Causes of the Great War

Historiography relating to the Causes of the Great War

Historians have held different views about the causes of the Great War since the first books and articles about it were written. Unsurprisingly, the views have differed in different countries. Evidence has come to light over the years that has led to the formulation of new interpretations of the causes. Analysis of political doctrines of the major combatants has taken place, leading to ideas about the Domestic, rather than Foreign, policies that led to the outbreak of war. 

The first British histories of the Causes of the war were propagandist. Quite literally. The War Office propagandists during the war wrote the first post war accounts of the conflict. Some became professional historians of the conflict. Their work during the war and the limited material available to them led to early historical articles stating unequivocally that Germany was to blame for the war. It was hard not for them to do so. Some of these men had been involved in the various conferences that determined the fate of the Central Powers. They had presented the evidence that led to the war guilt clauses, they were hardly likely to present anything other than this argument.

Causes of the First World War

Post Second World War histories of the outbreak of the Great War

Historiography of the causes of the conflict gathered a pace after the Second World War. Archival material was made available in Germany. This was used by a German historian, Fischer, to reinterpret the war. Controversially for a German historian, he stated that the war was Germany’s fault. This caused problems politically. The German and French authorities had decided to work together post World War Two on histories of the Great War. This had led to a conference in Mainz in 1951 at which it was agreed that school history would show how the blame was not entirely at the door of Germany.

Fischer Controversy

The Fischer Controversy led to new approaches. Fischer’s work was based very heavily on Primary Sources: he was actually criticised for over reliance on these, they are not always the best materials to use. A new type of history emerged. Other explanations were sought. One, a quite intriguing one, is to look inwards, at Domestic Policies, rather than outwards, for explanations of the great war. The simple argument here is that the establishment in major nations faced a growing threat: socialism. They needed a response to this. While responses varied, they manifested themselves in policies that led to war.

Other theories sought to explore the nature of military planning. It is a curiosity of the day that all of the military schools taught that attack was the best form of defence: even small nations such as Belgium taught this at military academies. From this came historical arguments that a First Strike Theory was largely to blame. A culture of hitting first led to the first advances.

Referring to prior learning

Students at A Level may remember being taught acronyms such as MAIN (Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, Nationalism). Few academic historians would explain it quite like that. Most specialise in one specific aspect and explain that in detail while making reference, where necessary, to the other areas. This might sound like they are excluding potential causes. They aren’t. They are working at such an advanced level that their work feeds into the broader histories that cover it like that. The standard you are at now is the stage between those broader overviews and the more academic. It’s quite a leap…

Note: these were rushed through to help out. If you see numbers in the middle of paragraphs they would be the academic references from the articles. Some articles are in American English. Some didn’t copy across very easily so there may be some spaces and some foreign names and the use of accents simply haven’t copied. These will be edited but not by the time you use them.

Examples of historiography relating to the causes of the Great War

Keiger on the Fischer Controversy. An April 2013 article reviewing the Fischer Controversy and updating historiographic views of Fischer’s theories about the causes of the First World War.

Lieber (2007). Lieber uses newly released Primary Sources to construct a new assessment of the causes of the First World War. He dismisses some earlier interpretations to argue that not only was Germany the aggressor but also that she was quite aware that the war would be protracted and bloody.

Gordon (1974) on the Domestic roots of German expansionist policies such as Weltpolitik. This explains expansion, particularly within Europe, not as a design solely on unification but also a considered means of overcoming Domestic problems.

Gordon (1974) on the ineffectiveness of British policy. 

Gordon (1974) explores earlier historians views on the causes of the Great War. He then reaches his own conclusions as to the aims of German militarism at the time, which, he argues, is the root cause of the war.

Gordon (1974) on Fischer.

David Kaiser (1983) on the role of anti-radicalism and anti-socialist policy in causing the outbreak of the First World War.

David Kaiser (1983) on Weltpolitik

David Kaiser (1983) on the nature of German expansionist policies. He argues that Germany was not aiming to openly challenge Britain. Instead, the aims was to ensure that Germany was equipped to have a fair share of the spoils of the dying empires.

Bulow in correspondence to the Crown Prince. Relating to the policies of war or peace.

Niall Ferguson on Finance and the Causes of the Great War

Ismar Dedoviæ and Tea Sindbæk Andersen on Serbian histories of the causes of the First World War.

Van Evera on the concept of First Strike Theory and the five outcomes of states adhering to this theory.

Van Evera on the pervasive belief that Germany was doomed without colonies.

James Toll (1966) reflects on Fischer’s thesis. This article was written whilst the Fischer Controversy was still very fresh in the minds of historians.

First World War

Causes of the First World War – Timeline of Causes – Forgotten Causes – Assassination of Franz Ferdinand – The Schlieffen Plan – Historiography of the Causes of the First World War

Outbreak of War (Public reaction in Britain) – The British Expeditionary Force in 1914

Trench Warfare – Simulation: Would you make a good officer in the trenches? – British contribution to the Western Front

Battles of the First World War – First Battle of the Marne – The Gallipoli Campaign – Battle of Verdun – Battle of Jutland – Brusilov Offensive – Battle of the Somme – Battle of Passchendaele – The Spring Offensive – Battle of Amiens – Victory on the Western Front?

The Home Front – Revision exercise – Changing role of Women – Propaganda – Censorship – Conscientious Objectors – Rationing and Recruitment

Personalities – Douglas Haig and the Somme – Charles Gass – Billy Bishop – Ludendorff – The Bradford Pals – Black History and the First World War

Technology and New Weapons – British Tanks – Machine Guns

Medicine in the First World War

Other wars:

The Norman ConquestThe Wars of the RosesThe British and English Civil WarsThe Second World War – Vietnam WarCold War

Famous Battles:

Battle of Hastings – Battle of TowtonBattle of BosworthD Day

Related Content:

The British EmpireThe Treaty of VersaillesImpact of the War on Germany – Primary HistoryHistory Teachers Resources