The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to accept all responsibility for the war.

If the war was initially due to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Serbian assassins, why did the Treaty of Versailles hold Germany responsible? Are there documents that establish the reasoning behind holding Germany accountable?

Is it because they were the first to invade neutral territories?

Are there competing claims/narratives?

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    Presumeably you mean 'Was Germany/ the Deutsches Reich responsible..?' It seems a little unfair to blame the current generation of Germans for their antecedents. :) Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:18
  • Its extremely hard to be objective here.
    – user1128
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 22:57
  • What kind of evidence would you expect to settle this question?
    – Drux
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 11:09
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    The simple answer is: "because Germany lost".
    – nvoigt
    Commented Oct 4, 2015 at 16:09
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    @AndrewGrimm - I tried to revise the question to address the issues raised in this discussion - In my opinion "was Germany to blame?" is a pub conversation with no more scholarly value than "Einstein vs Mao in a game of horse - who wins"? Lots of opinions. The interesting questio nis the second question - how did the narrative of responsibility arise?"
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 13:07

6 Answers 6


The moral justification isn't hard to find. Russia was the only Allied power to enter the war "on its own". If you look at the stated reasons of other countries: Germany declared war on France because it expected France to ally with Russia. Great Britain joined the war because Germany violated Belgian neutrality. And USA joined the war because of German submarine warfare. So one way to view this war is: Germany turned a local conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia into a world war. Consequently, Germany is the responsible party here.

Of course there is also a different approach to the whole situation: in addition to the "official" reasons each country had its own interests. Especially France despite being invaded by Germany cannot claim that the war was forced upon them: the French were looking for a chance to take back Alsace-Lorraine ever since their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. So France would have happily declared war on Germany hadn't Germany done so first, it's beyond doubt that France wouldn't have stayed neutral.

The situation is somewhat less obvious with Great Britain, one can argue whether a different strategy on the German side would have prevented it from entering the war. Still, it is doubtful that Great Britain would have watched Germany destroy the balance of power in Europe without intervening, given that Great Britain was always trying to make sure that no single power ever dominated Europe. The conflicts between Great Britain and Germany over colonial territories didn't help of course and Great Britain clearly had its interests here.

The only war participant where it is hard to say anything are the United States. They had economical reasons to participate but it is unclear whether the USA would have found a different pretense to join the war had Germany not declared unlimited submarine warfare and thus hurt US trade directly.

To sum up: yes, to a large part it was justice of the winner. Germany capitulated so the Allied powers could dictate their conditions. With the world shocked over the atrocity of the war and looking for somebody to blame the Allied powers of course chose to blame everything on Germany. Then again, Germany made it pretty easy to justify this position by giving everybody a good pretense to join the war.

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    And in the sequel, Germany blamed it all on jews
    – user4951
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 9:59
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    @JimThio: There were many sequels but AFAIK Germany never blamed starting the war on jews, merely the German capitulation in the war. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 10:03
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    Ah I see. Even though many jewish soldiers died in ww1 for germany. Given the performance of Israel now, perhaps germany should have blamed it self for not letting the jews take control :)
    – user4951
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 10:38
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    Actually, the immediate catalyst for the US entering the war was the so-called Zimmerman telegram, an intercepted cable to the Mexican "government" (which basically didn't exist at the time) to attack the U.S. in exchange for the return of California, Texas and everything in between if and when Germany won
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 14:12
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    The longer the war went on, the more implicitly-committed the USA was to an Allied victory- the UK and France (France especially, via the UK) owed the USA increasingly vast sums of money. A German victory would have had pretty unpleasant consequences for the American economy, ignoring the fact the Allied world-view was more suited to US interests. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:21

In the big picture, Germany wanted a large empire and a large navy, which was incompatible with Britain's survival as a Great Power. This really didn't have anything to do with how the war directly started, but shaped a lot of the diplomacy around it. This doesn't assign responsibility either, as it would be just as reasonable to accuse Britain of holding Germany down as it would be to accuse Germany of trying to defeat Britain. No country has a divine right to any particular position in the world.

