WW1 broke out after a series of ultimatums and warnings against each other. However, I understand that every power claimed that the other powers were acting against its interests, and it was participating in the war only for self-defense.

I can understand these claims from the points of view of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and even France. Britain participated protesting against the violation of neutrality of Belgium, so even that claim is clear (at least it's not false, though it might have been just an excuse).

However, how could Germany make this claim, as it had given ultimatum to Russia against its military mobilization? How did Germany convince itself or its population that this war was only for self-defense?

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    I do not have any references at hand, but the expression here is "preemptive war". Germany was worried about a two front war; giving time to both Russia and France to mobilize and attack (even if the German Armhy was itself mobilized) meant almost secure defeat. The German strategy (Schlieffen plan) was based in quickly defeating France while Russia was still mobilizing.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 14, 2015 at 7:32
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    Because 9 million Russian soldiers attacked them? You know the Russians didn't just "mobilize", they INVADED Prussia with an army of 9 million soldiers headed up by a General who publicly stated he was going to obliterate Germany. Oct 14, 2015 at 14:28
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    @TylerDurden When did this happen? And why did Germany give ultimatum to Russia to stop "mobilization" rather than fighting right away to reclaim the invaded East Prussian territories?
    – taninamdar
    Oct 15, 2015 at 2:50
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    All parties joined this war, in the short of it, because they wanted to join it for their own reasons: Britain to defeat the German Kriegsmarine; France to recover Alsace Lorraine; Germany to increase its share from the partition of Poland and thus increase its buffer against Russia (Lebensraum sound familiar); Austria to re-assert it's authority in the Balkans; Turkey to likewise re-assert its authority in the Balkans. Russia to assert its authority in the Balkans,redeem itself after the debacle of 1904, and similarly expand its holdings in Poland and Galicia. Oct 17, 2015 at 16:02
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    @TylerDurden: Yet German forces had invaded Belgium in the wee hours of Aug. 4, and the Reichstag had declared war, voted a war bond, and "dissolved itself for the duration" that afternoon. Oct 17, 2015 at 19:52

3 Answers 3


By naming Russian mobilisation as the initial aggression.

One needs to look no further than the German declaration of war itself. That document succinctly laid out Berlin's position that the Russian mobilisation was an existential threat as well as an act of aggression towards Germany. Presenting Germany as a peaceful mediator, it claims that:

[Russia] proceeded to a general mobilisation of her forces both on land and sea. In consequence of this threatening step ... the German Empire was faced by a grave and imminent danger. If the German Government had failed to guard against this peril, they would have compromised the safety and the very existence of Germany. The German Government [therefore insisted] upon a cessation of the aforesaid military acts. Russia having refused to comply [have shown] that her action was directed against Germany

The document ended by explicitly portraying the Germany as answering a challenge to fight. A challenge which, according to the German government, Imperial Russia had issued by mobilising.

His Majesty the Emperor, my august Sovereign, in the name of the German Empire, accepts the challenge, and considers himself at war with Russia.

Germany thus portrayed herself as a victim of Russian aggression, and her subsequent military actions "self-defence".

The German argument was not a stretch to make in 1914. Countries did not (and do not) mobilise for fun. In an age of mass conscript armies, mobilisation was the key stage in the ramp up to war. The tight coupling of mobilisation with war was such that it was effectively regarded as an act of war in and of itself. In Russia specifically,

The idea that mobilization was not a peaceful act but 'the most decisive act of war' had been present in the thought of Russian officers since 1892. The 1912 the European military districts were told to regard mobilization as the opening of hostilities.

- Strachan, Hew. The Outbreak of the First World War. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Moreover, Russia was allied to France by an accord that was understood, by both sides, to mean that mobilisation guaranteed a war on two fronts for Germany.

General N. N. Obruchev, Russia's signatory, explained [Article 2 to mean], 'this mobilisation of France and Russia would be followed immediately by positive results, by acts of war, in a word would be inseparable from an "aggression"'. Or as France's counterpart to Obruchev, General Raoul de Boisdeffre, put it after signing the accord, "the mobilization is the declaration of war."

- McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War. Basic Books, 2014.

