Revision Notes and Essays for the Causes of the Great War

European Society and the New 20th Century

At the start of the century, European countries were part of a self-confident civilisation. Organised into separate nation-states and empires, Europeans nonetheless in many ways shared a common worldview. Within Western civilisation, some states (known as Great Powers) played dominant roles in international affairs, whereas other states aspired to such a role.

Great Powers

Great Britain

i) An industrial and commercial power that had spearheaded the Industrial Revolution, Britain also possessed a world empire that encompassed 20 percent of the world’s land mass.

ii)  Britain’s own population was 45 million.

iii) Dependent on trade, it had made itself the pre-eminent naval power and preferred to maintain “splendid isolation” from the affairs of the European continent.

iv) A constitutional monarchy, Britain had a liberal government.

v) London was the banking capital of the world as it precariously remains today.


i) Imperial Germany had been created by war in 1870–1871, when the German kingdom of Prussia had led German armies to victory against France.

ii) The “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, peerless practitioner of Realpolitik (power politics), had engineered German unification around the hard Prussian militarist core by wars against Austria (1866) and against France.

iii) Germany became the strongest power on the continent, with proud Prussian militarist traditions. Its population was 65 million, while its booming economy likewise made it a powerhouse.

iv) The creation of the German Empire was of such importance to international affairs that it was called the “German Revolution.” The “German Question” concerned what role Germany would play in European affairs: Would it be a source of stability or instability?

v) Bismarck pursued policies that aimed to reassure the other Great Powers of Germany’s peaceful intentions.

vi) When the young Kaiser Wilhelm II of the House of Hohenzollern ascended to the throne in 1888, he soon dismissed Bismarck in 1890.

vii) Determined to win respect and status for Germany, Wilhelm II sanctioned an aggressive foreign policy that shortly alienated many powers. All this forms the basis of Fall of Eagles and was covered in Grade 9-10.

viii) Though it had a parliament called the Reichstag, the empire was an uneasy mix of constitutionalism and authoritarianism.

ix) German domestic politics were fragmented along class, regional, and religious lines. Rapid and late industrialisation, however, would also bring social disruption.

x) A new political force was the S.P.D., the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Founded in 1875, the S.P.D. adhered to Marxist ideas and was so well organised that it was a model for other socialists worldwide. To the horror of German elites, the S.P.D. became the largest party in Germany in 1912.

xi) Nationalist leagues (the Navy League, the Army League, the Colonial League, and the Pan-German League) agitated for more assertive foreign policy, as a way of escaping internal woes.

xii) A mood of crisis and pessimism about the future pervaded German elites.


i)  Once the dominant power in Europe in the 18th century, France had suffered a crucial defeat in its 1870–1871 war with Germany, downgrading its power status.

ii) France remained anxious about Germany, whose population overshadowed its own of 35 million, and also longed to regain Alsace and Lorraine annexed by Germany (Treaty of Frankfurt).

iii) France was a republic, beset by serious internal divisions among conservatives, republicans, and socialists.

iv)  France also had a colonial empire, through which it sought prestige to compensate for its losses in Europe.

v) France sought allies with which to oppose Germany.


i) Russia was an enormous multinational empire under the Romanov dynasty, spanning Europe and Asia. With a population of 164 million, it was vast in potential but still backward in development, compared with Central and Western Europe.

ii) Tsar Nicholas II ruled over a traditional autocratic system that was already under strain.

iii) In 1905, two disasters overtook the empire. It was defeated in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, and the Revolution of 1905 within its own borders nearly brought the regime down.

iv) Russia sought to develop its potential economically and militarily, with ambitious reform plans. As the serfs had only been freed as recently as 1861, there was much ground to make up.

v) A varied revolutionary movement within Russia envisioned the overthrow of the state and the establishment of a new system, by terrorism if necessary.

vi) Dissatisfied nationalities (Poles, Lithuanians, Finns, and others) saw Russia as a “gaoler of nations.”

vii) The nationalist ideology of Pan-Slavism promoted support for other Slavic nations and a leading role for Russia.


1. Also a venerable old empire under the Habsburg ruling house, this multinational state of 50 million was presided over by the aged Emperor Franz Josef, who had ruled since 1848.

2. The empire consisted of twelve major ethnic groups held together by dynastic tradition and power, not nationalism, a force that Austrian leaders had feared.

3. The older empire had been reorganised into a “Dual Monarchy” of shared rule between the German- speaking Austrians and the Hungarian elites in 1867, after defeat by Prussia in 1866.

4. The demands of dissatisfied ethnic groups, underdeveloped industrialisation, and anxieties as to the survival of the empire beset its leadership.

5. The Balkans were an area of special concern to the empire, both as a field of activity and potential threat.

6. Austria-Hungary’s precarious position forced it into closer and closer partnership with Germany.

Other Countries

Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

i) Called the “Sick Man of Europe,” its decline contrasted with its glorious past as the Islamic sultanate, ruling from North Africa to Persia.

ii) Its lagging development, nationalist revolts in remaining Balkan territories, as well as the ambitions of European powers, made its future uncertain. How to deal with its expected demise was called the “Eastern Question” and occupied European diplomats.

iii) In 1908, the Young Turk nationalist revolutionary movement came to power with the aim of reviving the empire.

iv) Turkey came increasingly under German influence, with military advisors, railway projects, and counsel.


i) Italian lands were unified under the House of Savoy from 1860.

ii) With a population of 36 millions, Italy had ambitions for Great Power status but faced internal problems of underdevelopment and political disunity.

iii) Italian nationalists still longed for territories they called Irredenta (unredeemed lands) at the expense of Austria-Hungary. Colonial rivalries with France also created international animosity.


i) The kingdom of Serbia was a proud state that had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire.

ii) Its aimed lead a Balkan league uniting South Slavs under Serbia.

iii) Russia supported Serbia and signed an alliance in 1903.


i) In a remarkable self-willed transformation, Japan adopted Western technology after the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

ii) Determined to become an imperialist contender, Japan went to war with China in 1894 and Russia in 1904, and annexed Korea in 1910.

United States

i) Separated by the Atlantic Ocean, the United States did not figure prominently in European affairs.

ii) Its industrial development was striking, having overtaken both Great Britain and Germany in steel production by the start of the century.

iii) In military terms, its power was potential.

Balance of Power

The balance of power is the name given to the dynamic interrelation of the Great Powers.

i) It signifies a balance among powers with none able to dominate the others as a hegemon. Other powers unite in coalitions to resist such a hegemon.

ii) Such a balance was inaugurated after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and the recognition of sovereign states.

iii) The Congress of Vienna of 1815 institutionalised the balance of power as a principle of harmony and conservative solidarity, under the guidance of Prince Clemens von Metternich.

iv) This system, the Concert of Europe, broke down with the Crimean War, 1854–1856, and the wars that followed.

v) The result was now a looser and more competitive scene. Whether equilibrium could be maintained depended to a great extent on the new Germany’s role.

A wave of “High Imperialism” from the 1880s led to a scramble for colonies, carving up Africa and Asia.

i) Britain and France were particular colonial rivals, and Britain and Russia also mistrusted one another in Central Asia.

ii) Germany had not participated actively in this colonial competition under Bismarck, a reflection of his policy of restraint in international politics, soon to be reversed by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

With growing tensions in imperial contests and with a more aggressive German foreign policy from 1890, arms races resulted.

i) On the seas, Germany built the world’s second largest fleet, touching off a naval arms race with the largest fleet, Britain’s. At vast expense, a new generation of Dreadnought battleships was launched.

ii) On land, mass armies were built up by France, Germany, and Russia. From 1890 to 1914, European armies doubled in size.

iii) Hand in hand with increased numbers of men and equipment went carefully calibrated, minute planning for military operations in anticipation of the next war. Railway timetables and speed were emphasised.

Essential Reading:

John Keegan, The First World War, pp. 123. (In my classroom and school library- remember to compare his first sentence with Strachan)

Questions to Consider:

1. Was the balance of power a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

2. Could the tensions leading up to 1914 have been settled by negotiation? Why or why not?

Bernd Huppauf- The Blind War- A War with no Direction- revisionist WWI
Robert Wohl- A Place in the Sun- a German Need- orthodox WWI
 “Wilson made too many promises, and had to negotiate a peace settlement with leaders who were intent on preventing German hegemony, and not world peace”
Norman Stone- Russia getting too strong for Germany- revisionist WWI
Imanuel Geiss-Orthodox Germany to blame
Gerhard Ritter- defence of Germany
British historian Gary Sheffield: “The battle of the Somme was not a victory in itself, but without it the Entente would not have emerged victorious in 1918.”
Egmont Zechlin- revision WWI
Gerhard Schroeder- no one responsible- German revisionist WWI
Wolfgang Mommsen- German historian, Germany responsible for outbreak
AJP Taylor- revision, European international relations Europe: Grandeur and Decline: “The Austrian government was not much concerned to punish the crime of Sarajevo. They wanted to punish a different crime- the crime that Serbia committed by existing as a free national state.”
Fritz Fischer- Germany responsible for WWI because of its aggressive pursuit of its Weltpolitik
Richard Hamilton- The Origins of World War I- revisionist
Kenneth Waltz- Man, the State, and War.- examining different views on causes of war. WWI was caused by human nature- supported also by theory of Confucius.
George F. Kennan- 1894 alliance caused WWI
Christopher Clark (Sleepwalkers)- Italy started war with 1911 invasion of Libya which led to Ottoman collapse.
The protagonists of 1914 were "sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world."
- When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and attacked Belgrade on July 28th, 1914, it was Russia and France that bore the main responsibility for the general war that followed because they chose to resist Vienna’s move.
Sidney Bradshaw Fay: “A peaceable, sensible mass 500 million was hounded into war by a few dozen incapable leaders.
-  "Imperialism, nationalism, militarism and alliances- “all these things meshed together to create a collective impetus to war”.
British nation: “We want eight and we wont wait
Kaiser Wilhelm in Daily Telegraph, 1908: “You English, are mad, mad, mad as March haresKaiser 1911: “When the hour comes we are prepared for sacrifices, both of blood and of treasure
After 1911 Agadir crisis Daily Mail newspaper: “Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire. Britain alone stands in the way of Germanys path to world power and domination
After Agadir crisis Lloyd George: “Britains interests were vitally affected” 
Lloyd George 1934: “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay... The nations backed their machines over the precipice not one of them wanted war, certainly not on this scale
Serbian Prime minister Pasic after defeating Bulgaria: “the first round is won, now for the second round- against Austria.
Revisionist Richard Hamilton- The Origins of World War I: “There was no slide to war, no war caused by inadvertence, but instead a world war caused by a fearful set of elite statesmen and rulers making deliberate choices.
Nicholas II to Kaiser 29 July 1914: “An unjust war has been declared on a weak country. The anger in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I beg you in the name of our friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far.
German chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg asked General Moltke after Russian mobilisation: “Is the fatherland in danger? Yes” 
Bethmann-Hollweg: “For a mere scrap of paper, Great Britain is going to make a war?” (Treaty of London 1839)
World was scared of present, Germany of future.
Edgar Quinet, on the consequences of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War: "The ceding of Alsace-Lorraine is nothing but war in perpetuity under the mask of peace.
 Professor David Fromkin, "Europe's Last Summer: Why the World Went to War in 1914": "The international conflict in the summer of 1914 consisted of two wars, not one. Both were started deliberately. They were started by rival empires that were bound together by mutual need... The wars were about power."
Debate on Causes
Debate began with the war itself. One key formulation was the War Guilt Clause, part of the Versailles Treaty. The Versailles Treaty at the end of the war claimed in Article 231 that Germany and its allies were solely responsible for launching the war. Reflecting wartime sentiment, the clause also justified reparations.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of a collective responsibility became prominent.
In the interwar years, as international tensions relaxed, opinions shifted toward the notion of shared responsibility. British wartime leader David Lloyd George suggested that all European states “slithered over the edge” into war.
In the 1960s, the Fischer Debate renewed the question of the causes of the war. Renewed debate exploded in 1961 when German historian Fritz Fischer’s Grab for World Power (published in English as Germany’s Aims in the First World War) argued that Germany launched the war to become a superpower and developed war aims that anticipated the Nazis. In the furious confrontations that followed, the debate itself changed. Fischer’s critics came to argue that Germany miscalculated its gamble, rather than that the country intended world war.
In a later book, Fischer claimed Germany had planned war from 1912. Other explanations have also been advanced by historians through the years. Other interpretations stressed different causal factors. Did alliances themselves cause the war? “Secret diplomacy” was denounced after the war as a crucial factor. Did arms races and military planning cause the war by forcing a timetable? Henry Kissinger argues that alliances and mobilization plans created a “Doomsday Machine.” Was war an accident, as British historian A. J. P. Taylor argued, turning politicians into “prisoners of their own weapons?” Was imperialism the cause? Although colonial competition certainly poisoned the atmosphere, earlier clashes were negotiated. Was capitalism the cause, as Marxists argued? On the contrary, German industry’s dominance grew in peacetime. Though this is not a scholarly theory, were the Balkans to blame (as some hinted during the Balkan wars of the 1990s)? Rather, outside involvement of the Great Powers was the crucial variable.
Where does the current interpretation of the causes of the war stand today? Most scholars today see Germany as bearing the main responsibility for the war, as it was willing to risk general war, though not aiming for it. Even as Germany is seen as mainly responsible, some degree of responsibility is shared by other actors in this tragedy. Although Fischer moved the debate forward on war aims, his arguments on intentions are not accepted.

