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A history of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914

Historians have devoted considerable attention to the origins of this rupture, veering between arguments stressing the long-term characteristics of international politics that led to war and the contingencies of decision-making in the final weeks of peace in 1914.

This debate has now lasted over a century, with each consensus proving fragile and short-lived. The multiplicity of actors, the vast range of sources, and competing methodological approaches to international politics ensure the constant renewal of the subject. From the outset, political interests and contemporary affairs have shaped scholarly perspectives.

There has been an intensive exchange of research, arguments, and polemics across national borders. The debate about the origins of the war has reflected, but also informed, changing historiographical fashions.

Mobilising domestic support for a major war required that the conflict be justified as a defensive reaction to foreign aggression.

Although sovereign states retained the right to wage war when they wished, in practice there was a narrow band of justifications for war, ruling out the most egregious kinds of aggression. Countenancing the possibility of war, leaders cast their moves as defensive.

  • The effects of these crises had been a hardening of attitudes and an increase in distrust between the different European powers;
  • His engagement with American and British academics was important in inspiring his own criticisms of the methodological assumptions within the German historical profession;
  • It represented the culmination of the diplomatic history approach of the interwar years;
  • They both combine research across a mass of published primary and archival sources in several languages with a command of the sprawling secondary literature;
  • The Eastern Question and The Balkans Throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Ottoman Empire had lost land in the Balkans to the peoples who lived there;
  • In 1918, the Swedish paper Politiken published documents written by the former German ambassador to London, Prince Max von Lichnowsky 1860-1928 and designed for a small circle amongst the German elite.

The Russian mobilisation on 30 July allowed German leaders to rally different strands of popular opinion, particularly the socialist and trade union movement, to a war of defence against Tsarist autocracy. The debate about responsibility was infused with moral claims from the outset, as each side attributed to their enemies the responsibility for violating norms of international politics by waging aggressive war.

Without access to the diplomatic documents, scholars interpreted the origins of the war in the context of allegedly long-standing cultural and social differences. Debates about the conduct of war, particularly the early reports of atrocitiesand war aims became intertwined with arguments about the responsibility for war.

Werner Sombart 1863-1941 explained that all wars resulted from opposing beliefs. Information flowed relatively easily across the lines. Writers could get hold of pamphlets written by enemy citizens.

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Speeches of enemy leaders were reprinted in newspapers — if only to serve as a foil for immediate rebuttal of the claims to moral superiority and political moderation. Debates between the belligerents about the origins of the war also took place in neutral spaces, particularly in the United States until its entry into the war in 1917. Delegations of academics toured neutral states. On occasion, the press in neutral states published important material.

In 1918, the Swedish paper Politiken published documents written by the former German ambassador to London, Prince Max von Lichnowsky 1860-1928 and designed for a small circle amongst the German elite.

Allied authors happily a history of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 upon these documents to buttress their arguments that German leaders had pursued a reckless course during the July crisis. Although the to-and-fro between belligerent politicians and scholars about responsibility dominated debate, other academic and political communities contributed novel perspectives.

Edmund Dene Morel 1873-1924 and the Union of Democratic Control argued that secret diplomacy was the fundamental cause of the war — and in making this argument they staked their claims for future parliamentary control of foreign policy. In retrospect, the most important contributions to these debates came from Vladimir Lenin 1870-1924Bolsheviks, and other socialist opponents of the war.

In September 1915, socialist opponents of the war from around Europe gathered at the Swiss town of Zimmerwald. He drew on pre-war criticisms of imperialism and the corrupting relationship between capitalism and the state by the British author, J. Hobson 1858-1940amongst others. Viewing the war as a clash of capitalist imperialist states had obvious political attractions for socialist revolutionaries. It challenged the arguments of socialist supporters of the war that it was waged in defence of the nation.

By linking the origins of the war to the suffering of millions, it legitimised Bolshevik demands for dramatic social and political reform. After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they never sought to defend the record of Tsarist foreign policy and published volumes of incriminating primary sources. Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles stated: The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage, to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

The article was inserted by the American delegation, with John Foster Dulles 1888-1959the future secretary of state, playing a central role in its drafting.

Outbreak of World War I

The American concept sought to place claims for reparations on a legal basis, rather than the right of victory.

Article 231 therefore underpinned key features of the treaty and the wider political design of the post-war order, including reparations and international law. This made the article an obvious target for German attacks. He changed the meaning of the article from one of legal and political responsibility to one of moral and national honour. He completed the process of fusing moral and political categories, evident in the earliest debates about the origins of the war.

This fusion and the high political stakes made historical research into the origins of the war fraught in the 1920s. Between Politics and History: Historical research in the former belligerent societies served political agendas. Historians were often willing participants in this highly politicised debate about the origins of the war.

European History

They gained prestige and funding from their association with major national causes. As importantly, historians often shared the broad views of their respective foreign ministries. And even those who were sceptical of emerging national narratives about the origins of the war still relied heavily upon sources published under the aegis of the foreign ministries.

