Attempting to evaluate the origins of World War One is both a complex and contentious issue, highly debated amongst historians with discussion centering on war guilt and the main contributing factors. Amongst the most topical problems in this area are the extent of Germanic blame concerning the war guilt dispute, and also the degree of blame that can be placed on the Alliance System in creating a warm climate. The view that the Alliance System was the key element of the war climate can be supported by the argument that it is what caused the war to transform from an isolated incident to a global war. Whereas, this can be defended by the view that the whole tension of the European powers before the 1914 outbreak can be attributed to all elements of the environment equally. When analyzing which nation was the main aggressor of war, Germany, according to many historians deserves to shoulder much of the blame. Contrary to this, the “Revisionist” school of thinking does not see Germany’s pre-war actions as offensive but rather defensive. This school of thought shares the blame equally amongst the powers when considering some of the factors on the pre 1914 Germany. The joining of these two arguments shows the complexity of the origins of the “war to end all wars”, and show that there is validity in many of the viewpoints when considering the arguments and the bias that each historian is inevitably subject to.
Of all of the components within the pre-war environment, the Alliance System is the element that determined the creation of a global war and additionally was a factor in generating suspicion between the powers during the lead up to the war. By the outbreak of war in August 1914, Europe and through imperialism much of the world, was divided into two sharply opposed and hostile armored camps, due to the Alliance System. The alliances were comprised of France, Britain, and Russia on the one side under the “Triple Entente” agreement (1907). The opposing force was the Triple Alliance (1882), which included Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy. The alliances held the fundamental purpose of mutual military assistance in time of attack or defense. Additionally, they acted as the balance upon which power was rested, so each Alliance was counteracted by an equal and opposite force.
This system is what ensured that as war broke out, it spread rapidly due to alliance obligations engaging other nations and their empires in the first local conflict. This view is expressed by Paul Kennedy when saying, “These coalitions mean that even if one belligerent was heavily defeated in a campaign or saw that its resources were inadequate to sustain further conflict; it was encouraged to stay in the war by hope” and promise – of aid from its allies. The alliance system itself virtually guaranteed that the war would not swiftly be decided…”
The words of Paul Kennedy show assuredly that the comparatively insignificant assassination of Austrian heir, Franz Ferdinand in the Balkans, the crisis would not have escalated to the death of ten million soldiers without all the nations being dragged down the vortex of war due to allied responsibilities. The significant role of the Alliance System and its repercussions on the “war to end all wars” is demonstrated in this argument, but tends to exclude evidence supporting other causes of war.
The Alliance System had a bearing impact on the magnitude of the Great War but does not account for the many other contributing elements that created the tensions between the European Great Powers during the early twentieth century. The war climate also undoubtedly involved militarism, nationalism, and imperialism. The belief that each nation should build up to it army, navy and military techniques to the point that would be intimidating to its opposition, can be considered as what turned Europe into a metaphoric “powder keg,” waiting for the lethal catalyst. Additionally, the aggressive colonial interests of each Great Power fuelled the war climate, particularly the Kaiser who sought colonies as a key part of his foreign policy. However, this argument is also countered by the France and Britain alliance, as they were strong colonial enemies. Finally, the view that nationalism had a significant impact on the climate which mounted into the Great War is supported by the historian Gordon Greenwood, when he wrote in 1973, “The underlying reason for the struggle may be found in.. each nation acting in accordance with what appeared to be at the time for its rulers to be its own best interests.”
This interprets the value of nationalism as a provocative element in the origins of World War One, with each nation standing to defend the interests of that nation aggressively and to prove the strength which their respective nations were capable of. Thus the evaluation of the pre1914 war climate can be considered with Alliance System in the fore frontal position as the main cause, but the historical analysis can also logically place any one of the other elements of the war climate as the main basis for war. The climate of the Great War was merely the stage set for the instigation, for which the argument of war guilt is exhaustive and multifaceted.
