The Origins and Consequences of the First World War
Robert Skidelsky
Brighton College Lecture | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

I once attended a lecture by AJP Taylor on Origins of 1st World War.
He ran through various possible causes, rejecting each one. After exactly one hour, he said: ‘Well, there’s one last thing. The chauffeur of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand did take the wrong turning in Sarajevo. Had he not, the Archduke would not have been killed. Had he not been killed, there would have been no war in August 1914’. With that he sat down.
This was not just Taylor being clever or paradoxical. He was giving us a profound lesson in historical thinking.
You may think: ‘But if not in 1914, the war –some war –would have started in 1915 or 1920. With all the explosive material lying around, a war was inevitable’. Spot the fallacy: True, one might have had a war in 1915 or 1920. But it might just as well have broken out in 1913 or 1907. The fact is it didn’t. A war postponed is a war averted. Also, even if war had broken out later, it would not have been the same war.It might have been a smaller war. So the assassination of Archduke was in some sense crucial to explain the actual war –the first world war.
We immediately have two opposite interpretations of the origins of the first world war. First, it can be seen as the result of an accident, which then set in motion a train of events which would not have happened but for the accident. The second explanation is that the war had structural causes, so deep as to make a general European war inevitable, sooner or later.
Most people are unhappy with ‘accidental’ explanations –the well-known Cleopatra’s Nose theory of history. They like to believe that great events have great causes; or to put it another way –that everything that happened had to happen.
But consider this example. Had the electoral register in Florida in 2000 been more up to date, Gore not Bush would have carried Florida, and as a result become President of the USA. Would there have been a war in Iraq? I doubt it. Great events often turn on small things.
However, suppose you want to make the case that there were deep structural factors predisposing European countries to war in 1914. You have a choice between political factors and economic factors. Some historians have laid stress on the arms race between the Great Powers. This is a political factor. Others have emphasised trade rivalry between Britain and Germany. This is the economic factor. So we have an explanatory grid for discussing the origins of most great historical events, not necessarily wars, with 4 quadrants. Draw this.
In discussing the origins of 1WW I want to follow the arguments of Niall Ferguson, whose book The Pity of War, published in 1998, is the most important recent book on the subject. I will also draw on Ferguson’s recent book, Empire. Some of you may have seen the TV series which accompanied it. Ferguson is a real historian, rather than someone who just writes history books. He sets out to answer 10 questions:
1.Was war inevitable?
2. Why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war?
3. Why did Britain’s leaders decided to intervene when war broke out?
4. Was war really popular on the outbreak?
5. Did propaganda and press keep the war going?
6. Why did the huge economic superiority of the British Empire not inflict defeat on Germany quickly before US intervention?
7. Why didn’t the military superiority of the German army fail to deliver victory on the Western front?
8. Why did men keep on fighting in such wretched conditions?
9. Why did the men stop fighting?
10. Who won the peace?
I will try to answer Ferguson’s first 4 questions dealing with the origins of the war, and his last dealing with the consequences.
Was the war inevitable? Most historians see it as inevitable as a natural catastrophe, given human nature or the structure of international relations, or capitalism, or generals’ timetables, or domestic pressures, or nationalistic ideas. Quote Bethmann Hollweg, German chancellor in 1914: ‘The imperialism, nationalism, and economic materialism, which during the last generation determined the outlines of every nation’s policy, set goals which could only be pursued at the cost of a general conflagration’.
The most familiar version of the structural theory revolves round Germany’s Weltpolitik –its drive to European domination, and eventually world domination. This was revived by Fritz Fischer in the 1960s. Fischer’s argument was that Germany was an inherently expansionist power. Its expansionist aims were the result of its failure to develop into a democracy. Its politics were dominated by a reactionary aristocracy (East Elban Junkers) and anti-socialist industrialists. It risked war in 1914, because this was the only way these classes could hold onto power. Fritz Fischer’s thesis had the extra advantage of suggesting a continuity between Imperial Germany and Hitler’s Germany, which German historians had been vehemently denying.
Hans Ulrich Wehler produced a Marxist variant of this structural theory: German capitalism wanted to supplant British capitalism in world markets. This could be done only by military means. Wehler developed an ide first put forward by Lenin in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, published in 1916. Lenin saw the war as a struggle by capitalist states for the ‘redivision’ of the world market, with Germany as the latecomer with the most interest in redivision.
