In life there is only one inevitability. That is death. Everything else we as people experience – marriage, parenthood, mortgage repayments – is chance, the likelihood of each activity varying with each personality. The lessons of history, however, are not so exclusive. The past speaks with more certainty, points to mistakes made and future ones that will arise again. War is one such mistake.

Due to the limited words on offer, this essay will concern itself with one sphere of the First World War question, that of relations between France and Germany. Other sources of conflict, such as Anglo-German rivalry, the antagonism of the Pan-Slavs and Pan-Germans, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the resulting fall-out have all had more than enough ink amply used upon them. By contrast, the friction of France-Germany is, I feel, understated. Yet their hostility had, arguably, the longest history and the most violent recent history of the major nations. It harks back to the:

‘Great Revolution and the two Napoleons, to Louis XIV and the ancien regime, and even to the enmity of Gaul and Teuton in antiquity’.1

1871: The Prussian army defeated the French and proclaimed itself an empire. Europe would never be the same again. Many historians use this date as the start of the countdown to war. The defeat was coupled in importance by the tragedy of the Paris Commune. Both ‘produced’, writes Hayes, ‘a deep sense of national humiliation’.2 Andre Tardieu believes the peace treaty dealt to the French nation was ‘a financial monstrosity and a gross abuse of power’.3 Notably, the French speaking territory of Alsace-Lorraine was taken as the German Empire’s own. The defeat, believe those writing on French history today, ‘changed radically the tone of French commentary on Germany’.4 It would ensure enmity for decades to come.

Joll counts three possibilities of the war’s breakout: Austria-Hungary and Russia, Britain and Germany, and France against Germany.5 But was war inevitable between the two states? Was a whole wide world war inevitable at all? A.J.P. Taylor once stated: ‘no war is inevitable until it breaks out’.6 However, at what point should the “break out” be defined: When the first bullet is thrown, when the first soldier is called to march, or when the decision for armed conflict is taken inside boardrooms? The causes for the First World War stretch back over fifty years.

Remak believes there was no one ‘truly bent on war’, no Hitler personality as in the Second World War, that ‘error, miscalculation, and sheer accident’ were the real factors.7 The web of alliances have been blamed for dragging each of the major nations into war. As Remak states, by 1914 ‘the tail could wag a whole pack of dogs’.8 But this old view is now out of favour with historians, who since the 1960s onwards have placed the onus on Germany. Yet other factors cannot be ignored, all of which seeped into every facet of life: ‘intellectual, social, economic, and even psychological, as well as political and diplomatic’.9

If the First World War was a mistake, something in which the nations simply fell into, then there must have been a breakdown in the forces opposed to such a catastrophe: international diplomacy and international bodies. Were the links between the two countries strong enough to prevent conflict? David Thompson questions the condition of ‘international anarchy’ existing between 1904-1914, stating that there was ‘nothing new’ in such an absence of international government as known today. Furthermore, he believes the ideas of a concert of Europe ‘were not entirely abandoned’.10  If the Franco-Prussian War is taken as the time when the European balance of power was disrupted, leading to two hostile camps and apparent anarchy, there were a number of international conferences held. Thompson points to the ‘impressive general conference’ of the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, the Conference of Algeciras (1906), and the Conference of London of 1912-13. Although Thompson gives most credit to the last of these summits (calling it the ‘most successful’),11 their eventual results were minimal. The same can be said of the conferences held at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. Their results were minimal, though remained a symbol of cooperation. Yet secret diplomacy and all of its pitfalls continued.

Yet economically, a few historians (including Turner) feel there was wide room for agreement between the French and the Germans. France had ‘a great stake’12 in the Ottoman Empire, with an agreement on joint financing of a Constantinople-Baghdad railway reached as late as February 1914.13 The financial and business links between the two countries were, McMillan states, ‘strong’. For example, German exports to France increased by 35 per cent between 1905-09.14

Yes, the Germans were feared. The French had suffered too much not to fear a large power beside her, what was the mainland power on the continent (a position the French had held for a long time). A look at the demographics of the time highlights this fear. In 1914 France had a population of 39 million, a figure ‘scarcely different’ from the mid-nineteenth century. Germany, by comparison, was full with 60 million, almost double from 1850. On top of this the sluggish French economy is badly contrasted with the booming German powerhouse, all of which, says Hayes, ‘made it impossible for France to compete on equal terms with Germany’.15 When war came, the Germans would numerically have an additional 20 million potential soldiers, with more arms to equip them with.