In the mindset of 1914 Europe, therefore, the Russian mobilisation essentially meant war. This also meant that the German ultimatum for Russia to cease its mobilisation would not have detracted from the self defence argument. If anything, it strengthened it - Germany could present itself as having explored all changes for peace before before "accepting" the Russian challenge to fight.

Disclaimer: Whether the German rationale is objectively correct is of course an entirely different matter. This answer also no commentary on the (in)accuracy of the other Great Powers' claims for a righteous casus beli, either.


The short answer is that, if Germany sat and waited while Russia mobilized, the Germans believed they would be crushed between France and Russia.

Imperial Russia was considered to be a powerful nation because they could put so many men in the field. Russia's inability to properly equip or supply them was not properly understood.

The German war plan was to overwhelm France before Russian strength could be massed against Germany. France also knew the odds and directed railway investment into Russia as long as the railways led to the European frontier [Tuchman, Guns of August], in order to reduce the time it would take for Russia to mobilize and apply her forces against Germany.

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    @WS2 That's not correct. Russia had no treaty obligations to defend Serbia. Russia defended Serbia because the Tsar claimed to be the protector of all Slavs. It was an exercise in pan-nationalism. It is also worth noting that had Germany gone to war a decade earlier, no one in Europe could have stopped her (they barely did in 1914 after years of catching up). The classical narrative of blaming German belligerence must be tempered with the fact that the victorious powers were the great imperial powers.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 9, 2015 at 7:04
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    Germany had the opportunity to split Russia from France. Bismarck energetically sought to use it, with the League of the Three Emperors (1873) and the Reinsurance Treaty (1887). In 1890, after Bismarck had fallen from power, Russia asked to renew the Reinsurance Treaty; Wilhelm II and his cabinet were not interested. Russia then began to move toward France. This, more than in 1914, was where the Germans really went wrong, ensuring that they would be fighting facing both ways and "shackled to a corpse."
    – S. Rojak
    Dec 9, 2015 at 18:04
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    @WS2 My point about empires was that it was the powers who held all the imperial territories, complaining about another rising start trying to scrap together pieces of whatever was left... As for France, your view is extremely biased. France entered the war for revanchism, the desire to seek revenge for 1871. French participation began the moment she mobilised her forces with Russia, in accordance with their treaty for attacking Germany. Refer to my answer: "[A]s France's ... General Raoul de Boisdeffre, put it after signing the accord, 'the mobilization is the declaration of war.'"
    – Semaphore
    Dec 9, 2015 at 22:58
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    @WS2 Did you even attempt to understand the subtleties I have been pointing out? Germany could either attack before France and Russia finished mobilising, or she could wait for them to finish preparations and attack like they'v been saying they were going to do for a decade. Who fired the first shot is not a meaningful measure of anything in a situation where all sides were already committed to war.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 9, 2015 at 23:06
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    @WS2 The first battles in the East and the West were on the German side of the border. It was the French/Russian plan to attack the Germans and defeat them early, which they tried and eventually failed at. The desire to define one side or the other as aggressive gets tiring. By 1914 the two coalitions were dedicated to duking it out and that's that.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 10, 2015 at 1:02

It has been a long time, and I have already accepted an answer, and I am satisfied with it. But I'm reading The Guns of August right now, and I discovered following small facts. It's not a very important things, because the nations were already set on a collision course, but I think they are worth noting anyway.

Germany had developing Schlieffen Plan against France for several years, in which France was to be attacked via Belgium (and Luxembourg). Germany had made repeated attempts, direct or otherwise, to gauge the British response if Germany violated Belgian neutrality. Britain was however committed to the neutrality and made it clear (to both Germany as well as France, but in different tone) that whoever violates Belgian neutrality would not have British support.

Secondly, when it was clear that the war on the Eastern Front was inevitable in the last couple of days of July 1914, because of Austria-Serbia-Russia crisis, German high command (especially the Kaiser) seriously contemplated abandoning the Schlieffen Plan, and attacking Russia instead. They even asked France whether it would remain neutral in a Russo-German war, but it replied that "France would take an action in its own interests". This formal interaction, in my opinion, gives some kind of legitimacy to the war against France. In either case, von Moltke, who himself was very much committed to the plan, managed to convince Kaiser that the military commitments to the plan were irreversible, and thus Germany entered into a war on two fronts.

Source: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

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