Prof Rempel lecture: worldwar 1 culpability

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The Culpability for World War 1

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


The controversy over how much Germany is to be blamed for the outbreak of World War One has been brewing for half a century. Today, we still cannot wholly resolve that question; and I doubt that it will ever be answered to everyone's satisfaction. But we can in the light of recent research, put the problem into somewhat more enlightening focus.

The fundamental error of German policy-makers seems to have been that they miscalculated the chances of Britain remaining neutral. This is the underlying assumption in this this whole affair.

Below the placid calm that prevailed before the murder of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, there was a growing feeling throughout Europe that the great world war was all but inevitable. The Germans felt themselves to be encircled and gradually outmaneuvered by the growing military strength of Russia and France. In this environment the earlier talk of preventive war attained new urgency. The chief of the German General Staff, Moltke, even asked the Foreign Secretary to precipitate a preventive war. Although Jagow refused, he admitted that the idea influenced him throughout the month of crisis that followed the Sarajevo assassination. There was also a feeling among Germany's conservative upper and middle-class rulers that a war would resolve the social conflict between the liberal and socialist lower classes and the conservative-aristocratic ruling groups.

The murder of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, produced both consternation and relief. Among the mourners in Vienna one could detect some sense:of satisfaction that the proponent of a federal reorganization of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had vanished. Others, primarily Baron Conrad von Hötzendorff, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, saw a golden opportunity to settle accounts with Serbia once and for all, since the latter bad long supported the agitation for greater freedom for the Slav minority within the empire. Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister and Tisza, the Hungarian Prime Minister counseled caution, as did the German ambassador in Vienna. However, the old Austrian emperor Franz Joseph backed Conrad, and the German emperor decided that accounts should be settled with Serbia-it was "now or never" in his words'

Austria could not risk a move against Serbia without German support since Serbia was backed by Russia. Vienna sent Count Hoyos to Berlin on July 5 to question German intentions and returned with a firm promise from William that Austria-Hungary could "count on Germany's full support,'' even in the case of "grave European complications." William even suggested that Vienna march immediately. This blank check was based on the assumption that Russia and France were not yet strong enough to risk a general war.

Constitutionally William had to consult the Chancellor be fore making such a decision. But he called in Bethmann-Hollweg only after the blank check had been signed. But the latter agreed readily and the German military leaders, including the chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke, all assured the Kaiser that they were ready if war should come. The emperor then went off on a North sea cruise, assuring a close industrial friend that he was not ''falling out'' this time. The reference was to the reproach of the military in the Moroccan crisis of 1911 when the emperor had backed away from military confrontation. The Pan-German League had threatened him with deposition at that time. Thus a childishly defiant emperor prepared the way for Conrad's vengeful design to punish Serbia.

In the Austro-Hungarian Ministerial Council of July 7 only Count Tisza objected to an attack of Serbia. Berchtold advised that an ultimatum should be sent to Belgrade first in order to put Serbia in the wrong and keep Rumania and Britain neutral. Tisza was won over by the ultimatum idea and the German ambassador in London was instructed to mobilize British opinion against Serbia without revealing that Germany was egging Austria on to war. Germany was eager to localize the conflict but not to stop it.

Germany put severe pressure on Austria to act quickly because she feared that hesitation would be interpreted as weakness and thus lessen Austria's importance as a German ally. Furthermore, it was assumed in Berlin that England would certainly not rim a major war just to settle a local squabble in the Balkans. Germany also pressured Vienna to make the ultimatum note so strong as to be unacceptable by Serbia. The emperor here too took the lead and his lieutenants followed. The emperor only regretted that the ultimatum could not be sent before July 25. It was timed for that day because the French president Poincaré would be returning from a visit to Russia then and an immediate Franco-Russian reply would thus be postponed.

On July 18 British Foreign Minister Lord Grey told the German ambassador in London that England would never back an aggressor, which led the Germans to put even greater pressure on Vienna to make the ultimatum stronger. In fact, it is clear that throughout the period from July 4 to July 18 German policy was consistently militant, much more so than Austria-Hungary. Berlin was bound and determined to split the Entente and bring about a regrouping of European powers favorable to Germany. Berlin was bound and determined to split the Entente and bring about a regrouping of European powers favorable to Germany. And this was to be done without the intervention of Great Britain.

After considerable argument the Austro-Hungarian Ministerial Council finally decided on the wording of the ultimatum with Berlin's constant consultation and full approval. The ultimatum was to be delivered on the 23rd of July rather than the 25th, Berlin again making sure that Poincaré and Viviani, French foreign minister, had actually left St. Petersburg by that time. All of this was secret, of course, and publican Berlin intended to act surprised at the severity of the wording when the missive reached Belgrade. But Vienna was to be supported by Berlin with the great powers in any case.

Thus Russia, France and England were to be pressured to keep the controversy and expected military conflict localized in the Balkans. Despite the fact that Grey expressed doubt the conflict could remain local, Germany insisted on believing that Grey would change his mind. However, Germany did not have the same opinion about Russian reaction and was making preparation to deal with that.

