The Blame Game Part II

by I.A. Isherwood

It turns out nobody started WWI. Or everybody did. One of the two. Maybe both. Maybe the issue is with blame itself – it is so judgy to blame – so let’s just talk about the things that happened, maybe throw in a few ‘what ifs’, and call it a day.

Don’t take my sarcasm for dissatisfaction: I was happy with our conversation this afternoon. We discussed some really important factors – irresponsible diplomacy, Austro-Hungarian motivations, Serbia and terrorism, Russia and . . . something – but I couldn’t help walking away thinking that the great elephant in the room was ignored, our backs turned away from it, despite the fact it was walking around our desks and eating our notebooks.

That great elephant was Imperial Germany. And the class seemed to be looking for every reason not to put the center of blame on Germany for causing the war.

I get this. Article 231 of the Versailles treaty makes people sheepish to follow the lead of statesmen who are viewed, almost universally, by their flaws and not by their virtues. I was also pleased that in not blaming Germany, the class engaged with some very nuanced concepts, especially as their gaze turned eastwards. Russia was given perhaps more discussion time today than in any of my other classes and my students seemed strangely sympathetic to Austria-Hungary, especially, their right to go to war over FF’s assassination. We also had seven minutes of fun with counterfactuals (‘What if instead of the Blank Check the Kaiser rejected Austria-Hungary called for a congress of Europe and brokered peace?’ This led to general laughter.)

Still, the elephant was right in front of us, moseying around, scooping up crumbs from the floor and rooting through backpacks.

Imperial Germany’s conduct in the decades before the First World War, indeed the nation’s conduct during the July Crisis itself, made a European war not only possible but probable. Rather than seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis, the Kaiser and his regime saw the possibility of a European war worth the risk of backing Austria-Hungary’s bellicosity.

There. I said it.

Admitting this does not negate the culpability of other states in the descent to war, but it does allow for understanding of the important role played by Imperial Germany in July 1914 and the reasons the nation went to war, quickly and without mercy, in August.

We need another two weeks on this subject to really do it justice. Alas, we are moving on to the war in 1914 next week. Stay tuned . . .