Historical Perspectives of the Causes of the Great War
From 1998 Exam Paper II: Topic 1: Causes, practices and effects of war
1.    To what extent should Germany be held responsible for causing both the First and Second World Wars?
1. German Responsibility:
Fischer’s View: (German Historian)
i) Germany was responsible for war because of its aggressive pursuit of its weltpolitik.
Germany willed the war in order to realize expansionist ambitions and to resole an acute domestic crisis.
ii) Fear of ‘encirclement´ after the Triple Entente and Russian army reforms meant that ‘a moment so favourable from a military point of view might never occur again´.
iii) Germany put pressure on Austro-Hungary to retaliate against Serbia (even if it meant General war). evidence for this is in the ‘blank cheque´
Criticism of Fischer:
i) German policy before 1914 seems contradictory and lacking in clear aims.
ii) No evidence that German leader help expansionist aims before the ‘September Programme´ (which Fischer uses to explain the German desire for war)
iii) Places too much importance on the domestic crisis in the decision to launch a war. In fact, in 1914 Bulow and Hollweg dismissed war as a solution to the socialist problem.

What you should consider:
i) Distinguish between Germany´s contribution to the growth in international tensions from 1900-13 with her role during the July crisis itself.
 All Governments were responsible for tension until 1914 but not equally responsible for the fatal turn of events — for which Germany was culpable.
Sample Student Essays:

'Hamilton & Herwig's "coteries of the elite" thesis is the most valuable contribution to the Historiography of the First World War since the Fischer thesis'. Discuss the validity of this statement with reference to at least two other critiques of the causes of the First World War.

Example 1
World War One was undoubtedly the most influential event of the 20th century for the development of historiography, a study of multiple historians’ perspectives, due to diversified examination of its potential causes. The Fischer thesis, when it was first introduced in 1961, caused a lot of debate because of the outrageous revived idea that the political behaviour of Germany was indeed the main stimulus for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Therefore assessment of the “coteries of elite” thesis would not be as accurate without a possibility of comparison to Fischer’s advanced appraisal of the causes of the war. This essay will mainly discuss the validity of the Hamilton and Herwig’s “coteries of elite” thesis. which suggests that the blame is to go on specific political groups of people within each of the powers rather than solely one country. That idea will be presented in comparison to the outstanding effectiveness of the Fischer thesis on the affluent historiography of the World War One. The essay will also focus on opinions of other historians, who have made less significant contributions; yet those are worth examining in detail due to their beneficial relevance to the theses of the two preceding works, either supporting or discouraging them. Hence the historians mentioned in this essay will be Gerhard Ritter, a traditionalist and ardent opposer of the Fischer’s controversy, Niall Ferguson, who presents Britain as the power contributing the most to the outbreak of the World War, and Christopher Clark, who completely clashes the prospect of the blame game as a whole and stresses the equal faulty involvement of all powers. Throughout the essay it will be demonstrated that the Hamilton and Herwig thesis offers possibly the most modern view on the origins of the Fist World War, therefore being strongly relevant to the historiography nowadays, yet not profound enough and quite self-evident to be placed on the same level as the Fischer thesis, which with its encouragement of discussion has become a very precious piece of work for the historians.

The thesis by Hamilton and Herwig is presented in the book Decisions for War. Both argue that ‘separate and distinct sets of concerns’ of the leaders in groups of influence in each one of the five major powers have lead to decisions, which provoked the war. They suggested that it was the combination of panic and fear, that took over the leaders and therefore they could act irrationally, affected by emotions and not the circumstances directly. Hamilton and Herwig address in their study, that the motivations of the five major coteries were ‘moved by nationalism, militarism, and imperialism’. The groups of people who appeared of such vital importance to the world history were quite small, ‘decisions for war were made by coteries of leaders; in most cases, fewer than a dozen persons were directly involved and responsible for those decisions’, the historians suggest. Their book discusses each of the powers separately and how, and more importantly, who made the most important choices within each one. Herwig and Hamilton state that Germany was putting in the ‘effort to secure the Reich’s tenuous position as a European Great War’; the claim that is clearly is linked to Fischer’s argument. As the Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke was a member of a small German coterie, he feared to suffer the loss of opportunity of Germany emerging as a Great Power from the war. As a result of angst shared by him and other powerful politicians, the whole country was involved in a serious conflict escalation in order to live up to the expectations of the coteries. Those coteries, in fact, knew perfectly that the war would be disastrous. Nevertheless the calculation of risk was ‘thrown out of the window’ during the period leading up to the war. The major question asked by the historians concentrated on the ‘mass sentiment’, whether the coteries were ‘corresponding to the demands of the masses or to the pressures of organizations representing them’, or were the decisions based on ‘strategic concerns’. This would allow the possibility of the decision-making process to be described as oblivious due to the ‘elite’ individuals being either inattentive to the outside information or viewing it falsely. Niall Ferguson has somewhat shared that concept expressed by Hamilton and Herwig, as he also believed, that the decisions were made by politicians suddenly, often without an obvious cause yet with selfish intent and out of own responsiveness to the intense course of events.

Fischer’s thesis, which suggested that Germany was to inflict the blame upon entirely, caused a massive change in the stabilized opinion of many on the Germany’s degree of fault due to its controversy. Fischer re-introduced an old claim that Germany’s foreign policy leading to the outbreak of war, yet in a completely new light. The thesis strongly suggested that due to a clear line of continuity between the foreign policy aims of the Imperial Germany in 1914 and later the Nazi Germany in 1937, the country wished to establish itself as a great power thorough all those years, therefore ready to risk the possibility of war. According to Fischer, Germany was under so-called “military pressure”, it assumed that the war with Russia was bound to happen and therefore preferably before 1917. This is because Russia was not fully recovered from the shameful defeat in war with Japan and was still vulnerable and short of military reforms, which would have to be worked on for the next few years. Fischer also claimed that Germany has put pressure upon Austria-Hungary by firstly offering the ‘blank cheque’, which ensured the Austrians that the Germans would help and support them in their opposition towards Austria-Hungary. Making Austria-Hungary too confident it triggered a conflict with Serbia. Fischer suggested that the Austrians were afraid that if they did not act immediately, Germany would simply have them handle it on their own. That concern has caused the establishment of a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia by the Austria-Hungarian leaders. A strong piece of evidence used by Fischer to strengthen his argument was the Schlieffen Plan. It suggested that Germans were getting ready for the war long before it broke out, therefore allowing the possibility of them being the main initiators. The Schlieffen Plan was a strategic plan, which fully expressed the thoughtfulness of the Germans when it came to aggressive international actions. It involved the possibility of an attack and fight with France from the Western front and with Russia from the Eastern front. Events of World War One have taken place exactly how the Germans suspected them to. The plan was developed by German General Staff 9 years before the war broke out, thus it could be questioned whether Germans had more reason to depict the possibility of war than other powers.

Gerhard Ritter was the main critique of the Fischer thesis, who was wishing to preserve Germany’s image as the “unreasonably blamed” for the First World War due to being a conservative German historian. Nonetheless he did suggest that the previous works on German war-guilt had to be reviewed; he did not support the ideologies of the Pan-German League, defining those as pure nationalism. Ritter has defended the point of view (and so did many other German historians of 1960) that Germany was, in fact, not acting aggressively, but defensively throughout the war. The main issue that Ritter had with the Fischer’s thesis, was his claim that Germany saw war as necessary in order to force Russia out of the Balkan affairs. A Balkan alliance was developing under the Russian leadership, increasing their power significantly in that area, which caused distress of the Germans. Ritter has also strongly opposed the statement that Germany has indirectly forced Austria-Hungary to act against Serbia, as that claim was not supported by any hard evidence but largely by assumptions of how Austria-Hungary felt about it’s political relations with Germany. Ritter believed that such rapid actions were taken by the Germans not because they were desperately desiring war, yet because they were terrified by the fact that Austria-Hungary ‘destroyed not only the political and moral impression of the Sarajevo outrage but also the practical success of every undertaking against Serbia’ by offering the ten-point ultimatum. He saw the continuity of the German foreign policy, which Fischer has outlined, as a myth and blamed Fischer for submitting the thesis before conducting his research and, therefore being biased and not very selective; thus suggesting that Fischer’s thesis may not be considered as accurate, but rather prejudiced. Fischer’s determinism, a belief that whatever happens in the given conditions is the only possible outcome of the event and no other outcomes are possible, weakened his argument due to a blunder perspective and was the main reason of discontent of Ritter towards his theses.