Yet, I believe compromise was possible, as shown through France’s understanding with Britain, a state that had been her ‘principle enemy’ for centuries.16 Although the antagonism between the two had cooled in the late nineteenth century, with the pair becoming allies during the Crimean War, friction became heated in the years immediately preceding the Entente. During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the two countries were supporting opposite sides. However, such differences were breached, helped along by state visits by King Edward VII to Paris in May 1903, followed by President Loubet’s journey to London in July of the same year – all of which, believes Fortescue, ‘helped to win over French pubic opinion’.17 Theoretically, a similar understanding could have been made with the Germans.

However, the British-French understanding had no canyon to bridge as large as the territories of Alsace-Lorraine, something in which Remak feels the French would ‘not forget’.18 A German biographer, Simpson, too feels that this was a source of friction between both nations, that with the territories in German hands France would remain ‘a potential enemy’.19 A reason given for General Boulanger’s ‘vast popularity’ in the 1880s was the tough line he took with the Germans.20 There appears to be no better way to win over countrymen in righting a wrong – as what the 1871 peace was perceived to be. The post-First World War settlement proved such enmity, another example of history’s lessons.

Interestingly, McMillan does not agree with such friction. He states that by 1900 ‘popular enthusiasm for the cause of the lost provinces had waned, and practically no-one could be found who was ready to fight for their reform’.21 Poincare, a Lorrainer himself, who despite Fortescue’s belief that he wanted ‘the return of the lost provinces’, partook many pro-German initiatives himself – the most notable of which, perhaps, was becoming the first French president to dine at the German Embassy in Paris – which happened as late as January 1914.22 Such symbolic moves show that France and Germany were not diametrically opposed.

However, there appears to be a desire for war throughout Europe. ‘War’, writes Remak, ‘in age where death was becoming mechanized as never before, was given an air of romance and glamour’.23 The assumption appears to have been that it would have been a short campaign, in the mould of nineteenth century combat. Joll cites the comments of the German Crown Prince, who ‘summoned his compatriots to a “bright and jolly war”’.24 The suffering involved was little realised.

War was a uniting issue. The German historian Mommsen believes the outbreak of war in 1914 was ‘akin to a religious awakening’.25 Such a statement is supported by the outpouring of support, with a ‘major’ Berlin newspaper reporting the submission of over 500 poems every day during August 1914.26 The words of contemporary intellectual, Karl Alexander von Muller, is cited:

‘For the first time in the nation’s history the mass of the German people had united around a single point…A people of seventy million had become a host’.27

This uniting sentiment is found in both France and Germany. The President of the French Chamber of Deputies commented, ‘There are no more adversaries here, there are only Frenchmen’ finds almost exact likeness in the Kaiser’s statement: ‘Henceforth I know no parties, I know only Germans’.28

Yet the crowds and public, feels A.J.P. Taylor, might have cheered as loudly if ‘war had not been declared’.29 Turner takes up this thought, stating that many historians ‘have neglected the strength of pacific sentiment in 1914’. He cites the case of Russia (who rightly feared the prospect of revolution), believing ‘the majority of Frenchmen were pacific’ and that in Germany ‘many economists and industrialists wanted peace’.30

Rohl is more cynical about the impact of street demonstrations and their impact towards any inevitability towards war. Although they may have expressed public opinion, he believes the demonstrations in favour of war in Berlin took place ‘when the die had already been cast’. More exactly, he states:

‘…the fact of the matter is that the people, the parties, the pressure groups could not have forced the government to unleash a world war’.31

Those who could unleash such a war were the governments themselves, what Rohl calls ‘a tiny group of men who seem to have had hardly any idea of the shattering consequences that their decision would have for Germany, for Europe and for the world, right down to the present day’.32 Many historians believe the road to destruction can be traced to Wilhelm’s ascension to the German throne, that after 1897 the Kaiser went ‘unchallenged’ in his drive for a world empire, otherwise known as weltpolitik.33

