Should a girl take the first step

First World War

Annika Mombauer

To person

Dr. phil., born 1967; Senior Lecturer in European History at the Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, England / United Kingdom. [email protected]

On June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by a young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. This attack triggered an international crisis that culminated in the war between the great powers that had long been feared by many contemporaries at the beginning of August 1914. The death of a man in Sarajevo would result in the deaths of millions of people in World War I. And this was not really over with the peace treaty of 1919. Some historians even see it as only the first part of a new Thirty Years' War, which only ended with the total defeat of Germany in 1945. In the weeks of July 1914, the so-called July Crisis, war and peace were decided in the capitals of the great powers. These decisions were formative for the entire 20th century. It is therefore certainly justified to see this war as the "primal catastrophe" of that century, as the American diplomat George Kennan put it.

War debt debate

But why did this catastrophe come about in the first place? For a hundred years, historians, politicians, and the informed public have argued over who was responsible for the war. After the end of the war in 1918, this question seemed easy to answer - at least for the winners. It was Germany and its allies who had deliberately started the war and now had to be punished for this crime. The famous War Guilt Article of the Versailles Treaty, Article 231, stated: "The Allied and Associated Governments declare, and Germany recognizes, that Germany and its Allies are responsible, as the originators, for all loss and damage suffered by the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals of the war forced upon them by the attack of Germany and its allies. "

But in Germany you saw it very differently. The new Weimar government distanced itself from the decision of the victors, and a fight broke out over the so-called war guilt lie. In Germany they were certain that they had waged a defensive war in 1914. Bad enough that you came out of it a loser; that it was supposed to have caused this now was a deep humiliation that had to be combated.

In fact, the war guilt debate had begun before the first shots had been fired. In the capitals of Europe it was well known in advance that a modern war with armies of millions could only be successfully waged if the population was convinced that it was a "just war". That meant that you had to appear as the victim in any case. It was not difficult for the French and Belgians, as they were obviously attacked when German troops marched into neutral Belgium on the night of August 4, 1914 on their way to France. Luxembourg, which is also neutral, was occupied on August 2nd. It was more difficult for the Germans to present this as a case of defense, since their army had obviously violated international law. Nevertheless, on the day of the invasion of Belgium, the German Emperor Wilhelm II proclaimed: "In the midst of peace, the enemy is attacking us!" This news was spread on countless postcards, propaganda posters and in the press in the Reich. In Germany the population was just as convinced of waging a defensive war as in France or Great Britain (where Belgium and France were to be defended). The fact that one was portrayed as an attacker after the lost war was unacceptable for many Germans, not least because the immense Allied reparation claims were based on this war guilt assignment.

The Weimar governments and the Foreign Office therefore worked with historians and publicists to refute this "guilty lie". The revision of the Versailles guilty verdict (and thus the end of reparation payments) became the goal of official historiography in the 1920s. The extent of the "fraud against Klio" [1] carried out by the government and above all by the Foreign Office is hardly imaginable today. In order to convince the world of Germany's innocence, specially established research offices put together collections of documents, published books and founded special journals. A "world war of documents" was waged. [2] Representations that threatened to question this official interpretation were censored and found no audience in Weimar Germany. Publications from abroad that pleaded for Germany's innocence were supported by the Foreign Office, which also encouraged a lively exchange between revisionists at home and abroad.

Success of War Innocence Propaganda

The propaganda offensive was successful: in Germany hardly anyone (anyway) believed in the German war guilt, and by the early 1930s a new view also prevailed abroad. The international consensus thus turned in favor of Germany. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George summed up the new orthodoxy succinctly in his 1933 memoir: Europe slithered into the war in 1914 ("Europe slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war"). [3] Accordingly, the foreign policy ambitions of a nation were not responsible for the outbreak of war, but the failure of the alliance system at the time (with triple entente from France, Russia, Great Britain on the one hand and Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on the other). The war was therefore almost an accident, an accident for which no one could be directly held responsible. This new interpretation was particularly welcome in Germany and could be seen as a sign that the long propaganda campaign had paid off.

In 1927, during the commemoration ceremony for the opening of the Tannenberg Memorial, Reich President Paul von Hindenburg announced that the German people had rejected the charge of being responsible for this greatest of all wars and called for the Versailles Treaty to be revised. [4] Ten years later, on January 30, 1937, Adolf Hitler was able to explain to the enthusiastic Germans in the Reichstag that the question of war guilt had been finally resolved: After Germany "had been forced to live the life of a leper among other nations for 15 years," he did made it his business to "remove those fetters that we felt were the deepest disgrace that had ever been burned on a people". [5]

In fact, the question of sole German guilt had been eliminated through the efforts of others (not least through the revisionist propaganda encouraged by the Weimar government, but also through an about-face that took place abroad, promoted by Lloyd George, for example). Hitler, however, portrayed this characteristically as his personal triumph and declared "that with it that part of the Versailles Treaty found its natural settlement which deprived our people of equality and degraded them to an inferior people. (...) But above all I prefer The German signature was solemnly returned from that declaration, pressed against a weak government against its better knowledge, that Germany was to blame for the war! "[6] So the" honor of Germany "was restored, and the offices that had been with it for almost twenty years the refutation of the German war guilt, could stop their work. [7]

The question of war guilt appeared to have been resolved, and when a new world war loomed and finally became a reality, neither in Germany nor abroad was there any interest in thinking about the causes of the previous one. The Second World War was even more devastating, and so after 1945 they did not want to question the prehistory of the war of 1914, after all, they had to declare twelve years of National Socialism and come to terms with the facts of the crimes committed on behalf of Germany. And so, as far as the First World War was concerned, one was still convinced of the shared responsibility of all great powers. A pleasant compromise had been established, the First World War and its causes were no longer controversial.