Who is to blame for World War I?


Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier in Flanders. The Western Front saw...

Was it the Kaiser, the Czar, the Archduke, the king of England, Poincare or the Austrian Emperor?  Who was it that caused that war?  A hundred years ago this year, the first of the modern world wars began.  Because of the centennial, assessing the blame for WWI is a national sport in Europe at the moment; historians in every major country are discussing the war, analyzing its causes, its brutality, its long-term consequences and naming the people and countries that started the war. There is no agreement on any of the issues, except on the brutality of the war.  The disagreements are drawn along the same lines as the battle lines of 1914; the Germans, English, Italians, French and all other Europeans are pointing fingers at their former adversaries, just as their grandfathers pointed guns at them.

We have titled that war, the one fought between July 1914 and November 1918, the “First World War,” but it was not the first world.  Many of the wars in history involved the “world” as it was defined at the time.   The empires of the Persians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Greeks among others fought and conquered “the world.”  Certainly battles between those empires were world wars in the truest sense of the term.  Those wars shook human civilization and the empires to their very core.  But because those empires have long since faded from the face of the earth, their wars are distant, magical and legendary things.  If we discuss them today, the discussions are dry, abstract and academic in nature.  The wars of our own time are not like that and the wounds inflicted in those wars have not yet healed.

There are places in Europe and the Middle East where those wounds are still open and festering.   I don’t know who started World War I, but I think I know what caused it.  In the century or so leading up to WWI, the European states were forming their modern, secular, national identities; in that process they tested their boundaries against neighboring countries and they expanded outside of Europe.  Europe was too small, it lacked resources and had limited markets. The colonial empires secured new and greater natural resources and new and larger markets for their goods.  It was also a time of diplomacy; diplomats from every country crisscrossed the world making secret treaties meant to give their country the edge over the neighboring countries and attempting to create allies if war should come.  In all of those activities the European states were just a step away from open war; in 1914 it spilled over from competition to war.

Those activities, and the same mind set that fostered them, survived World War I; that mind set dictated the terms of peace and drew the national boundary lines.  The historians generally agree on one thing- the Treaty of Versailles was the cause of World War II.   But the impact of that first world war goes much deeper and we are still living with it.  We are also still living with its cause which is the nationalistic mentality of the 18th and 19th century; it is the underlying cause of today’s tensions in the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Southeastern Europe.   All of the wars of the 20th century grew from the twin forces of expanding nationalism and colonialism of the 19th century.  It appears that the wars of the first half of the 21st century will be the result of those same forces.

What is my point?  It is a waste of time trying to place blame on individuals or nations; the culprit if we must name one is the trend toward national states and national rather than ethnic or religious identities.  We need to look deeper when discussing Syria or any other country’s problems and instead of assessing blame, find solutions that deal with the underlying issues. Until we stop placing blame and using simplistic and short-term analysis of very complex and long-term problems, we will never solve the really big issues that face us and our world.

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1 Response to “Who is to blame for World War I?”


  1. 1 Lynne Rosner February 18, 2014 at 7:48 am

    It started out so great and then it dwindled for me.


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