There are two important ideas in all this which still have a powerful influence on our thinking about history and international affairs.
The first is that wars are made by autocracies or dictatorships to divert attention from social demands which they cannot satisfy. The corollary is that democracies don’t go to war with each other, and if we want a peaceful world all countries should be democratic. Democracy is the peaceful form of the state, autocracy or dictatorship the warlike form. This line of argument leads from Woodrow Wilson and his doctrine of national self-determination –itself derived from the ideas of the French Revolution - to George W”. Bush and his determination to set up democracies in the Middle East and elsewhere to remove the threat of WMD.
The second idea summed up in the slogan: ‘Capitalism means war’. The only way to world peace is to abolish the competitive struggle for markets. No one quite believes this today, but many people believe something similar, which is that economic competition is always potentially warlike, that what we should aim at is economic cooperation.
Both ideas are pretty suspect. The view that democracies never make war with each other is based on a very narrow sample of West European democracies –which became full democracies only when the warlikeness of the relevant countries had been drained by two enormous bouts of blood letting. When you have religious or ethnic democracies –as you had in former Yugoslavia, the conclusion may be very different.
Again, the idea that economic competition is inherently warlike is just implausible. It stands for a primitive view of economics, and indeed of human nature, which is belied by the facts. More plausible is that economic competition is a way of channelling people’s aggressive instincts into beneficent channels.
Let’s turn back to the view that the first world war was the result of capitalism and imperialism. As the German Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert put it in January 1915: ‘So the economic conflicts led to political conflicts, to continued gigantic armaments increases and finally to world war’. Specifically –following Lenin –the first world war can be seen as the result of the demand of German capitalism for a redivision of the world market. The trouble with this is that most German bankers and businessmen were opposed to war. They didn’t see any need for a military challenge, since Germany was already winning more and more markets from Britain in peaceful competition. Look at the figures: Germany’s share of world trade expanding, GB’s declining. Ferguson concludes (p.33) ‘The Marxist interpretation of the war’s origins can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history’.
What then of the idea that the war was the outgrowth not of competitive capitalism but of competitive imperialism? The British Empire was certainly the dominant world empire: by 1909 its territorial empire was 12.7m. sq miles, with 444 million people –then about a fifth of the world’s pop. Also GB ruled the waves. Others, it is said, wanted a piece of the action.
The problem with this is that the imperial wars which should have happened did not happen: between Britain and Russia could well have come into 1870s and 1880s over Afghanistan and the Straits (the so-called ‘Eastern Question’), but they did not. Nor did the imperial rivalry between Britain and France in the 1880s and 1890s lead to war. Fashoda, 1896, reminds us of one imperialist war which never took place. ‘All this goes to show, Ferguson writes ‘that, if we are to explain why a war eventually broke out in which Britain, France and Russia fought on the same side, imperialism is unlikely to provide the answer’.
The fact was that Britain was quite ready to appease its main challengers. The late Victorian period of glorious isolation came to an end with settlement of the Venezuelan dispute with USA in 1898, the naval alliance with Japan in 1902, and the ‘ententes’ with France in 1905 and Russia in 1908, both following settlements of colonial disputes. These have been interpreted designed to put GB in better position to meet looming German challenge. More plausibly, they were designed to stop Britain’s imperial enemies ganging up on her.
The supposition that Germany was not really in Britain’s sights is strengthened by the failure , it of the efforts to make an alliance with Germany. The breakdown of two such efforts –in 1899 and again in 1911-13 is usually attributed to the non-negotiable nature of Germany’s demands –such as Tirpitz’s naval building programme. The same argument is used, with more justification, to explain the failure of ‘appeasement’ in the 1930s.
