Germany and the Cause of the First World War

“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.” clause 231 Treaty of Versailles, 19191

Background

The war guilt clause was signed, under duress, by German representatives at Versailles, 1919. Clause 231 has been a matter of intense debate as it justified the enormous reparations bill that Germany was saddled with. What’s at stake is: Did Germany cause the war with the other Great Powers reacting justifiably to aggression? This blog doesn’t look outside Germany’s culpability but focuses on its decision making prior to the war. Specifically, I consider the amateurism of the German High Command and Kaiser Wilhelm in decision making. This is in contradistinction to Bismarck’s creative use of alliances which were aimed at maintaining peace. As a consequence, Bismarck features heavily in the discussion.

Bismarck and German War Guilt

Bismarck, Germany’s greatest strategist, planned wars, their timing and exit strategy. Wars for Bismarck were, ‘diplomacy by other means,’ to paraphrase Clausewitz.2 Bismarck’s armies crushed France in a rapid campaign in 1870-1 but he set limited objectives and the war finished when those objectives were achieved. He didn’t permit reckless adrenaline fuelled triumphalism.

Germany’s 1914 war guilt is rooted in the repudiation of the Bismarckian concept of war as a means to an objective rather than the militarism ideal of war as an end in itself. Bismarckian alliances were designed to thwart French desires for revenge after the 1871 catastrophe. They lost Alsace-Lorraine and their army was humiliated. The Bismarckian system of alliances were built to prevent Austria-Hungary and Russia from forming offensive pacts with France which could be used against Germany from their eastern and western frontiers.

By 1914 only the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary remained. Meanwhile, Russia had become part of the fairly loose Triple Entente with France and Britain. France very much had the better of the new alliance system. (Austria-Hungary was a corpse in comparison to Germany.) Russia too had suffered a catastrophe in the 1905 war with Japan. As a result they’d lost their First Rate Power status in western European eyes. They did however have a strategically important place on Germany’s frontier along with enormous manpower, which was critical in an era of mass armies.

Germany’s post-Bismarckian mentality was wedded to militarism, which denied the primacy of diplomacy. Kaiser Wilhelm’s generals were ‘armchair’ tacticians without relevant experience of warfare. They knew military theory but nothing of the so-called ‘fog of war’ when the best laid plans go awry under battlefield pressure. Their plans were brilliant until tested. The higher echelons of the German army were hopelessly inexperienced because of Bismarck’s successful Great European Peace, 1871-1914. They didn’t have a rationale for beginning the war in 1914. And they didn’t have an exit plan. Germany’s war guilt is rooted in its amateurism, which was expressed in bombastic, over-confident militarism.

German Alliances and War Guilt

Alliances are the military analog [sic] to investment portfolios….allies must requite a claim on another’s military effort with a similar pledge of their own resources.3

The key point in Conybeare’s definition is reciprocity. Alliances demand mutual benefits. They’re purposeful. Bismarck provided Germany, and the world, with a masterclass in the meaning and use of alliances. Following the humiliation of France in 1871, he spent twenty years ensuring France couldn’t make meaningful alliances. He prevented France from posing a threat to Germany’s security and thwarted their desire for revenge.

His [Bismarck] particular concern was to keep France isolated and prevent it from forming closer ties with any of the other great powers.”4

Austria-Hungary was a multi-national empire stretching across central Europe. In 1871 it was an ideal ally for France. Europe’s geography meant Germany would face a two-front war if Austria-Hungary and France launched an offensive war. This normally guaranteed defeat. Therefore Bismarck created alliances with Austria-Hungary. This denied France the opportunity to ‘encircle’ Germany. Likewise Russia, who had a massive threatening presence on Germany’s eastern frontier. Despite not being a first rate Power Russia was, to all intents and purposes, unbeatable as demonstrated by Napoleon’s defeat in 1812. Bismarckian alliances were solely for Germany’s benefit. Any benefits accruing to other participants was incidental.

In 1890, Bismarck was sacked. A justification for sacking Bismarck was he represented a by-gone era. He opposed the development of overseas territories. Bismarck was a hindrance to Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperial pretensions with his negative attitude, “[he].remained as contemptuous of all colonial dreams as ever.”(my emphasis) 5 He was an old man and patronised Kaiser Wilhelm, which was intolerable.

An immediate consequence of Bismarck’s sacking was the non-renewal of Germany’s alliance with Russia. Four years later his alliance system ended when France and Russia signed the Dual Entente. Although not a formal alliance, it purposefully excluded Germany. France wooed Russia in sharp contrast to Germany’s badly concealed superiority. The subtlety of the Dual Entente as a non-binding alliance was its ‘understanding.’ Obligations would only be triggered, if and when, France and Russia accepted them. This informal ‘balance of power’ meant German aggression in Europe was made less likely. A German attack on France implied a Russian attack from the east. And vice versa.