Publishing massive collections of documents became a central feature of interwar research and debate. A three-man team edited the collection. A concern to downplay German acts of aggression influenced the selection and editing of documents. Other states followed suit.

Political concerns were at the fore. Pierre de Margerie 1861-1942the French ambassador to Berlin, warned Prime Minister Aristide Briand 1862-1932 in 1926 — in the era of Franco-German rapprochement — that France would lose the contest for world opinion unless it followed suit. As in Die Grosse Politik the selection of documents reflected political imperatives. The lead editor was M. He joined the Bolshevik party after the 1917 revolution and played an influential role in developing education policy.

The documents were translated into German — but not into English or French — under the guidance of Otto Hoetzsch 1876-1946a leading German expert on Russian politics. Financed by a German loan, four Austrian historians edited eight volumes of Austro-Hungarian diplomatic documents. The volume of documents in these collections overwhelmed other sources produced in the interwar period. Archives and personal collections of papers were generally inaccessible — or else made public through the publication of memoirs.

These publications therefore had considerable weight in shaping the debate over the origins of the war. First, the choice of German and French historians and officials to start the series in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war pushed the search for the a history of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 back from the immediate context of the July crisis and the years immediately preceding the war.

This gave rise to a narrative that emphasised the flaws of the international order, rendering war a likely outcome of decades of great power rivalries. Second, the study of the origins of the war became the study of diplomatic history.

Without access to significant materials from other ministries or personal papers, historians generally worked on the assumption that the key decisions were made in the foreign ministries. This downplayed the role of military and economic groups in making foreign policy. Sources for public opinion were available — in 1931 Malcolm Carroll 1893-1959 published his important study of French public opinion and foreign policy — but these were under-utilised.

Third, the publication of so many volumes ensured that historians often had access to several accounts of the one event or discussion.

World War I

By the late 1920s, historians were busily digesting the mass of documents. American historians — most prominently Bernadotte Schmitt 1886-1969Sidney Fay 1876-1967William Langer 1886-1959and Harry Elmer Barnes 1889-1968 — were at the fore of the debate. For the first time since the outbreak of the war, historians began to achieve some critical distance from the subject, even if they were working with documentary materials shaped by the political struggles over article 231.

This confirmed his findings in an earlier volume on the July crisis. It represented the culmination of the diplomatic history approach of the interwar years. The aggressive, expansionist foreign and military policies of the Third Reich compelled contemporaries to think anew about the relationship between German domestic politics and the origins of major European wars from the 1860s to the 1940s.

The relationship between academic and political debate is illustrated by two contributions to the debate. The first example is A. The chapter was rejected for its allegedly pessimistic reading of German history, so Taylor responded by writing a full survey.

The First World War and its origins became a central part of this narrative. In typically irreverent and suggestive style, Taylor argued that the origins of the war were primarily rooted in the crisis-prone politics of the German Empire after 1906. Foreign policy setbacks — the formation of the Triple Entente between 1904 and 1907 and an over-reliance on the Austro-Hungarian ally — and the increasing fragility of Bismarckian constitutional settlement of 1871 increased the willingness of German leaders to pursue highly risky policies.

Success in war served domestic agendas, buttressing authoritarian elites against democratic reforms. After 1945 German historians faced the task of giving an historical context for the Third Reich, while also renewing German historiographical traditions.

The German historian and veteran of the First World War Gerhard Ritter 1888-1967 published Machtstaat und Utopie in 1940, a partially disguised attempt to separate the Nazi regime from its self-proclaimed roots in German history.

For Ritter, Hitler represented a perversion of politics, the subordination of politics to war. The roots of the Hitler regime, Ritter suggested, lay in the triumph of military over political considerations, which brought about the destruction of the political order and moral conventions.

The Schlieffen Plan, which privileged technical military considerations over what was politically possible, represented the triumph of the military over politics. Ritter criticised Bethmann Hollweg and others for their unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of military necessity over political judgement. As the volumes were published after the war, he also saw them as a contribution to the debate about strategy in an age of nuclear war.

Bismarck and the Prussian conservative state were rescued from the opprobrium heaped upon them by the Allies and critical foreign historians, such as Taylor. Within the West German historical profession in the 1950s, the origins of the war lay in the anarchical international system and modern militarism.

Certainly the most passionate debate since the early 1920s, the Fischer controversy was perhaps also the most nationally bounded debate on the origins of the war. From the time of the infamous War Council meeting in December 1912, he argued, German leaders planned a war of aggression. The drive to war resulted from increasing anxiety amongst German elites about the deterioration of the domestic and international stability of the Empire. Crucially, Fischer argued, German leaders had brought this situation upon themselves.

At home, they stalled on constitutional changes, while German isolation in international politics was the result of menacing moves over Morocco and the Balkans after the turn of the century. It was a case of self-encirclement. He showed how military and political leaders prepared for war from late 1912, increasing the size of the army and fostering aggressive a history of the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 public opinion.

The origins of the First World War

This interpretation significantly reduced the interpretive weight placed on the international system. His interpretation derived from a methodological move, from the primacy of foreign policy to the primacy of domestic politics.