But it does not really hold for the pre-1914 years. Again I quote Ferguson: ‘The real explanation for the failure of the Anglo-German alliance project was not German strength but German weakness. Great Britain broke off the conversations when she realized that Germany did not pose a threat. If an alliance with Germany had been signed, Britain would have faced Russia and France as enemies all round the world, so it was these powers, not Germany which needed to be appeased’. (53)
And, to hammer home the point: ‘British foreign policy between 1900 and 1906, then, was to appease those powers which appeared to pose the greatest threat to her position, even at the expense of good relations with the less important powers. The key point is that Germany fell into the latter category; France, Russia and the United States into the former’. (p.55)
However, this is not the whole story. From about 1900 Germanophobia started to replace Francophobia in British popular literature. Stories of German spies filled the fiction of Le Queux and John Buchan. Germany’s export might contributed to this: ‘Made in Germany’ became symbolic of the German challenge. There was also the bombastic style of German diplomacy under William II, in striking contrast to Bismarck’s much more cautious, measured rhetoric.
Germany was not a serious imperial rival to GB. But by 1900 Germany was the most powerful military and industrial power in Europe, and this automatically triggered Britain’s traditional balance of power reflex. Traditional British policy was to oppose the Continental dominance of a single power. The condition of its ‘greatness and liberties’, as well as its overseas empire, as Churchill put it in the 1930s, was the continued division of continental Europe into powers of roughly equal strength. This, in Churchill’s words, was the ‘great unconscious tradition of our foreign policy’. The liberties of the British were contrasted with the tradition of Continental despotism, exemplified by Philip II of Spain,Louis XIV, and then Napoleon. The Kaiser’s Germany, with its sabre-rattling gestures, fitted into this sequence of would-be continental conquerors, which demanded British resistance. In particular, the Liberal foreign secretary, Lord Grey, together with the FO establishment, was dominated by the ‘Napoleonic analogy’. This reinforced the policy of appeasing France and Russia. Ferguson denies that Germany had such Napoleonic designs. He writes of British policy-makers that ‘they were exaggerating –if not fabricating –such a threat in order to justify the military commitment to France they favoured. In other words, precisely because they wished to align Britain with France and Russia, it was necessary to impute grandiose plans for European domination to the Germans’. 75 The analogy with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is irresistible. Fabrication of a threat is one of the oldest excuses for going to war, or preparing for war.
But none of this made war inevitable. This point can be emphasised by pointing out that Britain’s policy towards European unification since 1945 has been much the same as it was before 1914 –that is, to stop it. No one thinks that it portends a third European war.
So why did the First World War happen? The trigger was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Like the attack on the World Trade Centre of 11 September 2001, this upset the always delicate balance between the warmakers and the peacemakers in the decision-making capitals:
As Ferguson writes in Empire, pp. 297-8:
In reality, the First World War came about because politicians and generals on both sides miscalculated. The Germans believed (not unreasonably) that the Russians were overtaking them militarily, so they risked a pre-emptive strike before the strategic gap grew any wider. The Austrians failed to see that stamping on Serbia, useful though that might be in their war against Balkan terrorism, would embroil them in a European-wide conflagration. The Russians overestimated their military capability almost as much as the Germans did….Only the French and the Belgians had no real choice. The Germans invaded them. The British too had the freedom to err….The Liberals went to war for two main reasons: first because they feared the consequences of a German victory over France, imagining the Kaiser as a new Napoleon…The second reason…was a matter of domestic politics, not grand strategy. Since their triumph in 1906, the Liberals had seen their electoral support wither away. By 1914 Herbert Asquith’s government was on the verge of collapse. Given the failure of their foreign policy to avert a European war, he and his Cabinet colleagues ought to have resigned. But…they dreaded the return of the Conservatives to power. They went to war partly to keep the Tories out’.
What I have tried to bring out is that the first world war was not inevitable. Even after the trigger of assassination had set the war machinery moving, all the great powers except France had choices. Also there were different kinds of war which might have happened, which would have been far less calamitous than the war which actually happened. It was Britain’s decision to come in which made it a world war, because it was GB’s world-wide empire and financial position which eventually brought in the United States.
Had Britain stayed out what would have happened? Germany would probably quickly have defeated France (as in 1870-1) and taken a bit longer to defeat Russia. We know from the record that the kinds of Treaties it would have imposed –and in Russia’s case did impose –would have been designed permanently to weaken both powers – a Treaty of Versailles in reverse. But we must factor in the probability that the war would have been over much quicker and the German terms correspondingly less punitive. Britain would no doubt have made a suitable accommodation with the new dominant power on the Continent. Europe’s future would have been very different. Instead of 9 million, only a few hundred thousand at most would have died. Europe would have been spared its post-war famines and epidemics which took off another 20-30 million civilians. The EU would have started 50 years earlier. There would have been no Nazi Germany – Hitler’s career as a mediocre painter would have continued unimpeded by politics –and no one would have heard of Lenin. There would have been no Holocaust, and probably not a Great Depression either.