Britain entered a similar alliance with France, the Entente Cordiale, 1904. The French diplomatic coup created the Triple Entente, 1907, which was generally assumed to be anti-German. Bismarck’s nightmare became a reality after 36 years of peace. France had brought the world’s greatest industrial and naval power on their side. The Cordiale alliances brought together the latent manpower of the British empire and the seemingly unlimited resources of Russia.5 (It should be borne in mind that in 1914 France and Russia shared frontiers with Germany.) Offensive pre-emptive attacks were especially worrisome and were one motive for the Schlieffen Plan.

Bismarck’s alliance system maintained European peace throughout his period as Chancellor. As he grew old his views were unwelcome, as they actively prevented Germany from emulating other European empires. The army had had no ‘glory’ from decades of peace. Although it’s a pious claim that peace is the aim of diplomacy, not every statesman prefers it. In a militaristic state peace isn’t the preferred option. This is especially true of generals at the end of their careers who’ve never led an army into battle and serve a king who desperately wanted to be lauded as a victorious leader.

The Schlieffen Plan and War Guilt

Alfred von Schlieffen, born 1833, was Chief of the General Staff 1893-1905. His ‘Plan’ repudiated Bismarck’s focus on avoiding war by diplomacy. In his role as Chief of the General Staff he ‘solved’ the perennial problem of France. Bismarck’s policy from 1871 had been to isolate France from meaningful alliances, which he did successfully. Schlieffen, with Kaiser Wilhelm’s agreement, pivoted German foreign policy into a military campaign plan which ignored diplomacy. He also repudiated the axiom that fighting two-front wars was so disastrous that they should be avoided at all costs. Schlieffen destroyed Bismarck’s diplomatic and military legacy by planning a war, which was impossible to win given the known logistics of the opponents.

Schlieffen won battlefield promotion in 1870, which was also his last wartime experience. After 1871 the army lost its sense of purpose as Bismarck ended conflicts through his diplomatic triumphs. Schlieffen rose through the ranks until he was Kaiser Wilhelm’s most senior officer. By1905, when he wrote the defining ‘Plan’ his military experiences were remote. They’d atrophied into amateurism. Schlieffen retired in 1905, aged 72, leaving a poison capsule behind. His successors suffered from military Groupthink which meant they’d lost their critical faculties and were unable to critique and evaluate the ‘Plan’. Instead they tinkered with it whilst accepting its ultimate premise.

Schlieffen’s successor was von Moltke (the Younger) who was born in 1848. He was 22 in 1870 and was courageous on the battlefield. In the struggle to become Chief of the General Staff, in 1905 he wasn’t the favourite. Importantly though, he was a courtier personally known to Kaiser Wilhelm. He also had the psychologically important surname ‘von Moltke’ (his uncle led the succesful armies in 1870) with all the historical connotations that that had. He accepted Schlieffen’s premise that a two-front war was winnable and developed the plan by strenghtening the eastern front. The enhanced eastern front was at the expense of the western front, which faced the stronger French. Von Moltke made a dubious plan worse, virtually guaranteeing defeat.

Von Moltke was an amateur. Confronting the threat posed by the Dual Entente he didn’t understand Bismarck and made no attempt to neutralise the threat from France and Russia. Von Moltke concocted a military ‘solution’ to a diplomatic problem. His principal cheerleader was Kaiser Wilhelm who lived in the reflected glory of 1871 when the German empire had been created through unification in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. He too wanted his moment of glory by joining the pantheon of great kings.

Maintaining good morale and focus meant the army had to do something. This poisoned the political atmosphere. Generals were also courtiers. Kaiser Wilhelm’s image showed him in full military uniform resplendent with braid and medals on virtually all occasions.7 Germany was a democracy but the army had a cult like status, reflecting the traditions of a dead world. This was fatal for Kaiser Wilhelm who appointed aristocrats to critical positions regardless of abilty. The most egregious example was his son, aged 32, who commanded the Fifth Army in the 1914. He’d only ever previously commanded a regiment. He had no relevant military experience on either active or war game battlefields.

The ‘Plan’ was predicated on a two-front war with France and Russia. Schlieffen recognised that a two-front war was untenable but decided that the circle could be squared. The 1870 attack had been decisive and the war was over in six weeks before the new French government rallied support to hold out for further five months.8 Schlieffen believed that a knock-out blow was so feasible he based his entire strategy on it. France’s rapid defeat would allow the German army to pivot and defeat Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was two consecutive wars not a simultaneous two-front war.

