The First World War is one of the great human catastrophes of world history. It ushered in a century of conflict, on a scale, and of a scope, never before seen.
It has been 100 years since World War I began. Since it began, in the sordid summer of 1914, debate has surrounded its origins. The issue has yet to be resolved. There is no general agreement on how the Great War, a terrifying industrial slaughter that engulfed the world, began.
For those of us familiar with the conventional story, the first shot of the war was the one that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. However, the assassination is the explosive result of many collision courses.
The Balkans were recovering from two wars fought in 1912-1913. Russia was rapidly rearming. France sought revenge after defeat at the hands of the Germans in 1870-1871. Austria-Hungary had unceremoniously annexed Bosnia. The international system was being continuously tested. In 1914, it broke.
Why has Germany shared most of the blame for starting one of the most murderous campaigns in world history? It shares responsibility. It failed to stop the reckless aggression of its Austro-Hungarian ally. It invaded Belgium, although Belgium was a neutral state. Its military plans did not match its foreign policy.
In 1914, Germany blundered. Yet, 1914 proved to be a year of international blunders.
Russia became the first to militarise the crisis by mobilising its army. France did not restrain Russia. Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, knowing that the attack would lead to a general war. Britain, by declaring war on Germany, and committing its empire to the fight, made the war truly global.
No state is blameless.
Germany, in my mind, has become the main power responsible for war out of simplicity. When the war ended in 1918, and the peace was signed at Versailles in 1919, only Germany remained intact among the defeated powers. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were dismantled. As the only remaining defeated power, the burden of responsibility rested on Germany’s shoulders.
In a century that saw hatred, violence, and unparalleled loss, displacement and destruction, Germany remained at the forefront. Nazi Germany undoubtedly started the Second World War. It is easy to see a pattern of destructive aggression. It is easy to see German responsibility of the Second World War extend to the First.
Germany shares the blame for starting the Great War. However, it shares the blame in a setting where no state is blameless. To begin to understand the First World War, we must begin to move away from seeing Germany as the only aggressor.