A Verdict on the First World War’s Guilty Parties

Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn’t that be a sight? — Achilles, Troy (2004).


Despite ten decades of detailed research on the First World War, the question of which country bears the most ‘war-guilt’ and why, remains an obsessive puzzle to seasoned historians and rookies like me. The difficulty that arises in solving this puzzle is that it is not enough to just prove how country X is responsible for starting the war. The responsible historian must also prove why countries Y and Z do not bear the burden of the same. Nevertheless, this writer is certain of the fact that Europe did not ‘sleepwalk’[1] into war.

Keeping the above caveat in mind, I argue that the German government does indeed bear the main responsibility. But first, after a brief look at the literature, I shall explain why it is unfair to assign the main responsibility of crisis escalation on the other four great powers and Serbia. However, not being mainly responsible does not absolve these countries of faults, which is why I have arranged my study of these five countries in an ascending order, that is, from least guilty to most guilty. Finally, I talk about Germany’s desire for war, and the prospects of negotiations and peace-making during the July Crisis, that were knowingly and willingly destroyed by the Germans. To quote Erich von Falkenhayn[2]:

Wenn wir auch darüber zugrunde gehen, schön wars doch (Even if we perish over this, it will still have been worth it).


Apart from the “Fischer Thesis”, that blames Germany for deliberately provoking a war to achieve expansionist foreign policy objectives, Thomas Lindemann argues that the Germans wanted war, but the objective was not international expansionism but preservation of the domestic status-quo, that is, the monarchy. Volker Berghahn disagrees with Fischer that Germany had planned and waited for the war since 1912, but he does say that Germany, with belief in its military superiority, utilized the July Crisis to spark the war. Mark Hewitson says that Germans fears about the enemy had shifted from the French to the Russians, and they purposefully risked escalation, believing that if push comes to shove, they would win.

If a German is reading this paper, she/he needn’t feel too bad. Sidney Fay blames Austria-Hungary for starting the war, but Germany worsened the crisis. Luigi Albertini asks us to not forget that, despite the German blank cheque, it was the Austrians who had first asked the former for support against anti-Serbian aggression, knowing that the Russians can’t be deterred. On that note, Dominic Lieven defends accusations against Russia, arguing that Russia had no choice but to stand by Serbia. Sean McMeekin on the other hand, says that Serbia to Russia was a red herring, and it wanted a pretext for war with its core objective being expansionism across the Mediterranean. Niall Ferguson interestingly faults Britain for the war, arguing that Britain could have limited hostilities by staying out and co-existing with Germany in an altered Europe. Every perspective has its own appeal. I must make some of these perspectives less appealing before moving on to German war-guilt.


Great Britain — The Unsuccessful Peacemaker

The war for Britain, in terms of bloodshed, was the worst in its history. But Britain’s role in starting the war is the most minimal of the five. It did not have any significant interests in the Balkans, and it did try to mediate between the great powers to prevent the outbreak of war. In fact, most of the criticism against Britain in this context is that it did not do enough to resolve inter-power tensions.

Germany’s naval build-up and the First Moroccan Crisis induced fears about aggression, as noted by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey:

An entente between Russia, France and we would be secure. If it is necessary to check Germany it could then be done.[3]

Therefore, in 1914, Britain was committed to supporting France and Russia in their war against the Germans. The lack of British intervention would have most likely led to a German victory, altering the European balance of power against Britain, which it could not allow. This was made clear to Berlin. Additionally, Britain was bound to guarantee Belgian neutrality, which was violated by Germany in the Battle of Liège. Britain didn’t want to enter the war, it had to. The question therefore is not about Britain’s decision to enter the war, but about Britain’s efforts to prevent it. But that very question is proof enough to acquit Britain in this war-guilt trial.

France — A Loyal Ally

France played a central role in why the war was not limited to the Balkans, but hardly responsible for the outbreak of war. Regardless of French foreign policy, France’s involvement in a European war had been inevitable and at least a decade in the making. Fierce hostility between them the Germans had existed since the 1870 German occupation of Alsace Lorraine. This hostility, combined with fear, made France enter the Dual Alliance with Russia in the early 1890s, an interdependent protection against German aggression that included France aiding Russia with loans and its military program.

The two Moroccan Crises between France and Germany, the two Balkan Wars that affected Russian and Austrian interests, and the French guarantee to Russia, demolished any chance of a European conflict to remain a localized one. A Russo-German conflict would certainly invite French intervention. Germany knew this, and even had a plan to deal with the enemy on either front. Moreover, it was Germany that declared on France on the 3rd of August. Therefore, the French cannot be blamed for remaining loyal to their alliance. The blame must be put on a country not bound by treaties, a country that acted independently.