Another historian, who chose to blame solely one country for the outbreak of the war, was Niall Ferguson. In his book Pity of War, he claims that “Britain and not Germany started the war”, as opposed to Fischer’s disputed thesis. Ferguson considers the decision of British to interfere in the war unexpected, made on a  “Sunday afternoon”. He refers to the fact that the British avoided warfare since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. He also saw the British determination to participate as unnecessary, suggesting that they had a choice not to get involved at all. Ferguson argues that if the Germans were to attack the Russians only, the World War I would not take place, and the British have therefore “made a continental war a global war”; Germany did not “bid” for world power originally. Ferguson rejects a possibility of a link between the Anglo-German Naval race and the on-going build up of tension between the two countries after 1912, “arms race at sea was over in 1912, it being a cause of the World War I is a myth”. Yet whether it really was fiction, could be questioned, as one could argue that the tension created by the naval race did not end in 1912, but continued up until 1914, even when the built up of the arms was officially ended by the German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and Britain was said to have won. Ferguson also questions the British foreign policy, first introduced by Lord Palmestron, while appointed as foreign secretary in the mid-nineteenth century (1830–1841, 1846–1851), which stated that no power should dominate the continent. Referring back to that policy, Ferguson considers it somewhat as a failure, since in reality the British did not follow through with it, as if they would have, there would be no adequate reason for them to act aggressively. Ferguson also defended the involvement of Germany by saying that “German pre-occupation came from sense of insecurity”, therefore contradicting the Fischer thesis as a whole, implying defensive politics from Germany’s side. However he does not state where that insecurity of Germany could have come from. Moreover Morgenthau’s concept of political realism would argue that if Germany would feel threatened it would react aggressively, rather than defensively due to being competitive and protective of self-interest, therefore causing an unavoidable conflict. Ferguson believed that Edward Grey, the foreign minister of Britain at the time, had a significant domination over the actions, which proceeded into the British joining the war. According to Ferguson, Grey has stated to his colleagues that if Britain does not interfere, he will resign and they will therefore lose their jobs, as the Liberal Party he represented would look weak and lead to the loss in the upcoming elections. Nevertheless it could be argued that it is not a strong link to the real reason why British chose to intervene rather than stay neutral, as the colleagues of Grey, even if unemployed would remain rich and still involved in politics. Therefore it would be quite unlikely and not reasonable enough to consider that those political figures decided to risk a possibility of war simply to save their occupations. Yet Ferguson’s point of view concerning the events leading up the Great War and specifically the influence of Edward Grey’s stubbornness could be linked back to the idea discussed by Hamilton and Herwig, which addresses the possibility of events being caused by human weakness. All three historians believed that when certain officials made decisions, their emotions at a particular moment could have caused alternative reactions to what those could have been if they would not be under pressure of their own anxiety.

Christopher Clark took a different historical approach on the main cause of war, as he has recently published a book about the Great War, named “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914”. Throughout it he establishes a thesis that proposes the possibility of the powers simply “sleepwalking” into the war without a direct intention to do so. Clark suggested that people inside as well as outside the government were in reality extremely worried about the war that was about to emerge and were quite anxious about each proceeding action taken, which lead to a build-up towards the conflict itself. ‘The politicians were wasteful and unseeing, haunted by dreams’, who blindly lead their own people towards war, which was largely unwanted. This point of view largely contradicts with the causal links that were proposed by both Niall Ferguson and Fritz Fischer, as they both go to the extremes to prove the guilt of a particular side. They do not believe in “sleepwalking” but in direct and clear intent of the country to start a war, convinced that it was definitely no coincidence that the crisis struck in 1914 and evaluated the consequences of the actions of the powers. Clark on the other hand doubts the intents and wishes to look at them from his less harsh point of view, admitting the human weaknesses of the leaders, such as distrust, paranoia and anxiety. Furthermore Clark’s ideas could be linked back to the idea of ‘coteries of the elite’ making decisions. He addresses that ambitious political figures, who were not able to hold back in pursuit of power, under effective influence of fear yet desire for more, were the ones who dragged the whole country along into an obvious disaster. Clark argues that the blame game is a “false assumption that one party is wrong and one is right”, which also disputes the ideas Fischer and Ferguson, who argue for opposing sides.

In conclusion it can be drawn from the examination of those various points of view that the Hamilton and Herwing’s thesis is the most far-reaching in modern historiography due to close examination of guilt of the ‘coteries’ in each of the great powers, yet not the most valuable. It presents quite an indisputable point of view, which often indirectly links to the claims made by other historians, therefore making it less advanced. Despite that the thesis discusses a rather different approach of the blame-game. It outlines many constructive ideas as well as agrees that all decisions made by individuals or small groups were influenced by their personal emotional state and temporary values as well as possibly flawed views on the situation, a line of thought also spotted in Christopher Clark’s work on the “Sleepwalkers”. The Fischer thesis, on the other hand, is very in-depth when recalling the study, which has been neglected by Gerhard Ritter, proving that the theses was somewhat blemished due to it’s complete one-sidedness Ferguson’s thesis at the same time suggests that Germany was rather faultless, while the British were the ones to escape possible accusation due to making the war outbreak on a much larger scale than it could have. One can argue that Fischer has assumed that there was more direction to the foreign policy that there was in reality, as it can appear somewhat strange to blame one country for provoking military actions when most powers chose to be involved in the war themselves. Yet Fischer’s argument about Germany’s war guilt, which was brought up once again many years later, is straightforward and supported by various documentations of events, nevertheless still debated. The Fischer’s thesis has lead to a conclusion that Germany was not completely innocent, creating new paths for further discussion and making historians re-consider their previous judgements. The Hamilton and Herwig thesis has discussed the roles of various groups of people throughout the decision-making process in 1914 and prior, letting fresh ideas on the subject advance, which could proceed into future debates and discoveries concerning who was really to blame for the worldwide tragedy.


The causation and correlation of events, which caused the Great War, is one of the most frequently researched and written about topics in history. From hundred of theses, those of Fritz Fischer (1961), and Hamilton and Herwig (2004) standout as the most ground breaking. This essay will look to explore the comparative value of not only Fischer’s and Hamilton and Herwig’s ideas, but also those of Gerhard Ritter, Lenin/ Marx and William Engdahl. Through looking at several the opinions of several historians we shall assess not only which of the theories pose the most compelling arguments, but also, which theories had the greatest impact on society and the historical community. Secondly, this essay will evaluate which contribution to the historiographies on the causes of the First World War after Fischer’s thesis (1961). When studying historiographies it is essential to recognize the weaknesses of each historian and how those weaknesses influence and hinder the accuracy of his opinions. 

To begin, we will look at, arguably, the most influential piece of writing on the causes of WWI, Fritz Fisher’s, ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918’, or as it is known in English, ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’ published in 1961. Fischer, being not only German, but Bavarian, stirred up strong reactions from both the historians’ community and the general German public by claiming in his thesis that Germany was not only to blame for outbreak of WWI, but also for all of the destruction caused during the war and the consequences thereafter. The basis of Fischer’s thesis was such that Germany instigated war with France and Russia in order to achieve its ideas of ‘Mitteleuropa’, ‘Mittelafrika’ and ‘Middle East Policy; these were, essentially, large regions of Europe, Africa, and Asia, particularly in the Ottoman region, which would be dominated completely by Germany. This gaining of land was part of an important political shift in Germany from ‘Realpolitik’ under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, to ‘Weltpolitik’ after Bismarck’s dismissal by the Kaiser in 1890; this marked a significant change in German history as under Bismarck, Germany had been more or less, at peace. The policy of ‘Weltpolitik’ aimed to establish Germany and a global power by expanding its navy, acquiring overseas colonies and preparing for a war on two fronts. The Naval Race (1906-1914) and the Schlieffen Plan are both consequences of ‘Weltpolitik’, which are case studies for Germany’s premeditated intentions of starting a war. The Naval Race consisted of Germany and Britain challenging each other for the greatest navy. By 1914 Britain had acquired a sum of thirty-eight dreadnoughts and dreadnought battle cruisers, and Germany had obtained twenty-four. The only reason Germany would need a navy which rivalled Britain’s was if she planned to go to war with Britain and needed it for offensive attacks. Britain had the navy in order to look after its overseas colonies, whereas Germany had relatively few overseas colonies and therefore did not warrant a navy of that size and power.  The Schlieffen Plan was Germany’s second act of mens rea, which caused the war, according to Fischer. The Schlieffen Plan was a plan devised in order to allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts, France to the west and Russia to the east. The Plan was originally written in 1905 by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and then altered by the new German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in 1906. In the act of creating a plan which anticipated a war on two fronts, and building a navy which competed with the Royal Navy, argues Fischer, revealed Germany’s clear intention to enter into a large European war in the near future. Thus the outbreak of war in 1914 was a consequence solely of Germany’s actions during the previous months and years. According to Fischer, the shift to ‘Weltpolitik’, a more aggressive policy than before was a large contributing factor to the outbreak of war because a central European country operating with a highly aggressive policy, who is in direct competition for wealth and power with Britain and surely an obvious culprit. Britain would defend its position with military force so by challenging Britain Germany knew there was a large risk of war. One fault in Fischer’s arguments against Germany lay in his failure to acknowledge France’s Plan XVII. Plan XVII was originally drawn up in 1898 following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) as a defensive plan in the event of future conflict with Germany, however the plan underwent several redrafts, and by 1909, offensive Plan XVI was created, then renamed XVII in 1913. If Fischer claims that Germany’s Schlieffen Plan was evidence of Germany’s intent of war, then surely he could also have argued that France also intended on causing a war since they too, had an efficient offensive battle plan draw up. This flaw in Fischer’s thesis makes readers questions Fischer’s personal intentions when writing his thesis, whether they were intended to describe the most accurate causes of the Great War, or to create a compelling piece of work which would allow society to share his subjective opinion of Germany’s involvement.

Posing an argumentative antithesis to Fischer is conservative German historian Gerhard Ritter. Ritter’s purpose was to find faults within Fischer’s arguments, as well as to share his opinion that all states were equally to blame for the outbreak of war. This is not an uncommon idea, especially when looking at the causation of the war in hindsight. Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of Britain would go on to say “all the powers participating in the First World War had blundered into it, that is, that all bore the same measures of guilt.” Ritter’s intention was to demonstrate how Germany had become involved in the war through a series of unfortunate events, clearing its name after Fischer’s thesis in 1961. Ritter argued that Fischer had misunderstood the intentions of the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in his pre-war, post-assassination conversations with Austria. Ritter argues that Germany entered war as an act of camaraderie, to protect and support its sister empire, Austria-Hungary after Serbia’s violent terrorist attack, which caused the death of Austro- Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Secondly, Ritter claims Germany severely underestimated the efficiency of the Russia military and their strong loyalty to their fellow Slavs in Serbia. These two miscalculations of Germany’s part are what Lloyd George considered blunders, clearly illustrating that Germany had a part in the correlation of events that caused the war, however they were in no way the sole perpetrators of the Great War. Ritter attempted to disprove Fischer’s theory by providing alternative explanations for Germany’s involvement. While his arguments are at least as justified as Fischer’s, there is nothing striking about a German historian vouching nationalistically for Germany’s honour, and therefore his publication cannot be regarded as the greatest contribution to the historiography of the causes of the First World War since Fischer.  Secondly, while Fischer based the majority of his theories on events which can be evidenced with case studies, Ritter makes most of his claims on the basis of theoretical intentions. While Ritter argues, rather romantically, that Germany loyally stepped up to the defence of its ally, Fischer’s explains Germany’s pre-war battle plan as substantial evidence of its intention of starting a war. Fischer’s thesis is simply better evidenced and realistic than Ritter’s.

