Who was responsible for the First World War? The Treaty of Versailles placed the blame for starting the Great War squarely at the feet of Germany and the Central Powers. This was, of course, considered a source of grave national humiliation for Germany, and the question of “war guilt” (along with the punitive financial reparations that that entailed) was exploited by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

Is it too simplistic to assign guilt to one side or the other? Perhaps an international order based on European imperialism was to blame, with competition for colonies, resources, and a “place in the sun” ultimately pushing the world towards the brink?

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Jens who believes that the “ruling elites on both sides” were responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914. He believes that the soldiers and little people were just “pawns in a global chess game for power”. Is he over-simplifying?

To get a reaction, we spoke to David Stevenson, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE). What would he say to Jens?

Well, it’s true and it’s not true. The elites were directly responsible for the decision to go to war; that much is clearly correct. The decision to declare war in 1914 was essentially taken by quite small numbers of politicians, officials, and monarchs in the key European powers. Similarly, the war was kept going because of the reluctance on the part of those elites to sit around a table and produce some kind of compromise peace, at least until 1918.

Having said that, I think it’s to misunderstand the First World War to think of it as something simply foisted on the people by their governments. A lot of research by historians in recent years has shown that you cannot understand why the war kept going unless you come to terms with the fact that there was a lot of popular support for it. That doesn’t mean to say that people liked it, or that people were romantic about it. Perhaps they were at the beginning, but by 1915-1916, by the middle years of the war, it was very difficult to adopt outdated romantic attitudes and to misunderstand how brutal, difficult, and horrible the war was. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of support for it…

So, I think we have to accept that this was something created, if you like, by the European elites, but that they were able to keep going with a lot of popular acceptance that the cause was just and necessary. This has to be factored into the equation if you’re trying to understand why this war continued in the way it did.

For another perspective, we put the same comment to Volker Berghahn, Professor of History at Columbia University in the United States. What would he say to Jens’ comment?

I would basically agree with Jens. Although I would try to better define ‘ruling elites’, as it’s a bit broad. It was military and political leaders who pushed Europe over the brink. The business community was terrified. Even German business leaders, including Krupp and other armament producers, were very worried that war would lead to the complete breakdown of the world economy that had developed before 1914. So, I think ruling elites has to be limited to military and political elites.

As far as the ‘little people’ are concerned, you are absolutely right. In Germany there were peace demonstrations around the 25th July 1914 in Berlin and other big cities warning the Austrians not to launch a war in the Balkans, which was on the cards at that moment. And, of course, the same applies to all sorts of other countries; Jean Jaurès, the leader of the socialist movement in France, tried to mobilise all European working class leaders in Brussels, also at the end of July in 1914, in order to stop this war because they all thought it would involve the mass killing of ordinary people, and that is indeed what happened…

Next up, we had a comment from Jude, who argues that the world is still paying for the mistakes made in the aftermath of World War One. He particularly points to ethnic and civil conflicts in the Middle East and some parts of Eastern Europe and Africa as having their origins in the Treaty of Versailles. Is he right?

How would Professor David Stevenson respond to the comment from Jude?

Well, it’s most obviously valid in the Middle East, and the Islamic State organisation has claimed that one of its objectives is to overthrow what it regards as artificial frontiers that were created by European imperialist powers during and after the First World War. There is some truth in that. That’s not to say that it justifies IS’ methods, but there is some truth in that central accusation. Before 1914, most of what’s now the Arab Middle East was under the control, more of less, of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which broke up as a direct result of the war.

During the war, the countries that would become the victorious allies carved out spheres of influence and decided on what basis the Ottomon Empire would be partitioned. What happened after 1920, really, was that new states were created, at that stage under European control, such as Syria and the Lebannon in the French case, and Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine under British control. These didn’t really correspond to the previous political boundaries. Iraq, for example, which comprised of three Turkish administrative districts, had never been a political unit before the 1920s.

What happened in that case is, as we know, Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in the North were cobbled together in a single political unit which became independent from the British in 1932. In Syria you see an even more complex pattern of ethnicities and religious groups. If you look at the map of Syria today, you see how complex it is. It wasn’t a natural political unit. So, states of that kind were only likely to be held together by a great deal of coercion, and if the coercion broke down then the likely consequence would be civil war…

Finally, what would Professor Volker Berghahn say in response?

