First World War: A summary of the historiographies

Guido Pescosolido

Translation by Arianna Bove

In the recent historiography on the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, there has been a tendency to group the First and Second World War together in a single, great and catastrophic bellicose season (Hobsbawm – Pavone – Barraclough), of which the Great War represents a first tragic act, and the Second a terrifying epilogue. In light of this thesis, the debate on the conclusions of the First World War that was initiated by J. M. Keynes in his notorious pamphlet on The economic consequences of the peace, where, condemning the sanctions imposed on Germany, he made dark predictions that were largely realised, came to coincide with a debate on the vicissitudes of the two decades between 1919 and 1939 (in particular, on the end of the world hegemony of Europe and the birth of modern totalitarianism) and one on the origins of the Second World War. The debate on the responsibilities and causes of the First World War, instead, has remained relatively autonomous and today has taken on even greater relevance than during the 1920s and 1039s when, stimulated by article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to recognise its own and its allies’ responsibility for all the losses and damages sustained by the Allied government and their citizens because of the war.


To be fair, C. Barbagallo had already observed in 1923 (Come si scatenò la prima guerra mondiale) that in fact speaking of responsibility at the political level was unjustified, because nations had always been at war with one another, dragged by incoercible instincts of development, conservation and defence which lay beyond the concept of responsibility. Later in 1952 the same argument was put forward by F. Curato (La storiografia delle origini della prima guerra mondiale, in Questioni di storia contemporanea), who highlighted how, in 1914, there was no international body to preventively constrain in some way the actions of single States, and this was also underlined by J. Keegan in 1998 (The First World War), who recalled that even Ajax’s International Court really had no coercive power over any country. In any case, as soon as article 231 concretely imposed on the defeated states, and in particular Germany and Austria, conditions of peace that had serious repercussions on their history and on the history of Europe and the world, the polemic on the assignment of the responsibility for the war solely to Germany and Austria immediately arose, both in diplomatic quarters and amongst historiographers.

Already in 1915, E. Durkheim and E. Denis (Qui a voulu la guerre?) had stated that the exclusive responsibility for the war was Germany’s and Austria’s, as evidenced by the unacceptable conditions of the ultimatum of Austria on Serbia and the Austro-German refusal of any conciliatory proposal coming from England or of any postponement of the deadline of the ultimatum. Other historians too had pointed the finger against the racist and bellicose philosophical, ideological and political trends that, together with Prussian militarism, had contributed to nurture in Wilhelm’s Germany a climate of pan-German nationalism dominated by an idea of Europe’s conspiracy against Germany and its evident and growing racial, economic and military superiority. According to E. Rota, on the strength of this climate, Germany had tried to impose a new balance of powers in Europe and the world, where German supremacy substituted the Anglo-French one at all levels (La guerra europea e il problema delle sue cause, in «Nuova rivista storica», January-March 1917).

German diplomats at the peace conference, whilst recognising that Germany had had its responsibilities in the outbreak of the conflict, strongly argued that in the previous fifty years what had chronically poisoned international relations and refused to recognise the right of people to self-determination was in fact the imperialism of all European countries and not only Germany’s. Moreover, the policy of revanche of France had affected a push to open warfare that was in no way weaker and less continuous than German militarism. More specifically, in July 1914, it was Russia’s decision to mobilise that closed off all chances of further political-diplomatic manoeuvres to preserve the peace, thus ultimately placing all decision powers in the hands of the militaries of all countries. German historians intervened to demonstrate the lacunae and falsity of the historical arguments put forward by the winners in support of article 231, shifting, with Alfred von Wegerer, the responsibility for the war on the Russia and Great Britain (Der Ausbruch des Weltkrieges, 1939).

But French historiography would not capitulate. Pierre Renouvin (Les origines immédiates de la guerre, 1927), though admitting that the international situation of 1914 was tense and serious as a whole, restated that Austro-German diplomacy, geared to seize the opportunity to start the war that had been seen as inevitable for a long time just when western powers and Russia did not seem ready yet, was responsible for the outbreak of the war. Even B. E. Schmitt in the US (The coming of the war, 1914, 1930) argued for Germany’s responsibility, whilst S. B. Fay pointed the finger against Austria (The origins of the world war, 1928). Finally, the French C. Bloch, a few years later, restated that the main reason for the war was to be sought in Germany’s and especially Austria’s resolve to destroy Serbia, which was a major obstacle to Austria’s policy towards the East that started with the annexation of Bosnia-Erzegovina ( (Les causes de la guerre mondiale, 1933).