I have already drifted into discussing the consequences of the war, with which I wish to conclude this talk. I just want to concentrate on one point, which is also relevant also to the current situation in Iraq. It one thing to win a war, another to win the peace. There are two main models of a successful peace. The first is s the Carthaginian model, based on Rome’s policy at the end of its 3rd Punic War with Carthage. What Rome did was physically to destroy its rival and exterminate or makes slave of its inhabitants. You can visit N Africa today and find almost no remnant of this once dominant Mediterranean empire. One does not have to be quite so ruthless: the point of the Carthaginian peace is destroy for good the defeated state’s ability to wage war against you. The other type of peace is the peace of conciliation. Its aim is to provide your defeated enemy with positive incentives not to go to war again. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 is good example of the latter.
We may think that the days of Carthaginian peaces are over. But this is not so. After the second world war, Germany was subject to both Carthaginian and conciliatory treatment. In fact the Carthaginian element would have been even stronger had the Morgenthau Plan been adopted. This was agreed by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Quebec conference in 1944, but later abandoned. It would have reduced Germany to a pastoral state, with many of its inhabitants being shipped off to North Africa. Instead Germany was dismembered: split into two countries and four zones, and occupied by the victorious Allies. It is often forgotten that this division and military occupation lasted for almost 50 years. There was no possibility of Germany renewing its military bid. At the same time, West Germany was democratised and helped by Marshall Aid and other measures to great economic prosperity. Politically and economically it was integrated into the EU, and militarily integrated into NATO. East Germany received no comparable incentives, but had been rendered too small and powerless to rebel against its Russian occupiers. The German problem was thus solved for two generations at least without a formal peace treaty, and by now it may have disappeared, although Germany has recovered some of its freedom of action.
The Treaty of Versailles which ended the 1WW is a classic example of an unsuccessful peace: neither harsh enough to deter a renewed German bid for hegemony, nor generous enough to to reconcile it to the paths of peace. In fact, it produced Hitler.
Industrially Germany was left almost intact, with insignificant small territorial losses.
Its military forces were limited, but there no army of occupation to enforce either the territorial or military clauses of the Treaty.
Instead, Germany was saddled with a large indemnity –in theory it was told it had to pay ‘the cost of the war’. It could have paid some of it, but refused to accept the premise - ‘war guilt’- on which the bill was presented. Th effects of reparations imbroglio were devastating both economically and politically:
1. It diverted statesmen’s efforts from the reconstruction of Europe to the effort to find ways of extracting money from a prostrate Germany.
2. It disrupted the restoration of a functioning international monetary system by saddling the postwar world with a mountain of debt. (The problem of German reparations interacted with the problem of inter-Ally war debts). The rot in the international monetary system contributed to the Great Depression which brought Hitler to power in 1933.
3. It gave Germany a large sense of grievance which Hitler and other extremists could exploit to keep them in political business in the 1920s.
In short, the Versailles Treaty not only failed to create conditions to keep Germany weak militarily (as the French wanted) but also failed to create conditions for the revival of the German and world economy. It was this latter point which Keynes addressed in his passionate polemical protest against the Versailles Treaty in his Economic Consequences of the Peace, an extraordinarily prescient book, which predicted that ‘vengeance will not limp’.
Even at this distance I find the events connected with the 1WW –its origins, its progress, its outcomes –almost unbearably painful to contemplate. As an episode in folly,futility,and stupidity it is virtually unsurpassed. It has no redeeming features except the extraordinary bravery and endurance of the soldiers who fought. It marked the end of a great adventure in civilisation just as surely as did the Macedonian conquest of classical Greece or the fall of the Roman Empire. In the end the delicate balance between the centrifugal and centripetal forces-the forces making for the variety of European civilisation on the one side and for its unity on the –which constituted the genius of European civilisation disintegrated in face of the shock of 1914 and the control of old Europe’s destiny passed to non-European overlords