Yes, again, I would agree with this in principle, because it seems to me that the Wilsonian vision of trying to establish a new international order (which was also, perhaps one should add, Lenin’s vision) failed. The Bolsheviks ultimately retreated behind their borders and established socialism in one country, as you know, and President Wilson also failed and went home bitterly disappointed; he couldn’t even get the Versailles Treaty accepted by the population in the United States because it wanted to retreat from the world scene, and was actually telling the Europeans that they should stew in their own juices and sort out their own problems. Which, in fact, they did.

As far as the Ottoman Empire was concerned, it was the division of the empire between the French and British, in particular, which lead to these very arbitrary border lines that you still have in the Middle East – look at Iraq and Syria, for example. And, therefore, I think there was an attempt to settle the peace in 1918 or 1919, but indeed it’s important to emphasise that the troubles we are having in the Middle East now are not a result of the end of the Second World War or the Cold War, but they are a result of the inability of the settlements that were adopted in 1919 at the Peace Conference.

Who was responsible for World War One? Are we still paying for the mistakes made at the Versailles Peace Conference? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Wikimedia – Wellcome Library, London


56 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

    • Ivan Burrows

      And your solution would be to create a fake EU Nationality without asking the 440 million people in the EU ? You EU fanatics have learnt nothing from your history & are destined to repeat it. Have you picked out your uniform for your new world order yet ? I bet its black.

    • Barbara Szela Lesniak

      Dirk Schönhoff – Same question – whose nationalism was it? Can’t you really be more precise? Have you never been taught history?

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Dirk Schönhoff
      ‘Germanism’ started WW1. No attempts at reinventing and rewriting the past will change the facts!

    • Ivan Burrows

      You do know you have just described the EU don’t you ?

    • Andrea Brown

      Ivan Burrows No England. Go back there and sink with Britannia, you bloody malcontent.

    • Ivan Burrows

      Andrea Brown Thank you for that show of hatred, unelected Emperor Juncker will be so proud of you.

    • Barbara Szela Lesniak

      Andrea Brown – whose nationalism was it? Can’t you really be more precise? Have you never been taught history?

    • Dirk Schönhoff

      Barbara Szela Lesniak, habe you been taught anything but blaming people for whatever? The world is a bit more complicated though some goverments (like yours) try to come back to these easy answers.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Dirk Schönhoff
      WW I denier!

      May I ask if you think that the ‘Holocaust’ happened and if so was Germany involved?

    • George

      It would be right! Germany wishing to repair own serious mistakes!

    • Malte Rathje

      You might come to this conclusion if you have a) no knowledge about history or b) see a!

    • Ivan Burrows

      Malte Rathje Wow !, that must of taken you ages to write, did you get an adult to help you ? How does it feel to be ‘owned’ by Berlin ….. again ?

    • Bogdan Iliuță Istrate

      the starter was definitely Austria, then everyone else fell in line. Germany is not the main country to blame, Russia, Serbia, France and the UK all share the blame. but it all started with Austria invading Serbia…

    • Barbara Szela Lesniak

      Bogdan Iliuță Istrate – Why haven’t you mentioned Poland? Ha? It’ so trendy these days to talk to about ‘Polish concentration camps’ instead of German nazi concentration camps built by them in occupied Poland…. Disgusting…

    • Stefan V. Stancioiu

      I bet people that started it were just as superficial as you.

    • Ivan Burrows

      Stefan V. Stancioiu Says a man with nothing to say but insults. Can I suggest you look up the meaning of words ‘before’ using them, it may stop you looking the idiot… but I doubt it.

  1. Atanas Petkov

    It’s was not nationalism. There were no strict borders prior the WWI or personal passports, no customs. It has been EU at his best version, just greed elite and colonial antagonism. Same stupid people that pay the media to talk about “peaceful” Islam and right wing agenda of european nations. Both exist only in their antiuthopia fiction only.

    • Franz Moisi

      Nope. You are just wrong.

    • Bogdan Iliuță Istrate

      Yeah. Just wrong. It’s not even worth debating… you got everything wrong

    • Barbara Szela Lesniak

      Bogdan Iliuță Istrate What if it’s you who’s wrong here?

