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Expert opinion: Origins of the First World War

Updated Monday 13th January 2014

Listen to two leading historians give their thoughts on the origins of the First World War.

In 2012, I recorded this audio in which two leading historians of the First World War discuss their subject, and in particular the question of the origins of the war, with me.

Professor John Röhl and Professor Christopher Clark explain the fascination of the topic and give their differing views on why war broke out in 1914.

John Röhl has spent most of his academic career researching the role of German decision-makers, and in particular Kaiser Wilhelm II, in the events that led to the outbreak of war.

Christopher Clark published his acclaimed study The Sleepwalkers in 2012. In it he argues against the idea that we can identify a guilty party. ‘There is no smoking gun’ in the hands of the leaders of one country; rather, they were all responsible for the events that led to war.

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Annika Mombauer:

In this audio you will be able to hear two leading historians of the First World War discuss their subject with me, Annika Mombauer. We’ll be hearing from Professor John Röhl and Professor Christopher Clark, who’ll both be able to tell us why this is such a fascinating subject; why this is such a difficult debate; and what the role of evidence – in particular – is in helping historians come to conclusion, quite different conclusions, about the origins of the First World War.

I’ve arrived at John Röhl’s house. Hello John, how lovely to see you (greetings).

Ever since the First World War started, historians have debated why it began; we’re now looking at a hundred year debate; we’re looking at mountains of documents; thousands of books written on the topic; and yet even now historians don’t agree on why war started in 1914. John has worked at the University of Sussex for all his academic life – and why are you so interested in the topic?

John Röhl:

My interpretation lies in the foundation of the German Reich back in 1871 and in particular in the extraordinary success of imperial Germany – this huge country in the heart of Europe – from about 1895 onwards, waiting to take over from Britain as the leading world power based in Europe. So in my interpretation the two world wars are linked – in fact they’re essentially about the same thing – they’re about an attempt by Germany to conquer Europe as a prelude to even further global expansion, defeat in 1918 and then a resurgence of nationalism with Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 in particular and then a second even more radical attempt with even more radical methods, to achieve the same goal of domination in Europe. That’s my interpretation.

Annika Mombauer:

So you and I both think that Germany was more to blame than anyone else for the outbreak of war but, of course, historiographically, that interpretation has been revisited many times. So we’ve come from 1919 when this was seen as the reason for war to the situation in the 1930s, summed up most famously by Lloyd George, who said that all the nations had slithered into war. It was then nobody’s fault, which was very comforting for Germany. We then get the 1960s with the famous Fischer controversy with renewed focus on Germany’s decision making and pretty much an orthodox view that Germany was more to blame than others. But it seems to me the whole thing is very cyclical and we’ve now got to a point again where we’re almost back to Lloyd George – we’re almost back with some people arguing that there’s no point in playing the blame game; there’s no point really in looking for one country being responsible; and there’s renewed focus as there was in the inter war years on what Russia and France were up to, and to a lesser degree on what Britain was up to. I wonder what your thoughts are on these views, on making Russia more responsible in particular, or making France more responsible. Is that something you can find in any way convincing given the evidence we have?

John Röhl:

Well frankly no I don’t find these new approaches helpful at all – I think they just ride rough shod over all the evidence we’ve accumulated. When the German government collapsed in 1918 and the Socialists came to power in Germany, the first thing that happened was that the socialists published the German documents and the story that those documents tell is absolutely clear – it is that there’s a German plot to support Austria in an attack on Serbia, which would hopefully have the effect – because the Balkans are remote from Britain – to keep Britain out of the war, it would have the effect of Germany being able to blame Russia for what was about to happen; that would persuade the German people to support this war, and it would also hopefully persuade Germany’s allies Italy and Romania, who were not so strong in their support, to come in in the war – that’s Bethmann’s calculation.

Annika Mombauer:

Can you talk a little bit about what sort of evidence there is to make that point – for example in December 1912, the infamous war council about which you in particular have written a lot. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about why this is an important event?

