The Great Myth: World War I Was No Accident

In this case study, Copeland makes a convincing case that it was the power transition between Germany and Russia–not Germany and Great Britain–that was the real cause of the war. Specifically, he shows that German leaders had long feared that Russia’s greater land mass, resources and population made it a long-term threat to Germany’s survival. This threat would be realized, German leaders assessed, once Russia completed its massive industrialization and military buildup that it began undertaking in the years before WWI began.

Germany thus began its own military buildup (particularly of the naval variety) in hopes of maximizing its power for a war German leaders increasingly saw is inevitable. Before this buildup reached its conclusion, Berlin successfully prevented four major crises in the Balkans in 1912-1913 from escalating into major war, mainly by restraining its Austrian ally enough to prevent it from provoking Russia into fighting. Thus, Copeland talks of a “common theme” of the 1912-1913 Balkans crises, which was “when there was little possibility of Russian intervention, Berlin allowed Austria to act forcefully; but whenever it seems that Russia might be obliged… to oppose Austrian actions,  Berlin withheld support and advised Vienna to maintain its ‘waiting attitude.’”

German leaders also began “educating” the public on German national interests so they’d be motivated to fight once war broke out. As Copeland explains, “Far from leaders responding to the public’s aggressive passions, they deliberately created those passions to fight the war more effectively.”

After the July Crisis of 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, however, Copeland notes that Berlin drastically changed its position. It was at this time that German leaders led by the chancellor decided that war would be most favorable to Germany. Part of this was due to the circumstances of the moment: namely, Germany’s ability to paint Russia as the aggressor. This was necessary in order to ensure that the German people–particularly the Social Democratic Party–would back the war. Portraying Russia as the aggressor would also force Austria to join the war, and could make Great Britain less supportive of France and Russia, at least initially. That being said, Copeland vigorously disputes some historians views that German leaders believed that England would remain neutral in the war. While they certainly would have preferred such an outcome, they realized this was wholly unlikely.

via The Great Myth: World War I Was No Accident | The Diplomat