The Great Debate

Caitlin McAnulty, Hawker College, 2010

This essay was written as part of The Great War unit at Hawker College, Semester 2 2010. The essay is an answer to the following question: “Whatever one may decide about the relative guilt of the powers – and this is something on which historians still differ widely – it is clear that no power bears the full responsibility for the war and none is completely guiltless.” (Craig, 1966, p. 497) Is this a reasonable assessment? Are some powers more responsible than others for World War One? Why or why not?

The debate over the responsibilities for the outbreak of World War I still rages even today. Historians differ widely in their interpretations of events leading up to the war, and so subsequently have many contrasting views on the matter of responsibility. The most accurate assessment of the issue of war guilt, is that all those involved must shoulder some of the responsibility. “Whatever one may decide about the relative guilt of the powers – and this is something on which historians still differ widely – it is clear that no power bears the full responsibility for the war and none is completely guiltless.”[1] All of the European Great Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, Great Britain – as well as Serbia – a lesser power, but one who played just as significant a part – must take a share of the responsibility for the devastation that began in 1914. However, this responsibility is by no means equally divided. Small parts fall to Great Britain, France, Serbia, and Germany. It is to Austria-Hungary that the majority of the responsibility falls, as she was responsible for the consideration of war.[2] To Russia the remainder goes, as it was the mobilisation of her forces that ended all possibility of a peaceful resolution.[3] The actions of no European Great Power left them guiltless, but, though every party is responsible in some way, it is not in equal degrees.

The fault of Great Britain in her actions leading up to the war was her indecision. To avoid making promises to anyone, Sir Edward Grey, the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, refused to take a position either with France or in neutrality.[4] In their plans for war, the Austrians and Germans relied on the fact that “Britain would be neutral,” [5] If it had been made clear from the beginning that Britain would get involved, it is quite likely that Austria would have refrained from actually declaring war. The threat of facing the power of British military would have acted as an effective deterrent.[6] France’s part in the outbreak of war is less clear,[7] though it appears her responsibility lies in her encouragement of Russia. M. Poincaré was well aware that “… once Russian general mobilization was ordered there would be no way of preventing a general European war,”[8] and yet he took no measures to dissuade Russia, and in fact visited the Tsar on more than one occasion to renew his support for their actions.[9] This comparatively small action does, however, give France the least responsibility for the war of all powers. Serbia was responsible for the most immediate trigger of war. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was committed by members of an underground Serbian organisation whose aim was “the creation of a Greater Serbia.”[10] It was believed, and still is by many, that the Serbian government was well aware of their plan and yet did nothing to warn Austria or to prevent it from occurring.[11] Herein lies Serbia’s part in the war. She aggravated Austria and was responsible in part for the event which gave Austria the excuse to declare war. However, once they were aware of Austria’s aggressive aims, they did try to avoid war from actually breaking out by meeting as many of Austria’s demands as they could.[12]

Germany’s role is much more controversial than any other. For many years following the end of the war, it was almost unanimously decided – by the victors, of course – that the whole blame should be laid upon “Germany and her allies”.[13] However, this view, at least as far as their evidence went, is now generally thought to be unfair and biased. This bias is clear when we see who was present at the Paris Peace Conference and who was blamed. None of those who were given the responsibility had any representatives present.[14] While there are many who still take the view that Germany was primarily responsible for the outbreak of war, their reasoning is based on evidence – the majority of which came into light in the years following the war – rather than prejudice.[15] One prominent historian who takes this view is Fritz Fischer, in his paper, Germany and the Outbreak of War. Most of his argument is based on the apparent encouragement and pressure from Germany to Austria-Hungary. According to him, “… Germany willed and coveted the Austro-Serbian war …” [16] However, it is plain to see by looking at the famous “blank cheque,”[17] (given in Appendix 1) that there was no extraordinary encouragement from Germany to Austria. Though perhaps not specifically enough, it simply promises that Germany will honour her alliance with Austria.[18] Considering the consequences, there was no reason for Germany to suspect that Austria-Hungary would take her dispute as far as war.[19] Furthermore, Fischer dismisses Germany’s attempts to dissuade Austria from war as staged or faked.[20] In fact, once events began to head toward war, “One of the most sensible proposals for saving the general peace now came from the Kaiser.”[21] This contradicts Fischer’s view that Germany was pushing for war. As Sidney Bradshaw Fay put it: “… Germany by no means had Austria so completely under her thumb as the Entente Powers and many writers have assumed.”[22] As Germany was the larger power, many assume that it was she that directed the actions of her weaker ally, Austria-Hungary. However, it may in fact be that the opposite is true. The only thing we can be sure of is that Germany had few choices in her actions. “She was the victim of her alliance with Austria …”[23] To be left unallied in Germany’s position would have been dangerous. She was surrounded by countries who were allied against her. Between Russia and France, Germany was vulnerable, and so had to hold onto any loyal allies she had. “Austria was her only dependable ally, Italy and Rumania having become nothing but allies in name. She could not throw her over, as otherwise she would stand isolated between Russia … and France …”[24] Germany could not risk losing her only ally by refusing to give her support. The German Chancellor saw that they had no choice, and recognising where the blame would be laid, made the following statement. “If we encourage them, they say that we pushed them into it. If we dissuade them, they say that we abandoned them.”[25] No matter what decision Germany made, it would not turn out well for her. As the Great Power in the Balkans it was her lot to be given the majority of the responsibility. Yet Germany acted out of self-preservation, and took no measures that can really warrant all the blame for the war.

Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, took all the steps purposely towards war, and must take the most responsibility. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria decided to pursue an aggressive policy against Serbia and so sent her an ultimatum. According to Joachim Remak, “… the Austrian ultimatum of July 23 … not only invited war with Serbia but laid the basis for general war as well.”[26] Raymond Aron takes this same stance, saying that “… the Austrian ultimatum introduced the possibility not only of war, but of general war.”[27] It is clear that World War One was the direct result of Austrian conduct. While it was somewhat justifiable for her to hold Serbia accountable for the assassination, the demands she made of Serbia were unreasonable. Furthermore, when Serbia returned an acceptable response – one of which even Germany approved – Austria was not satisfied.[28] Both the Austrian ultimatum and the Serbian reply are given in Appendix 2. With the support of the Germans, Austria felt bold enough to declare war, despite the possible complications.[29] It was clear that Russia was willing to support Serbia in a conflict,[30] meaning there was really no question of it remaining a small war within the Balkans; yet Austria persevered. Thanks to the alliances formed in Europe over the previous years – the Anglo-Russian Entente,[31] Franco-British Declaration,[32] and Triple Entente[33] - any war was almost guaranteed to spread over the whole continent.[34] The “armed peace” [35] which had existed over Europe for the past 40 years was destroyed by the actions of Austria, leaving only a Europe at war. A Europe which, as a result of the continent’s arms race, had huge military forces on both sides.[36] Austria’s declaration of war set the clock ticking, and it became only a matter of time before all of Europe became involved. Though the disastrous consequences were clear, Austria’s actions made her responsible for beginning a war that consumed all of the world.

Russia’s responsibility comes from one action alone. Mobilisation. It is this which places the guilt of Russia above all others save Austria. Thanks to the size and power of Russia’s armed forces, the other Powers of Europe knew that a Russian general mobilisation meant war. It “… set going a mechanism which left diplomacy no further room for action.”[37] However, despite this knowledge, Russia moved her troops, even while Germany was trying to find a diplomatic solution with Austria.[38] In a series of telegrams from the Russian Tsar to the German Kaiser, it is plainly stated that the Tsar ordered mobilisation of his armies not only while Germany was negotiating with Austria, but while the Tsar himself was negotiating with the Kaiser.[39] The complete series of telegraphs are given in Appendix 3. The Tsar states that Russian mobilisation was undertaken “… for reasons of defence on account of Austria's preparations.”[40] Why this course of action was actually taken is a debatable issue, due to its massive consequences, but one possible view is taken by Harry Elmer Barnes. He believes that this was decided by France and Russia together, as “… the chief objects of Russian and French foreign policy, the seizure of the Straits and the return of Alsace-Lorraine, could be realized only through a general European war.”[41] While this is perhaps true, it is also true for any of the European countries.[42] Despite this, it is clear that the disadvantages of a European war far outweighed the advantages of one. All the same, whatever her motives, it was Russian mobilisation that left Germany with no choice but to mobilise in defence, leading the rest of Europe also into war.[43] From the moment the Russian army mobilised, any possibility of a peaceful resolution was gone.[44] The immense army, once started, was unlikely to stop. As Sidney Bradshaw Fay saw it, “… it was primarily Russia’s general mobilisation, made when Germany was trying to bring Austria to a settlement, which precipitated the final catastrophe, causing Germany to mobilise and declare war.”[45] It was Russia’s actions which determined that there was no alternative but war.

