The question of war guilt on the 1st World War

To this day, the majority of the population still believes that the German Empire bears the sole responsibility for the First World War. However, in recent years, the study of history has dealt more and more with this topic and more often, the investigations came to the conclusion that Germany is by no means the sole fault.

Although the attack on the Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, is regarded as the starting point for the war, this event represents only a part of what happened in politics, the military and the economy years before and what happened background for a war that would sooner or later become inevitable.

To understand this background, it is necessary to look at the great powers in Europe and to list who had what interests in a war and what motives there were:




Great Britain:

By the middle of the 19th century, Britain succeeded in becoming the sole world power. Wars in the past against Spain, the Netherlands and France have been won. Although the country lost its colonies in the United States, this new nation was only just beginning economically and militarily, and at that time it posed no threat to Great Britain.

Based on the rapidly growing industrialization, especially in the fields of textile and textile processing, railway construction and shipbuilding and the global colonies, the country was able to secure a monopoly position in world trade and consolidate it. However, this boom meant that the country's population was increasingly moving into the cities and food production was no longer able to meet demand. Thus, in the coming years, the country was increasingly dependent on the import of food and machinery, which led to a high foreign trade deficit. Only the services and insurance sectors saved the country from debt.

From the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century, the United States and the German states pushed more and more into the world market with the same products as the United Kingdom and were thus in direct competition with their economy. As a result, on 23 August 1887, Great Britain introduced a Duty of Origin to protect its own products. The goal was to identify foreign products and thus discourage buyers from making a purchase. Since at that time the products from the German Empire, however, already proved to be equal to the British, if not better, the seal "Made in Germany" unintentionally became a trademark of quality.

Another setback against the German Empire, Britain had on March 5, 1903 experience in the tender for the construction of the Ottoman Baghdad Railway. The contract was awarded to German companies and thus also the mining rights to gas and oil. In addition, the German Reich was allowed to build military bases in the area. The hope of Britain to bring the Middle East under her control was smashed.

Thus, it can be seen that at the turn of the century the German Empire was able to catch up, if not partially overtake, in the economic performance of the United Kingdom. The country thus saw its dominance on world trade in danger, but instead of improving its products or industry, support both the British economy and the policy on the clout of its warships to compete on the world market, if necessary, military off. This thinking led to the British commitment that their own navy must be at least as large as the second and third largest together. The measure should allow Great Britain to prevent, disrupt or dictate through the monopoly the almost exclusively maritime trade at that time. The fleet structure was thus not a defensive character but a very aggressive. At the same time, the public began to build up the image of the enemy of the German Empire, which can be seen in newspaper articles such as the Saturday Review of September 11, 1897:

"In England, too, people begin to realize that in Europe there are two great, irreconcilable, opposing powers, two great nations, who want to make the whole world their domain and make the trade tribute from it. England, with its long history of successful aggression and the wonderful conviction that, in pursuit of its own interests, it spreads light among the peoples living in the dark, and Germany, flesh of the same flesh and blood of the same blood, with lesser willpower, but perhaps more vivid intelligence , compete in every corner of the globe. ... Wherever the flag of the Bible and the trade of the flag has followed, a German traveling salesman is in dispute with the English peddler. "


At the turn of the century, Britain had entered a difficult economic situation and lost market share to both the United States and the German Empire. The country also saw its dominance on world trade in danger.

The interests of Great Britain in a war clearly lay in the economic destruction of the German Empire and thus in the maintenance of its dominance of world trade.





France experienced a period of political uncertainty in the 19th century, marked by overthrows, revolution and war.

From the time Napoleon I. across the French Republic to Emperor Napoleon III. no political, economic or social stability could calm the country.

Particularly serious in the French consciousness was the lost war against Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 / 1871. The declaration of war came through France, through the defeat, the German unification and the cession of Alsace Lorraine to the German Empire, but displaced the French their own fault in the war and saw in Germany from this point on a hereditary enemy.

Although France was able to recover economically after the war, it could not build on the strength of Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States. Again, the blame for the lost war Germany was leaked. In addition, in the majority of the population and politics was the claim that both Alsace Lorraine and large parts of the German territory west of the Rhine were part of France and would have to be brought back. Thus, over a period of years, one's own guilt and incompetence was covered by the assignment of all guilt to Germany.

