It wasn’t the longest war in human history, nor the most costly in terms of human life, but it was the first war supplied, supported, and fought on an industrial scale. It was fought with naked aggression, where no weapon was too awful to be turned on one’s enemy.
It saw the destruction of 4 empires, and the ushering in of communism. It almost brought the extinction of an entire generation of European men and exacerbated one of history’s worst pandemics. Its effects are still felt today, over a century after the armistice, in the form of the “Iron Harvest” in France and Belgium.
It was a defining chapter in the big book of war that gave birth to innovations like, the field telephone, poison gas, gas masks, flamethrowers, the submachine gun, the light machine gun, the assault rifle, Sonar, the aircraft carrier, military aviation, the pilotless drone, the armored car, the self-propelled gun, the tank, the portable x-ray, and the sanitary towel…and it lead to the worst conflict in modern history.
It should’ve been “The War to End All Wars”, but in the words of EA/Dice’s 2016 hit Battlefield 1; “it ended nothing, yet it changed the world forever”.
Why was Germany blamed for WWI? Arguably the most drastic changes were to Germany, her reputation, and her standing on the global stage. For her part in a war where almost every nation was as bad the another, Germany shouldered all the blame for WW1. In this article we’ll be exploring the reasons behind the outbreak of the war, Germany’s involvement and why the victors were so eager to not only punish, but cripple Germany.
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Empire Building, the Arms Race, and the Lines Drawn
The 19th Century was Britain’s century. Following the French defeat at Waterloo, her gradual assimilation of India, the confounding of the Russians during “The Great Game” and their eventual clattering during the Crimean War, and gains in Africa and the Far East, she had cemented herself as the most powerful nation on Earth. With the largest Empire the world had ever seen, upon which the sun never set, Britain was the envy of all Empire holding states – none more so than her erstwhile ally Germany.
Shortly after Germany delivered France a kicking in the Franco-Prussian War, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was coronated Emperor of Germany. It’s difficult to imagine a more ill-suited person to lead; sickly, spoiled, spiteful, and embittered by his birth defects, Wilhelm was fanatically jealous of his grandmother’s empire – his grandmother being, the “Grandmother of Europe” (dubbed because she was related to most of Europe’s crowned heads in some capacity) Britain’s Queen Victoria. Wilhelm threw Germany’s efforts into a national campaign of empire-building and rearmament, by snapping up territory in Africa and increasing the size and lethality of the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine).
As well as sowing distrust in Europe, this triggered an international arms race, with every major European power increasing and modernizing their armed forces. Britain, unsettled by the Kaiserliche Marine’s growth, built more new Dreadnoughts and Destroyers, which would eventually clash with Germany’s own ships at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916; one of the few naval battles between Germany and Britain WW1 and still the largest naval battle in history.
New military alliances followed. Germany’s alliance was along historical lines, siding with her neighbors, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, in an alliance called the Central Powers. In response, Britain sided with former rivals France (tensions between France and Germany before WW1 were still high from the Franco-Prussian War) and Russia, as part of the Triple Entente. Thus, two great military alliances began flexing their muscles in Europe, further deteriorating relations and making war inevitable.
All that was needed was a spark to light the fuse.
Unrest in the Balkans
The Balkans saw nothing but unrest and war from the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The “ownership” and administration of the region were complicated (an understatement), and Austro-Hungarian heavy-handedness only made things worse.
By attempting to secure her borders with her Serbian neighbor, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Ottoman-owned Bosnia-Herzegovina (with the Ottoman’s permission – see what I mean about complicated?). This didn’t sit well with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbor and historic ally Serbia, which Austro-Hungary considered a troubled and unpredictable state following the horrifying May Coup in 1903.
The May Coup saw the murder of pro-Austro-Hungary King Alexander I, and the installation of a regime that favored Russia. Russia had historically (and still has) much sway over the region and was traditionally considered a steward of the Balkans, until the Crimean War, when they were seized by the Turks.
Serbia’s new pro-Russian regime under King Peter I, was a threat to Austro-Hungarian security, leading to increased Austro-Hungarian military activity in the Bosnia-Herzegovina, much to the chagrin of the neighboring Serbs.
Unrest reached a boiling point with Serb agitators and terrorists attacking Austro-Hungarian individuals and assets in the Balkans, Austria and Hungary. In response, the Austro-Hungarian Empire further increased its military involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1913, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I, ordered his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenburg to Sarajevo in Bosnia as part of a combined charm and military offensive the following summer.
Word of the visit came to the attention of a secret Serbian society dedicated to the ejection of Austro-Hungary from the Balkans. The society made up of Serbian Army officers and civilians was called Unification or Death, but was better known by its nickname; The Black Hand.
