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Who started the First World War: a century of controversy

More than a century after it ended, the First World War continues to be the subject of intense debate. Professor Annika Mombauer’s extensive research addresses the question ‘Why did the war start?’ Her print and online publications and teaching materials allow global audiences to learn from the First World War’s brutality and contested legacy.

Here Annika explains her research and why it’s essential to understand the origins of the war and the controversy the topic has sparked.

The hundred-year debate

Why did the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 lead to the deaths of millions in a global war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This question has been the subject of historical, political and public debate for more than 100 years.

For the victors who assembled at the 1919 peace conference at the Palace of Versailles near Paris, the answer was clear: Germany and its allies were responsible for unleashing war in the summer of 1914. Yet, this so-called ‘war guilt ruling’, embodied by Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which obliged the losing side to pay vast reparations, did anything but settle the argument.

In the immediate aftermath of the Versailles verdict, revisionist historians (many, but not all, sponsored by post-war German governments in the 1920s and 30s) have tried to prove it wrong. Among countless arguments, they highlighted Russia and France’s responsibility and stressed that Britain could have played a more active role in preventing the escalation of the so-called July Crisis, which led to the outbreak of war. Throughout the twentieth century, this debate ebbed and flowed. It was particularly ferocious in the 1960s when a German historian, Fritz Fischer, claimed he had evidence to show that Germany had been more responsible than other nations, thus undoing decades of revisionism which had resulted in a comfortable compromise.

On the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014, the debate once again became heated as new revisionist publications sparked controversy. Having researched Germany’s decision making in and before 1914 for more than 20 years, I wanted to contribute to the conversation.

Helmuth von Moltke, the overlooked architect of the war

After years of meticulous archival research and comprehensive analysis of the histography of the First World War, I uncovered new primary evidence which reveals German military planners’ desire to unleash a war. I researched the role of Helmuth von Moltke, and the resulting first and only critical biography of the German Chief of the General Staff demonstrates his vital but previously overlooked responsibility for orchestrating a war he claimed Germany would win.

I also collated, translated and edited a collection of more than 400 international documents relevant to the origins of the war, many previously unpublished, which readers can use to discover for themselves the level of responsibility of each major power for the coming of the war.

Challenging the popular rewriting of history

Released ahead of the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014, Christopher Clark’s best-selling The Sleepwalkers revived a revisionist interpretation of the conflict that largely absolved Germany from responsibility for its outbreak, focusing instead on the roles of France, Russia and Serbia. Along with other best-selling books published on the centenary, Clark’s work started a public debate. It was also quickly seized upon by many in Germany, particularly on the political right, as it appeared to exonerate the country from its ‘war guilt’.

This interpretation went counter to my conviction that Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s decision-makers had deliberately provoked a crisis, using the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a pretext. To me, the evidence was clear. They were willing to risk escalating a localised war with Serbia (whom they suspected to have been behind the assassination), knowing that this could bring Russia, France and Britain into the conflict.

I published my book Die Julikrise in 2014 to present my research-based counter-argument to the centenary revisionist interpretations. I argued that all the major powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Russia) had some responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis but that the German and Austro-Hungarian governments deliberately provoked this crisis without flinching at the possibility of unleashing a major war. Die Julikrise has sold more than 6,000 copies and is also available in Danish and Turkish. Crucially, the book, and other publications in history journals and public forums, have given me a platform to engage in public debate.

Interviews with prominent newspapers and TV and radio broadcasters in Germany and as far afield as the United States, Brazil, Serbia and Turkey have allowed me to share my knowledge on this crucial episode in our history with international audiences. My contributions have also entered the political discourse. In 2017, members of the ‘Die Linke Partei’ quoted my interview with the national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in the German Bundestag when advocating that the government should reject the new revisionist views in favour of my interpretation.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, I appeared on several BBC programmes to commemorate the First World War and made contributions to radio programmes, including the BBC World Service. I was also an academic advisor to The Open University and BBC’s critically acclaimed co-produced documentary series ‘Britain’s Great War’.

Reaching global audiences

My work forms part of secondary teacher professional development in the UK and contributes to secondary school curriculums and textbooks in Germany and the UK. It provides one of many interpretations of the origins of the war (which I happen to think is the right one, but with which not everyone agrees!), enabling pupils and students to evaluate different viewpoints and come to their own conclusions.

To reach an even larger audience, in 2014, I worked with digital education platform FutureLearn to launch the free ‘massive online open course’ (MOOC) ‘WW1: Trauma and Memory’. Six years later, I created an expanded version entitled ‘WW1: Trauma, Memory and Controversy’, which included an additional week of study based on my research on the debate on the origins of the First World War.

0:02 ANNIKA MOMBAUER: Welcome to World War 1– trauma, memory, controversy. I’m Annika and I’m your guide as we study the impact of the First World War. You will study and explore the trauma suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. This course will help you understand and contextualise the brutality of this war. And to empathise with those who suffered as a result of it. We will ask, what is remembered of this war? And explore its long-term consequences. How do the outcomes still affect us today? And why is there still a controversy about why it started? We begin our explorations by focusing on the physical and mental casualties of the war. Then we will explore how this war affected the lives of civilians.

1:01 After the war, people dealt with what had happened in different ways. We’ll study how writers and artists attempted to come to terms with the experience. And finally, we’ll explore the long controversy around the question, why did the war break out in the first place? Over the next four weeks, some renowned historians will share their research and analysis with you. And you’ll discover the devastating impact of the war on individuals and on whole societies. While this might seem like a sobering learning experience, it’s also a moving story that’s lost none of its fascination more than a century after it began.

Together these MOOCs have attracted more than 30,000 global learners so far. Meanwhile, courses and articles I have written on this topic on OpenLearn, The Open University’s free online learning platform, have reached more than 270,000 people in 176 countries.

Lessons from the past

It has been hugely rewarding to have been able to shape the historiographical debate that has fascinated and me and guided my academic career ever since I was an undergraduate. The controversy is far from resolved, and I look forward to seeing how it develops as the First World War finally becomes history.

More than 100 years after the First World War ended, we can still learn a great deal from its contested origins. The controversy teaches us that history is interpretation and that it reflects current political concerns. These interpretations can be influenced by governments and by the convictions of the historians whose research underpins them. Studying this debate makes us question what we read and learn about the past and shows us the importance of examining the evidence closely. As E.H. Carr put it, it also reminds us to know our historians – to understand the motivations of those who present the evidence to us. Fundamentally, it teaches us to be critical students of the past and critical citizens in the present.

Written by Professor Annika Mombauer, Professor of Modern European History in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.