However, since France at the turn of the century was unable to compete with the economic power of Germany, an alliance system was initiated with both Great Britain and Russia in order to be able to jointly oppose the German Empire. Also militarily, France upgraded significantly stronger than Germany did.


Since the lost war, France has been aggressively seeking compensation and retrieving lost areas. The alliance system with Great Britain and Russia has diplomatically laid the foundation for action against Germany, and militarily the country has prepared itself heavily to prepare for a war.

Due to the injured national pride and the years of building up the hereditary enemy Germany, they were thus distracted from economic and social problems.




The German Empire:

After the German-French War and the unification of the German small states in 1871 into a German Reich, the country was able to establish itself in the following decades as a European great power on the continent.

The strong growth of the country was largely based on rapid population growth, the development of new and innovative technologies and the strong economy in the steel, chemical and electrical engineering sectors.

Especially after the introduction of social insurance in the 1880's, the introduction of guidelines for the protection of workers and rising real wages, the population began to increase rapidly. In the period from 1875 to 1913, this grew from 43 to 67 million.

Economically, the German Empire succeeded in establishing itself behind the USA as the second largest producer of steel products, chemical products and electronic components. At the beginning of the 20th century, the country overtook Great Britain in both quantity and quality.

Territorially, on the other hand, the German Empire did not seek expansion on the European continent. The acquisition of additional colonies was not planned, except for trading stations for the storage of coal.

The development and construction of the High Seas Fleet, often described in historiography, also did not at any time serve as an aggressive policy towards Great Britain. By the turn of the century, the German warships were designed almost exclusively for the protection of the coasts, the German Navy had only a few warships, which were seaworthy and could compete with comparable British warships. Only with the British commitment that their fleet should be at least as strong as the second and third largest together, prompted Germany to build a deep-sea fleet. However, this should only and exclusively serve the protection and safety of the German maritime routes and the merchant fleet, and their size should have a deterrent effect. Unlike the British fleet, the German had thus a defensive character and no aggressive as it was denounced, especially in the British press.

The plans of France and its alliance system remained, of course, not hidden from the German Reich, so that both the political and the military leadership to maintain the alliances with Austria-Hungary and Italy saw and also the military rearmament was driven according to the fears of a war. The unrest in the Balkans was also critically observed by the Germans. On the one hand there was Russia's interference in the domestic affairs of Austria-Hungary, and on the other hand, the leadership was aware that independence efforts in the Balkans would have led to the collapse of the Danube monarchy. Accordingly, Germany also demanded a crackdown on the Serbs during the July crisis in 1914, but attempts were made to limit this conflict to the region and not expand.


The German Empire had no plans for expansion on the continent nor in the colonies.

The arming of the armed forces was a reaction to the British expansion of the Navy and the French rearmament of the army and was only intended to defend the Empire.

During the July crisis, a crackdown was demanded against the Serbs, a war with Russia or the other great powers was not sought by Germany, but also not excluded.





Similar to the German unification, the Italian unification came about through a war and the consciousness of a community. In contrast to the German Empire, which made no further territorial claims on the continent, in Italy it was the extreme political circles which demanded the cession of South Tyrol, Istria and the Mediterranean port of Trieste, especially from Austria-Hungary. Not a few even demanded that the old Roman Empire with its possessions in the Mediterranean should be called back.

So it was at the end of the 19th century that Italy declared Ethiopia, Eritrea and the north of Somalia to Italian East Africa and occupied both the Aegean islands of the Dodecanese and Tripolitania by a war the Ottoman Empire. Attempts to build bases in Asia, but failed because of the resistance of Britain and the United States.

Despite territorial claims against Austria-Hungary, Italy decided to join the alliance between that country and the German Empire.


The political and military leadership of Italy dreamed of the resurrection of the Roman Empire and began the annexation of areas around the Mediterranean and made demands on Austria-Hungary.





The double monarchy was one of the oldest dynasties in Europe, reflecting both politically, militarily and socially, for no other European country was as firmly rooted in the glories of the past as in this one.

This was particularly true of the aspirations for more democracy, reforms and autonomy of individual areas, which is why the country was lagging far behind those of other countries in this area.

