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World War I centenary: five historians, two questions

What caused it? Can it happen again?
Dragan Stavljanin | 29 July 2014
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A British emplacement after a German gas attack at Fromelles, July 19, 1916.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, RFE/RL Balkans Service correspondent Dragan Stavljanin polled a few leading historians of the period to ask about the causes of that tragic conflagration and about possible parallels between that time and the world a century later.

A century after the outbreak of World War I, can we now answer the eternal question -- who was to blame?

John Keigerprofessor of European history and international relations at the University of Cambridge:

It is not clear, even now, the extent to which the powers were, individually, responsible for war. I would suggest, though, that Germany and Austria-Hungary still remain -- they are the primary responsible powers. That remains the case today. Overall, in the end, it strikes me that what brings about the war in those last weeks of July and into early August is really a confused group of politicians who are overtaken by events. They are not always aware of what they are doing. They are not always aware of the consequences of their decisions. And, as a consequence of that, they are trapped occasionally into taking decisions which gently, gradually lead to the process of the outbreak of war.

Gerhard Hirschfeldprofessor of history at the University of Stuttgart and the author of numerous books, including "Germany In The First World War."

If you bring down a list of who was responsible, it would always start with the ultimatum sent by the Vienna government to the Serbs and -- this is very important -- accompanied by the blankoscheck [blank check] given by the German government, which said, "Look, you can do what you want. Settle this Serbian question once and for all." They expected a kind of war in the traditional, 19th-century style. What they got was a new type of war that was almost incomprehensible.

Sean McMeekinprofessor of history at Koc University in Istanbul and author of "The Russian Origins of the First World War" and "July 1914: Countdown to War."

The goal of German and Austrian diplomats following the Sarajevo incident was to try to localize a conflict in the Balkans. Now, this may have been unrealistic, but the ideal scenario in both Berlin and Vienna was for Austria-Hungary to be able to confront Serbia without the other powers intervening. Russia's own policy or position, of course, was to continentalize the crisis and then the conflict. To make sure that France would get involved, and also Britain. To make sure that if it came to war, Britain and France would fight on their side. So, in this sense, turning it into a European and world conflagration was actually Russia's policy. That is not to say that Russia bears sole responsibility either. That is to say, it was the combination of the Austro-German response to Sarajevo and then the Russian response to the Austrian move against Serbia. This is what produced the Great War.

Annika Mombauersenior lecturer in history at the Open University in London and the author of numerous books and articles on World War I.

Many of the decision makers and, in fact, many ordinary Europeans did feel that war would eventually come. You have to think of another "-ism" -- social Darwinism, this belief that nations and peoples are subject to the same biological laws as animals and that they are going to either rise to the top or they are going to be eliminated in a vying for power. There is this sense that if you want to be a great power, you have to eventually fight a war against other powers and, obviously, win that war in order to keep your great power status. There were many decision makers who were quite keen for a war and you can find those people in all capital cities of the great powers. But you do seem to find a lot of them in Vienna and in Berlin. And you find statements such as "Oh, if only the war will come before I retire!'"

Joern Leonhard, professor of history at the University of Freiburg and the author of numerous books, including "Pandora's Box: A History of the First World War."

I think it is wrong to talk about some sort of unique German war guilt, but we have to talk about different and very often interrelated responsibilities. The talk on German war guilt, which was very much influenced by the Versailles Treaty and the interwar period and the argument that Hitler's rise was only possible because of this war guilt....

I think this war-guilt discourse has a very moral implication and what we need now is some sort of true historical analysis. And if we do this analysis, I think we will see there are many different responsibilities. There was not only the German blankoscheck for Austria -- there was also a Russian blankoscheck for Serbia without which Serbia could not have responded to the ultimatum in the way it did. And there was also a kind of blankoscheck from France for Russia.

* * * * *

There has been a lot of speculation that the situation around the world now -- say, in Ukraine or the dispute between China and Japan over islands and resources in the South China Sea -- and the situation in the summer of 1914. Do you see parallels and lessons that can be applied to the world today?

John Keiger: Yes, I'm afraid that, rather pessimistically, I do think that, particularly over Ukraine, but also perhaps over what is going on in the Far East, [where] there is a potential for things to go horribly wrong. One incident in which the pride of a nation becomes implicated -- like, for instance, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 -- that kind of incident, if it came today, say, the assassination of a major person in Ukraine that immediately brought into play the various external powers, then that could provoke a very serious incident. That does concern me. I don't think the United Nations would be able to do very much. It is very hard to know, but, for instance, if the Russian ambassador in Ukraine was assassinated, what would happen?

Gerhard Hirschfeld: I don't see parallels. History does not repeat itself. History is, in a way, dependent on certain factors and conditions that are different from what we used to have. There are no parallels between 1914 and 2014. Having said that, there is one element, however, that, I'm afraid, creates continuity and this is the human factor. People do not change. They have the same feelings, emotions, ambitions, strivings for power. So, when it comes to judging the personal factor, the ambitions of politicians, there I would say is an element of continuity. But the historical context changed dramatically. We didn't have a NATO in 1914, we didn't have an OSCE, an EU. We didn't have international organizations and alliances that are controlling elements of a crisis. You have the same emotions, but not the same conditions and historical structures as in the past.

Sean McMeekin: History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. I see the appeal of these analogies -- that China is Germany. But, of course, China could equally well be Russia in 1914. The Russian economy was growing at a rate of about 9 percent a year in 1914. In fact, in many ways, Russia on the eve of World War I was a far better analogy for China today. Supposedly, even if you believe the traditional historiography the whole problem is the growth of Russian power and that was what was actually destabilizing Europe -- not the growth of German power. So, sometimes even when we try to learn from history, we draw the wrong analogies and the wrong lessons.

Annika Mombauer: Historians and politicians have often looked back at July 1914 and other historical events in an effort to try and address current crises. I think what is interesting is often the July crisis has been invoked by the media and by politicians and historians with regard to the crisis in Ukraine. I don't know that we can learn any lessons, but if we can, I think they have been learned because there isn't a major European war raging at the moment. And I think that must be partly because we do learn from history and we do learn from past mistakes. But I don't think we can use a crisis in the past and apply it to a crisis now.

Joern Leonhard: We should be careful not to talk about direct analogies. If we look to the summer of 1914, we see factors that help us to better understand the situation at the moment. And the first thing I would mention is the politics of history. There is some sort of imperialism and fear of imperialism after the end of empires. If you look at the situation in Russia, this is a post-imperial state. If you look at the conflict zone from the Baltic states to southeast Europe to the Middle and Far East, it is in a way the shadow zones of the three former empires -- the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. And the breaking up of these empires is a legacy of World War I. And in a way you could argue that following World War I, there has been in many ways never been a stable state structure filling the gap that came up after the end of these empires.

Dragan Stavljanin is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service. Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | history, World War I
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