Serbia — A Helpless Government

The Serbs, like the Germans, saw expansionism, or a ‘Greater Serbia’ as a steppingstone to power and prosperity. After the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Serbia emerged as a much-strengthened nation with a doubling of territory and a population increase from around three million to around four-and-a-half million.[4] Austria became wary of this, as a significant amount of discontented Serbs continued to reside in regions under Austrian control, especially in Croatia and Bosnia. Despite tensions over Albania, Serbia and Austria exercised restraint against each other, until the fateful of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb linked to the Black Hand, an anti-Habsburg secret military society.

To argue that Serbia was responsible for the outbreak of the war requires the historian to prove:

1. The government led by Nikola Pashich knew about the plot.

2. It had the capacity to prevent it.

3. It could have accepted the Austrian ultimatum (discussed later).

Firstly, Pashich and his cabinet were indeed aware of an anti-Austrian plot brewing, as is evident of from the report of Jakov Milovic, a Bosnian peasant who helped Princip reached Bosnia. Milovic was an agent of the Narodna Odbrana, a Serbian nationalist organization, who also supplied information to the Serbian Military Intelligence. The report clearly proves details of armed men entering Bosnia, along with ammunitions and explosives.[5] Therefore, the two key questions are:

1. Could the Serbian government have prevented the assassination?

2. Did the Serbs try to warn Austria?

Evidence suggests that the Pashich government did send warnings, albeit vague, to the Austrian government. Primary sources of these warnings can be viewed in endnote number 99 in Petrovich’s book, page 506. The harder question is the first one. Firstly, the Black Hand could not be controlled by the Pashich government, as they were riding the anti-Austrian wave. A crackdown would make the Pashich very unpopular. The other issue was that of intel. As Richard Hall argues, any attempt to uncover the plot would “uncover much of the Serbian intelligence network and there would be the risk of a coup d’état.”[6] Moreover, Dragutin Dimitrijević, who headed intelligence, wanted to see Pashich gone, and had aided the assassins. Circumstantially, Pashich’s capacity to prevent was minimal.

To conclude, there is a case in point blaming Serbia for not doing enough to prevent the outbreak of the crisis. Nevertheless, warnings were sent to Vienna and the Serbs were made an offer that they could not accept. Ultimately, the Serbs had no choice but to reject the ultimatum and brace for war.

Russia — The Reluctant Guardian

Firstly, there is no evidence to corroborate any theory of the Russians having any foreknowledge of the assassination plot. Thus, to argue Russian war-guilt, the historian must fault Russia for not restraining the Serbs, that is, instead of forcing them to accept the ultimatum, it gave its own ‘blank cheque’; and for mobilizing the army that deprived London of time to negotiate with Berlin to restrain Vienna.

But what else could the Russians do? They had to back Serbia. Strategically, an Austro-German occupation of Serbia would eventually transform it into a Habsburg protectorate, diminishing Russian influence in the Balkan. Russian submission to coercion by the Central Powers would also destroy its prestige in the Slavic world. How can the historian forget the Russian commitment to liberate the Slavs in the mid-1870s? Foreign Minister Sazanov too asserted that if Russia “failed to fulfil her historic mission” in defending the Slavonic nation that Serbia is, “she would be considered decadent state” and “would take second place among the great powers.”[7] Was pan-Slavism mere opportunism? I am not sure. But coercing the Serbs into accepting the ultimatum would be equivalent to capitulation — unacceptable to any great power.

Finally, L.C.F Turner has famously claimed that Russia’s decision to mobilize was wrong, that is, a mere threat of mobilization might have deterred Vienna and that they would have an advantage with deeper Austrian troops into Serbia. Hence there was no need to mobilize.[8] I argue otherwise. Firstly, the mobilization was partial, and to not do even that would leave them ridiculously unprepared for war. Russia is a massive country, everything takes time. Secondly, Russia mobilized, but it was Germany that declared war. The Willy–Nicky correspondence provides clear proof that mobilization was a defensive measure — “Understand you are obliged to mobilize but wish to have the same guarantee from you as I gave you, that these measures do not mean war…”.[9]

Thirdly, when partial mobilization did not deter Austrian Chief of Staff Conrad Hotzendorf, how could mere threats deter him? Finally, regarding Austrian troops, Lieven argues that pre-war Russian generals underestimated the strength of the Serbian army, and strongly believed in forcing Vienna into “dividing its strength between the Serbian and Russian fronts.”[10]

What about Germany? We know today that Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, even before he was aware of Russian mobilization, intended to send to Russia an ultimatum demanding that it ceases its military preparation.[11] It is not too hard to guess the Russian response, and the subsequent German declaration. The ball was not in the Russian court.