Schlieffen took it as axiomatic that Germany was the only first-rate military force in Europe and had sufficient superiority that success was guaranteed. Winning a two-front war, long regarded as a military impossibility, was seen as a certainty by men who’d struggled in a colonial war against ‘natives’.9 Schlieffen discounted Britain, as a European power. He believed Britain was disinterested in Europe and was only concerned with its empire. Consequently he dismissed the terms of the Entente Cordiale. ‘Friendly Understanding’ for Schlieffen was literally meaningless.His successors failed to factor in the anti-German atmosphere existing in Britain. This anti-German atmosphere was generated by Kaiser Wilhelm’s futile attempt to compete with Britain’s naval strength. The attempt to create a competitive German navy produced an enormous popular backlash in Britain with a jingoist campaign for more Dreadnought battleships.

When a scare over German naval construction developed over the winter 1908-9, [British] public feeling was such that crowds petitioned parliament to build more warships with chants of ‘We want eight and we won’t wait!”10

Schlieffen despised the Russians after their defeat by the Japanese in 1905 on both land and sea. He assumed Russian incompetence was so great that they couldn’t mobilise their armies in less than six weeks. Once on the battlefield they’d be crushed. Therefore Schlieffen ‘calculated’ the French army could be swept to one side within the window of opportunity caused by the laggardly Russian mobilisation. He also assumed Britain would stay on the sidelines, avoiding involvement in a European conflict.

Each of his assumptions was wrong.

Schlieffen also got the timing of the war and the ‘justification’ wrong. Worse: “The Schlieffen Plan needed 21 divisions that in 1914 didn’t exist.”Schlieffen wrote the plan but von Moltke was the Chief of the General Staff in 1914. It was his amateurism that was the principal culpable factor causing the war. Von Moltke had huge reservations11 about the Schlieffen Plan, even though he tinkered with it, making it worse. His pessimism was such that after the battle of Marne, August 1914, he correctly believed the war for Germany was lost.

Austria-Hungary and German War Guilt

Because the German High Command was staffed by amateurs, they failed to recognise an untenable situation when it stared them in the face. Austria-Hungary was in terminal decline and facing unrest from various nationalities within their territories. The empire was in danger of splintering like the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. One ‘solution’ which gained traction in government circles was that a war would rally support. Austria-Hungary’s Emperor, Franz Joseph, 1848-1916, believed the integrity of the empire could be retained. He demanded that every method should be used to sustain the empire, which set the scene for his heir, Franz Ferdinand, going to Sarajevo in the Balkans. The intention was, almost unbelievably, to extend Austria-Hungarian influence. He was assassinated there. One consequence of the assassination was to ramp up demands on the Serbian government to the point where war was inevitable. Norman Stone summed up the Austria-Hungarian position,

…their quarrel with Serbia was endowed with a bitterness and irrationality that made compromise impossible…squalid bickering with Balkan states was an unworthy occupation for men who sat at Meternich’s desk…”12

The Balkans were a hotbed of nationalism, racism, religious conflicts and grotesque grievences dating back hundreds of years. Immediately prior to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination there’d been two Balkan wars. The principal unifying theme was ridding the region of Ottoman influence. Once the Ottomans were gone, the other Great Powers stepped in with alliances between what had become mortal enemies. Serbia was supported by Russia, which made a Great Power conflict possible when tensions escalated.13 That escalation became a virtual certainty when Kaiser Wilhelm said he would, “…stand loyally by Austria-Hungary in accordance with his treaty obligations and in old friendship”.14 This single statement repudiates everything Bismarck had worked for throughout his life because there were literally no benefits for Germany in this commitment. It was the triumph of diplomatic amateurism.

For the nine years before 1914, the German army had prepared for a war against France with a second attack on Russia planned to follow immediately afterwards. Kaiser Wilhelm said Germany’s armies would “stand loyally” by Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, giving a clear impression that Germany’s armies would be active. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He knew his armies were irreversibly locked into an offensive war plan against France. Germany’s armies were designed for an offensive war against France, being guided by Schlieffen’s remark that, “…Attack is the best defence...”15 Once a substantive decision was made to mobilise, standing down the army was a logistical nightmare and a political impossibility. They wouldn’t stand the army down because Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals were crudely confident. One general said, “In two weeks we shall defeat France, then we shall turn round defeat Russia and then we shall march to the Balkans and establish order there.”16 It’s almost impossible to believe this bombastic nonesense was said by a general.

The Balkans didn’t feature in the Schlieffen Plan. They couldn’t feature when Germany’s armies were in place for a war on Germany’s western front. The historian A J P Taylor said that the mobilisation of armies depended on railway timetables, which isn’t as quirky as it sounds.

All mobilization plans depended on railways. At that time [1914] the automobile was hardly used, certainly not as an instrument of mass transport. All the mobilization plans had been timed to the minute, months or even years before and they could not be changed.”17

The moment Germany’s armies mobilised, Austria-Hungary and Serbia were forgotten. All that mattered was the knock-out blow which Germany had to inflict on France. If anything prevented that then effectively Germany had lost the war in a matter of weeks. The German High Command were both amateurs and reckless gamblers. Kaiser Wilhelm endorsed these people and in the case of von Moltke, the Chief of the General Staff, had personally selected someone who was inferior to other candidates.