John Röhl:

The war council was a wonderful, exciting discovery back in the 1960s which I picked up because the original document recording it was actually published in a slightly adulterated from and I went back to the original diary entry of one of the people present, an Admiral, and said, hang on, what he actually says is this and not what was published. Again, coming back to the point which I think is so important, that we have to go back to the original documents and not rely on what was printed, by people who were perhaps falsifying the documents for patriotic reasons. And essentially what that document and five others we’ve discovered meantime were describing was a meeting called by the Kaiser on a Sunday morning, 8th December 1912. It was a meeting of him and three or four of his generals and three or four of his admirals. And the important point there was that the Reich chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was not invited, the foreign secretary was not invited and what were they doing? They were discussing whether to have an immediate war or whether to postpone the war for another year and a half, 18 months until certain things had been put in place. The interesting thing is that when these documents were first discovered and discussed there was great interest, and then interest waned, didn’t it? We’ve had a period of about 25 years now where I virtually alone have been saying, look, this is important, you can’t just ignore it. Let’s try and work out what it’s about. And I’ve actually changed my position in the light of new evidence which has become available – I think now that the German's decision to have an immediate war was actually taken in mid-November 1912, in other words three weeks before this meeting. And what the meeting is really about is the Kaiser getting cold feet because he’s heard from Prince Lichnowsky the German ambassador in London, who’s only just arrived in London, to say, no we’re wrong the British will not stay out of the war, they will definitely come into defend France, to stop France from being crushed. And the Kaiser receives this dispatch on that Sunday morning and says, wait a minute, all our calculations are wrong, we’ve been assuming that if we start a war via an Austrian attack on Serbia, Britain will stay out and we’ll only have France and Russia to deal with but this seems to be wrong so let’s talk about it again. And it’s in the light of that deterrent effect of Lichnowsky’s dispatch that they apparently decide, at this famous war council on 8th December, to postpone war. Now that puts a different slant on things because now you’re not planning to start a war in 18 months’ time; it’s a kind of panicky decision that you’re taking about. You’re on the back foot, you’re saying wait a minute, what we've been talking about is not going to work so let’s think again. So it’s a much more open-ended way of looking at that 18 month interval between this 8th December 1912 meeting and the actual later decision to begin the war, which is in part in response to the assassination in Sarajevo, but what’s interesting is that in that 18 month interval the more they get closer to what they deem to be a good moment to start, the German messages to the Austrians become stronger and stronger and stronger. And then when the assassination comes, that's really it, they say, well this is so good, this is too good to be true.

Annika Mombauer:

But at this point a crisis develops that is really not of Germany’s making and is really – in the beginning – Austria’s crisis. And Germany then encourages Austria. Would you say that that’s fair – do we need to look more at Austria in the July crisis than at Germany?

John Röhl:

Well certainly we should look at Austria as well as Germany. What is important however is that the Germans had been urging the Austrians on repeated occasions in the last year and a half, but in particular in the last 6 or 9 months, now to seize the moment to attack Serbia, pull it down, and if the Russians were not prepared to back down and allow their client state Serbia to be humiliated, and if it then came to a war on the Continent, then don’t worry, Germany’s behind you. We’re ready and we’ll back you to the hilt. So we had that in 1919-1920 those documents published, then many years later, after Hitler was defeated and Germany was divided, a completely new discovery, something that nobody anticipated, which was the discovery of Germany’s war aims, of the extent of Germany’s war aims during the First World War and – in particular – one document which was chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s September programme of 9th September 1914 outlining what Germany was going to demand in the expected victory over France – expected just in a day or two maybe. Now unfortunately for Bethmann-Hollweg, that very day in which he signed this document and sent it off was the very day that the Battle of the Marne began, which of course stopped the German advance into France in its tracks, so Bethmann never actually got to the point where he could impose these terms on a hapless France. But from the document, which is long, which has a preamble, which is four weeks in the making, we have notes in his handwriting going back to the 16th of August 1914, where verbatim some of these demands are formulated. He says very clearly – the general aim of this war for Germany is to secure the safety, the power of Germany, in West and East, for all imaginable time. And then he goes onto spell out the details of how Belgium is going to be divided up including the acquisition of a so-called Mittelafrika, a Central African Empire stretching from the East coast to the West coast and including the whole of the Congo. Now that is a massive blueprint for the domination of Europe and beyond. And this is early in the war, written not by some crazy pan-German, not by some general who’s lost his marbles, but by decent, philosophical, civilian Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg who sends it quite officially to his deputy in Berlin. And ever since we’ve had that document – all sorts of arguments were advanced to try to demean it in some way – oh it’s just a shopping list, he’s just doodling because as a chancellor there’s nothing he can do in war time anyway – that was how it was denigrated. But just as there’s no way back behind the Kautsky documents of 1919, so there’s no way back – in my view – behind the Bethmann-Hollweg’s September programme and all the other things that Fritz Fischer and others have been able to discover.

