pushed European countries into each other’s way.
The previously mentioned system of alliances divided Europe into two principal groups of countries: the Triple Alliance of 1882 of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy; and the Triple Entente of 1907 of France, Russia and the United Kingdom, although there were other secondary treaties, such as the one between Serbia and Russia, which provided a similar kind of obligation. When war broke out in August 1914, Italy was the only one of the six to stay out of it, but when she did, she chose the side of the Entente Cordiale. Also, the Ottoman Empire joined on the Triple Alliance’s side in November 1914.
The principal piece of these alliances was not just that they were based upon an agreement that if any party was attacked, the other would join in, but that they also specified exactly which country was the one who would trigger the agreement. In the case of Germany and Austria-Hungary, this was Russia. The consequence of which pushed Russia into the arms of the United Kingdom and France, who has resolved their many quarrels with the Entente Cordiale in 1904. A decade earlier, France and Russia agreed to help each other in the same terms as above if either country was attacked by Germany. Such agreements placed heavy burdens on all sides, which could not be easily brushed aside if one got cold feet.
But let us take a brief step backwards to late XIXth Century when many European countries were thinking of grand projects and visions and saw strange lands, such as Africa and Asia, as the fulfilment of visions of empires and wealth. Their motivations to embark on colonial projects are beyond the scope of this discussion, but these projects need to be mentioned as they ensured that the European powers were kept in a state of constant competition with each other, which at times developed into violence through various proxy forces. In the case of Africa, France and the United Kingdom got the biggest pieces, while Germany was left with Namibia, Tanganyika and Cameroon, and Italy got Libya.
The manner in which the pieces was decided at the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries got together to peacefully resolve contending claims to Africa. But, a few lands remained undecided, such as Morocco and Ethiopia; the first of which was independent in name, but fell increasingly under French and Spanish influence as the XXth Century began leading to German resistance to growing French power.1
Europe of 1914 was replete with old feuds, the most important of which was the desire for revenge in France after they were badly beaten in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 and witnessed not only the fall of their Second Empire but the declaration of the new German Empire at Versailles. The cost of this war was not only money but also losing most of the Alsace and Lorraine.2 Of the many cultures in Europe, French and German were some of the strongest in terms of history and self-image and as they shared the same border and were each other’s closest competitor, so it was no great surprise that they regularly fought each other, and any loss on either side was taken quite personally. Therefore, losing territory was quite shocking and needed to be redressed. Another feud was the one occurring around and inside the Austria-Hungarian Empire.
The varied cultural mix of this country was one that required a great deal of balancing so that no one people felt ignored. There were Slavs, Magyars and Germans. Each cultural group maintained its own customs and language assuring a strong cultural dislocation internally and making it the focus of many foreign pressures as smaller countries tried to pick off parts that were culturally close to them. The most pertinent example was Serbia, which was hoping to unite all Serbs, a Slavic people, under one banner, so there was a lot of political comments being thrown across, but Austria-Hungary was reluctant to act as Russia, being a Slavic country, supported Serbia’s idea in spirit.3 There was a certain amount of impatience in Austria-Hungary to deal with Serbia, and the lack of co-operation of Serbia following the Archduke’s assassination in the eyes of Austria-Hungary offered the best opportunity to assuage the impatience, which was fully supported by Germany.
The European continent has seen countless wars. It is hard to argue that it is more to prone to them than other continents, although its small size and dense population may lend itself to tensions, because any growth in population requires more land to grow crops and more food and better nutrition result in a growing population, so people and nations collide. Each side of the argument feeds into the other and accelerates it. As countries develop and become industrialised, this growth becomes more pronounced. Countries have visions of themselves, which involve grandeur and uniqueness. Such visions when untrammelled are dangerous and when coupled with economic growth leads to violence. European history is littered with the failed visions of arrogant empires lying on top of thousands of dead people who failed to appreciate them.
Humanity has devised beautiful things over the course of history and these have changed as time progressed, but there is also horror in humanity, one of which is the capacity for violence. Go to a museum and look for any display on weapons of death and torture, it is disturbing at their number and variety, which at times exceeds that of paintings, sculpture and drawings. The Industrial Revolution in Europe had begun in the late XVIIIth in the United Kingdom, but quickly spread to other countries. Germany was the quickest to take advantage of the new techniques and tools.4 Her growth would soon rival and past the United Kingdom’s in some areas, especially in terms of military production. Their greatest area of competition was the navy as Germany wanted to build one to surpass the United Kingdom’s who had dominated the seas for the past couple of centuries.5
Interestingly, their navies only met once during World War I, and the result, arguably a draw, resulted in the retreat of German war ships to their ports never to come out again. Not only were their major achievements in the textile industry and the development of steam engines, but also in arms development. Governments could see that they could fight more wars quicker and across greater expanses of territory. Wars could also be testing grounds for new weapons, such as gas used by Germany in 1917. This new growth enabled the development of new weaponry, the most of famous of which was the Maxim gun used to conquer Africa and the ‘Big Bertha’ series of guns developed by the Krupp industries in Germany. Every country was trying to build the next big thing so as to be ahead of their adversaries, or in other words, an arms race developed, which so often leads to war, because the competition becomes too heated.
One of the guiding principles behind a country’s arrogance is nationalism or the idea that your nation is the best of all others and one must always be loyal to it. Such strong feelings are blinding. It can be argued that such feelings were stronger in Germany than in any other of the six main protagonists, because firstly Germany was the artificial product of many smaller states, such as Prussia, Hohenzollern and Bavaria, which possibly required a ‘bigger’ vision to unite them6, and secondly the history and image of the Teutonic knights as great warriors having held sway over large parts of central Europe in the XII and XIIIth Centuries resides in the state of Hohenzollern.
To prove that one is the best, the best way was to conquer other countries. Africa was an easy success, because most African countries lacked the economic and technological prowess of most European countries as well as suffering from the consequences of the Atlantic slave trade, but the real success would be to win in Europe. In this regard, there was a lot of political jostling to increase one’s position in Europe and undermine one’s primary opponents, which made for strange alliances, such as a democratic France with an autocratic Russia. Whenever a European power ‘lost’ in any of the smaller wars fought outside the continent of Europe, such as the case of the British in the Sudan in 1880, they lost prestige in Europe in comparison to other countries, which often lead to governments falling as Disraeli’s did in the United Kingdom in 1880.
Some countries do start wars and should rightfully be blamed for it. The world of Europe in 1914 was one where the whole continent was standing on a knife’s edge and anything could tip into the abyss, therefore picking one country out of this period is a bit unfair. The number of instances that Europe came close to war in the late XIXth and early XXth Centuries are innumerable, but each time wise minds managed to pull things together. Sadly, in August 1914, there were not enough around, as many others wanted to resolve old grievances and took advantage of the opportunity offered. Interestingly, all of the six main parties believed that the war would be over by Christmas. How wrong they were!
Germany was guilty of many things before and during World War I, such as the use of mustard gas against British troops and the massacre of thousands Herero people in Namibia in 1907. Such extreme instances of violence were used to create a highly negative image of Germany readily available when World War I ended. If you look at the media in France and the United Kingdom during the war itself, the impression one got was that of a Hun, evil and violent ready to destroy the democratic world of both countries. This image was highly pejorative and played into popular fears that easily lent itself to placing the war as one that Germany had started.
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