The publication of the ultimatum shocked Europe and generated the suspicion that Germany had a hand in it, which the latter denied, but which was true, as we have seen. Grey made an offer of mediation and suggested that Russia influence Serbia and Germany Austro-Hungary to reduce tension, and that Vienna withdraw the clearly impossible demands. But Berlin made only a show of backing the mediation and consistently undermined all British mediation attempts between July 24 and the outbreak of the war.

Grey's request for an extension of the 48 hour time limit was passed on to Vienna by Berlin only after the hour had passed and with the subtle suggestion that it be rejected. The same procedure was used with other Grey initiatives. Grey at one point indicated that he distinguished between an Austro-Serbian conflict and an Austro-Russian conflict and Germany eagerly pounced on this idea to keep the line to London open. This was done by publically agreeing to four-power mediation. But Vienna's suggestion that the existing power relationships in the Balkans could be maintained was furiously rejected by Germany. Austria-Hungary would have to become predominant there at the expense of Russia.

Grey and King George V then made another proposal. This time for a conference of ambassadors, including Italy, designed to put great power pressure on Serbia to give Austria full satisfaction. But Berlin rejected it on the excuse that it could not bring Austria's dealing with Serbia before a European tribunal and urged Vienna to take the same line. Meanwhile Moltke drafted a demand to Belgium for passage of German troops trough that neutral country, thereby clearly indicating that Germany expected a general war to come. Grey made a final plea on the 27th that urged Germany to influence Austria to accept the Serbian reply, implying that only in this case could London ask for moderation in St. Petersburg. Grey clearly put the onus on Berlin to prevent a general war, suggesting that Germany could stop Austria's foolhardy policy if she wanted to. Other nations made similar pleas.

All these pacific efforts fell on deaf ears in Berlin. Instead the latter urged Berchtold to present a declaration war on Serbia before Franz Joseph for signature. This was done on July 27 with the intent that it be sent to Belgrade no latter than the 29th in order to prevent any more mediating interventions. So, while Grey and Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, were playing for time, Germany was urging Austria to act quickly. This was the situation throughout the July crisis, Germany wanting to face the world with a fait accompli, while making it look, particularly to England, that she was trying to rein in Austrian militancy. To do this Bethmann-Hollweg and the military leaders had to deceive the German emperor. For the latter was willing to accept Serbia's reply and the final mediation proposal of Lord Grey. But certain facts were withheld from him and Bethmann and the military seemed to be prepared now for a general war if localization failed.

But the general war was to be fought under favorable conditions, which meant that Russia must be made to take the blame and England must be kept neutral. Bethmann thought he had found the key to this in localization. He assured Russia that Austria was not interested in any territorial extensions in Serbia and hence Russia would be responsible for the maintenance of pace in Europe. Germany's attitude had to be calm. Only if she were attacked could she count on British neutrality and domestic support from the Social Democrats.

At 11:00 AM on July 28 Austria presented her declaration of war on Serbia. The German Emperor had urged a "halt in Belgrade" for the Austrian armies, but this message was not delivered to Vienna until the afternoon, when it was too late according to Berchtold. At the same time tension arose between Vienna and Berlin since Germany suddenly realized that Austro-Hungary could not begin hostilities in practice until August 12.

This Bethmann found highly regrettable since the powers would thus have time to make additional proposals of mediation and manage to put the onus of hostilities on Germany, if she showed continued reserve towards mediation. Even the German people might get the wrong idea about who was responsible for a world war. A successful war on three fronts against Serbia, Russia and France could not be initiated under these auspices. It was absolutely mandatory that all the blame for an extension of the conflict be placed on Russia. This was Bethmann's unwavering line, that the conflict must be localized and if that were impossible then Russia must be branded as the aggressor in order to maintain British neutrality.

But the hope of British neutrality was an illusion, which apparently no one realized expect the German ambassador in London, Count Lichnowsky. Despite the latter's repeated warnings the German government continued to count confidently on British neutrality as well as that of Italy and Rumania. With Austria's declaration of war on July 28, the acid test of this assumption had arrived. Conrad soon asked whether mobilization was to be against Serbia only or Russia as well.

The automatic operation of the war machine now began to show itself in Germany too. Moltke explained to Bethmann the inevitable connection between mobilization and alliance which must now led to a world war. He "emphasized particularly the causal nexus linking Austria's intervention against Serbia via Russian partial mobilization to Austrian, Russian and German general mobilization, which would then inevitably draw in France, the first objective of German military strategy." Russia called for partial mobilization against Austria when the latter mobilized against Serbia and Bethmann was now pressured by Moltke and Conrad to respond. But he waited for Russia to declare general mobilization in order to maintain British non-involvement.