Annika Mombauer:

Well the most recent interpretations on the origins of the war focus on Russia and France in particular and also Serbia’s role has been highlighted – I’m thinking here of Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers, which has already made quite a splash and he’s looked at a lot of archival evidence to show for example Serbia’s involvement, to prove Serbia’s involvement in the assassination and to highlight the roles played by France and Russia; and Sean McMeekin is another example of somebody who highlights Russia’s culpability in the outbreak of the war. I wonder what your view is on the idea that Europe sleepwalked into war in 1914. That suggests to me that nobody actually wanted it and the war really was an accident.

John Röhl:

The First World War for me was an attempt by imperial Germany to dominate Europe by force of arms and yes, of course France and Russia and to some extent Britain had to respond to that but, my God, we’re not talking about an accidental war that in my view could have been stopped again if it had been an accident in two or three weeks’ time. No – the French bled to death in their millions and the British lost also a million young men and their whole wealth in order to stop their subjugation by a militaristic power in the heart of Europe. And you have Germans saying the same thing – you have Albert Ballin, the industrial leader, the head of the Hapag shipping line, virtually in tears saying to the German leaders themselves, how could you do this, we’ve built up Germany’s prosperity over two hundred years and you throw it away with this absolutely stupid, ridiculous attempt to dominate Europe by force of arms when in fact we would have dominated Europe anyway by economic terms and trade terms within 10 or 15 years. You have the foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, spending a whole night in tears confessing that he’d made a terrible mistake by supporting this policy; you’ve got Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador, who’s the only one in the German leadership who knows what’s going on, who actually tries to try to stop this idiocy, as he sees it. He calls his own leaders gangsters for starting this war – I mean the evidence is just so overwhelming now of German intent to start a war which of course went terribly wrong – they didn’t want the war they actually got, they wanted a war of 5 weeks, and then victory over France, plus another 6 or 8 weeks in Russia (a walkover) and then they’d be back in Berlin for Christmas with victory in their hands. That was the plan – it went wrong.

Annika Mombauer:

We’ve just heard from John Röhl and now I’m in the studio here in London with Professor Christopher Clark from Cambridge who is equally as fascinated by this long debate on the origins of the First World War, but he takes rather a different angle in approaching the topic. Chris, before we talk about your own interpretation, I just wonder how convincing you find John’s view which I guess I’d summarise as the German paradigm.

Christopher Clark:

I want to make a distinction between the aspects of his argument which I really straight out disagree with and the aspects where I’m looking for a shift in emphasis. I mean John effectively thinks that the Germans planned the war in advance, that they even planned its timing, from December 1912 onwards they were planning to start a European war in the summer of 1914. Now my view is that neither he nor anybody else has ever shown this to be the case and the documents do not support that view, so I strongly disagree with that claim. On the other hand, what John has also done is provided – as indeed have many other scholars including yourself – has provided a lot of detailed source-based information about the extent to which the Germans had included the idea of war in their foreign political calculations, in their strategic calculations – and there he’s scored a lot of points and I don’t so much disagree with John as want to place his findings in a broader European context because I think the Germans are not the only ones who are thinking about the possibility or even the probability and even the desirability of a major war – they’re not the only ones. We find the same thinking in other capital cities as well. The story I would like to tell is about the interaction between five great powers and intermittently also lesser players, in particular the Balkan states; and how these interactions created a climate of distrust (levels of trust were very low even within the European alliances but certainly between them); a high level of aggressivity; the anticipation of feared future aggression; arms races; and how against that background, the interactions between at least five executive decision-making centres in the capital cities of Europe produced and then escalated a Balkan crisis producing the outcome which we call the First World War.