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The Shot Heard Round the World
As a public charm offensive, plans for the visit were readily available to anyone interested. The Black Hand were very interested in the tour of Sarajevo. The Archduke, his wife, and select dignitaries would tour the city in a motorcade, riding in open-topped sports cars on June 28th, 1914.
The Black Hand’s plan was to bomb the Archduke’s vulnerable motorcade as it rolled through the city. It very nearly succeeded. At 10:10am, Black Hand member Nedeljko Čabrinović, threw his improvised bomb into Franz Ferdinand’s car, only for it to bounce off the folded convertible roof, exploding under the following car.
Fearing capture, Nedeljko took a cyanide pill and threw himself in the adjacent Milijacka River to drown. The pill made him vomit and the river was barely a foot deep during summer. He was captured, nearly beaten to death, and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The plan had failed – or it would have if Franz Ferdinand’s driver knew where he was going.
After delivering a tense speech in Sarajevo’s center, Franz and Sophia boarded their car again, deciding to visit the victims of the motorcade bombing in hospital. Along the way, the driver turned right when he should have turned left. When this was realized, he stopped the car to reverse, stalling the engine. In a shocking display of bad luck, this wrong turn took them right next to Gavrillo Princip, another member of the Black Hand, armed with a pistol.
Seeing his opportunity, Gavrillo marched up to the car and repeatedly fired his pistol at point-blank range into the occupants. Sophia died almost instantly and Franz succumbed to his wound minutes later.
Gavrillo saved a round for suicide but was captured before he could shoot himself. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison where both he and Nedeljko Čabrinović would die of tuberculosis.
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The July Crisis and the Domnio Effect
What followed was a series of military and diplomatic bungling between the major and minor powers of Europe, in an effort to avoid or encite war. Predictably the assassination had the opposite effect of its intended outcome. Rather than deter the Austro-Hungarians, the act resulted in the flooding of Bosnia-Herzegovina with troops and an ultimatum delivered to Serbia, tantamount to forcing Serbia into total subservience to the Austro-Hungarian Empire or face war.
Amazingly the Serbian government agreed, but due to deserved mistrust (and undeserved racism directed towards Serbia’s Slavic population), the Austro-Hungarian Empire still readied for war. As part of the Central Powers and unwilling to let the alliance lose any prestige, Germany reaffirmed her allegiance to the Austro-Hungarians, promising to join her in any conflict in Serbia.
Russia, the longtime older sibling of the Balkans, decried the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum and vowed to enter any potential war on Serbia’s side. As part of the Triple Entente, France reaffirmed her commitment to Russia as an ally. All parties seemed to agree that no good would come from Britain joining any war in the Balkans. Austro-Hungarian and German attempts to ensure British neutrality were made, but Britain reluctantly refused, citing her membership of the Entente.
On July 28th, 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war and invaded Serbia. On July 30th, Russia began mobilizing her forces to counter the Austro-Hungarians. On August 1st, Germany began mobilizing its forces to counter Russia.
Knowing war with the Entente was inevitable, Germany planned to gain legal military access in neutral Belgium to attack the French on multiple fronts, and conquer the entire country – which they felt confident about, given their recent record fighting the French. If Belgium refused, Germany would crush them.
Despite its enormous size, the poorly trained and equipped Russian Army was considered a walkover. With France and Russia beat, Britain would have no allies in Europe and no means of crossing the English Channel without resistance.
On August 3rd Germany declared war on France. Unsurprisingly the Belgians refused the idea of letting German troops stomp through Belgium to attack France, so Germany invaded Luxembourg and Belgium on August 4th.
Expecting little resistance, “Brave Little Belgium” fought back, slowing the German invasion, however, German forces slowly ground Belgian resistance down. Strangely, it was more the invasion of neutral Belgium, rather than the conditions of the Entente that brought Britain into the war against Germany on August 4th.
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The War to End All Wars
And so followed 4 years of the most horrifying conflict the world had ever seen. The war was fought in every corner of the world, but is frequently defined by the hellish scenes of the Western Front in France and Belgium; of mud, barbed wire, rats, flies, gas, machineguns, and constant artillery, of trenchfoot, and shellshock, of fear and hate.
On the Western Front, the British, French, Belgian and their colonial armies (and eventually the US) fought the German invaders and died over the same scraps of land for 4 years. Most strategic gains by either side were temporary at best. Progress was measured in inches of land and blood spilled.
Parts of France and Belgium were scarred beyond recognition. Villages were turned to rubble, forests reduced to shrapnel torn stumps, and fields churned into stinking quagmires by shellfire, filled with the festering bodies of men and horses, littered with shell holes that could swallow men whole, with the whole of continental Europe crisscrossed in ugly networks of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
US and Germany WW1 relations crumbled after the sinking of the Lusitania and America finally joined the war as part of the Entente in 1917 – the same year Russia sued for peace.