Such militarism can be traced back to the Prussian state. The German Reich, it is stated, was founded on war. Its ‘main anniversary’, writes Breuilly, ‘was not the day of its proclamation but rather the celebration of the victory of Sedan’.34 But Bismarck’s Germany had lived in two decades of peace after the Franco-Prussian War. It was on the Kaiser’s accession to the throne in which war became spoken of once more, in which the policy of weltpolitik was undertaken. Turner calls the naval policy of the Kaiser ‘deplorable’,35 while Seaman, in all pro-Britannia pomp, believes the Germans ‘merely wanted everybody to go on being frightened of them’.36

War rhetoric finds its beginnings in the late nineteenth century. In a memorandum, from Admiral Muller to Prince Henry in 1896, the Admiral states:

‘…our motto must be all or nothing. Either we harness the total strength of the nation, ruthlessly, even if it means accepting the risk of a major war, or we limit ourselves to continental power alone’.37

This obsession with being saddled as a second rate power seems to have driven the Kaiser and his military advisors. A year later, in 1897, Admiral Alfred von Tipitz is quoted as saying that such a ‘glamorous naval programme [would] mobilize patriotic sentiment behind the conservative, autocratic monarchy’.38 Such a uniting influence was seen as a positive step in light of the piling social problems of the Wilhelm era.

Rohl puts the blame squarely at the feet of the Kaiser. It was from the leader in which the policy followed. ‘I am the sole master of German policy’, the Kaiser told the future King Edward VII in 1900, ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go’.39 Quite simply, Rohl states, if Germany ‘had not opted for war in 1914’ there would have been no war at all. Her ally, Austria-Hungary ‘would certainly not have dared risk a war without Germany’s support’, and thus the tangle of alliances would not have become involved ‘then, nor three years later, nor indeed later still’.40

In his exceptional output of work on the before under-looked personality of the Kaiser, Rohl cites various examples of Wilhelm’s dangerous mentality. One of the often quoted instances is his terrifying speech to the troops at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900:

‘so may the name of Germany become known in China in such a way that no Chinaman will ever again dare to look a German in the eye even with a squint’.41

This, believes Rohl, was ‘no mere slip of the tongue’. He pinpoints the case of the Kaiser’s ‘sadistic’ humour, detailing his sources of amusement, one of which involved him turning the rings of his fingers inward, then squeezing  ‘the hand of visiting dignitaries so hard that tears came to their eyes’. Yet these were not the private jokes of a spoilt monarch – the Kaiser’s state of mind appears to have been under scrutiny throughout the continent. Rohl cites the words of the British Prime Minister, Asquith, on a report of the Kaiser’s: ‘One is tempted to discern in some of the things he said…the workings of a disordered brain; but they are none the less dangerous’. Actual research and printed material was made available on the issue from 1914 onwards, in America, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Switzerland, all intent on explaining ‘the Kaiser’s troubled psyche’.41

There have been many insane monarchs throughout history, but where they infringe on the dangerous is in the limits placed around them. The Kaiser and his surrounding institutions were not bound as a parliamentary monarchy, accountable to civilian politicians and the people. It is this point at which Rohl and others believe war originated. As Seaman states, the ‘the most important cause of the war of 1914 was not the succession of crises…but the complete, though unobserved, collapse of the German system of government’.42 The German Left who could be expected to mount opposition against the Kaiser, such as the S.P.D, had no effectual voice.

Coupled with the power of the Kaiser is the high amount of military planning. The Scheliffen Plan, concocted to war’s needs, was taken years before the outbreak of war. Always updated, Turner believes ‘all military thinking in Europe’ came to be ‘dominated by the implications’ of the plan.43 The French and the Russians, he states, were ‘well aware of its general character’, and in turn developed plans to prevent it. The whole of Europe appears to have become resigned to war – as shown in the alarming increase of military expenditure in the period:44

1870 1914

Great Britain

3.54 8.23
France 2.92 7.07
Russia 1.28 3.44
Italy 1.38 3.16
Germany 1.28 8.19
Austria-Hungary 1.08 3.10

Germany, in line with their world policy, not surprisingly made the largest jump ahead. But France’s increase is higher than average, especially when compared with Austria-Hungary. Can France herself be absolved from building up war relations? During the immediate pre-war period the French Army was strengthened: in 1913 a bill passed in the Chamber, despite ‘bitter opposition from Jean Jaures’, for the conscription period to be raised from two to three years.45 While the most startling sign was the French military Plan XVII, in which an offensive was outlined in event of war with the Germans. The first point of attack would be to recapture the lost provinces. During the July crisis there is also an issue of guilt on France’s behalf: Both McMillan and Fortescue accuse them for not holding back Russia’s involvement in the war. Their argument continues, in that it could have been a localised war, without the two armed camps becoming involved, rather than a world war.46

