No war has produced so long and heated a debate about its causes as the First World War…. Today there are few reputable scholars who would deny that Germany and Austria, but primarily Germany, bear the chief responsibility for the war. ––Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, 1995 Prologue We seek to understand the causes of war, and attach responsibility to those whose mistakes and policies enabled the war. We want to understand how such a terrible thing could have happened, and see if we can apply those lessons to our own circumstances.
The war has been thoroughly analyzed; yet, there is still disagreement on the share of responsibility and guilt. Not only are we looking back nearly a century, but the experience is confused by the presence of so many participants, some of whom are very difficult to understand. As we learn from our own experiences, and as history becomes a finer art, we make new interpretations of the past. There is no better example than the almost inexplicable First World War. Imagine a five-sided chessboard with five players. This was Europe in the 50 years prior to World War I.
Pieces move, creating small losses and victories; power shifts, strategies change, alliances are temporarily formed in self-interest. Finally, having made wrong moves in the confusing mixture and sacrificed strength in fruitless attack, stalemate is the result and the weakest surrender or collapse. All of Europe, other lands to the east, and eventually the United States, were affected. The consequences linger today, but we may safely say that Europe has finally emerged with systems in place to prevent intra-European war from occurring again.
Even the Balkans, after one final war one hopes, are joining the economic and political structure that guards the peace. Yet, there are always dangers to the institutions and thinking that must forever be addressed. When we look back at the long history of warfare, World War I, The Great War, seems to occupy a separate category of its own. It is a tragedy different both in degree and in kind. It seems so needless in the way it started and so senseless in the millions it destroyed.
The sequence of causes is well known: The initial trigger was an assassination and a declaration of war, followed by the rest of the powers meeting their treaty obligations to support allies. Common sense and a vision of the consequences were absent. Then, millions upon millions of young men were thrown against each other on a fixed line of battle until Germany was the first to become exhausted and surrender. The politicians and generals who had no more imagination or strategy to do otherwise are a symbol of the stupidity of war.
Consider the following casualty statistics: (Evans, 2004, p. 188) Dead Wounded Missing Allies 5,520,000 12,831,000 4,121,000 Central Powers` 3,386,000 8,388,000 3,629,000 An estimated 8. 75 million civilians lost their lives. There were 8 million victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. Who is responsible? Who caused this madness in the civilized twentieth century? Balance of Power Before this war, Chancellor Bismark of Germany was famous for practicing realpolitik and balance of power.
Realists say there are no friends, only interests. See reality, and do what is necessary to achieve objectives. In 19th century Europe, shifting alliances were designed to force a rough equality and prevent Napoleonic power and conquest. For 100 years, it worked. Then, following the requirements of those alliances, the five great powers found a rationale for war, each one different, and declared it within days. Complacent, proud, pursuing essential national objectives, expecting easy victory, unable to foresee the consequences, they went by the rules.
Within weeks, they were stuck in the mud and trenches for four years of terrible slaughter. They never found a way out until finally there was nothing left to do. Then, they bungled the peace as badly as they did the war. The first alliance, in 1882, was the obvious association of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Then, in defense, long-time allies Russia and France did the same. Finally, France added Britain. So, there were five major powers agreeing to go to war if their side were attacked.
Thus, the stage was set for an automatic escalation to a full European war. Five weeks went by from the initial provocation, giving time to think and be careful. It was fruitless, and everyone seemed set on paying a small price for a major objective. Rarely has diplomacy been such a failure. Economic imperialism was a major factor in motivating all the powers. This was especially true in Germany, which was building its newer empire. This brought them in conflict with the established empires.