Also, the Balkans was regarded as an area of influence Austria-Hungary, after the Ottoman Empire was ousted from there, autonomy aspirations were neither tolerated or respected. However, the Russian influence, especially on Serbia, put a conflict point between these two countries. Both the military and the monarchy feared that more independence would sooner or later break up the dual monarchy.


Austria-Hungary endeavored to maintain the monarchy and the suppression of democracy and independence.

Furthermore, the land was subject to territorial claims by Italy and the influence of Russia in the Balkans.





The Russian interests were particularly in the direction of the west to access the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In recent centuries, the country has been incorporated into Finland, the Baltic States and eastern Poland. Through several wars against the Ottoman Empire, it was also possible to expand towards the Mediterranean.

In the Serbs the Tsar's families saw a kind of brotherly people whose interests were those of the Russians. For this reason, Russia also saw itself as a protective power of Serbia, trying to reduce the influence of Austria-Hungary. During the July crisis, it was therefore also Russia who stood by the side of the Serbs and saw any military action against the country as a war against Russia.


Russia sought further expansion to the west and south, which would inevitably have led to a war with the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary.

Furthermore, the country saw itself as a protective power of Serbia, trying to expand its influence in the Balkans.




The Ottoman Empire:

The Ottoman Empire, which had developed in the territory and decline of the Byzantine Empire, had survived for centuries, had already passed its peak for decades, and was already in decline.

Several wars against the European states had meant that the empire had to give up almost all European territories and Russia made further demands. In addition, both the economy and the military, in contrast to the other countries were clearly behind in the back and could no longer find a connection.

Although some reforms have already been carried out in the country to reassure the population, there were still enough circles to bring the empire to its old strength and also to recapture the lost areas in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.


Despite the ongoing decline of the empire, political and military circles endeavored to expand the empire again, and especially to recapture the lost territories to Russia.




- Great Britain: Economic reasons
- France: revenge, injured national pride
- The German Empire: deterrence, preemptive strike against encirclement
- Italy: territorial extension, reconstruction of the Roman Empire
- Austria-Hungary: Maintaining the monarchy
- Russia: territorial extension, influence in the Balkans
- The Ottoman Empire: territorial expansion, recapture of lost territories

It can be read that each great power had their own backgrounds for a war and in the end only had to wait for a suitable opportunity, so it came to a war.

Such an opportunity arose on June 28, 1914, when the Austrian-Hungarian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated and a subsequent spiral led to the First World War. But was the German Empire really the driving force here? For this, the decision after the attack must be considered:

  • The assassination attempt on June 28, 1914 was perpetrated by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip
  • Austria-Hungary military then demand immediate steps of military force. The German Foreign Ministry asks the British and Russian ambassadors to avoid "complications" and not to attach the act to the Serbian state (it can be seen that politics is looking for a diplomatic solution, some military circles in both Austria-Hungary and in the German Empire military Suggest solution limited to Serbia)
  • The German Empire assured Austria-Hungary its support in the sense of the Alliance's commitment to and free, independent action with regard to Serbia (from the German side, no war against Russia, France or Great Britain was sought)
  • Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914, which was not possible
  • On July 24, 1914, the mobilization of Serbia took place
  • July 25, 1914 Russia declares its protection guarantee to Serbia
  • July 27 and 28, 1914 declare Germany, France and Great Britain in a diplomatic note, Austria-Hungary would like to accept the ultimatum almost completely fulfilled by Serbia
  • July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia
  • July 29, 1914 Russian partial mobilization
  • July 29, 1914, after mutual threats between the German Reich and Britain, the German Chancellor Austria-Hungary instructs to resume negotiations with Russia
  • July 31, 1914 Russian general mobilization
  • August 1, 1914 French general mobilization (16:00 clock)
  • August 1, 1914 German general mobilization (17:00 clock) and declaration of war against Russia, as they had not withdrawn their mobilization after ultimatum

The First World War had begun with it.

Again, it can be seen that the German Empire was not a driving force for the war. Due to the call of the Austrian-Hungarian military circles for a crackdown on Serbia, the mobilization of Russia and Germany's alliance commitment, their own mobilization was merely a reaction to the coming war.


