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 Perhaps they were at the beginning, but by 1915-1916, by the middle years of the war, it was very difficult to adopt outdated romantic attitudes and to misunderstand how brutal, difficult, and horrible the war was.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!