The causes of war—or, differently put, the reasons that nations or peoples choose to go to war—is one of the main areas of study in classical and contemporary strategic literature, beginning with Thucydides' concise formulation of fear, honor, and interest. No conflict has been examined in greater detail in this respect than World War I, or the Great War as it was then known, in large part because the catastrophic effects on European civilization seemed so out of proportion to the immediate stakes at hand (a Balkan conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia). The eventual victors (save Russia, which had been revolutionized) applied the Treaty of Versailles' war guilt clause to Germany, although Britain and America soon felt guilty about doing so. Leading scholars soon blamed all of the participants equally—and threw in munitions makers and bankers to boot—but above all they cited the dynamic created by global imperial rivalries and by the rigid, bipolar system of alliances that policymakers foolishly constructed. This rigidity, so the argument went, was compounded by military-technical factors run amuck—specifically, arms races (especially at sea) and army mobilization schedules driven by railroad timetables, which took the real choice for war out of the hands of the political authorities. A.J.P. Taylor's The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954) was perhaps the most influential voice in the systemic explanation camp.
In 1961, the German historian Fritz Fischer upset the applecart with his path-breaking, controversial book, Germany's Aims in the First World War (later followed with War of Illusions, 1969, which dealt with the structural elements in German government and society that led up to the war). Fisher acquired access to Reich archives then being held in East Germany, which documented Berlin's key internal arguments and decisions about German strategy. He built his argument around the so-called "September Program" of 1914, developed shortly after the outbreak of war, which laid out an ambitious plan of European and world domination, including extensive territorial annexations on the continent, a vastly expanded overseas colonial empire, and huge reparations to be demanded of the defeated powers. Fischer reasoned that these objectives had animated German policy all along and that they explained why Germany was so adamant about supporting Vienna in the Balkan crisis set off by the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Germany needed to take advantage of a major war to achieve these aims; the Schlieffen Plan offered the military blueprint of a quick victory in the West, followed by the major campaign to push Russia back to Asia and colonize Eastern Europe.
Fischer's thesis, needless to say, caused a major uproar, particularly in Germany, because it made the obvious connection between the war aims of Germany in 1914 and 1939. Nevertheless, despite scholarly criticism, it has survived in modified form as the principal, if not dominant, explanation of the time and circumstances of the war—at the very least, any scholar must take Fischer's argument into account. The most important modifications involve focusing on the geopolitical dilemma faced by Germany, and particularly Berlin's fear of a rising Russia, rather than the domestic roots of German aggressiveness; and on German opportunism aimed at seeking limited European hegemony, rather than the culmination of a carefully scripted plan of global domination.
I would note in passing that my old teacher, the late Harold W. Rood, regarded Fischer's books as essential reading to help understand the "German problem" in particular, as well as to appreciate how states generally plan for war and conceive systematically of how they will impose peace on their adversaries.
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Sean McMeekin, a professor at Bilkent University in Turkey (educated at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley), attempts to overthrow the modified Fischer thesis in The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011). His new candidate for the motive force behind the war is the grandiose ambitions of Imperial Russia in the Near East. Russian statesmen, especially Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and a coterie of military officials, developed their own "September Program"—actually, one articulated in November 1914—which encapsulated long-standing Russian grand strategy: that of partitioning the Ottoman Empire and controlling the Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. (Russian war games and exercises were developed around the seizure of Constantinople, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and the attacks against hostile Balkan powers.) Britain had long been the protector of the Ottoman Empire and the dominant European power in the region—with Germany a late entry in the competition, supporting construction of the strategic Berlin-Baghdad railway and otherwise blocking Russia's ambitions against Turkey. Russian statesmen could justify expansion on defensive grounds, as a way of preventing encirclement by Germany and of foiling the naval domination of Britain.
According to McMeekin, it was Russia that deliberately sought to bring about a world war with Germany, in order to take advantage of its rather accidental alliance with long-time global rival Britain, as well as with France. (German civilian leaders, by contrast, wanted to localize the conflict between Austria and Serbia.) This strategy assumed that France and Britain would tie up German forces in the West and the Mediterranean, freeing Russia to secure its long-standing ambitions to the south, as the successor state to Byzantium, with Moscow as the "Third Rome." (Russia had ambitions in Eastern Europe, too, but it was prepared to allow temporary German military gains there if necessary.) St. Petersburg played on London's fears that it might collapse or withdraw from the war in order to gain a relatively free hand in the Near East—and the feckless British went along, even aiding Russia and fighting its war for it (e.g., the Dardanelles and Gallipoli). Russia's responsibility has been obscured, McMeekin argues, by the lack of access to its archives (and the inability of most Western scholars to read Russian and Turkish) and by the failure of its grand strategy, caused by military incompetence and a prolonged war, which led to the Bolshevik Revolution.
McMeekin's argument has predictably generated controversy—he is typically praised for documenting the importance of Russian imperial ambitions in the war's origins, but criticized for his single-minded, prosecutor-like efforts to indict St. Petersburg; for overlooking evidence that the Russians wanted to rely on coercive diplomacy, not war, to keep Germany and Turkey in line in the Near East; for neglecting the role of France and the French alliance; for downplaying the importance of Russia's ties with Serbia and other Balkan concerns; and for neglecting the fact that Russia fought a war that paid relatively little attention to the Near Eastern front. He also adopts uncritically the Turkish viewpoint on the "alleged" Armenian massacres.
On balance, I would say that the critics have the better of the argument and that Fischer's thesis, however qualified and modified, is more persuasive. That said, the documents uncovered by McMeekin provide a useful reminder that states can and do plan for war; and that the decision for war (however misguided in retrospect) is not simply the result of misunderstanding or structural forces beyond the control of policymakers.