In December of 2004 Hamilton and Herwig published a book entitled ‘Decisions for War 1914-1917’, which was detectably the greatest contribution to the works on the causes of the First World War since Fischer. Hamilton and Herwig’s most prominent idea was that it was ‘coteries of the elite’ in each country made decisions, driven by capitalistic motives, which lead to the outbreak of war in 1914. Coteries of the elite were small groups of wealthy and powerful people who manifested themselves in each and every country. Hamilton and Herwig believed that it was these groups who saw opportunities for their individual countries to benefit economically, who used their power to persuade their government to enter the war. This seemingly inherent greed of the individual, which is inextricably linked to the operation of capitalist states at the time can be understood by looking at Hans Morgenthau’s theories about political realism. Morgenthau said political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” This human nature he is referring to, goes back to the early stages of human development, which would have been referred to by Marx as the ‘hunter gatherer’ period of society. In these stages it was only the greediest, quickest, strongest man who would get enough food and women to survive and reproduce. According to Lenin-Marxists, as society has evolved through primitive communism, solitary horticulturalists, the feudal system, an industrial revolution, and now capitalism, each individual has been left in an inherently greedy mind-set. This links back to the cause of World War I because each state, government or coterie of elites consist of a collection of individuals all sharing these same instinctive traits, they will act with the same selfish hunger as an individual, according to Morgenthau’s theory of political realism. This leads to war, because though war is not necessary, countries see opportunities for greater wealth, power, prestige if they enter into this war, thus a war begins. Unlike Ritter’s writing, ‘Decisions for War 1914-1917’ was more than simply an antithesis to Fischer; it was a completely new set of ideas which sparked interest all over the world. Secondly it was written in 2004, so the writers had an even longer period of retrospect on the war than Fischer, this would have allowed their judgements to be less clouded by the emotional repercussions of the war, thus allowing them to base their theories on cold hard fact, instead of emotions. The Berlin Wall, the last physical remain of WWII wasn’t taken down until 1989; this suggests that historians writing before this time, especially German historians, were very likely to be subjected to an anti-Germany bias as they felt the guilt of the atrocities committed by their country in the 1940’s. Fischer’s inevitable sensitivity towards his country at the time makes his arguments weaker in comparison to Hamilton-Herwig’s who were written in the 21st century, with WWI and WWII in the past, allowing them to be more objective.

As a case study for Hamilton and Herwig’s ‘coteries of the elite’ theory we will explore another recent publication pertaining to the causes of WWI; William Engdahl’s ‘A Century of War’, published in 1992, whose ideas are more closely related to those of Hamilton and Herwig, than to those of Fischer. In his book, Engdahl talks about how in August of 1914 the British Treasury and the finances of the British Empire were, in effect, bankrupt. However, Britain saw a war with Germany as an opportunity to obtain Middle Eastern oil reserves, and access to the Mediterranean Sea, which in turn would give Britain access to the oil in North Africa as well. In the months leading up to war, Lloyd George, Minister of Finances at time, wrote in a private memorandum: “Another influence fanning the agitation for banking reform has been the growing commercial and banking power of Germany, and the growth of uneasiness lest the gold reserves of London should be raided just before or at the beginning of a great conflict between the two countries.” The danger to which Lloyd George is alluding to, is the devaluation of the pound, should there be a run on the British gold reserves, since its currency is dependent on the gold; devaluation of its currency would make Britain much weaker, especially in the face of Germany’s rapid rise as a European threat.  Lloyd George also expressed concern about Germany’s growing navy, economy, oil reserves and subsequently power; however, Lloyd George was correct, entering into a war with Germany, should they be victorious would lead to great imperialistic expansion for Britain and help them to solve their finaical issues, although surely at the time Lloyd George did not anticipate the scale of the war which would result as a consequence of his actions. Lloyd George’s private memorandums with select other politicians are examples of conversations within the coteries of the elite, a powerful group of people acting as puppeteers of the government. Lloyd George, with France and Russia, created the Sykes- Picot Treaty in (November 1915- March 1916) which dealt with the division of conquered Middle Eastern and North African lands during the war. Oil was an especially important resource for Britain as the naval race had cost them a lot of fuel, and a war would warrant even more. Britain was to be awarded the coastal the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, as well as Southern Iraq, and small area, which would allow access to the sea via Haifa and Acre ports. France was to get area in southeast Turkey, Northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia was allocated Istanbul, the Turkish Strait and the Ottoman Armenian vilayets. Britain certainly followed through with its end of the bargain, as by 1918 there were approximately one million British soldiers stations in the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf had become known as ‘British Lake’ by 1919. This agreement to use the war as a cover for its expansions shows exactly to what extent Britain, France and Russia’s imperialistic policies lead to war. However, the policies themselves do not lead to war, it is the military who enforce these policies that lead to war. Lenin would agree that it is primitive need to imperialist expansions, executed by each country’s military that lead to the outbreak of the First World War.

Vladmir Lenin believed it was not the sole responsibility of any country or coterie, but the fault of capitalism with lead to the Great War in 1914.  We must look to his book published in 1917 entitled ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, in order to understand his intentions, we must understand the definitions of capitalism and imperialism. American Chair of the Federal Reserves (1987-2006) Allen Greenspan defines capitalism as: ‘Capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem; it holds integrity and trustworthiness as cardinal virtues and makes them pay off in the marketplace, thus demanding that men survive by means of virtue, not vices. It is this superlatively moral system that the welfare statists propose to improve upon by means of preventative law, snooping bureaucrats, and the chronic goad of fear.” Lenin, himself defines imperialism as: “If it was necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism”. These two definitions lend to each other creating what Lenin would call “the highest stage of capitalism”, essentially in the system of capitalism corporations and governments can and will forsake all in order to gain the greatest capital in comparison to its counterparts. Greenspan might agree that militarism is a significant aspect of a capitalist system which allows it to function in the manner it does; when overriding certain rules, laws, and morals it is often the case that a country will need its military to forcefully back its actions. Lenin’s arguments came before Fischer’s and as such they cannot be accepted as the greatest theories since Fischer, however Lenin’s ideas of imperialism being at the heart of the conflict helps one to understand more deeply Fischer, Hamilton-Herwig, and Engdahl’s arguments. Lenin published his book even closer to the time of the war than Fischer, however unlike Fischer the time period is not a weakness of his arguments. Lenin’s ideas take a much broader perspective than Fischer’s, blaming a system, as opposed to an individual country; it is necessary to notice Lenin’s objectivity on the subject despite his immediate involvement in it as strength in his arguments. As a reader we can conclude that Lenin has the most compelling argument of all due to that fact that Ritter, Hamilton-Herwig, Engdahl and Fischer all have placed the blame on one country, group or people or countries, however this is impossible, war is a repeat occurrence in history, whereas leader, intentions, boarder of countries are always changing. In this ever changing society, capitalism and war are the only two constants, so it is far more logical to blame the system of capitalism for war, than to blame any country or coterie.

In conclusion we have determined that ‘Decisions for War 1914-1917’ is, at this point in history, the greatest contribution to the historiography on the causes of the First World War since Fischer. We make this conclusion, however, understanding that Hamilton-Herwig’s ideas did not, and could not have the same general effects as Fischer’s. Fischer published an anti-Germany thesis; he was an educated German making evidenced claims which blamed his own country for one of the most devastating wars in history. People were so outraged that they even appealed to the government to have translations of his book limited, and to cancel is American lectures in order to ensure his ideas did not become well known; these sorts of measures were not taken for any of the works of Ritter, Engdahl or Hamilton-Herwig.  The extent to which Germans went to prevent the spread of Fischer’s ideas encourages readers to explore to what degree Fischer’s claims were the ugly truth about Germany’s intentions in 1914, for surely Germany would not have so adamantly objected to the spread of complete blasphemy. Engdahl and Ritter both make convincing points as the to causation of the First World War, however in comparison to Fischer’s thesis, Hamilton and Herwig’s ‘Decision for War 1914-1917’ poses the most compelling and believable theory since Fischer due to the objectivity of their work in comparison to the others.

Example 3

According to historian Walter Zapotoczny, the outbreak of war in 1914 was “inevitable”. Zapotoczny believed this inevitability of war was brought about by a “mood for war in Europe”, caused by a convergence of different ideals, different politics, and different views. This collision of different perspectives during the war, has caused numerous different theses and ideas as to the reasons for the outbreak of war. These different theses have created an incredibly rich historiography surrounding the outbreak of the First World War. This rich historiography provides us with valuable and controversial arguments as to the reason the First World War occurred. Fischer’s thesis will be highlighted as a comparison in this essay due to its controversy and its value, as it provides historians with a German perspective in which Germany is sentenced to the blame. Fischer believed Germany was to blame for the war, and this essay will compare the value of Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis, to the value of Fischer’s thesis, Ritter’s thesis, Ferguson’s Thesis, and A.J.P. Taylor’s thesis. The value of these theses will be assessed by their objectivity, their contribution to arguments, their development of a different perspective, and how they have furthered historical understanding.

            “There was no "slide" to war, no war caused by "inadvertence," but instead a world war caused by a fearful set of elite statesmen and rulers making deliberate choices.” Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, The Origins of World War I (2003). Hamilton and Herwig’s “Coteries of the Elite” thesis can be summarized by this one quote. Hamilton and Herwig believed that the war could not be blamed on a nation, or on several events, but that the outbreak was caused by “a fearful set of elite statesmen and rulers making a deliberate choice”. According to Tracie Provost of Middle Georgia college, Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis “moves beyond the arguments put forth by Fischer and his supporters, and refutes arguments that rely on traditionally overarching causes like nationalism, imperialism, alliance systems, and militarism.” This demonstrates that their thesis provides historians with a perspective and argument that does not stem from traditional materials and brings a different outlook on the reason war broke out. This furthers historical arguments and understanding by introducing a new outlook in which “a single belligerent, event, or ideal is not to blame”. Their thesis is created with very little subjectivity as they “look at the motivations of all belligerents” and “finally seek to prove that individuals did indeed have an impact on the choice to go to war.” Before their thesis very few historians believed that individuals could be responsible for the outbreak of World War I. The value of Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis lies within its ability to develop a new historical perspective in which individuals can be to blame for the outbreak of the First World War. Even in more obvious cases such as the Second World War, very few historians believe individuals such as Hitler alone caused it. Hamilton and Herwig brought us the thesis that placed blame on the individual statesmen of World War 1, it is valuable but varied greatly from Fischer’s thesis.

            In 1961 Fischer published a thesis in which he blamed German military pressure, German expansionism, and German political and social concerns for the outbreak of the First World War. His thesis was believed to be “a fundamental attack on the usual interpretation of German History.” (Wallace G. Mills) Fischer’s thesis is extremely opposed to Hamilton and Herwig’s as Fischer places blame solely on a nation. Fischer’s thesis states that Germany’s military thought war with Russia was inevitable, and the German government went to work on war immediately to start a war after the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It also states that German expansionism in Central Europe, Central Africa, and the Middle East along with the German government’s eagerness to go to war were to blame for the outbreak of the First World War. This thesis has been accepted as one of the most valuable arguments surrounding the Origins of the First World War as it is the first time a German historian placed the blame on Germany. This not only demonstrates a shift in the way German history is taught but also demonstrates a high level of objectivity. It provided German historians with a new perspective, and brought details of German social and political concerns that were unknown by many non-German historians. This is why Fischer’s thesis is an incredibly important argument and should be considered highly valuable. Fischer’s thesis may have been objective, however it could be devalued by its dependence on Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s willingness to go to war. “The validity of Fischer’s argument is the question of whether or not B-H was pursuing expansionist and aggressive policies.” (Mills) Fischer’s argument could be flawed, as “B-H was very reluctant to crush unions and socialist parties He feared the effects on national unity. On the outbreak of war, this concern led him into urgent negotiations with socialist politicians urging them not to oppose the granting of war credits.” (Mills) This could evidence the idea that German government officials did not want a war, however according to Fischer this “indicated only that B-H hoped to avoid repression of the socialists, but that he was willing to do it if they did not fall into line.” Although this could harm the validity of Fischer’s thesis, Fischer was also one of the first historians to state that it wouldn’t have been a “World War” if Britain hadn’t been involved. He mentions this when describing German predictions for outcomes if the second Balkan crisis was pushed. This brought even more value to Fischer’s thesis as it provided historians with the idea that “Britain’s inclusion made the European War a World War”. This idea is still being debated today and this is because of Fischer’s contribution in his thesis. Overall Fischer’s thesis is sometimes accepted and is a highly valuable contribution to the historiography of World War 1. However some historians didn’t agree with Fischer’s thesis or its validity.

