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Who Was to Blame for the First World War?

The finger-pointing about who caused the First World War began almost as soon as the war was over. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany accepted responsibility but the Germans angrily denied that the war was their fault. The French insisted that the treaty correctly apportioned blame, but the Americans were very wary of putting the whole blame for the war on one country, and within a few years the British had changed their tune too: David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, described the states of Europe as having somehow slid into war, with no one country more to blame than any of the others.

In the 1920s and 1930s, governments of the countries who’d fought in the war started publishing vast collections of official documents, all designed to ‘prove’ that ‘Whoever started this war, it wasn’t us!’ These collections certainly produced lots more work for historians to do, but they didn’t settle the question, especially once the Second World War had broken out. ‘Look at that’, some people said, ‘Germans cause wars’. But as the dust settled, and Germany was divided between East and West during the Cold War, many people took a more sympathetic view: the Second World War had been caused by the Nazis, they said, so Germany couldn’t have caused the First World War.

Then Professor Fritz Fischer came along with his theory and spoiled everything. In 1962, he published a book called Germany’s War Plans in the First World War which pointed out that, a month into the war, the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, had drawn up a list of all the territory Germany wanted to take over. ‘Look!’ said Fischer, ‘This shows that Germany wanted a war of expansion in 1914, just like Hitler.’ ‘Oh no it doesn’t,’ said his critics. ‘A list drawn up after the war started doesn’t count.’

So Professor Fischer delved further into the archives and came up with evidence that seemed to suggest Germany had been planning and hoping for war before 1914. Fischer’s theory didn’t win him many friends in Germany: German historians accused him of being a traitor to his country and they even tried to stop him going to America to talk about his work. But people in other countries were very interested.

The question of who, if anyone, was to blame for the war still generates enormous controversy today. Many historians think Fischer produced powerful evidence of German warmongering, even if he let some other guilty parties, such as Austria-Hungary, off too lightly. But not everyone agrees: some people still think that blame should be spread fairly evenly across all the Great Powers of 1914 and that they stumbled blindly into war, like sleepwalkers, as the title of one such work puts it. And others argue that, because the European Great Powers all controlled large overseas empires, which they’d taken over by force, it hardly matters who set the war off: they were all as guilty as each other. The First World War may be long over, but the debate still goes on.

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