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How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years.
In July 1914, everyone in Europe was convinced they were fighting a defensive war. Governments had worked hard to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed could not be summoned for a war of aggression.
Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and Britons were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to avenge the death of Franz Ferdinand.
Germans were convinced that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands, and they were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war?
The war guilt ruling
For the victors, this was an easy question to answer, and they agreed at the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 that Germany and its allies had been responsible for causing the Great War.
Based on this decision, vast reparation demands were made. This so-called ‘war guilt ruling’ set the tone for the long debate on the causes of the war that followed.
From 1919 onwards, governments and historians engaged with this question as revisionists (who wanted to revise the verdict of Versailles) clashed with anti-revisionists who agreed with the victors’ assessment.
Sponsored by post-war governments and with access to vast amounts of documents, revisionist historians set about proving that the victors at Versailles had been wrong.
Countless publications and documents were made available to prove Germany’s innocence and the responsibility of others.
Arguments were advanced which highlighted Russia’s and France’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war, for example, or which stressed that Britain could have played a more active role in preventing the escalation of the July Crisis.
In the interwar years, such views influenced a new interpretation that no longer highlighted German war guilt, but instead identified a failure in the alliance system before 1914. The war had not been deliberately unleashed, but Europe had somehow ‘slithered into the boiling cauldron of war’, as David Lloyd George famously put it. With such a conciliatory accident theory, Germany was off the hook. A comfortable consensus emerged and lasted all through the Second World War and beyond, by which time the First World War had been overshadowed by an even deadlier conflict.
The Fischer Thesis
The first major challenge to this interpretation was advanced in Germany in the 1960s, where the historian Fritz Fischer published a startling new thesis which threatened to overthrow the existing consensus. Germany, he argued, did have the main share of responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Moreover, its leaders had deliberately unleashed the war in pursuit of aggressive foreign policy aims which were startlingly similar to those pursued by Hitler in 1939.
Backed up by previously unknown primary evidence, this new interpretation exploded the comfortable post-war view of shared responsibility. It made Germany responsible for unleashing not only the Second World War (of this there was no doubt), but also the First - turning Germany’s recent history into one of aggression and conquest.
Many leading German historians and politicians reacted with outrage to Fischer’s claims. They attempted to discredit him and his followers in a public debate of unprecedented ferocity. Some of those arguing about the causes of the war had fought in it, in the conviction they were fighting a defensive war. Little wonder they objected to the suggestion that Germany had deliberately started that conflict.
In time, however, many of Fischer’s ideas became accepted as a new consensus was achieved. Most historians remained unconvinced that war had been decided upon in Germany as early as 1912 (this was one of Fischer’s controversial claims) and then deliberately provoked in 1914.
Many did concede, however, that Germany seemed to have made use of the July Crisis to unleash a war. In the wake of the Fischer controversy, historians also focused more closely on the role of Austria-Hungary in the events that led to war, and concluded that in Vienna, at least as much as in Berlin, the crisis precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as a golden opportunity to try and defeat a ring of enemies that seemed to threaten the central powers.
In recent years this post-Fischer consensus has in turn been revised. Historians have returned to the arguments of the interwar years, focusing for example on Russia’s and France’s role in the outbreak of war, or asking if Britain’s government really did all it could to try and avert the war in 1914. Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s roles are again deemphasised.
After 100 years of debate, every conceivable interpretation seems to have been advanced, dismissed and then revisited. In some of the most recent publications, even seeking to attribute responsibility, as had so confidently been done at Versailles, is now eschewed.
Is it really the historian’s role to blame the actors of the past, or merely to understand how the war could have occurred? Such doubts did not trouble those who sought to attribute war guilt in 1919 and during much of this long debate, but this question will need to be asked as the controversy continues past the centenary.
After 100 years of arguing about the war’s causes, this long debate is set to continue.
Next: listen to the viewpoints of two leading historians on the causes of the war with our podcast Expert opinion: A debate on the causes of the First World War
This page is part of our collection about the origins of the First World War.