Joachim Remak, in his book The Origins of World War I, 1871-1914, allots the shares of responsibility, “… in descending order,”[46] as follows: Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Germany, Britain, and finally France. This assessment is quite reasonable, and his arguments are very in-depth and reliable, considering not only the immediate, but also the more long-term, causes of the First World War.[47]

When we ask who was responsible for the outbreak of World War One, the most reasonable answer is simply, everyone. All the European powers involved in the war, great or small, must share in this responsibility. However, they do not share equally – the actions of certain powers leave them with more responsibility than others. Austria-Hungary is the most accountable, as it was her ultimatum to Serbia that laid the foundation for conflict,[48] and her reaction to Serbia’s reply that brought this conflict into reality. Next comes Russia, thanks to her general mobilisation on June 30 1914,[49] as it was this action which destroyed all hopes for a diplomatic resolution.[50] Her rash act caused every other country to raise arms and prepare for war. Serbia, Germany, Great Britain, and France, while not holding equal shares of responsibility, each take a small portion of the remaining responsibility. All the European Powers played some part in the outbreak of war, and consequently, none can be described as blameless.

Appendix 1 - The Bethman-Hollweg Telegrams
Appendix 2 - Austria-Hungary's Ultimatum to Serbia
Appendix 3 - The Willy-Nicky Telegrams


Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents, First World, Accessed 14 September, <>
Exceptionally good for access to primary sources. Easy to use. Had wide range of primary documents available.

Grant, R.G. 2005, How did it happen? The First World War, Arcturus Publishing Ltd., London.
Very good for basic information. Easy to follow. Not very in-depth.

Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, The Outbreak of the First World War: Causes and Responsibilities, D.C. Heath and Company, 4th edn., USA.

Extremely helpful and relevant source. Provided excerpts from various contrasting historians. Most valuable source.

Remak, J. 1967, The Origins of World War I, 1871-1914, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., USA.
Particularly useful. Very in-depth exploration of causes of the war. Especially good conclusion and summary of responsibilities. Looked at many different interpretations.

Taylor, A.J.P. 1966, From Sarajevo to Potsdam, Thames and Hudson, Great Britain.
Not useful for this topic. Focussed on social situation prior to and during war rather than responsibilities. Hard to follow and understand.


  1. ^ Craig, 1966, p.497
  2. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.133-134
  3. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.14
  4. ^ Fay, S. 1928, Origins of the World War in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.15
  5. ^ Fischer, F. Germany and the Outbreak of War in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.58 and the French relied on her support.Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.15
  6. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.13
  7. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.15
  8. ^ Barnes, H. Summary Statement of the Revisionist Position in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.15
  9. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.14-15
  10. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.98
  11. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.99
  12. ^ Grant, R.G. 2005, How did it happen? The First World War, Arcturus Publishing Ltd., London, p.6-7
  13. ^ Article 231 from the Treaty of Versailles in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, The Outbreak of the First World War: Causes and Responsibilities, D.C. Heath and Company, 4th edn., USA, p.xv
  14. ^ Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.3
  15. ^ Remak, J. 1967, The Origins of World War I, 1871-1914, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., USA, p.132
  16. ^ Fischer, F. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.xvi
  17. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.105
  18. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - Germany's 'Blank Cheque' to Austria-Hungary, 6 July 1914, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  19. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.134
  20. ^ Fischer, F. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.68
  21. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.117
  22. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.12
  23. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.12
  24. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.12
  25. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.106
  26. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.133-134
  27. ^ Aron, R. Causes and Responsibilities in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.44-45
  28. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia, 23 July 1914, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  29. ^ Grant, R.G. 2005, p.6
  30. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.104
  31. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - Anglo-Russian Entente, 1907, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  32. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - Entente Cordiale, 8 April 1904, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  33. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - Triple Alliance, 20 May 1882, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  34. ^ Grant, R.G. 2005, p.4
  35. ^ Grant, R.G. 2005, p.4
  36. ^ Grant, R.G. 2005, p.4
  37. ^ Aron, R. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.46
  38. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.118
  39. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, Primary Documents - The "Willy-Nicky" Telegrams, First World, Accessed 14 September,
  40. ^ Duffy, M. 2009, The “Willy-Nicky” Telegrams
  41. ^ Barnes, H. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.18
  42. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.9
  43. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.14
  44. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.136-137
  45. ^ Fay, S. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.14
  46. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.133
  47. ^ Remak, J. 1967
  48. ^ Aron, R. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.44-45
  49. ^ Remak, J. 1967, p.137
  50. ^ Aron, R. in Lee, D. (ed.) 1975, p.46