Annika Mombauer:

So when we look at evidence of German culpability, the documents that stand out in particular which were first found by Fritz Fischer are those relating to the war council of December 1912 and then those relating to war aims – the famous September programme of 1914 – and I just wonder what your take is on these events and on these documents?

Christopher Clark:

I think some of the most interesting work has focussed on the complexity of Fischer’s motivations. I mean this is a man who had had a very substantial and quite a deep flirtation with National Socialism himself, who felt profoundly unhappy about that, unsettled by it and was determined to dedicate his adult life as an intellectual to decontaminating German history, to overcoming the horrific legacy of Nazi criminality – and that’s where I think the story starts to go awry. I mean the 1912 war council is not a council at which war was planned, or its timing was established, and I’m afraid the most powerful statement about this council is one which was unearthed and published by John Röhl himself, which is Admiral Müller’s recollection, and his diary entry ends the account of the meeting of that day by saying that the result of this meeting was exactly zero – so the war council isn’t a war council and it didn’t have the consequences that had been attributed to it. Now it’s true that John Röhl said that what happens at the war council is that war, having been planned, is now postponed. There is in my view no persuasive evidence of that – the war council is called not in order to postpone a war that the Germans have already planned but rather in response to a note which has reached the Kaiser from the German ambassador in London, Lichnowsky, it looks like the British are preparing a war are we ready for one – that’s what the so-called war council was about. As for the September Programme, that of course loomed very large in Fritz Fischer’s account of the origins of the war. The key problem with the September programme is the word September. The programme was conceived and devised after the war was underway. A cause has to be precedent in time – the war can’t be caused by something that happened after the war broke out. The September programme was formulated to justify the war that was underway in September 1914. All the belligerent states come up with hair-raising war plans once they are at war.

Annika Mombauer:

One of the things that’s particularly fascinating about your book is how much of an emphasis you put on the role of Serbia which has not often been done, which is surprising given that it is the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serbs and the assumption or the allegation that Serbia was behind this assassination that starts off the July crisis. Could you tell us a little bit about what Serbia is like in 1914 and what Serbia’s role is in the background?

Christopher Clark:

First I’d like to start with a negative and say it’s certainly not my intention to blame the Serbs – I mean that would be crazy to do that, to blame this small country for the outbreak of the First World War – but I do think that the instability of the Balkan situation – the rapid expansion of Serbia during the two Balkan wars (1912 and 1913) – these two wars did two things – they greatly strengthened Serbia so Serbia’s size grows very considerably, it’s population grows, Serbia moves into new areas and in particular into Macedonia and so on; but they also completely devastated the traditional geopolitical arrangements on the Balkans, and thereby ruined the security policy of Austria-Hungary, leaving the sort of multi-ethnic empire of Austria-Hungary in an extremely exposed position. So a great deal depended on how Austria would respond to the challenges of this new Balkan situation.

Annika Mombauer:

So when we now look at the July Crisis, my opinion is that it’s sort of a crisis of two halves, if you like; the first half, up until the Serbian ultimatum is really very much a crisis that’s shaped by decisions made in Berlin and primarily in Vienna; but that after the ultimatum, everyone obviously is involved in decision-making and they make decisions which will affect the outcome of the crisis. Would you agree with that or do you see that differently?