However, an historian can dig no further to find French aggression.  Discounting Plan XVII, all other actions appear to be from fear, for defence, rather than for attack. Stevenson writes on the mood of war in August 1914, that the French ‘spoke little of revenge for 1870, still less of Alsace-Lorraine’ – that the main issue was the need to defend the Fatherland.47 Poincare’s presidential message to the Chamber of Deputies on 4 August 1914 makes this clear. He spoke of the French having lived ‘for more than forty years… in a sincere love of peace’, that since the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia his country ‘was determined to follow and to recommend to all a policy of prudence, wisdom and moderation’, but that now war had come defence was needed. Blame was heaped on the German nation, who had clocked up a catalogue of evils:

‘[They] suddenly declared war on Russia, invaded the territory of Luxembourg, outrageously insulted the noble Belgian nation, our neighbour and friend, and traitorously tried to surprise us while in the midst of diplomatic conversations’.48

The majority of historians, and especially those of the past forty years, point to guilt on Germany’s behalf – some, such as Rohl, more passionately than others. France, and other states are absolved from this. McMillan, in his book on twentieth century French politics, believes that in 1914 ‘few Frenchmen either wanted or expected war’.49 Poincare is not labelled a warmonger, yet it appears him and other statesmen of Europe became resigned to war. Thompson writes that by 1914 Europe was ‘feverish and turbulent… with strong suicidal tendencies’.50

There were many other causes: the most novel of which is perhaps the theory of train timetables. All are valid explanations and add a little extra to the fabric that create the origins of the First World War. Long gone is the time when historians would hold the white flag, such as A.J.P. Taylor when he wrote: ‘The only safe explanation in history is that things happen because they happen’.51 All the causes, like the animosity between France and Germany, were the tiny straws that accumulated to break the camel’s back. But all of these cases were preventable.

War is possible. However, I do not believe that this war, a world war, had to result from the build up of tension. A war, of local proportions in the Balkans, seems probable. But did Germany and France have to lock horns themselves? Did Germany need to wage war on two fronts? Did millions have to die in the conflict? The answer, of course, is no. Change the government of one state, of Germany – replace the Kaiser, clear the country of Rohl’s accusation of a “tiny group of men” and the picture could have dramatically changed. Today France and Germany are the major partners in a European wide union, the bones of contention are a memory but more importantly the will to war apparent in its leaders is gone. The governments are accountable to the people. Again, I state it was a preventable war and not inevitable.

 

Bibliography

Breuilly, John, The Formation of the First German Nation-State 1800-1871, Macmillan Press, Malaysia, 1996

Catterall, Peter, & Vinen, Richard, Europe 1870-1914, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1994

Fortescue, William, The Third Republic in France 1870-1940 (Conflicts and Continuities), Routledge, Great Britain, 2000

Hayes, P, Themes in Modern History 1890-1945, Routledge, Great Britain, 1997

Joll, James, Europe Since 1870 (Fourth Edition), Penguin Books, St Ives, 1990

Lederer, Ivo J. (ed), The Versailles Settlement (Was it Foredoomed to Failure?), C. Heath & Company, USA, 1960

Marwick, Arthur & Waites, Bernard & Emsley, Clive & Donnachie, Ian, Europe on the Eve of War 1900-1914, Open University Press, Great Britain, 1990

McMillan, James F., Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992

Mommsen, Wolfgang J., Imperial Germany 1867-1918 (Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State), Arnold, Great Britain, 1995

Remak, Joachim, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967

Rohl, John C.G., The Kaiser and his Court (Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997

Roshwald, Aviel and Stites, Richard (ed), European Culture in the Great War (the arts, entertainment and propaganda 1914-1918), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Seaman, L.C.B., From Vienna to Versailles, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1964

Simpson, William, The Second Reich, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1995

Stevenson, D., French War Aims Against Germany 1914-1919, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982

Thompson, David, Europe Since Napoleon, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1982

Turner, L.C.F., Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970

 

