The Great War and Versailles/Lecture One

This is the 'lecture' I've been working on. I encourage students to add in details on topics of their own interest in lieu of a formal assignment. The recommended texts should be sufficient for this, but feel free to use any source you deem appropriate, including the Wikibooks listed on the main page of the course. For convenience purposes, please carry on debates/ask questions on the main discussion page for the course. I'll try to check it frequently, and will be adding to it along with the students. Please let me know when everyone feels their work on this part is done and I should post the next assignment. If someone could highlight some of the more obscure terms and make them link to a wikipedia article explaining them, that would be great.--Polizano 23:59, 30 July 2005 (UTC)

Comments on the book by Michael Howard


Michael Howard is a premier scholar on war in European History. While his guide is far from authorative, it does not attempt to be. He briefly introduces a subject with so deep a history that getting lost in the details is a danger for a new student. His short guide is, however, an excellent first taste of the topic. For books of this style covering many other fields of study, try Very Short Introductions.

Howard is one of the few historians to reject the common interpretation that the war was an unnecessary tragedy, viewing it as a worthy battle of liberal civilization against German barbarism, militarism, and authoritarianism.

Comments on the book by Lawrence LaFore (and the difference between his interpretation and Michael Howard's)


Lawrence Lafore approaches the outbreak World War I by identifying long-term causes while avoiding casting overt 'blame' on any of the parties. General historical understanding of the causes of World War I has taken three different forms. His interpretation of the origins of the war is very much so in line with the middle of three chronologically. The original view in the West was that the war was caused by German aggression.

Following disillusionment with the outcome of the war and some new research, historical opinion began to change, focusing instead on rigid mobilization timetables, nationalist pressure from the homefront on all governments, and the belief in the necessity of being the first horse out of the gate, that is, that the side which attacked first had a huge advantage in the outcome of the conflict. Lafore is of this school, and focuses on the details of mobilization plans to portray the war as a tragic act of fate caused by blunders on both sides. Though we cannot be sure, further research has indicated that behind the scenes, major figures in the German high command (ie Moltke) secretly hoped to escalate the Balkan Crisis into a general war. This preventive war thesis is the third school, and it states that Germany believed war between France and Russia was inevitable and hoped to fight it on Germany's terms. Howard falls here.

Note the different intepretation Lafore and Howard have of the German declaration of war on Russia. Lafore focuses on the Russian decision begin general mobilization as tying Germany's hands, and adds to this feeling by noting that the German ambassador began crying after asking the Russians to end their mobilization several times and then delivering the declaration of war. While Howard is critical of the Russian decision to mobilize, his criticism focuses on the assertion that it gave Germany an excuse to declare war, which puts substantially more blame on Germany.

He notes that Russian mobilization did not require invasion, while German mobilization timetables led directly in the later stages to attacking neutral Belgium. Also note: Lafore is very critical of Serbia's handling of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, portraying their actions as a facetious rejection. Serbia agreed to all of AH's terms but rejected one, noting that the trial of Serbian nationals by a foreign court violated Serbia's constitution. Most historians are far more critical of AH's intransigence.

Europe in 1914


In 1915, when war broke out in Europe, there had not been a general war since Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo[[[w:Battle_of_Waterloo]]]. But with the collapse of the Concert of Europe [[[w:Concert_of_Europe]]] approach to solving European crises after the Moroccan Crisis [[[w:Tangier_Crisis]]], the European situation had gotten so tense that many speak of the fatalism of 1914. A system of rival alliances emerged that surrounded Germany, with France and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. France was helping to fund the Russian reconstruction after Russian defeat and near revolution in 1905. Though Britain was formally uncommitted, the naval race with Germany and its Entente Cordiale [[[w:Entente_cordiale]]] with France showed that its sympathies lay with the French side. Since the Agadir Crisis [[[w:Agadir_Crisis]]] in 1911, Britain and France held detailed staff meetings to dicuss the possibity of Britain sending an expeditionary force to the continent in the event of war with Germany. Germany felt increasingly isolated on the continent, since its only ally, Austria-Hungary, was the weakest of the five powers.

The Outbreak of War


To understand how the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand escalated into a general European war, we must examine the perspective of each party on the crisis. Austria-Hungary, a large multi-national hodgepodge, was eager to undertake a show of force that would crush the Slav nationalism that threatened to disintigrate the empire. Germany at first hoped that a large diplomatic victory would bolster the position of its ally among the powers, and gave Austria-Hungary an alleged blank check. After Russia's defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905, it turned its attention to Southeastern Europe, and to Slavic nationalism there. After the Congress of Berlin and the Balkan wars, Russia's relations with Austria-Hungary got so bad that compromise became impossible. British and French press largely ignored the crisis at first. When Austria-Hungary lived up to its reputation for notoriously slow diplomacy, the attention of the German high-command turned to the possibility of a preventive war. Germany considered a war with Russia and France inevitable, and prefered one on its own terms.

Germany's plan for the war was framed in the Schlieffen Plan [[1]], which called for Austria-Hungary to hold off Russia while Germany exacted a quick defeat on France. This would be impossible if Russia was given time to rebuild and increase its mobilization speed. But Germany needed to give the appearance of Russia throwing the first stone. Since Russia was notoriously barbarous, Germany hoped that this would keep Britain neutral in the war. Also, the largest party in the German Reichstag was that of the Social Democrats, and Germany needed to ensure a unified homefront in the event of war. Figures in the German High Command (Moltke) knew the intracacies of mobilization plans, and hoped Russia would be forced to mobilize first, since it was the power with the slowest mobilization speed.

When Serbia rejected one item on the Austro-Hungarian list of ultimatums, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and Russia mobilized partially on the Austro-Hungarian front. When this mobilization proved chaotic, Russia mobilized generally (including along the German front). This gave Germany its needed excuse, and after Russia rejected a call to stand down, Germany declared war. Germany demanded that France state whether it would remain neutral in a German-Russian war, knowing full well it could not, and when France refused to declare neutrality, Germany declared war on France. When Germany refused to guarantee Belgium's neutrality (a British concern because an occupied Belgium would have allowed Germany to control the English Channel and because Britain imported a substantial portion of its food supply by sea). Britain declared war on Germany. Historians are extremely harsh on the British Prime Minister for Britain's unclear foreign policy, believing a clearer stance by Britain earlier in the crisis could have prevented its escalation to total war.