            Gerhard Ritter was a German who attacked Fischer’s thesis. He developed a thesis that would directly counter many of Fischer’s points. He states that “there is no evidence of a unified German plan for war or world domination”, “Germany acted defensively to preserve tis position in the existing status quo”, “The main German aim was to support Austria-Hungary”, “The German government realized too late that the conflict could not be localized”, “The German government put too much reliance on military planners, who decided war plans which were bound to lead to an escalation of the crisis”, and “Bethmann-Hollweg tried honourably and desperately to disentangle his country from being drawn into war, but became a victim of the military planners.” These six points serve as a reasonably valuable argument as they force Fischer to further his argument with evidence, however this thesis does not bring any new perspectives to the table. These points that Ritter argues are merely points “that a subjective Germany forced into the minds of its people” (Victor E. Neuburg). Ritter was a soldier during the war during which time Germany’s propaganda was heavily forced onto people, and post war Germany was forced to believe that Germany was not to blame, and until Fischer introduced the idea to German History, Germans were taught to believe Germany was not to blame. This devalues Ritter’s argument heavily as has the subjectivity of a German soldier affected heavily by propaganda and German history teachings. This lack of objectivity and the repetition of a German argument makes Ritter’s thesis rather devalued and further increases the value of Fischer’s argument due to Fischer’s altering of German history. Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis is certainly more valuable than Ritter’s.

            Another historian who “opposes” Fischer’s thesis is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson “challenged the dominant perspectives on the origins of the First World War”, and stated in his thesis that “Britain was to blame”. He states that “Britain’s decision to intervene caused it to become a global war rather than a European war”. He then goes on to say “there isn’t a necessary link between the German decision to risk a war on the continent, and the British decision to intervene”. With these statements he believes that Britain caused it to become a global war, and that it would have been a smaller scale European War without Britain’s intervention. Although he opposes Fischer completely he shares certain similarities in opinion with Hamilton and Herwig. he states that “Britain’s intervention in the war was caused by British politicians eagerness to go to war, and the Liberals fear for their jobs”. However one could suggest that “These politicians are not working class, they will be okay and so this turns their decision of money into a partial decision of class and that is no reason to go into war”. Even so Niall Ferguson’s argument would suggest that, to an extent, he agrees with Hamilton and Herwig’s idea that individuals can be the cause of war. And although his thesis was published prior to Hamilton and Herwig’s, he does not focus on the idea that the individual is responsible for the outbreak of the war, and so Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis maintains its value in introducing a new perspective. Ferguson’s thesis however has large value as it forces many “Ally” historians to take a different perspective and perhaps look at Britain’s faults during the outbreak of World War I. His objectivity could be questioned as although he is British he came from a middle class Scottish background in which he has stated he was raised by his father with “a working class sense of self-discipline”, an one could hypothesize he was raised with an anti-England mindset, which could suggest a degree of subjectivity against the British politicians, however this cannot be certain and so his thesis is definitely objective to an extent. Ferguson’s thesis does not have much supporting evidence, it may not be right, and may be contrary to many other historians beliefs, but his thesis is definitely valuable. As, much like Fischer, he has caused people to question the history taught in their homelands. And in fact, in 2003 historian Robert Skidelsky stated that “Niall Ferguson’s “Pity of War” is the most important recent book on the subject”.

            In A.J.P Taylor’s “The Struggle for Mastery in Europe” (1980) he shares a similar view to that of Fischer. He believes that Germany was to blame for the outbreak of the First World War. He heavily blames German expansionism for the outbreak of the First World War. He also states in his book “The Origins of the Second World War” that “Article 231 was correct to blame Germany for World War I”. This thesis is not necessarily valuable as it is almost exactly the same as Fischer’s, however it does aid Fischer’s thesis. As the support of a historian like A.J.P Taylor provides Fischer’s thesis with the support of influential non-German historians. Although Taylor had controversial views about the Second World War, he was well respected and his objective support provided Fischer’s thesis with more value.

             In conclusion Fischer’s thesis provided historians with an extremely valuable German objective view. Fischer was the first German to challenge the dominant German belief and his thesis altered the way German history is taught. Since Fischer though, there have been many different and controversial theses that hold great historical value as well. Hamilton and Herwig provides us with a perspective that does not blame a nation, or an event, or the traditional ideals of Nationalism, Imperialism, Militarism, and the Alliance Systems, but instead suggests that the outbreak of war can be due to the individuals. Ferguson played devil’s advocate and provided historians with a challenge towards the dominant perception of the outbreak of World War I. Ferguson’s thesis could be as valuable as Fischer’s if more evidence was provided, however due to this lack of evidence its only value is in its ability to cause historians to question what they have been taught. The lack of evidence devalues it slightly. Ritter’s thesis may not have been as valuable as others but it did demonstrate the dominant German perception and demonstrated just how valuable Fischer’s thesis was in altering that perception. With the support of Taylor it is clear that Fischer’s thesis is the most valuable piece of historiography surrounding the First World War. However since then Hamilton and Herwig have provided us with a thesis that makes us question and change the way we approach history, they have suggested that individuals can be responsible for the outbreak of the War. This different perspective, this alternate thesis, is the most valuable piece of historiography since Fischer.

Example 4
The number of theories surfacing on the causes of the First World War is far from decreasing as we approach the hundred-year anniversary of its onset. Some historians, such as Christopher Clark, would even state that the discussion of the causes is actually gaining in relevance in recent times, drawing parallels between the events of today and those of pre-1914. In order to evaluate the various theses on the subject, including Hamilton and Herwig’s Coteries of the Elite and Fischer’s controversial thesis we must first define the term “valuable”. In this essay, anything that brings us closer to the truth of the actual event and sparks debate on the matter will be defined as valuable. Following this definition, Fischer’s thesis is considered highly valuable as it gave rise to an entirely new angle on the causes of the war and in doing so brought historians closer to the truth.  Firstly, this essay will provide a brief summary and evaluation of Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis, next assessing Fischer’s thesis in order to gauge its value in the historiography of the war, then moving on to discuss other leading theses, including Ritter’s antithesis to Fischer, Niall Ferguson’s hypothetical thesis and finally Christopher Clark’s attempt to revolutionize the way historians approach the subject of the First World War. We will conclude by ascertaining that, while Hamilton and Herwig’s contribution is useful, it is not equal to the thesis of Fischer in terms of value.             

 Hamilton and Herwig’s The Origins of World War I focuses on the decisions made by individuals leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. This work features an extensive collection of motives of the decision-making elites. As well as this, it assesses many of the other leading causes of the First World War. In providing a critical viewpoint, crucial to the evaluation of the existing postulations, Hamilton and Herwig’s work can certainly be praised. In their introduction particularly, Hamilton and Herwig offer a lucid argument against the Alliances as a valid cause. They clearly define the various obligations of the countries involved in the Alliances, going on the conclude – among other things - that “Russia was not obliged by any alliance to come to the aid of Serbia” and “Germany was not contractually bound […] to issue the famous ‘blank check’ to Austria-Hungary”.  This criticism has oft been made, many historians, including Niall Ferguson, having stated that the countries were not required to come to the aid of their allies and thus must have had ulterior motives. In order to find out the truth, no stone may be left unturned, and in this, Hamilton and Herwig are quite successful.  

Hamilton and Herwig argue that the decisions for the First World War were made by a small group of elites, be they military, political or diplomatic. This was not a revolutionary statement in the way that Fischer’s was, as it was surely not the first time that this theory was put forth, Fischer himself having asserted that Germany’s elite had steered towards war. Although Hamilton and Herwig acknowledge this repetition, they are quick to point out that their argument has been brushed aside too easily, arguing that modern-day historians are blind to these causes due to their tendency to look for “big” causes for big events. They quote Tocqueville in this, who states that historians of today “assign great general causes to all petty incidents.” In this fashion, they are not unlike Fischer in attempting to look at the war from a new angle, careful not to fall into the trap Tocqueville warns of. This attempt to revolutionize the thinking of historians of the time, is valid, yet lacks the controversy to cause a real stir.  

Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War was undoubtedly a turning point in the historiography of the First World War, presenting a new angle to an often-discussed question; what caused the First World War? What made it controversial was that it was the first time a modern German historian admitted to the possibility of Germany being at fault. This went in direct contradiction of the previous claims made by various German historians and the general population that the “War Guilt” clause Treaty of Versailles was unfairly imposed upon the Germans. In this way it was a daring and valuable contribution, proposing to the Germans that the causes of the War may have been unconventional. To realize the significance of such a thesis, one must only look at the attempts made by other German historians, including Gerhard Ritter, whose antithesis we will look at later, to silence Fischer. In comparison, Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis pales, not causing nearly as much of an uproar in the public, although this may in part be due to its more recent publication date.  

Acclaimed historians such as Christopher Clark clearly classify Fischer’s thesis as a major contribution, referring to texts written on the topic as “before- and post-Fischer”. The fact that Clark chooses to use the publication of Fischer’s thesis as a marking point in time is clearly a sign that Fischer’s findings were critical in changing the way historians regarded the causes of the First World War. Not only did Fritz Fischer’s treatise lead way to a new epoch in the historiography of the War, he also brought new evidence to light. In his Griff nach der Weltmacht, Fischer reveals evidence of the decision of the Germans to start a war in 1914, made in a war council held in 1912 by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the military and naval leaders of the Reich. This is quite monumental evidence, as it provides the proof necessary to be able to assess to intent of the Germans at the time. Hamilton and Herwig, however, bring only a few new ideas to the table, rather developing the ideas of others, the elitism theory having been published over two decades previously by Field and Higley. In providing a new angle as well as fighting the limitations imposed by German culture Fischer aided the pursuit of truth in which many historians are still engaged today, in a way that Hamilton and Herwig could not.  

Perhaps the most notable opponent to Fischer’s thesis was Gerhard Ritter, a German historian who went to great lengths to silence Fischer and denounce his claims, especially in his work Anti-Fischer: A New War-Guilt Thesis? One must approach Gerhard Ritter’s thesis with caution, as the fervour with which he opposed Fischer suggests a personal connection to the matter, Ritter having gone so far as to prevent Fischer from travelling to spread his “anti-German” views.  

As far as the historiography of the Great War goes, the Germans have been notorious for their attempts to censor any inculpatory evidence, largely as a result of the endeavours made by the German diplomat Bernhard von Bülow a year after the end of the Great War. However, one may argue that it is in the historians’ interest to welcome any reasonable and justified criticism, as this is beneficial in developing a solid thesis. Ritter offers up several claims to challenge Fischer’s thesis, claiming that the Germans had not acted, as Fischer professed, offensively, but rather in defence of Austria-Hungary and in response to the threatening mobilisation of the Russian troops. For the most part, Ritter claims that Fischer attributed too much significance to certain events, for example the various comments made by leading figures and accuses him of falsifying quotes, including the statement allegedly made by German general Helmuth von Moltke, that a “speedy attack” on Serbia were necessary. In addition, he sustains that Germany was actually trying to prevent the war in Bethmann-Hollweg’s caution to Vienna. Ritter believes that the Great War was a result of the internal aspects of Austria-Hungary.  

One could say that Gerhard Ritter and Hamilton and Herwig’s theses are disparate to the point at which they cannot be compared, Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis not being an attack of another and not spurred by personal sentiment, however there are certain similarities. Most significantly, both theses attempt to counter a widely accepted argument – which Fischer’s wasn’t at the time, but now has come to be – and both theses concern themselves not only with their own arguments, but also with the invalidation of others. Ritter, however, had an ulterior motive, having often expressed his sense of duty to the restoration of German nationalism post-World War II. While we cannot discount a thesis purely based on the bias it may contain, and Ritter’s thesis is certainly useful in providing a critical view of Fischer’s thesis we would deem Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis more appropriate and as a result, more valuable than Ritter’s.  