To this day, however, there are still tenacious theses that attribute the sole war debt to the German Empire:

  1. The construction of the High Seas Fleet
    The German High Seas Fleet is highlighted as one of the main arguments in favor of an aggressive armament of the German Reich and is often called.Fact:
    The German High Seas Fleet was a response to Britain's commitment years ago that its own navy must be at least as tall as the second and third largest combined. Britain would be able to block, disrupt or dictate world trade by sea. The German High Seas Fleet had the sole purpose of securing its own trade routes and was intended as a deterrent so that no other country declared war on the German Reich. This had a defensive character and no aggressive. In addition, the force ratio of the fleets between the Allies and the Central Powers was 4.5 to 1, which the German fleet would not have been able to act as an assault fleet. 

    2. The Schlieffen-Plan
    The drafting of the Schlieffen plan is to serve as an argument that the German Reich planned to attack France before the First World War.

    Already after the German-French war, the military leadership in the German Reich was aware that sooner or later France would again wage a war to bring back the lost territories. This desire for a rematch solidified on the French side in the following decades more and more. In order not to be attacked itself, France also began with the construction of heavy fortifications on the border with Germany and forged an alliance system with Great Britain and Russia to isolate Germany and encircle.
    Based on these facts, the German military leadership developed the operational plan for a possible war against France. This Schlieffen plan was therefore a reaction to the French aggression against Germany and should only be used in the case of defense.

    3. The rearmament of the army
    Another argument often used is the arming of the army, which is to serve as a sign of German aggression.

    In comparison to the armaments expenditure of the other European powers, those of the German Empire were rather small.
    For example, if you compare the expenditures for the navy, it becomes apparent that Great Britain spent 1910/1911 823 million marks for their navy. Germany, however, only 434 million marks.
    Also, the strength of the army before the war compared to the other states was not much greater:
    Germany: 880,000 soldiers
    Britain: 800,000 soldiers
    Russia: 1,423,000 soldiers
    France: 736,000 soldiers
    If one counts here the number of soldiers to the total population of the respective country, both France and Great Britain would have had more soldiers in percentage to civilians than in the German Empire would have been the case.




Where does the assertion come from, that Germany alone is to blame for the war?

The overwhelming claim to date that the German Empire bears sole guilt for the First World War comes from the Treaty of Versailles from the content of Article 231:

"The Allied and Associated Governments declare, and Germany recognizes that Germany and its allies are responsible for all losses and damages suffered by the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals as a result of the war they have suffered as a result of the attack by Germany and its allies was forced to suffer. "

However, this article was not primarily intended to describe the question of war guilt but to legally and morally legitimize the demands, which were especially exaggerated by Great Britain and France, imposed on the German Empire.

Thus, after the war, the image of a German Empire was built in society, which by its alleged militarism, Europe by itself has covered the war.

Not only did this claim distract attention from its own part in the outbreak of war in the Allied countries, but it more or less authorized it to exploit Germany.




Which war aims could be achieved?

  • Great Britain:
    The German Empire had to cede all its colonies, mainly to France and Great Britain.
    Furthermore, the German High Seas Fleet had to be delivered to Great Britain (this sunk itself, however).
    Germany also had to cede most of its merchant ships. Thus Britain got rid of the danger that supposedly emanated from the German deep-sea fleet, on the other hand it turned off an economic competitor and retained its supremacy in world trade.
  • France:
    Elsass und Lothringen had to be ceded to France. In addition, French troops occupied the Saarland and the Ruhr area and plundered this economically. The East German industrial center of Upper Silesia also had to be relinquished to Poland by pressure from France, although the referendum voted 59.4% in favor of staying in Germany. If one includes the demolition of the fortresses in West Germany and the restrictions imposed by the military, France could set war aims all enforce. Furthermore, Germany had to cede large sums of money and material as reparations to France.
  • Italy:
    Although Italy was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary before the war, after the outbreak of the war it proclaimed its neutrality only a little later on the side of the Allies to defeat its former ally and declare war on them During the war Italy received some areas of Austria-Hungary, which were promised to the country by the Allies as war booty.




Who bears the blame for World War I?

From today's point of view and according to the latest investigations of historical science, Germany's sole guilt in the war can be ruled out.

Even before the war, every major European power had its own goals and background, which justified or made war worthy for them.

The assassination attempt of 1914 and the July Crisis were merely the starting point on which the respective system of alliances and the influence of the respective military forces had given rise to a situation in which a war would have been avoidable but was wanted by all states. Thus, both Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Great Britain each played their part in turning a regional conflict into a world war.






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