Further, the system of rigid alliances that characterized the start of WWI was a direct outgrowth of German diplomacy under Bismarck and later, if this can be considered a cause.

The German mobilization plan was partly to blame. Mobilization was the calling of reservists to the colors and the assembly of army formations in their positions to start the war. Once started, it would take days and almost certainly lead to war. The German plans were different in that their mobilization plans led into war, and they had only one. In event of war with Russia, the German plan was to overrun Belgium and attack Paris, and their mobilization plan would make that obvious. Since it was very dangerous to give one's enemy extra days to mobilize, allowing them to attack unprepared troops, there was a very strong reason to start mobilization on being informed of a neighbor's mobilization. To what extent this was responsible is also debateable. If it would normally have been possible for everybody to mobilize, stay within their borders, and slowly back down with diplomacy, the German plan would have prevented it. It did prevent Germany from trying to keep France out of the war diplomatically, although that would not have worked in any case. (The mobilization plan that ruled the context of diplomacy had been put together for military purposes, in typical German fashion the needs of a military campaign being more important than high-level diplomacy and strategy.)

The actual events that precipitated war were the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by Serbian terrorists. The terrorists had some connections in the Serbian government, and we'll probably never know how high and how close. Germany sent Austria-Hungary an unconditional promise of support. Austria-Hungary sent a list of demands to Serbia. The Serbians managed to agree to almost all of them, but that wasn't enough for the Empire, and there came the first declaration of war. At this time, the President of France was visiting Russia, and presumably urging the Russians to start a war so France could regain territories lost to Germany in the 1870-1871 war (the President was very eager to get into a war with Germany under what looked like favorable terms).

Russia didn't want to see Serbia, something of a client state of theirs, overrun by Austria-Hungary, and ordered a mobilization since Austria-Hungary was mobilizing. Germany didn't want to see their major ally overrun by Russia, and had legitimate reason for concern since Russia was mobilizing next to them, and ordered mobilization. At that point, war was inevitable.

There are several points at which war could have been averted. If the Serbian government had been able and willing to control Serbian terrorists, the incident would never have happened. If Germany hadn't given the "blank check" to Austria-Hungary, they might not have gone to war, but this was an Austro-Hungarian decision in the end. It is almost certain that the President of France urged Russia into the war, and it's conceivable that without that the Russians wouldn't have mobilized, but again that was a Russian decision. Germany was probably forced into mobilization at that point.

So, there were a lot of actors and a lot of decisions that went into the start of WWI. Germany is clearly not soley responsible, but Germany was partially responsible.

  • Recent scholarship is casting doubt on escalating mobilization as the cause of war. I am not familiar enough with the sources to say either way but this is a good example: [books.google.com/…
    – jmw
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 4:19

A short answer with a slightly out-of-the box viewpoint:

Germany wanted power and a big empire. This put Germany at odds with Britain, and their allies Austria-Hungary was already at odds with Russia, which together put these two allies at odds with most of Europe.

This could have been solved and handled in various ways, but as Germany was during this time in practice ruled by the military, the leadership used the tool they knew how to use: War.

So yes, Germanys leadership is to blame for WWI in as much as if it had been democratic it is unlikely to have actually started a war in the ultimate aim of making Germany more powerful. The people tend to have different worries. :-)