Austria-Hungary — The Dependent Aggressor

One thing should be made clear at the onset: the Austrians were the first to consider war as a response to Serbia, and their actions, with Germany’s blessing, during and after the July Crisis were meticulously calculated. Austria-Hungary did not ‘sleepwalk’ into war.

Austria did not want a European war; they wanted a localized war in the Balkans in which they would swiftly defeat and occupy Serbia. But contradictorily, the decision makers were fully aware that war with Serbia meant war with Russians. They knew that they needed help, and help is what the Hoyos Mission got them — a German declaration of support to Austria for their war on Serbia in the very near future, that is, a ‘blank cheque.’ Nevertheless, as Williamson says, the “casual response toward St. Petersburg remains puzzling”, and what’s without a doubt is the determination of Austria to “strike at Serbia regardless of the consequences.”[12]

Most meticulously calculated was the ten-point ultimatum. It was delivered to Belgrade on the 23rd of July with the objective of it being declined, specifically point number six that demanded an Austro-Hungarian investigation on Serbian soil regarding the archduke assassination. This is proven by the letters of the German counsellor in Vienna to Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Minister (FM) Jagow, in which he tells them that Austrian FM Count Berchtold

Hopes that Serbia rejects Austrian demands, as a mere diplomatic victory would put the country into stagnant mood for which they have no use.[13]

Prime Minister Pashich was made an offer that he could not accept as it would be a violation of Serbian sovereignty, with civilian and military backlash. On the 25th, Austria rejects Serbia’s response. On the 28th, war is declared and on the 29th, Belgrade is bombed.

By merely looking at the facts — the willingness to risk war with Russia, asking for German support, and the unacceptable ultimatum — one can easily deduce that Austria deserves more blame all others but Germany. It is a sad irony that the catalyst of war took the life of the one man who was a staunch advocate of a European peace, who had once prophetically prognosticated:

War with Russia means the end of us.[14]

Germany — The Power to Play God

As the news of Austria’s rejection of the Serbian reply reached the public, a shopkeeper in Freiburg noted with sadness that it was Russia “on whom alone war or peace depended.”[15] Surely a shopkeeper cannot be criticized for holding this opinion when many historians like Turner and Sean McMeekin, fault the Russians for Europeanising the Austro-Serbian crisis that would have otherwise, they argue, remained Balkanized. I unequivocally disagree.

Firstly, Germany, and Germany alone, had the power to decide what the future in Europe would look like. I have not come across a single piece of document that can prove Austria’s readiness to go to war sans the German blank cheque. Not only could Austria fill into the cheque whatever amount it chose, but it was urged by Germany to fill it in quickly. The key decision makers were the Kaiser, Bethmann-Hollweg, Chief of Staff Moltke and War Minister Falkenhayn. Such few men, so much power. Could these men have restrained Vienna and prevented an Austro-Russo-Serb clash in the first place? Absolutely. But instead, they chose war, because they wanted war. They needed war.

Fischer hits the nail on the head, arguing that the Germans entered the imperialistic competition of trade and colonies when the world had already been divided into spheres of influence, mostly by Britain, France and Russia. Its attempts to consolidate colonies to create an overseas empire between 1905 and 1914 ended up in one failure after another. By this time, policy makers had unanimity of thought about the need to weaken the French and the Russians, and the 1914 bid for war was indeed a “bid for world power.”

Why were the Germans so keen on war in July 1914? Bethmann-Hollweg worried about the Russia growing and weighing on them ‘like a nightmare’. In October 1913, Russia had initiated its ‘Large Program for Strengthening the Army’, which, by 1917, would make its army the largest in Europe. In July 1913, France upped conscription from two to three years. A future disadvantage in the European military balance of power made Germany feel encircled.[16]

Another rebuttal to those who fault Russia for Europeanizing the war — the Schlieffen Plan. As Joll argues, this plan (the only concrete existing war plan) made it impossible for Germany “to fight Russia without simultaneously going to war with France.” But it doesn’t end there. The war on the western front necessitated an invasion of Belgium, that would drag Britain into the war due to its obligation to defend Belgian neutrality by the 1839 Treaty of London.[17] How can Russia be held more responsible when Germany’s only plan made a European war inevitable?