Niall Ferguson contributes yet another antithetical view to the debate, claiming that Great Britain was at fault, forcing Germany into a war as a product of the incompetent leadership of the British diplomats. His book The Pity Of War: Explaining World War One attracts attention for his use of hypothetical history, contending that Europe under an Imperialist German regime would have been prosperous and peaceful. Although adherent to our definition of “valuable” as a thesis which stirs debate, Niall Ferguson’s theory has yet to provide an argument of the volume that Fischer did. His speculations, largely based on hypothetical events, are difficult to evaluate. Using the benefit of hindsight, he claims that, had Britain not stepped in, the Second World War would have been prevented “And Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, forever waiting for capitalism to collapse”. He is overly critical of Britain, accusing them of almost single-handedly causing the war to escalate worldwide. Like most other theses discussed here, Ferguson sets about refuting other causes, doing so by attacking what Ferguson describes as the ten myths of the First World War, among them the idea - of which Fischer was a subscriber - that Germany was greatly militarist before 1914, the idea that Germany and its growing naval army presented a threat to Britain and that Britain’s intervention to stop Germany was important for the well-being of the countries surrounding.  

When placed in contrast with Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis, The Pity Of War seems very critical, playing, as Christopher Clark would put it “the blame-game”. While his arguments may be valid, they are quite hypothetical in their constitution and, overall very one-sided. Ferguson makes very brazen predictions, at one point stating, “If the British Expeditionary Force had never been sent, there is no question that the Germans would have won the war.” In examining past events, historians must be careful to make such strong predictions, as they will never be more than speculation. Ferguson barely seems to pause to consider the implications of the statements he makes, so daring that they can barely be compared to the ones made by Fischer and the like. By definition, hypothetical assertions are impossible to prove, forever confined to the space of “what if?” He disregards the large amount of variables present when he states that Britain’s intervention and the Second World War are inherently linked, even going so far as to claim that the Great War was the “greatest error of modern history”. While Ferguson’s thesis is of interest, it cannot be seriously considered as a step towards the truth, as he condemns the decision-makers of the time, finding potential links between events, rather than finding the cause of the First World War. In this comparison, Hamilton and Herwig’s work is superior, as it attempts to assess the causes, rather than surmise causal links.  

Finally there is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War in 1914 to consider. In a sobering take, Clark depicts a great number of the decision-makers involved as wary men, unhappy at the prospect of a war. He is adamant in his attempt to refresh the discussion, which, he admits, has been almost “done to death”. He disputes Fischer’s assertions, attempting to dissipate the blame rather than find one main aggressor. As Hamilton and Herwig did, Clark warns of a trap historians may blunder in to, looking for categorical causes rather than concentrating on how the war came about. These kinds of attempts should be praised, as the importance of being critical of oneself in such affairs is immense. Relating back to the title, Clark states that none of the belligerents wanted a war, but rather “sleepwalked” into it. This theory, is not, as fresh as Clark claims it to be, having been the most popular in the 1920s to 30s, many American historians, among them Fay and Barchek, coming to the defense of Germany, some even going so far as to portray Germany as a victim of the war.             

 Clark’s thesis can be considered equal to Hamilton and Herwig’s in the way that they both attempt to revive previous arguments, dissipating the blame from a single country or cause to all countries, and thus all coteries. Of all the theories discussed, these two are the most complementary and the most similar. They can both be considered valuable, though not to the extent that Fischer’s theory was, as they are not revolutionary, offering a different view, and not nearly as controversial. Perhaps one could argue that, as all areas of the event are being explored, few works will be able to shock in the way that Fischer’s did. Entirely new causes are rare and far between, and will continue to decrease as their number must be finite. In the grand view of things, there are only a limited amount of possible causes, however big this amount may be, and although these are up for development and exploration, historians will be hard-pressed to find a new cause. Following this line of argument, one can argue that no one thesis written recently can be considered the most valuable, especially since we do not have the benefit of hindsight in order to be able to assess the long-term impact the theses have made.  

In conclusion we have assessed a few of the enormous number of theories on what caused the First World War, having first defined Fischer’s controversial thesis as a “valuable” contribution, that is, a contribution which stirs a debate and aids in finding the true cause of the war. Having looked at various other theses, including the work of Gerhard Ritter, Niall Ferguson and Christopher Clark, we have come to the conclusion that Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis, though more valuable than the other theses discussed here, cannot be deemed the most valuable contribution since Fischer’s thesis, and lacks the controversy and ability to revolutionize the thinking of historians that Fischer’s has.

Example 5

    Who is to blame for the First World War has been one of the most discussed topics in History, thus it has a very rich and extensive historiography. In 1961 Fischer shook the foundations of the debate by writing from within Germany that Germany had intended for war in 1914. That is why the importance of books and thesis written after Fischer’s are constantly being compared to his Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918. Thus this essay will praise the work of Fischer and Hamilton and Herwig, but also pit them  against Fischer’s nemesis Gerhard Ritter, Niall Ferguson and communist Revolutionary Lenin. First the essay will begin with an explanation and evaluation of Fischer’s thesis, followed by Gerhard Ritter’s counter arguments. Next the Coteries of the Elite by Hamilton and Herwig followed by Lenin’s “Imperialism the Highest form of Capitalism” theory and finishing with Niall Ferguson’s contribution.

    Fischer’s main arguments could be categorized under two headings. Firstly Military pressure and secondly German Expansionism. Fischer writes that there was a widely held conviction among both German politicians and it’s military leaders  that war with Russia was unavoidable. This was because, since the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia had embarked on curial and extensive reforms toward its military. Also that it would be better to have a war before 1917, in order to fight Russia before those reforms would become effective. Thus Fischer argued, that these elements made Germany want war the sooner the better. Next German Expansionism.  Fischer states that Germany was the most unsatisfied of the Great Powers and the most eager to change the way Europe was structured. Thus there was support for German expansionism in 3 directions. Firstly MittelEuropa, this was to consist of central and eastern Europe. It supposed that Russia would greatly reduce both it’s power and territory after facing defeat at the hands of Germany. Also the annexation of the industrial north-east of France, which would be reduced to an economic satellite of Germany. Clearly France and Russia wouldn’t agree with this so as a prerequisite they had to be crushed militarily. Next was MittelAfrika. It was a concept of joining up the 3 main African colonies; South West Africa, German East Africa and Cameroon. Some of MittelAfrika’s success depended on the success of  Mittel Europa, an example would be Congo. If Belgium was annexed by Germany or at least became a satellite state Congo would fall into the possession of Germany as one of its colonies. However critics of Fischer have been critical of some aspects of the theory. Firstly his timetable has been criticized as being inaccurate, specifically Hollweg’s Septemberprogramm outlining German war aims, which wasn’t produced until the war had begun.(11) Another criticism of the Fischer thesis and arguably its biggest downfall is blaming Germany entirely for the First World War. While everything Fischer wrote about Germany was accurate many similarities can be found conjunctly with the actions of the other great powers of Europe, for example both Germany’s and Britain’s behaviour in southern Africa.

    In order to understand the effect that Fischer’s “Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegzielpolitik des Kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914-1918” we must first understand the atmosphere of early 1960s Europe. “German historians and the German public in the 1950s [early 1960s], had accepted the thesis that Hitler had unleashed the Second World War. They maintained, however, following a dictum of Lloyd George, that all the powers participating in the First World War had blundered into it”(1) Meaning that they all bore the same responsibility and measure of guilt. However as Fischer mentioned in Fischer Twenty-Five years later: Looking Back at the Fischer Controversy and its consequences, he rudely removes the soft pillow which satisfied conservative Germans had hoped to sleep on. American historian Klaus Epstein from Brown University went as far as to say that “when Fischer published his findings in 1961, he instantly rendered obsolete every book previously published on the subject of responsibility for the First World War, and Germanys aims in that war.”(2) Having had such a profound effect across both historians and the German public it is only natural that established Historians of the time would instantly begin to criticize his thesis. Historian Gerhard Ritter was the most prominent opposer to Fischer’s view on World War One and clearly believed in Lloyd George’s dictum that all powers were to blame, and furthered said train of thought by saying that World War  One had been a defensive war.(3) Ritter subscribed to the idea of Political Idealism which theorizes that a strong inherent good can be found in human nature. Thus accordingly  Ritter both believed and portrayed Bethmann Hollweg as a saint, a resistance fighter who fought against the emperor, party leaders and industrialists. This obviously conflicts with Fischer’s characterization of him as a man who had three plans for war; limited war, a general European war, and finally a world war.(4) Ritter believed Fischer’s theory to be  so controversial that he with “together with Karl Dietrich Erdmann sent a letter to the German Foreign Minister, Gerhard Shroeder, asking him to cancel the tour of lectures in the United States to which”(5) Fischer had been invited too. Thus the extent of impact is evidenced not only by the amount of people reacting to the thesis but also by the magnitude of the reactions that Fischer’s Thesis generated.

    Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis argues that small but powerful and wealthy groups of people in each country acted selfishly in order to further their own ambitions. While Fischer’s thesis argues that only Germany’s elite is to blame, similar to how Ferguson blames Britain’s elite, Hamilton and Herwig blame the elite of every nation. They wrote “First, World War 1 resulted from decisions taken by leaders  of the great powers, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain. Secondly, in those nations the decision to go to war was made by coteries of five, eight, or perhaps ten persons. (5) Perhaps what is most controversial of Decisions for War is the way it dissects  common causes for the World War One, many of which are taught in schools around the world, and how they essentially neutralise the value of said causes.

     An example would be the Alliance system Theory and how the different alliances caused a domino effect which eventually lead to war. In Decisions for War, Hamilton and Herwig examine the implications of the alliances. It specifies that if a Member of the alliance was attacked (an unprovoked aggression), the others were obligated to come to that members defence. However all the declarations of War were purely situational decisions made in response to immediate events. Germany was obligated to help Austria-Hungary only if one of the entente powers attacked unprovoked however the Dual Monarchy’s move against Serbia did not in any way obligate Germany. Proof being that Italy’s leaders recognised the move against Serbia as a provocation and quoting the terms of the alliance remained and declared themselves neutral. More so this belief that men in 1914 would be honourable and faithfully defend the treaties. In 1908 King Emanuele III of Italy said “I am more then ever convinced of the utter worthlessness of treaties or any agreements on written paper. As they are worth the value of the paper.”(6)  The Coteries of the Elite thesis is not only relevant for neutralising common causes but also because it agrees with both Hans Morgenthau political realism, and Lenin’s views on how Imperialism, the highest form of capitalism caused World War One.  Hans Morgenthau’s theory on Political realism states that there are six Principles of Political Realism. Mainly it focuses on how State interest is defined as the pursuit of power and since states are just a collective group of individuals and by nature individuals wish to acquire power then both state and individual interest lies in the acquisition of power. The Coteries of the Elite thesis argues that the selfish actions of groups not bigger then ten persons were responsible for World War One is viewing the cause of the world through the paradigm of Morgenthau’s Political Realism, offering thus an explanation that would result in the only reason World War One happened was  because of different individual’s pursuit of power.