The German generals were bound by the Kaiser's order to halt at Belgrade, but they ignored that and sent a request to the German minister in Brussels to allow the passage of German troops through Belgium. This happened on July 29, when Bethmann Hollweg also had a remarkable conversation with the British ambassador in Berlin. He tried to pin Britain down on a neutrality agreement by promising not to seek French territory after a victorious war. He also betrayed Germany's intention of violating Belgium territory. Grey called this an "infamous" offer and the British government now knew for certain that Germany had deiced on a general war. This was the end of Germany's policy of localization and it is surprising that Bethmann was wholly unprepared for Britain's response to his offer.

Grey repeated his proposal of four-power mediation but stated in unmistakable terms that Britain would come to the aid of France if she were attacked. This upset the entire German applecart. The hope of British neutrality if Russia were shown to be the aggressor turned out to be a pipedream. Bethmann was shattered,but put immediate pressure on Vienna to accept mediation and negotiate with Russia. But Vienna was too deeply involved to change now and Bethmann did not really have a change of heart, because he could have stopped the war by refusing support for Austria. But this he did not do. In fact he continued to try to put the blame on Russia. He gave up his guest for British neutrality and shifted his concern to possible domestic opposition from the Social Democrats. This could only be avoided if Russia were the aggressor.

When Berlin received news that Russia had declared partial mobilization against Austria, the Kaiser was unhappy. At the same time there came a report from the German naval attache in London that the British fleet would mount an instant and immediate attack on Germany at sea if it came to war with France. This sent Kaiser Wilhelm into hysteria. He denounced "perfidious Albion," "that filthy cur, Grey," and ''that filthy nation of grocers." Now England was the real war criminal since Russia could not fight without English support. He even castigated Bethmann for thinking that an arrangement could have been made to keep England neutral. The Kaiser's anger gave vent to grandiose plans of instigating revolution in the Islamic world against Britain. The result of this was that Germany made an alliance with Turkey (on August 12) and two German cruisers were dispatched to Constantinople. Turkey was to become the base for an anti-British revolution. Revolutionary embers were also to be kindled in other parts of the world as well as in Eastern Europe against Russia.

There was some confusion on the 3Oth whether Russian mobilization was partial or general and only general mobilization, meaning against Germany as well as Austria, was considered sufficient reason to caste Russia as the aggressor. When general Russian mobilization was confirmed on July 31, the German emperor proclaimed "a state of imminent threat of war" and said that "they are pressing the sword into our hands." So Bethmann was successful in this gambit of making the German people believe they were attacked and in defusing opposition from the Social Democrats. This was also the reason why Germany gave Russia a 12 hour ultimatum to stop mobilization and postponed her own mobilization until August left.

At the very last minute, on August left, after the general mobilization Order had been signed there came an offer from Britain to guarantee French neutrality. The Kaiser eagerly accepted but the military informed him that nothing could be changed for technical reasons, since German patrols were already inside the borders of Luxembourg. There were other reports that England was willing to stay out even if France and Russia were in, but nothing materialized. German hatred of England thereafter knew few bounds.

The German declaration of war on Russia on August left, and on France two days later overshadowed everything else. Austria Hungary did not follow suit until a week later and the tsar was still talking about peace despite mobilization. But in the eyes of the world the German declarations of war were the key factors.

So, who was guilty? Probably all the leaders of the major powers share some element of blame. But there is little doubt where the greatest share of responsibility must fall. "As Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war and, in her confidence in her military superiority, deliberately faced the risk of a conflict with Russia and France, her leaders must bear a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of general war in 1914."

Shortly after the war began, during the crisis of the Marne and Galicia, when Austrian troops were hard pressed, Vienna asked for German assistance. When it was refused, Count Tisza reminded the Germans that the emperor and chancellor had pressed them to take decisive action. In August 1917, during a heated debate whether the war should be continued for the expressed German war aims, Austro-Hungary's Foreign Minister Czernin replied angrily to his German questioners: "It was not Austria alone that began the war then. Germany demanded that the ultimatum to Serbia should be drawn up in those sharp terms." In 1918 Czernin published a letter from Berchtold to Czernin which revealed what strong efforts Germany had made to hold Austria to a hard line, and how the Austro-German alliance might have been in danger if Austria had given way.

There is other evidence. An Austrian politician (Josef Baernreither), not unfriendly to Germany, wrote in his diary for December, 1914: ''The Germans were afraid that we would refuse to go with them if the war broke out over some question remote from us. . . . .So when the Sarajevo murder took place, Germany seized her opportunity and made an Austrian grievance her signal for action." In 1926 even a man like Admiral Tirpitz published a statement which said that a determined group in the German foreign office "worked systematically to get Austria committed inextricably, as the first step, so as to be sure of her. The whole plan of campaign against Serbia was arranged in advance to make a conflict inevitable." Albert Ballin, close friend of Bethmann, wrote in 1915: "I make every allowance for a man who is heavily incriminated, as your Excellency is, and has to bear the frightful responsibility for having staged this war which is costing Germany generations of splendid men and setting her back 100 years."

But this July crisis, which we have discussed here in some detail, must not be taken in isolation. It becomes only truly significant when we view it in the light of the "world policy" Germany pursued since the 1890's and the subsequent aims she strove for during the war.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


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