Towards the mid-1920s the idea emerged that the war had been the outcome not of the actions of a single state but of the particular configuration of the system of international relations: a system that saw Europe divide along two blocs that opposed one another through secret agreements, which, unbeknown to the masses of citizens, ended up making the war inevitable; a system that after the war the creation of the League of Nations tried to amend. A work that emblematically interpreted this line of argument, which effectively freed Germany from the weight of univocal responsibility, was The International Anarchy 1904-1914 of the British writer G.L. Dickinson, published in 1926. The methods and operations of the “old diplomacy” were made known in detail in the publication in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, or in Italy after the Second World War, of a rich series of volumes of diplomatic documents from all the powers involved in the conflict.

Since the beginning of the 1920s, influenced by the emotional effects of what Germany was suffering as it became evident that it was unable to sustain the weight of the sanctions, the thesis on the sole responsibility of Germany started becoming attenuated also in other ways. Abandoning the logic of the immediate contingencies, both military and diplomatic, in 1921 E. Fueter (Weltgeschichte der letztenhundert Jahre 1815-1920) attributed the main cause to the clash between major European powers who were, with increasing difficulty, seeking to expand the markets of their commodities and labour as they became overproduced for domestic use alone. For Fueter too, Germany had become embroiled in Austria’s anti-Serbia policy, but the events of Sarajevo were only a spark in the scenario of the generalised imperialist clash of an outbreak that had been planned and prepared by more than one country. This thesis was close to the one put forward by Marxist political and intellectual writers, who saw the war as the product of the development of international capitalism.


The Frenchman É. Halévy strongly opposed this thesis and outlined a framework of the bourgeoisies of the great European powers, including Germany, where the attitudes of the industrialists, financiers, stock market traders, mines owners and merchants just before the war radically contradicted the image of international capitalism as the main agent behind the conflict (L’ère des tyrannies, 1938). For Halévy, throughout the different crisis between the great powers that affected Europe since 1870 without resulting in open war, the capitalist and industrial powers had always worked in a pacifist way though they were finally overcome by the nationalist drives, both French and German, from which the entrepreneurial powers of both countries had remained largely extraneous. This, for Halévy, was the true key to understanding the causes and dynamics of the break of 1914. The national and nationalist movements that had affected, in Eastern Europe, a deadly speeding up of the process of dissolution of the Turkish Empire in 1913, had now put pressure on the Habsburg-Hungarian empire too. Faced with the danger of a break up, the Habsburg monarchy thought it indispensable to eliminate Serbia in order to turn itself into an Austro-Hungarian-Slavic monarchy. For Halévy, the origin of the war is not to be sought in the West, but in the East, where Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism were armed against one another for the control over Central-Eastern Europe. The responsibility of Germany lies in the inability of its political class to avoid being dragged by Austria into a war against Serbia. Halévy almost completely absolves England and France, aside from the ultra-nationalist upsurge of the Moroccan crisis of 1911-1914. Another lively reaction to the persistent ascription of the responsibility to Austria and Germany was that of Augusto Torre in 1942 (Alla vigilia della guerra mondiale). Torre contested to Bloch that he never referred to the Serbian documents where the aspiration to create a Yugoslavian state at the expense of the southern regions of the habsburg’s empire was clearly stated. Faced with such prospect, Torre asked, “Did Austria have the right to defend itself?” According to Torre, the responsibilities of Serbia and Russia in the precipitation of the events of July 1914 were significant. The Serbian government had been an accomplice in the events of Sarajevo because it knew about it but did nothing to prevent it. If Russia had not intervened, Serbia should have been subjected to a huge humiliation, but Russia could always have exerted its influence to maintain its integrity and independence and avoid to trigger the mechanism that led to the conflict. In any case, for Torre, the conflict between Austria and Serbia was only one of the many questions on the table of the international relations of the new century, and their solutions seemed impossible to achieve by peaceful means: the question of Alsace-Lorraine and the spirit of revenge of France, the commercial conflict between England and Germany, Russia’s aspiration to the Straits, the policy of the Coalition to surround Germany and close off any possible hegemonic aspirations on the continent. Ultimately the war was hard to avoid and according to Torre, historians had all the elements at their disposal to see that while Germany and Austria were not exempt from responsibilities, Russia, France and England played their part too.

Some years later, Benedetto Croce, in a move beyond the strictly diplomatic, political and economic questions, put forward, in his Storia d’Europa, a non-univocal interpretation of the responsibilities for the conflict. Whilst attributing a primary role for the heating up of the climate of relations amongst the people, cultures and states of Europe to pan-Germanism and the Nietzschean exaltation of war as an element of civilisation and progress, Croce did not see Germany as the sole agent responsible for what happened. At the beginning of the 20th century, irrational trends glorified power, violence, and nationalist and imperialist celebration of races and peoples. But this happened everywhere in Europe, not only in Germany, and in fact Germany was “not affected by this any more or less morbidly than any other country, it did not nurture any thought of this kind that had not been nurtured elsewhere, although, because of some of its traditions, it came closer to ethnicism and racism in particular” (Storia d’Europa, 1948).