    The leader of Russia, Vladimir Lenin published a book in 1917 called “Imperialism, the Highest form of Capitalism” In said book Lenin names Capitalism as being the primary cause of World War 1. He derives his socio-political analysis from another book written by John A. Hobson called Imperialism: A Study. Imperialism: A study states that the Imperialism is generated because the constant competition for resources generated by the Capitalist drive of nations. Lenin adapted this idea and furthered it by taking into account not only colonisation but the taking over and exploiting another country. Lenin’s ideas are important for various reasons. Firstly it talks about economical gain being the cause of the First World War, which is relatively original. Next it supports the ideas of both Fischer and Hamilton and Lewis. Lenin agrees with Fischer that its Germany’s militarism that causes World War One.

     However while Fischer argues that the reasons for this being was because Germany wanted to ultimately gain more power and establish itself as the superior world power, while a part of it was to control more resources and thus expand its economic frontiers another part was simply for the power gained by becoming the strongest world power. Lenin however argues that the reason why Germany wishes to go to war against the rest of Europe is not for power but its fuelled by the capitalistic desire of not only wanting more resources but also wanting more. An example of two countries which would fit the description would be both Germany and Britain and their fight for the control of South Africa and Witwatersrand gold mines. Lenin’s argument would blame Capitalism for inciting the Boer vs British conflict. Even claiming that it was the capitalistic nature of both Sates that incited the conflict. More importantly after the First World War South-West Africa  got taken over by Britain, which might show a traceable (yet far fetched) link to why Britain got involved in World War One. His capitalism ideas also link to Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis Coteries of the Elite because small groups of people would often be motivated by economic gain. The Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwest-Afrika would fit Hamilton and Herwig’s description perfectly, and their desire to obtain new resources ultimately conflicting with Britain’s territory and thus adding one more reason to go to war. If they hadn't  felt the craving for wanting more, their actions wouldn’t have eventually lead to war since the only reason war is viable is to increase your relative economic strength in comparison to others, since after fighting a war, while the winner is able to maintain its economy in decent shape, losers usually fall into crisis after they can’t pay their debt. However it must not be forgotten that Lenin has very strong and prominent biased towards capitalism, as he stated “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”(7) Hinting that he wishes to hang Capitalists. This clearly shows us the extent of his dislike of capitalism as well as how biased he is towards capitalism and why he would blame it for causing World War One.  While Lenin’s thesis does offer a perspective of the economic factors motivating the conflict between the powers it serves more as added value towards thesis like Fischer’s or Hamilton and Herwig’s Coteries of the Elite then on it’s own.

    Niall Ferguson wrote The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, with the help of research  assistants in only 5 months. Prior its release the book generated much controversy. Specifically Ferguson’s suggestion that it might have been beneficial to Europe if Germany had won the War.(8) He also disagreed with the Fischer thesis by claiming that while Germany did wage a preventative war in 1914, it was largely forced by irresponsible British diplomacy. He specifically accused British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey of not maintaining a clear view on weather Britain would enter the war or not, which in turn confused Berlin over what the British attitude was on intervention in the war. Also accusing Britain of allowing a regional European War escalate into  a world war. He goes against some thesis’ firstly against Fischer’s thesis on the militarisation of Germany and Fischer’s claim that it was Germanys militarism that was partly at fault for World War 1. He counter argues that in comparison to both France and Britain Germany’s militarism was insignificant.(9) He agree’s with Lenin’s interpretation of capitalism and economic gain being one of the driving forces of the war by claiming that British policy was not out of fear of Germany but instead Germany poses no threat to both Britain and France. Furthermore France and Britain act in economic self interest.(10) However perhaps the most controversial aspect of Niall Ferguson’s book is his use of counterfactual history. Counter factual history attempts to answer the question what if. The main concern with that is that its very speculative and hard to judge weather that would have happened since history isn’t something you can just change a couple variables and repeat. The Butterfly effect which is part of Chaos theory states that a small seemingly irrelevant change can result in a large difference in a later state. Thus the repetition of history is impossible, which makes it difficult to answer the question ‘what if’ since it judges intent or “mens rea” rather than what actually occurred.

    This essay has evaluated Fischer’s controversial thesis, Hamilton and Herwig’s Coteries of the Elite thesis, Fischer’s archenemy Gerhard Ritter, Communist revolutionary and Leader of Russia Vladimir Lenin and lastly Niall Ferguson and his The Pity of War: Explaining World War One. After Careful evaluation and answering the original question is Hamilton and Herwig’s “coteries of the elite” thesis the most important addition to historiography on the over documented subject of causes of the first world war. Yes, due to it’s dismantling of existing causes and the revelation of not blaming Germany for World War One, but instead showcasing the new idea of the selfish agendas of elite groups through out Europe being responsible for World War One. That being said Fischer Theory created a bigger shock to historians and the public alike, however that was most likely do to the atmosphere of 1960s Germany and the attempt to resolve Germany from blame than anything else.

11 Wolfgang J. Mommsen,Der autoritäre Nationalstaat (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch 1990), translated as Imperial Germany 1867-1918. Politics, culture, and society in an authoritarian state (London: Arnold 1995). 1 Fischer Twenty-Five years later: Looking Back at the Fischer Controversy and its consequences. 2  Epstein, Klaus Review: German War Aims in the First World War pages 163-185 from World Politics, Volume 15, Issue # 1, October 1962 page 170 3 Fischer Twenty-Five years later: Looking Back at the Fischer Controversy and its consequences. 4 Mills, Wallace G. "Fischer." Fischer. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. . 5 Decisions for War Hamilton and Herwig 6 Decisions for War Hamilton and Herwig 7 "Lenin Quotes." Lenin Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2013. . 8 Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 460–461 9 Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 27–30 10Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 68–76

Example 6

The Great War is one which “seems to defy explanation.” It has caused historians to question and analyze the causes and origins of its commencement and has led to the formulation of many different theories on who is to blame. Hence, it is not surprising that the First World War has the richest amount of historiography and literature than any other war. The thesis of Fritz Fischer, written in the mid-twentieth century, was the first to make incredible impact on the world of First World War debate by stating that Germany was the cause of the Great War. This led to uproar among all Great War historians. The question statement argues that Fischer’s contribution to Great War literature is greater than any other piece concerning the cause of World War One. The other thesis, that is argued in the statement to be the most valuable contribution since Fischer is the “coteries of the elites” thesis created by Hamilton and Herwig in the twenty-first century. In their thesis, they blame the majority of diplomats and politicians involved in the decision making for war in 1914. This essay will argue against the statement made in the question. Although Hamilton and Herwigs’ thesis was important, how do we measure the value it had over all Historiography published? It is arrogant to state that there is ever a final word in the field of History and that one historian’s thesis is better than another. Thus, in this essay we will examine the key countries involved in taking the world to war in 1914 through a consideration of a selection of historians. In summary, the essay will conclude with the opinion that all theses have to be considered when analyzing the origins of the Great War and that no one historians point of view is more valuable than another.
    First, we are going to discuss the “coteries of the elite” thesis written by Hamilton and Herwig in their book ‘Origins of the First World War’. Their opinion is clearly stated in the line “There was no "slide" to war, no war caused by "inadvertence," but instead a world war caused by a fearful set of elite statesmen and rulers making deliberate choices.” Essentially, this means that war was caused by leaders and diplomats who made intentional decisions that eventually created high conflict. Their aim in making these decisions was to promote their country in some way. There are many legitimate points in this thesis, especially if we were to take the opinion that capitalism was the cause of World War One. During World War One, all the countries involved were Imperialist societies. In Lenin’s definition of Imperialism, he states that “If it was necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” Hence, with these two pieces of information in mind, we can argue that all the countries that got involved in the 1914 conflict did so in order fulfill a capitalist-minded intent. For example, Britain arguably got into the war because they saw it as an opportunity to end bankruptcy in their country. Applying this idea to the cause of the First World War is a direct reflection on Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis. The Hamilton and Herwig thesis is an important one as it offers an important perspective for the cause of World War One. Although they show extensive knowledge on the subject, some would argue that it is only a good contribution to the endless debate.
    The second thesis we are going to discuss is the thesis announced in 1961 by famous German historian, Fritz Fischer. Fischer’s thesis argues that  “Germany was ready to resort to war in order to establish herself as a “Weltmacht”, a Great Power.” Fischer continues to make his point by arguing that the German government saw the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as the excuse needed to act on predetermined plans for war against France and Russia. By doing this, the German government was hoping to fulfill plans for expansionism (creating Mitteleuropa and Mittelafrika, a German dominated Europe and Africa) and deal with political and social problems at home. Fischer took a risk, a professional gamble, by taking the opinion that Germany was solely to blame. Fischer caused a stir and gained notoriety, but more importantly he took the risk of looking at the problem in a new light. He was willing to put his country on the offensive which consequently drew a lot of criticism both and home and abroad. One of Fischer’s biggest rivals was Gerhard Ritter. These two were polar opposites concerning their views on Germany’s involvement in the war and Ritter made sure he did all he could to bring Fischer down. Ritter debated against Fischer’s thesis on many levels saying, for example, that his interpretation of German/Austria-Hungary relations was fraudulent, that he had made up certain pieces of evidence to increase his opinion’s veracity,  and that he was biased. Essentially, regarding anything Fischer had said, Ritter would come up with an argument against it. Ritter was so motivated to defeat Fischer that he even went to the West German Foreign Ministry to persuade them to cancel the travel funds that were to be given to Fischer for a book tour in the United States in order to prevent Fischer from spreading his “anti German” views. Another historian who criticized Fischer was Niall Ferguson who said "Yet there is a fundamental flaw in Fischer's reasoning which too many historians have let pass. It is the assumption that Germany's aims as stated after the war had begun were the same as German aims beforehand.”
    Gerhard Ritter offers a third perspective, stating that Germany was not the cause of the war, although their aggressive foreign policy did risk conflict. He argues that their foreign policy was defensive due to its aim to keep Austria-Hungary in power. He also believes that Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary’s invasion on Serbia was purely supportive and had nothing to do with provoking war. Whether in describing the Schlieffen Plan or Germany’s general mobilization, Ritter normally argued in support of Germany. In summary, he believed that while Germany did play a role in the outbreak of war, they did not “deliberately, aggressively, or consciously provoke it.” He is most well known for his work in proving the falsehoods lying within the Fischer thesis though his own thesis has proven to be one which deserves equal consideration as well. Though some agree that it is an important perspective, there have been arguments against Ritter’s thesis as well. Some believe that Ritter’s thesis is making excuses for Germany. This could be supported by the fact that Germany had become a strong economic power and that they were not afraid of showing it off (the Naval Race for example). It can also be argued that Germany wanted a short war in order to help maintain Germany as the strongest European power, securing control over ports along the Channel thereby helping German trade (and thus further grow the economy). This is a position that Fischer would support. Fischer would similarly agree that the assassination of the Archduke was Germany’s opportunity to start this war. This is evidenced by Germany encouraging Austria-Hungary to make a series of tough demands of Serbia following the assassination and essentially agreeing with any decision made by Austria-Hungary, many of which made war seem more likely.
    The final thesis we are going to talk about is that of Niall Ferguson. Niall Ferguson takes a very interesting yet, provocative opinion on the cause of the Great War. In his thesis he states that Britain was the blame. His view is based on the argument that if Britain would have stayed out of the war altogether, it would have remained a regional war that Germany would have won comfortably, thereby preventing the long-term catastrophe which eventually developed. Ferguson also argues that Britain was to blame due to the “recklessness and irresponsibility” exhibited by British diplomats, especially British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Britain’s ambiguous positions ultimately caused great confusion in Berlin (something that Ritter also argued). In summary, while Ferguson agrees that Germany was the main cause for conflict in 1914, it was only after the UK’s direct involvement that the war turned from being a potentially short-lived regional war into the terrible, long-term world war that it ended up being. Ferguson’s revisionist views are a refreshing addition to the long lived Germany to blame/not to blame debate.
    In conclusion, I do not agree with the statement that Hamilton & Herwig's "coteries of the elite" thesis is the most valuable contribution to the Historiography of the First World War since the Fischer thesis. I don’t think there is anyway to fatually determine whether the thesis of one historian is more valuable or important than another. It truly depends on what our personal beliefs and perspectives are. We cannot simply conclude that one historian’s thesis is more valuable that another’s just because it has had a greater impact. Examination of an issue from every angle is essential in getting us closer to the truth of an event as complicated as the cause of World War 1.