Combining the notoriously aggressive nature of the German people with the confrontational and suspicious nature of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foreign policy, many historians view the tensions and instigation of World War One as largely responsible of Germany. The unification of Germany holds vital evidence to the trademark German aggression, referred to by many historians. In 1848 the democratic Frankfurt Assembly failed to unify Germany. Where diplomacy fell short, the policies of Bismarck are expressed in 1871, when he said, “not by speeches and majority votes are the great questions of the day answered” that was the mistake of 1848″ but by blood and iron” ( Cowie, H.R. 1987 page 93)
Bismarck’s ambitions were successful in 1871, when after three short wars; his unification plan was founded, while amongst historians opinions formed on the impact this event had on the psyche of the German people. About the war climate, L.C.B. Seaman voices this argument by saying “the historical traditions of the Reich knew no principle other than that of the exercise of power for its sake” the Germans stampeded into war, the mindless and purposeless victims of their history.”
Although this view was written eight decades after the conclusion of the war and in England, a nation which opposed Germany at war, this evidently illustrates the belief that Germany was actively seeking a fight. Furthermore, a prime example of Germany’s aggressive actions was the creation of a navy which rivaled the traditional supremacy of the British Navy and is considered the catalyst which drew Britain out of “splendid isolation.” As expressed by A.J. P. Taylor, “The great navy” had no defensive purpose. For that, Germany would have needed coastal forts and vessels, which were not built. The navy was therefore purely a weapon of offensive.”
The newly formed navy was seen by both the British at the time and historians in retrospect, as an aggressive tactic to draw the world towards war; a war which Germany believed would entail economic and colonial benefits. The extent of German war guilt is hence evaluated from this perspective that German guilt was due to the aggression of the already existing tensions of the war climate.
The claim that Germany was the most prominent aggressor of the Great War is agreed to be valid based on the presented facts, but Germany could, to the contrary, be perceived in an entirely different light to show its pre-1914 actions as defensive. The hindsight of historian can be viewed as distorted in the time following 1919, directly due to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, within which Germany was forced to confess to sole war guilt. As expressed by Sidney Bradshaw Fay in 1928, “One must abandon the dictum of the Versailles Treaty that Germany and her allies were solely responsible. It was a dictum exacted by victors from vanquished, under the influence of blindness, ignorance, hatred, and the propagandist misconceptions to which war had given rise”.
This very importantly reminds us that the War Guilt Clause was a punishment on a nation that lost a war, not a valid and educated analysis of historical events. It was upon this basis that in the 1920’s, many historians revised the extent of German War guilt, and concluded that it was far less than ever before conceived. This way of thinking, in consequence, became known as the “revisionist school.” From the time of the creation of the Germanic States in 1871, it had to defend its borders against the surrounding hostile states of Russia and France. Germany very rapidly an aggressively became a Great Power in Europe, but this can be seen as a method for German survival or an action en route to war. The Australian historian, Moses takes an interesting stance on the issue by stating, “The Reich was encircled by a group of envious, vengeful and barbaric powers.” The Reich had only wished to preserve her ally, Austro-Hungary, from collapse. Germany had thus gone to war for the noblest of motives”.
This is quintessential to the “revisionist” thought, and presents a strong opposing argument to the belief in German war guilt, and is logically supported. While the full details of this historian were unavailable, the fact that he is Australian and thus not essentially biased to the German view gives the argument a strong authority. The “revisionist school” of thought is shown to encompass what evidence is seen to be omitted when allocating sole blame on Germany, and thus a strong counter-argument is formulated on this basis.
The simplicity of blaming one nation or one contributing factor is undermined when evaluating the true complexity of the Great War’s tensions and instigation. When analyzing the role of the alliance on the war, it can undoubtedly be observed as the transformer from a localized to global conflict. The weather this stands as the main reason for war is queried when analyzing the implications of other factors, these specifically being militarism, nationalism, and imperialism. Similarly, when endeavoring to analyze Germany’s role in the war, Fritz Fisher’s view of German aggression is valid to his presentation of evidence. Contrary to this, the elements which were characterized as aggressive can be seen as defensive actions when considering Germany being surrounded by unfriendly states. The melding of these arguments, show the intricate workings of the pre-war period, and neither the climate can be solely defined by the Alliance System, nor can the instigator be blamed solely on Germany, when considering all views and beliefs being subject to the inevitable prejudice of all historians.
Despite the controversial nature of Germany’s “war guilt,” it can be said assuredly the Treaty of Versailles is what oppressed Germany during the interwar period and shaped a nation susceptible to the regime of Hitler.