Christopher Clark:

No I absolutely agree with that – it starts as a crisis generated by this action in Sarajevo entirely being about how the Austrians would respond. But as you say, after the Serbian response to the Ultimatum, and the Austrian declaration of war, it enters into a new geo-political phase and becomes about all the different great powers lining up to make sure they can take advantage and be in the best possible position once a war breaks out – a war that they are all contributing to make very, very probable. Everybody thinks we’re working against the clock, time is running out. The Germans are saying, the more men the Entente get – and bearing in mind they’ve already got a million more soldiers than we have – if we let this situation drift any further, they’ll be able to fight a war with us on terms that they choose and of course this sends ripples of fear and anxiety right through Europe, because of course the French are worried that if the Russians get that powerful that they don’t need us anymore then we’ll really be in trouble, we’ll be on our own, so it’s better to risk a war now whilst the Russians are still weak enough to need us than it is to wait until the future when they can choose their allies as they please.

Annika Mombauer:

Now looking at the evidence we have on decision-making, particularly in Berlin and Vienna now, it seems to me that Berlin put a lot of pressure on Vienna at various points during the July Crisis, particularly if you look at the blank cheque – it’s not just a blank cheque saying yes we’ll support you, but it is the case of saying, but you need to do it now – it’s now or never – and there is a fear in Vienna that the ally might abandon them if they don’t appear strong enough. Does that in your opinion constitute to some extent German responsibility for the outbreak of war?

Christopher Clark:

I think that the Germans – in offering the blank cheque in the first place and then in pressing the Austrians to take action – they certainly made their contribution to the escalation of the crisis, there’s no question – and you know it would be crazy to depict the Germans – as German propaganda did in the 1920s and ‘30s – as the innocent lambs in this story; but on the other hand it’s not true, as some scholars have argued including incidentally John Röhl, that the Germans bullied the Austrians into seeking a war against Serbia. The Austrians were grown-ups; they made up their minds about what they wanted to do as soon as the assassinations took place – you can trace this in the Austrian documents – there’s a kind of group think, they say, right this time it’s war, we can’t tolerate any more provocations of this kind from Serbia – we’ve got to take action. And the language of the Austrian appeal to Germany made this absolutely clear – we know what we’re doing, will you back us? However once the Austrians have assured the Germans that that’s what they want to do, and the Germans have assured the Austrians of their support, yes, Berlin then does start worrying about the time that it’s taking – I mean the days pass, and then weeks, and the Germans get more and more anxious about their localisation strategy. They think that the war can only be localised if action is taken quickly so they press very hard on Vienna, they keep on saying, when is something going to happen, what’s up, what’s going on? But I mean it’s not pressuring for war, it’s pressuring to secure a swift action which will enable them to maintain a plausible localisation strategy.

Annika Mombauer:

Now we’ve talked a lot about guilt, responsibility, culpability, and that’s essentially what this long debate has always been about – trying to attribute guilt, starting of course in the war itself and then at Versailles, it was very much about war guilt for the obvious reasons of needing someone to shoulder the reparations and being responsible. But how useful do you think it is to talk about war guilt now that we’re a hundred years or more removed from these events – should historians attribute responsibility and guilt?

Christopher Clark:

It seems to me that the problem with the blame-centred approach is not so much that you might end up blaming the wrong party because frankly now a hundred years later, as you say, it doesn’t matter who we blame, politically it doesn’t make any difference. The real danger is that you end up deciding who you think is the culprit – you know bringing in the suspect and then constructing a charge sheet against that suspect in prosecutorial manner which is exactly what Fritz Fischer did. The problem is that that’s such a narrow approach. What we really need to understand is how did this war come about? Once we understand how the war came about, then we can ask questions about why it came about and because of whom; and we need to ask how first and allow the why and who questions to arise out of the how answers, rather than the other way around.

Annika Mombauer:

Thank you very much.

Well, there you go, two historians with so much expertise and knowledge of the sources talking about the same subject but coming to such different conclusions. I hope you found this as interesting as I did.

Next: The Britain's Great War presenter answers questions about the war and why he wanted to make the series in Jeremy Paxman discusses Britain's Great War

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