Is the thesis of Fischer the most compelling justification for the outbreak of war in 1914?

With its vast historiography, the origins of the First World War are arguably the most discussed amongst historians. Fritz Fischer’s thesis that Germany had made an intentional decision to start a World War by 1914 not only troubled the German’s, but also influenced any other literature produced on the origins of the war thereafter. The later work of Hamilton and Herwig in ‘Coteries of the Elite’ suggests individual coteries were the reason for the outbreak of the Great War, and the war was more a product of Realism demonstrated through separate parties, politicians and diplomats. Fischer’s nemesis, Gerhard Ritter gives arguments as to why the Fischer thesis is flawed and suggests Germany was playing a defensive game leading up to the war. And Niall Ferguson produces the ‘devil’s advocate’ argument that it was in fact Britain who is to blame for the start of the Great War. This essay will compare the works of Fischer, Hamilton and Herwig, Gerhard Ritter, and Niall Ferguson, and conclude that although it is with fault, the Fischer thesis is the most compelling justification for the outbreak of war in 1914.

In 1961, Fritz Fischer’s book ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht’ was published. Translated as ‘Germany’s aims in the First World War’, a most uncomplimentary picture of pre-First World War Germany is painted and caused havoc amongst the German civilians at the time. Military pressure, German expansionism, and social and political concerns are the three categories one can place Fischer’s contentions. In Fischer’s introduction he claims that Germany ‘bore a large part of the responsibility for the war’. Never before had a German agreed that his nation was to blame for the war and they should accept complete war guilt. Fischer states that because of Germany’s willingness to expand and become a great power they felt a war would be necessary to consolidate that power. When the book was published in 1961, his assertions were named nothing short of audacious. More traditional historians, particularly the Germans completely disregarded his thesis, whereas more modern historians supported Fischer. Fischer maintained that Germany "embarked on a course aiming at nothing less than parity with the British world empire, if not more." With this, one could assume German foreign policy was more exaggerated than it really was, thus showing a possible flaw in the historians thinking. In Fischer’s book, ‘Germany’s aims in the First World War’, the idea of expansionism is constantly referred back to when discussing Germany’s aims for war and why a war would be necessary in order to consolidate their power in the world. The Fischer thesis discards the idea that Germany was dragged into war by its alliance with Austria-Hungary, and instead replaces this with the theory that Germany used the murder in Sarajevo as a trigger to begin a ‘defensive European campaign’. Germany’s extensive build up of military and arms was inextricably linked to a hunger for war, argues Fischer and the sharp increase of arms could not have been linked to anything other than a want for war. Between 1910 and 1914, Germany’s expenditure on arms rose by 74%, the historian claims Germany planned to go to war ‘sooner rather than later’ and thus increased her expenditure by an excruciating amount. Fischer gives viable evidence to show Germany’s war aims when stating that while Germany had increased military expenditure by 74%, France had only increased capital spent on arms by 10%, probably due to the threat of Germany’s rapid expansion. At the time, most people agreed that Germany’s entry into the war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was purely defensive after the unexpected mobilisation of Russia, leaving Germany unprotected on the West side, forcing her to have war against France, leading Britain in too. Fischer claims that Germany already had intent for war as early as 1897 when he uncovered old, archived documents from Germany and Prussia showing the will for a ‘Greater Germany’, as part of their ‘Weltpolitik’ motion, to be established. Described in the documents, was how a ‘Greater Germany’ could only be achieved by a war. Sarajevo happened to be a convenient excuse to go to war in a bid for world domination, as it were. The large amount of evidence Fischer collected strengthened his case that the war was just a product of Germany’s ‘Weltpolitik’ movement incomparably to any other historian discussing the origins of war, which made his argument so controversial yet still so valuable. By 1912 a large number of socialist parties and workers’ unions within the Reichstag had been formed. German officials, particularly the conservatives found them to be a threat and wanted to get rid of them. In order to do that a distraction would be needed, Fischer states a war would be the best way to cause a distraction so they could suppress these parties by force. Hence Fischer argues that although the powerful Junkers may not have been ‘actively seeking’ a war’, they were not doing anything to stop a war out breaking so they could settle their internal political and social affairs. Of course his arguments are flawed, as one would not be able to say what these internal affairs had on the effect of German foreign policy. However, they are still credible. Fischer gained support from civilians still astounded from the Second World War by inextricably linking the aims of Germany in the two wars together.

In 2004, in the book ‘Decisions for War’, Hamilton and Herwig blame separate coteries for the outbreak of the war. Their book is structured in a ‘History for Dummies’ sort of way, with each segment named after the individual countries involved. The reader is therefore given a largely less complicated way of understanding the origins of the First World War than Fischer had presented in his book, published circa 50 years earlier. Nationalism, Militarism, imperialism, and the alliance system are all disregarded in Hamilton and Herwig’s thesis. In the first chapter of the book, the historians argue why their coteries of elite theory is of greater importance than the other schools of thought and articulate in a systematic and terse way how each decision-making coterie led to the formation of a great war. Hamilton and Herwig came to three conclusions: ‘First, The World War resulted from decisions taken by the leaders of the five major European nations. Second, in each of those nations the decision for war was taken by a coterie, by a group of no more than eight or ten individuals. And third, an adequate explanation for the war’s origins must center on the considerations that moved those groups of decision-makers.’ The validity for these theses is proved throughout the book and other hypotheses made by historians are argued. The authors argue that each coterie set to ‘maintain, save, or enhance’ their power with no intentions to strengthen another nation. Groups of between five and ten leaders of each country, not included in these were the laborers, farmers, or church, resisted encirclement and the risk of losing status by acting in a way that would most probably irk a war, according to Hamilton and Herwig. They argue the French were weak so allied with Russia to not be seen as a declining power. The leaders of Britain intervened to keep the balance of powers stable, and not to shield Belgium. Once war had begun the second, weaker tier of nations joined in to gain what they could from the war, whether it be power, status, or land. Their arguments contradict those of Fischer, Ritter and Ferguson in that their arguments all refer back to a person or group of people, rather than to a nation as a whole. Although useful, their arguments are flawed as they fail to mention how each of the three elite coteries whom they claim were the main powers to start the war (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia) were all ruled by an autocratic monarchy, who were fighting against reform and the perspective of more liberal nations. Confronting the nationalists and liberals with war and keeping the traditions alive would possibly halt reform and hold their position of power, suggesting that the three major dynasties may have all been fighting for one common goal. Hamilton and Herwig’s book on the outbreaks of war provide as a good source to acquire a greater understanding on the era, as their views are moderately alternative. Although it can be praised, their work is not as valuable to the historian as the likes of Fischer. A lack of evidence is demonstrated in their book and their arguments are at best, plausible. It lacks controversy and it is no surprise their work is not as highly regarded as Fischer.

Gerahard Ritter, a conservative German historian, categorically disregards the Fischer thesis as one of any use when examining the causes of the First World War. As a dedicated monarchist he was a critic of the totalitarian Nazi regime and gives equally compelling evidence as Fischer as to how Germany was simply playing a defensive game and was dragged into war through no fault of her own. Where Fischer claims Germany was brought in to war by diligent planning, Ritter suggests it was pure spontaneity and she had no aggressive policies in mind before 1914. Ritter responds to Fischer thesis of Germany’s great increase in military expenditure between 1910 and 1914 by claiming the only reason a country such as France did not expand their capital spent on military to this degree was because they could not, rather than they did not want to. With France’s democratic parliamentary system, the civilians would not have voted for somebody who’s aims were to increase taxes on the impoverished people with intent to strengthen the military. He states Germany did not have this problem as their government was largely autocratic, and the public had far less input. Thus, the only reason France did not expand military as much as Germany, is because she was unable to, and Germany’s expansion was simply a defensive movement. Although Ritter’s points are valid and well argued, his ideas are neither original, nor contemporary as he simply argues the points Fischer makes, rather than coming up with new theses. Ritter’s main argument to Fischer is that Germany’s blame for war was merely the effect of a ‘catastrophic evaluation of European politics at the time’, rather than predetermined war aims. The blank cheque was meant as a deterrence for war and to intimidate Serbia, to stop a war from evolving rather than provoke them. His argument suggests Germany aimed to help its brother by coming to Austria-Hungary’s defense when the threat of Russia and Serbia lay over her. Ritter claims Germany was not expecting a war as she did not expect Russia to support a terrorist state, who had assassinated the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, nor did Germany believe Russia would mobilise so quickly. It was due to these miscalculations that a war started, not because Germany had pre-determined it. Ritter insists the German’s were trying to establish peace in 1914 when the chancellor of Germany stopped Alsace-Lorraine printing Froncophobic press. This contradicts Fischer’s point of Germany being ‘aggressive towards their neighbours in an expansionist way’. Ritter strongly opposed Germany signing ‘Article 231’, the war guilt clause as he believed Germany were playing a defensive rather than aggressive game and the blame should be shared equally between the nations involved.

Niall Ferguson, like Fritz Fischer came up with a completely new and revolutionary thesis as to the origin of the First World War. His book, ‘The Pity of War’, like Hamilton and Herwig’s was published in the 21st century and gave historians a completely new outlook on the cause of the Great War. Ferguson claims that it was not Germany who was the aggressor, but Britain. He starts of his book by saying that the decision of Britain to enter the war was of complete spontaneity and the decision was made light-heartedly by ‘tired and nervous’ politicians on a Sunday afternoon. He claims the idea of German expansionism is bogus and their motivations were directed only at Russia because of a sense of weakness rather than wanting world power. “The German objective was limited to a continental showdown”, says Ferguson in an interview. This suggests Germany’s ambitions were finite and a plan for a world war was never made. His points strongly oppose Fischer’s, which provide for immense value to historians when studying the origins of the war. But however groundbreaking Fergusons revelations may be, Fischer’s are more staggering largely due to the time and circumstances at which Fischer’s thesis was published. The idea that Britain “turned the war from a global war to a continental war” is highlighted by Ferguson. He claims without Britain’s intervention with her empire, the war may have been kept within the Balkans. However, he fails to mention the growing tensions between France and Germany, which stemmed far previous to 1914, where perhaps a war was inevitable anyway. Many of Ferguson’s points lack evidence and for that reason his work is devalued. He claims Germany was Europe’s most ‘anti-militarist’ country. With one of the largest armies and a navalry competing with Britain’s this theory is disproved by countless other historians, and at any rate, Germany was more militarist than Sweden.

In conclusion, although the works of Hamilton and Herwig, Gerhard Ritter, and Niall Ferguson are all valuable, Fischer’s proves to be the most compelling justification to the outbreak of the war. With his ground breaking revelations he produced revolutionary work on why Germany was to blame for the war. Not least, because his book was written most recently after the war, but because of the abundance of evidence he collected. Hamilton and Herwig produced nothing revolutionary in their book and just provide amateur historians with a dumbed down version of one perspective of the outbreak of the war. Ritter’s work is beneficial to argue Fischer’s points but he composes nothing subversive. And however seductive Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’, it is incomparable to the work of Fischer.