Germany’s war plans were an offensive set of plans having the flexibility of concrete. Germany’s war guilt wasn’t due to Austria-Hungary. It was due to Germany misleading Franz Joseph’s government by suggesting they’d actively support them when Russia mobilised after the Austria-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. Every single member of Germany’s High Command could and should have said that intervention was literally impossible. When Germany’s armies struck France they weren’t fulfilling promises to Franz Joseph, they were seizing a moment to implement a long-standing grandiose plan. This plan had little contact with military reality.

Conclusion

Germany caused the First World War through its amateurism which was expressed in the endemic militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm.

The Great European Peace was unwelcome to Kaiser Wilhelm and his principal advisors in the army and Foreign Office. They dismantled the Bismarckian alliance system with appalling consequences. Tethering Germany to Austria-Hungary without positive benefits for Germany’s interests was quintessential amateurism. That amateurism permeated every decision it made. Although Kaiser Wilhelm was half British and had known Britain well since childhood, he had a tin ear about their political priorities. Even a half interested observer should have known about the centrality of the navy in British sensitivities.18 German expansion of the navy was a provocation, which would have immediate political consequences, almost certainly to Germany’s detriment. This provides the context within which the 1914 British intervention occurred.

Britain used the invasion of neutral Belgium to promote its interests. The notion that Britain was defending ‘gallant’ Belgium when they sent troops in response to the German invasion, is naive. The German miscalculation was compounded by the astonishing proposition that Belgium would permit their armies free passage through their territories. The German army had 750,000 men opposed by 117,000 Belgians.19 The Belgian army was stronger than it looked because it had static defensive positions. Two of Schlieffen’s principal assumptions about Britain and Belgium faltered and collapsed within days of being tested in a competitive war.

Clause 231 says war was,”…a consequence of the…the aggression of Germany and her allies”. The German armies were organised and trained for an offensive war but it wasn’t aggression that caused the war. Germany was guilty by virtue of the amateurism of Kaiser Wilhelm, his diplomats and High Command. They were culpable because they failed to understand the depth of their obvious inexperience.

Notes

1 Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles Wikipedia

2 Clausewitz: War as Politics by other Means | Online Library of Liberty (libertyfund.org)

3 John A. C. Conybeare. “A Portfolio Diversification Model of Alliances: The Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, 1879-1914.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 36, no. 1, 1992, pp. 53–85. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/174505. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021. p57

4 Alliance System | Encyclopedia.com

5 German colonial empire Wikipedia

6 “Nearly 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought for the British Empire in the First World War, both in Asia and in Europe.” The British Empire and the First World War: the colonial experience • International Socialism (isj.org.uk)

7 For many images of Kaiser Wilhelm see kaiser wilhelm Google Search

8 Franco-Prussian War – Wikipedia

9 Massacring ‘natives’ in South West Africa didn’t compare in any shape or form with the Boer Wars. For German South West Africa see German South-West Africa Colony of Germany from 1884-1915 (totallyhistory.com)

10 We want eight and we wont wait!: Democracy, Strategy and the Navy on the eve of the First World War | Royal Museums Greenwich (rmg.co.uk)

11 Zuber, Terence. “The Schlieffen Plan Was an Orphan.” War in History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2004, pp. 220–225. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26061870. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021. p223 Compare von Moltke’s pro-war attitude with his statement, “…a war which will annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come…” Snyder, Jack. “Better Now Than Later: The Paradox of 1914 as Everyone’s Favored Year for War.”International Security, vol. 39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 71–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24480545. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021. 12 Stone, Norman. “Hungary and the Crisis of July 1914.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 1, no. 3, 1966, pp. 153–170. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/259940. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021. Meternich was an early ‘version’ of Bismarck dominating early 19th century European politics.

13 The July Crisis: an ultimatum and an unexpected response Federal Foreign Office (auswaertiges-amt.de)

14 loc.cit.

15 Van Evera, Stephen. “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War.” International Security, vol. 9, no. 1, 1984, pp. 58–107. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2538636. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021. p59

16 loc.cit p67 This quote has the intellectual integrity of a Monty Python sketch

17 Roads to the Great War: A.J.P. Taylors War by Railroad Timetables Theory (roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com)

18 The Agadir Crisis, 1911, saw the Germans use a gunboat, the Panther, as part of their ‘gunboat’ diplomacy. This backfired with the British supporting the French and even entering into an alliance with them. Britain would never compromise witht heir belief that they should have over-whelming naval superiority.

19 German invasion of Belgium | Military Wiki | Fandom (wikia.org)

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