    • Atanas Petkov

      Guys, down trow your ignorance on please, read and learn…

    • Alecs Ungureanu

      you are the ignorant here mate , sorry but you are just as wrong as you can possibly be, and romanians are here correcting you … DONT FORGET: nowadays a prince gets shot or a president killed no1 starts a war , or fascism in germany was a nationalist group who refused to pay their share of afterwar reconstruction who promoted the ” advanced race “- and the hate for jews . so please go in a library get a fucken book and start learning

    • Simeon Milanov

      Oh, the eternal Hun propaganda… Those evil Germans, how dare they build a powerful navy and how dare they defend Austro-Hungary/Central Europe from the sick ambitions of France and Russia. Only Brits have the right to make atrocities, everyone else is a war criminal.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Simeon Milanov
      If you throw the first punches THEN you started the fight.

  2. Ivan Burrows

    Germany just wanted to dominate Europe, they should waited because EU fanatics are now giving it to them without a shot being fired.

    • Malte Rathje

      Hahahaha! You have just proved it! It’s letter a for you! Hilarious! And it’s not only the past you don’t have a clue about, you don’t evem have some basic knowledge about the present too, apart from that twat Farage’s propaganda.

    • Zeljka Jeramaz

      Germany just wanted to dominate Europe…
      Unlike English right?

    • Ivan Burrows

      Zeljka Jeramaz Great Britain never wanted to dominate ‘Europe’, she already had the rest of the world & Europeans are too unstable. Did you know that the longest period of time without a major conflict in Europe was during the age of the British Empire between the end of the Reign of the dictator Napoleon and the rise of German aggression which started with the first world war ? EU Europeans have learnt nothing from their history and you are destined to repeat it, we will not come and save you from yourself again.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      @Zeljka Jeramaz
      Many in the UK do not want to be involved with EU matters. The EU is too corrupt, too undemocratic and above all lacks the concept of ‘fair play’ for the UK to tolerate its current association.

      This time, once we have left the EU, we should allow nature to take its course:

      Either one of the ‘Blood Brothers’ [France or Germany] will win control of the EU
      or
      Russia will win control of the EU.

      Either way, the UK will be safe on its island.

      Europeans will be allowed to come if they can pass the various tests, viz. points-based, financial-based etc etc

    • Karolina

      Malte, he just posts certain propaganda lines and steers well clear of educated debate. Just have a look. It’s way too obvious. A quality page would have blocked him by now…

    • Gajdos György

      Actually Austria-Hungary has been pressured to wage war by the German Empire. Then Russia was the next idiotic country to mobilise for no reason.

    • Παυλος Χαραλαμπους

      Same goes for the ottomans they actully allowed german battleships to attack russian at the black sea flying turkiths flags..

  3. Ernst Satvanyi

    A correct answer is very important for the world today to understand what bring wrong political decisions.

    • George Guydosh

      To be fair back then there was absolutely no political control over the armed forces in the Russian Empire (they ordered complete mobilisation even against the wish of the Czar) , German Empire (again the military forces it’s will on everybody else with the preemptive attack on the Western countries)

  4. EU Reform- Proactive

    What a pity!

    Instead being careful/neutral and leave/refer European history to (professional) history books- the DE- EU schemers seem to wallop in the creation of controversy & discord within their apparent united, but different nationalities.

    Nothing better to do? A positive & helpful necessity?

  5. Thomas Beavitt

    On the one hand, I agree with Jens that the war was essentially foisted upon the people by the elites. It’s not enough, in countering this view, to argue that there was “popular support” for the war. After all, the media technology for manufacturing consent already existed in 1914. One need only read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel “Sunset Song” to understand how this technology was implemented!

    It seems clear that a large part of this rationale on the part of the elites was aimed at weakening the international labour movement, which otherwise risked a mass (even global) revolution, in which the same elites risked wholesale overthrow.

    On the other hand, it’s also true that European imperialism, competition for colonies, resources, and a “place in the sun” was a contributing factor. Other (non-European) imperialisms may also be implicated here.

    Perhaps it’s also the case that a large population bulge had been encouraged to develop, together with irrational exuberance about the future coupled with mass industrialisation and modernism. The “shadow side” of this irrational exuberance may also have been influential on the apparent willingness on the part of millions of people to sacrifice themselves in senseless slaughter.

  6. Danny boy

    To quote the great and learned Private Baldrick,
    ‘ I heard the war started cause a guy called Archie Duke shot a ostrich cos he was hungry’.

  7. Karolina

    I just came here to see how the trolls were going to drag the EU into it… over a thing that happened before it was formed…

    PROPAGANDA!!! pure and simple.

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