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    Mind you, pre-WWI Europe wasn't a very democratic place. There weren't all that many democracies at the time and most countries involved in the world war in fact weren't democracies. And even the French democracy was just as bloodthirsty as everybody else. Democracy doesn't help if people want a war. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 12:01
  • Ah, but France didn't start the war. They didn't mind it, but they didn't start it. It's an important difference. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 12:43
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    Well, Germany didn't start it either ;) Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 15:15
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    I would add the fact that Germany was the only "big" power without a colony. Britain, Spain, Portugal, The Dutch all had smaller or bigger empires. So Germany's desire to expand is also a natural extension of the colonizing paradigm that was prevalent at the time. It's of course a different matter that they tried to expand in Europe rather than the East Indies or the New World.
    – Rajib
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 12:04
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    @Rajib: No, you are incorrect. They didn't have colonies before 1884, but then they got colonies but not in Europe. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_colonial_empire WWI was not an effect of Germany trying to expand in Europe. You are thinking of WWII. Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 15:31

Not quite. I like this informal take on The Economist's blog: "War parallels", which succintly tries to tackle the question of why the WWI emerged.

Christopher Clark's excellent "Sleepwalkers" convincingly casts doubt on the German "war guilt" clause that has dogged this issue ever since the Versailles treaty.


[..] the pre-war diplomatic manouvres resembled a giant exercise in game theory, in which the various governments made decisions on the basis of their assumptions about the motives of the other governments. [emphasis in the original text] The Serbs were committed to intriguing against the Austrian state, which they saw as the main obstacle to the creation of a "greater Serbia", a state that would include many people who would not have considered themselves Serbs at the time. The Austrians were alarmed at the rise of nationalist pressures within their own borders, and at the rising power of Serbia that had been demonstrated in two short Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913.

The Russians had been humiliated by the Japanese in the 1905 war and by the Ausrtrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908; they cast their lot with the unstable Serbian regime. The French were desperate to hang on to the Russian alliance as a counterpoint to Germany, especially as they were unsure about the strength of the British commitment. The Germans were frightened by the Russian military build-up and believed that the balance of power was moving against them. The British were concerned, not just about the German naval race, but about Russia's activity in central Asia, and the potential threat to India.

There was a strong belief in many capitals that firmness would lead to the avoidance of war; that the Austrians would surely back down if the Russians backed Serbia; and that the Russians would back down if the Germans backed Austria. Previous crises in the 1905-1913 period had been averted without resulting in a Europe-wide war. Oddly enough, this confidence in a diplomatic outcome was offset by a feeling that war might be inevitable in the medium term; the disintegration of the Ottoman empire in Europe had already altered the balance of power and there was a chance that Austria-Hungary might go the same way. If France need to confront Germany, it needed a battle in which the Russians were willing partners, so the French agenda was in a sense subservient to Russian aims; if Germany need to confront Russia, it was better to do it sooner rather than later.

So in my understanding the French were an important catalyst in the events preceding WWI. And their efforts, from the very beginning, were geared towards keeping Germany in check. Little wonder then that the French insisted on the German "war guilt" clause in the Versailles treaty.

See also:

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    -1 There was a lot of conflicting interests, yes. I don't see why you point out France especially amongst those interests. If those conflict of interests didn't exist, there would be no war, certainly. But they did exist. The question is not who were prepared to defend their interests with military force, the question is who were prepared to start a war. And that was Germany and Austria-Hungary. Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 15:57
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    I'd say France in particular had a larger impetus in making the war expand into a "great war". She already knew that she would likely lose if fighting alone, like in 1870, and had a great interest in getting Alsace and Lorriaine back (which is why Bismark was against taking them). Hence her interest in prying Russia from Germany and then getting British continental involvement in the next war.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 18:09

Well...Germany was not totally responsible for WW1..i mean if you look at thee events that were included i believe the treaty of Versailles was not just at all, the alliances and treaties also led to the war because if you think about it you will see that every major power had a backup partner to ensure its safety which caused distrust and suspicion among countries all over.

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    Sources would improve this answer. Please take the time to read help center; we're looking for authoritative answers; this answer is rhetorical "if you look", "if you think"....
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 12:44

Germany was not held solely responsible for the War. The Treaty of Versailles only covered Germany, each of the other treaties with the various Central powers also contained a "war guilt" clause.

In part the War Guilt clause was included on legal advice to put the reparations payments on the legal footing.

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