There was one other hope for peace, offered by the Kaiser, that Austrian troops would occupy no further than Belgrade and stay put until Serbia took out the Black Hand. But the chancellor had none of it. Instead, he told the ambassador in Petersburg to warn the Russians that if they mobilized, a European war was inevitable.[18] The Kaiser was the final decision-making authority. He did not do enough and was easily swayed by Bethman-Hollweg and Falkenhayn about the necessity of urgent action.

A final note for every Germanophile’s favourite anti-Russian argument: mobilization. Firstly, as aforementioned, mobilization did not mean war. Secondly, Bethmann-Hollweg knew this. He has on record told the Prussian State Ministry that Russia “does not intend to wage war but has only been forced to take these measures because of Austria.”[19] But this element was ignored because by that time, the Central Powers had made up their mind. In order to look like victims of aggression to their own people, they propagated the idea of a defensive war against the East. The strategy paid off in arousing pro-war sentiments at home, and for four long years, the German people loudly cheered for the murderous dance that commenced on the 1st of August.


The sad truth is that Germany wanted war, because it believed it could win. Maybe it might have, had it not tried to deal with Mexico and angered the hitherto strictly neutral U.S.A. But to hold any other country responsible is to concede that that country had more power than Germany to control the course of events. But nothing was more decisive than the German blank cheque. Berlin could have leashed Vienna, but it did not, because it needed Vienna for its own plans of world domination. The lustful decisions of a few men killed millions. War, as they say, is young men dying and old men talking.


Primary Sources

1. British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, 11 vols. (London, 1926–1938).

2. Geiss, I (1974). July 1914: The Outbreak of the First World War: Selected Documents. W.W. Norton.

3. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams — World War I Document Archive.


1. Afflerbach, Holger: Falkenhayn. Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich, Munich 1996.

2. Albertini, L (1952–7). The Origins of the War of 1914, Oxford, 3 volumes.

3. Berghahn, Volker R (1977). Germany and the Approach of War in 1914. Macmillan Press.

4. Hamilton and Herwig (2008). The Origins of World War I, Cambridge University Press.

5. Joll, J (1976). Europe since 1870: An International History. Penguin.

6. Lieven, D.C.B (1983). Russia and the Origins of the First World War, Macmillan.

7. McDonald, D.M (1992). United Government and Foreign Policy in Russia, 1900–1914 (Cambridge, Mass.).

8. Petrovich, MB (1976). History of Modern Serbia, vol. 2, Harcourt.

9. Turner, L.C.F (1968). ‘The Russian Mobilization in 1914’, Journal of Contemporary History.

10. Watson, A (2014). Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918, Penguin.

11. Williamson, Samuel R (2007). Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. Macmillan.


[1] Reference to Christopher Clark’s book — The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

[2] Afflerbach, Holger: Falkenhayn. Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich, Munich 1996, p. 170.

[3] British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, 11 vols. (London, 1926–1938), vol. 3, no. 299, p. 266.

[4] Petrovich, MB (1976). History of Modern Serbia, vol. 2, Harcourt, pp. 603–4.

[5] Ibid, pp 390–95.

[6] Hall, R. In ‘Serbia’, Hamilton and Herwig (2008). The Origins of World War I, Cambridge University Press, p 107.

[7] McDonald, D.M (1992). United Government and Foreign Policy in Russia, 1900–1914 (Cambridge, Mass.), p 204.

[8] Turner, L.C.F (1968). ‘The Russian Mobilization in 1914’, Journal of Contemporary History.

[9] The Willy-Nicky Telegrams — World War I Document Archive.

[10] Lieven, D.C.B (1983). Russia and the Origins of the First World War, Macmillan, p 151.

[11] Albertini, L (1952–7). The Origins of the War of 1914, Oxford, 3 vols, vol. 3, pp 28 -31.

[12] Williamson, Samuel R (2007). Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. Macmillan, p 214.

[13] Letters of July 17 and July 18, cited in Geiss, I (1974). July 1914: The Outbreak of the First World War: Selected Documents. W.W. Norton.

[14] Tunstall, A. In ‘Austria-Hungary’, Hamilton and Herwig (2008), p 124.

[15] Watson, A (2014). Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918, Penguin, p 65.

[16] Hamilton and Herwig (2008), p 24.

[17] Joll, J (1976). Europe since 1870: An International History. Penguin, p 184.

[18] Letter of July 29 cited in Geiss (1974).

[19] Berghahn, Volker R (1977). Germany and the Approach of War in 1914. Macmillan Press, p 219.

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