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the historiography of the winning countries newly revisits the question of the responsibilities for the First World War, and proposes, again, the attribution to Germany of the responsibility for the conflict. German historiography, on the other hand, kept sustaining that, despite the large presence of militarist and pan-Germanist drives, the leadership of Germany was, until 1917, in the hands of moderate political forces who cultivated imperialist ambitions in line with those of other western governments. However, in 1961, a historian from Hamburg, Fritz Fischer, on the basis of a vast and largely unpublished documentation, inflicted a great blow to this thesis and revealed that the top of the German political establishment had been cultivating aggressive military intentions geared to establish the political and economic predominance of Germany on the whole continent as early as before 1914 (Griff nach der Weltmach), in particular by Chancellor Betmann Hollweg, who was notoriously liberal-moderate. Fischer’s work had great resonance at the international level. In Germany, it was rebutted by Gerhard Ritter in the third volume of his monumental work Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk, 1954-68, where, on the basis of equally unpublished and important documents as Fischer’s, he observed that in fact, once the war started, the general idea was that victory was not separable from the total destruction of the adversary and that the German peace plans revealed by Fischer were interpreted as a brutal violation of the right of people, those of the Allied forces were not too different: in September 1914 Russia proposed to France and England a plan that entailed a dismantlement of Germany. Germany not only had to return Alsace-Lorraine, but also give up parts of Prussia and the Palatinate. It would have had to give to either Russia or Russian Poland the regions of Eastern Posnania and Southern Silesia, to Denmark the Schleswig, the border territories to Belgium, and also be subjected to reconstitute the independent kingdom of Hannover. Ritter’s argument clarified that the debate on the origins of the First World War assumed, in light of the catastrophe of the Second World War and the dismantling of Germany that ensued, an ethico-political significance that was more dramatic than that of the two inter-war decades. When Ritter tried to outline the framework of German policy on the eve of the war and during the war in a way where it could not be judged in isolation, but in light of the behaviour of all powers, he was trying not only to offer a more complex analysis that was true to the facts and balanced in assigning responsibilities, but also, and above all, to identify in German history a liberal and moderate tradition where the life of the democratic Germany of the aftermath of the second world war could find its roots, without having to condemn the whole of its past and have thus nothing on which to base its present and future. This could have been concluded from Fischer’s work and all the historians who, in those years, demanded from Germany to divorce not only the Nazi-fascist experience, but its entire history. This was a historical and historiographical problem not only of Germany, but also, though in different and less tragic proportions, of Italy.

Research on the First World War in the decades that followed Fischer’s and Ritter’s works were enriched by new and well-documented researches and built a patrimony of knowledge that was fuller, especially on the strictly military events and on the economic and political history of the war (J. Keegan, V. R. Berghahn, Sarajevo, 28 June 1914: der Untergang des alten Europa, 1997; N. Ferguson, The pity of war, 1999; D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: the history of the First World War, 2004). However, the main coordinates of the debate on the causes and responsibilities of the conflict are, today, more or less the same that were placed into sharp focus by Fischer’s hypothesis, as evidenced also by James Joll, The origins of the First World War (1983). Joll, whilst recognising the importance of the contribution of Fischer, distances himself from him as far as the univocal responsibility of Germany is concerned. Joll draws attention to the overall dysfunctions of the system of international relations highlighted by the studies of the 1920s; to the progressive accumulation, in the years preceding the conflict, of political events such as the outcome of the crisis in the Balkans, which instead of being solved effectively and with balance, ended up becoming further premises for the war; he highlights the growing importance of the military element, in the frenetic preparation of war plans of the countries involved in the conflict; and finally he emphasises how the “spirit of 1914” saw a common trait in all European countries, which was a “propulsion towards risk, to accept the war as a solution for countless political, social and international problems, as the only way to resist an immediate physical threat” and “these were the attitudes that made the war possible”. This position was close to Croce’s Storia d’Europa, though ignored in Joll’s work.

This essay has be translated from the original Italian here.

Further reading on the First World War:

The Grand Fleet 1914-1916 by Admiral John Jellicoe (illustrated with an introduction by Erik Empson)
My Memoirs (volumes 1 and 2) by Admiral Alfred Tirpitz (illustrated with an introduction by Erik Empson)
The Flight of the Goeben and Breslau by Admiral Archibald Milne (illustrated with an introduction by Erik Empson)
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