By November 1918, American reinforcements helped the British and French push German forces back to the border. Germany realized that defeat was imminent and sued for peace. The Armistice was signed and the guns stopped firing at 11:00am, November 11th 1918.
The Blame Game
The worst war in history was finally over and the Entente were keen to ensure that no war (certainly no war this horrific) could ever happen again. From this, the League of Nations was born (a precursor to the United Nations). This international body of checks and balances was meant to encourage communication and compromise among member states, and ensure no one nation had excessive military clout.
The Entente (now lead by Britain, France, Italy and the US) also decided to disarm the nation at fault for starting the war, guaranteeing they’d never be capable of doing so again; but who was to blame?
Blame quickly landed on Germany. Why did Germany get all the blame for WW1? Why was Germany not to blame for WW1? Germany hadn’t started the war – that blame lay on the Serbs, and the now dissolved Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Surely, Germany was just guilty of was honoring her Germany and Austria WW1 alliance.
But by invading neutral Belgium, Germany had violated an 80 year old neutrality agreement (German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg dismissed the 1839 treaty as a “scrap of paper”). In addition to this disregard of international law, the full extent of physical damage inflicted on Belgium and France, and their people became apparent.
Evidence documenting the horrific treatment of French and Belgian civilians at the hands of occupying German troops continued to emerge. In Belgium, German forces were responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Belgian civilians and had enslaved over 120,000 to build railways and fortifications. As a result of war 400,000 French civilians had perished, in addition to the 1.3 million French and colonial troops.
Germany also operated a scorched earth policy whenever they were forced to cede ground, destroying industry, infrastructure, agriculture and anything useful to their enemies. This did hamper Entente forces, but the real victims were civilians.
But these aren’t new concepts of war and throughout every contributing nation’s history, instances of these atrocities had occurred. So why else did Germany shoulder so much blame? Did people think in the age of gas and shrapnel that salting fields was too barbaric?
Easy; Germany crossed the wrong empires. At the outbreak of war, France and Britain were the two major superpowers of their day and Germany crossed them both. Of the major Entente powers, France and Britain did most to ensure Germany shouldered the blame and was punished.
Britain’s reasoning was simple; someone had challenged the order of British global supremacy, and an example had to be made. Although they balked at ruining Germany, Britain demanded reparations.
France’s reasoning was out of total vengeance. France had been hobbled, her men depleted, her women raped, and her children murdered by an occupying army. Much French soil had been rendered unusable (and is still unusable), and France still begrudged Germany for the Franco-Prussian War. France wanted payback.
The Entente forced Germany to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, which among other concessions, forced Germany to take full responsibility for the war, her empire divided between Britain, France and Belgium, her army reduced from prewar numbers of 1 million to 100,000, forbade her from owning or producing modern battleships, any submarines, any military aircraft and any machine guns, the demilitarization of the Rhine, ceding parts of then Germany to France, Belgium, (recently emerged) Poland, and Czechoslovakia and reparations valuing (at the time) $5 billion in gold, commodities, ships, and industrial assets.
Consensus among the Americans was the Treaty was too harsh (but being late to the war left them with little say). The British and the Italians felt the Treaty was fair; Germany was de-fanged but not helpless. The French felt Germany had been let off lightly.
If France had been given her way, Germany surely would’ve been reduced to a pre-industrial state.
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The Aftermath and Rise of Nazism
Is Germany to blame for WW1? History tells us the Treaty of Versailles was a mistake. The concessions Germany made were crippling, and total blame for the war was largely unjustified and unfair.
While, the guilty parties responsible for violating international treaties and war crimes against France and Belgium should have been punished, the biggest victims of the Treaty were German civilians, who were stripped of even their pride.
Germany before and after WW1 were very different states. The new and inexperienced Weimar Republic that followed the absolute monarchy (all Germany had ever known) had little chance of rebuilding Germany, her economy and her pride. Germany would suffer fighting in the streets, political strife and two major economic depressions, whilst shouldering the blame for a war she didn’t start.
But Germans weren’t as angry at the Entente as they were at their politicians who’d signed the Treaty. The signing was seen as a betrayal of Germany, an idea that was capitalized on by Hitler and the Nazi Party. Hitler himself saw the Treaty as reason for making war with France again, and himself regarded WW2 as the same conflict as WW1, resumed years later.
We’ll never know what the world would’ve been like had Germany not been so unfairly humiliated after WW1. One hopes that Nazism would have been forgotten. It’s sad to say the only good thing to come from the Treaty was that the Allies knew not to repeat the same mistakes after WW2.