New theories clash over causes of carnage

As the hundredth anniversary of World War One approaches, a flurry of new books offers a bewildering range of answers to the question that has dogged history for decades: who was to blame?

Ninety-nine years and eight months ago, a militant Serbian nationalist fired two fatal shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The assassination lit the fuse on a series of diplomatic events culminating in a war that killed over ten million young men and changed beyond recognition the face of Europe and the world.

About that much, at least, historians are agreed. But beyond the bloody drama of its initial spark, there is little consensus about the true cause of World War One. Debate has raged back and forth ever since the first shot was fired, spawning ‘a historical literature of unrivalled size, sophistication and intensity’. Now, as the war’s centenary approaches, this war of words has flared to a new pitch.

This much we know: in the decades leading up to 1914, Europe had become divided into two alliances. On one side stood the ‘Entente Powers’ of France, Russia and Britain; on the other, the ‘Central Powers’ led by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As a nation, Germany was very young. The Prussian king had established an Empire from a fragmented array of small states in 1871 after subjecting France to a humiliating defeat. The old European powers were daunted by this bold new beast in the diplomatic stables. And the new power was both ambitious and insecure. At breakneck speed Germany built up a navy to rival that of Britain, whose mastery of the sea had been beyond dispute.

Franz Ferdinand’s murder triggered the knotty alliance networks and launched these mighty militaries into action: Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilised against Austria, Germany attacked Russia, and so on. But who was to blame?

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the victors’ answer was clear: the Versailles Treaty portrayed Germany as an aggressive, expansionist dictatorship which, by attacking Russia, had fired the first shot.

Gradually, however, a different narrative emerged: the great powers had complacently ‘sleep-walked’ into a conflict that nobody wanted. Every one of Europe’s leaders was complicit in the posturing and brinkmanship that led to war; each was culpable.

Trench warfare

Until the 1960s, this was the accepted version of events. But then, as Germany agonised over its role in World War Two, one German historian challenged the consensus. The Kaiser had been plotting a war of conquest for years, he claimed. The fault lay with Germany after all.

But the intellectual battle rages to this day. In recent months, historians have published books pointing the finger of blame in many directions: Germany, France, the European aristocracy, imperialism, nationalism, class struggle or even a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

You Decide

  1. Can history help us understand the present? How?
  2. Is history driven by individuals or abstract forces?


  1. As a class, come up with five factors that contributed to the start of World War One. Which do you think were the most important ones?
  2. ‘Europe slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’ – David Lloyd George. Do you agree? Sketch the plan for an essay answering this question.

Some People Say...

“There is no history. Only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.’Voltaire”

What do you think?

Q & A

Could anything like this happen again?
Some warn that the collapse of the EU could spark another mass conflict. But that’s a provocative and contentious suggestion. We should never be complacent about the possibility of another world war, but for now such an eventuality looks remote – in Europe at least.
So it might happen somewhere else?
Some historians note ominous similarities between the Europe of 1914 and the current situation in the Middle East. A region divided into two broad alliances, disputed territories, nationalist movements and a local war dragging major powers into a high-stakes conflict. Could Syria be now what Sarajevo was then? Nobody knows for sure.

Word Watch

Serbian nationalist
In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled over large sections of the Balkans. Many Serbian nationalists wanted Slavic countries to be united under independent rule, and some resorted to terrorism to achieve their goals.
Unrivalled size
A 1991 survey counted 25,000 books and articles written in English alone, and since then there have been many more. The quotation is from the historian Christopher Clark.
An Empire built on union between the two great monarchies of Austria and Hungary, which also incorporated into its territory several less powerful nations. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after being defeated in World War One.
A region in the north-east corner of Germany which grew increasingly powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries before finally uniting German principalities and city states into an empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Versailles Treaty
The treaty that ended the war to the advantage of Britain and France, in which Germany was blamed for the conflict and forced to pay enormous ‘reparations’. Resentment about this settlement is often cited as an important factor in Hitler’s rise to power.
German historian
The influential academic Fritz Fischer is generally credited with breathing new life into this debate.


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