Endnotes

1 D. Stevenson, French War Aims Against Germany 1914-1919, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982, p.1

2 Paul Hayes, Themes in Modern History 1890-1945, Routledge, Great Britain, 1997, p.24

3 Andre Tardieu, The Case for France, from – Ivo J. Lederer (ed), The Versailles Settlement (Was it Foredoomed to Failure?), C. Heath & Company, USA, 1960, pp.30-31

4 D. Stevenson, French War Aims Against Germany 1914-1919, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982, p.2

5 James Joll, Europe Since 1870, Penguin Books, St Ives, 1990, p.176

6 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970, p.1

7 Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967, p.96

8 ibid. p.63

9 James Joll, Europe Since 1870, Penguin Books, St Ives, 1990, p.169

10 David Thompson, Europe Since Napoleon, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1982, pp.536-537

11 ibid. p.537

12 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970, p.63

13 James F. McMillan, Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992, p.45

14 ibid. p.42

15 Paul Hayes, Themes in Modern History 1890-1945, Routledge, Great Britain, 1997, pp.26-27

16 James F. McMillan, Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992, p.41

17 William Fortescue, The Third Republic in France 1870-1940 (Conflicts and Continuities), Routledge, Great Britain, 2000, p.110

18 Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967, p.71.

19 William Simpson, The Second Reich, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1995, p.99

20 Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967, p.71

21 James F. McMillan, Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992, p.42

22 William Fortescue, The Third Republic in France 1870-1940 (Conflicts and Continuities), Routledge, Great Britain, 2000, p.117

23 Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967, p.67

24 James Joll, Europe Since 1870, Penguin Books, St Ives, 1990, p.193

25 Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Imperial Germany 1867-1918 (Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State), Arnold, Great Britain, 1995, p.205

26 Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites (ed), European Culture in the Great War (the arts, entertainment and propaganda 1914-1918), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p.32

27 Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Imperial Germany 1867-1918 (Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State), Arnold, Great Britain, 1995, p.205

28 Arthur Marwick, Bernard Waites, Clive Emsley and Ian Donnachie, Europe on the Eve of War 1900-1914, Open University Press, Great Britain, 1990, p.73

29 A.J.P. Taylor in Peter Catterall & Richard Vinen, Europe 1870-1914, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1994

30 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970, p.115

31 John C.G. Rohl, The Kaiser and his Court (Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p.8

32 ibid.

33 William Simpson, The Second Reich, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1995, p.90

34 Breuilly, John, The Formation of the First German Nation-State 1800-1871, Macmillan Press, Malaysia, 1996, p.112

35 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970, p.114

36 L.C.B Seaman, From Vienna to Versailles, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1964, p.166

37 William Simpson, The Second Reich, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1995, p.92

38 Arthur Marwick, Bernard Waites, Clive Emsley and Ian Donnachie, Europe on the Eve of War 1900-1914, Open University Press, Great Britain, 1990, p.82

39 John C.G. Rohl, The Kaiser and his Court (Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p.12

40 ibid. p.6

41 ibid. p.14

41 ibid. pp.14-25

42 L.C.B Seaman, From Vienna to Versailles, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1964, p.167

43 L.C.F. Turner, Origins of the First World War, Edward Arnold, Great Britain, 1970, p.76.

44 Joachim Remak, The Origins of World War I (1871-1914), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA, 1967, p.87: The table is ‘expressed in terms of per capita expenditures as translated into dollars’.

45 James Joll, Europe Since 1870, Penguin Books, St Ives, 1990, p.172

46 James F. McMillan, Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992, p.46 & William Fortescue, The Third Republic in France 1870-1940 (Conflicts and Continuities), Routledge, Great Britain, 2000, p.117

47 D. Stevenson, French War Aims Against Germany 1914-1919, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982, pp.7-8

48 William Fortescue, The Third Republic in France 1870-1940 (Conflicts and Continuities), Routledge, Great Britain, 2000, p.115

49 James F. McMillan, Twentieth Century France – Politics and Society – 1898-1991, Edward Arnold, Bristol, 1992, p.45

50 David Thompson, Europe Since Napoleon, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1982, p.541

51 Arthur Marwick, Bernard Waites, Clive Emsley and Ian Donnachie, Europe on the Eve of War 1900-1914, Open University Press, Great Britain, 1990, p.218