The Debate on the Origins of World War One

Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Dr Annika Mombauer explores the opposing debates about the origins of World War One. Is it possible for historians to arrive at a consensus?

The hundred-year debate

How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible.

Cupidity‘Cupidity’, a satirical drawing showing the hands of men from countries involved in World War One, arguing for control of the world.

The need to fight a defensive war

Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy, and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to revenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands.[1] In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war? Continue reading

What is history?

What is History?

An easy answer would be: everything that has gone before each moment in time. But this simply is not true. History is not the past itself, but the study of a past that, especially going back to our earliest histories, remains dynamic and changing. The old adage: ‘History is written by the victors’ has always seemed an exclusive view of our written sources and the further back we go, the less weight this idea holds.

Who wrote History?

The two canonical histories of the Classical Greek World were written in two very different styles. Herodotus (c. 484-425 B.C.), born in Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), was a politically active member of his community and only after being exiled to Thurii in south Italy did he begin travelling, collecting information and writing his great work. He explored the culture and geography of the Middle East, Egypt and the Aegean in an attempt to uncover the cause of the Graeco-Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Themes of justice, luxury, pride and the influence of Gods and oracles abound.

Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.), an aristocratic Athenian, was likewise prominent in politics; he served as a general in Thrace and was subsequently exiled for his failure there. Thucydides sought the causation of The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) through human action and politicking exclusively. His staid prose describes events as they happen and is coloured with no Herodotean digressions into subsidiary matters.

The victors?

By no means would we describe either historian as a victor. Herodotus’ Halicarnassus fought on the losing Persian side and Thucydides’ Athens was defeated by the Spartans. All we may infer is that the writing of History was of secondary interest. Contemporary politics was their bread and butter; it is only removal from this environment that allowed them the time and energy to compile their vast works.

History and Pre-History

Unlike many other disciplines we are almost certain of the start date of the concept of history. Herodotus is our first exponent of the style; specifically referring to his monumental study as a historia; this word meaning inquiry. This idea is the basis for all historical investigation and writing.

Pre-history describes human events from the dawn of mankind up to Herodotus. Though this terminology is technically correct the use of Herodotus’ History only functions as an intellectual year one. Through modern investigation we can discover far more about the development of civilisation; rendering a before and after Herodotus dateline inadequate. The written text, which was thought to be the canonical method by which to decipher the past, is now being moved to its correct position as one of many types of evidence, along with artistic, material (buildings, inscriptions etc.) and scientifically analysable data such as carbon dating or surveying. It is from these techniques that we seek to build up a picture of life and events from the remote past.

The Classical World and History

The technique applied by Herodotus in his inquiry was similar; though not as scientifically wide ranged. He travelled the Greek and Barbarian worlds seeking the stories of the locals. He weighed such stories up himself and decided upon their relative factual merits. The analysis and comparison of evidence and arguments forms the backbone of all historical investigations proceeding Herodotus. It is the attempt to answer the ‘why?’ that informs Herodotus’ work.

It is this search for causation that separates classical intellectual history from the archaic. A move away from the older idea of the gods as the ultimate perpetrators was occurring and Herodotus managed to define it in his introduction stating that he is seeking to uncover thereasons. In the same way philosophers used such questioning and weighing of evidence to explain the origin and forms of such ideas as justice and good. Likewise medical writers used close observation to try to better understand and treat disease. Thucydides description of the plague (book 2.7) at Athens during the Peloponnesian War is a masterly example of such clinical thinking. Thucydides, more so than Herodotus, expounds this classical idea in his removal of the gods from human affairs.

What is History II?

If the past and history are two different things then we return to our original question. Though the study of history has moved on, as its originator, Herodotus is very useful in deciphering a definition of the concept. I would suggest the closest we can get to specifying would be to view history as each successive epoch’s attempt to uncover and define the events of the past through interpretation of the surviving evidence, be it oral, literary or material. This evidence alone only informs us at face value. Like Herodotus we must analyse and compare it to come to any conclusion of interpretation.

John B. Knight
See also Biography – a very short history

Biography: A Very Short History

Biography: A Very Short History from the Classical World to the Early Medieval period .

The Lives of Great Men

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Roger Lewis’ 1995 investigation into the great actor and comedian, is, at over 1,100 pages, a mammoth volume. Lewis studies not only the events of Sellers’ life, but each of his films in phenomenal detail, attempting to uncover what made his subject tick and why he should achieve the emotional appeal and impact Lewis’ credits him with retaining to this day. While the book itself is an excellent and worthwhile investigation into the life of one of Britain’s great actors, it is worth asking oneself the extent to which such a thorough examination of, say; the film The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962) can enlighten us on Sellers the man, rather than the actor.


As a form of narrative storytelling, biography’s earliest extant exponent was the Greek scholar Plutarch (46 – 129 BCE) who wrote a series of parallel lives, in which he compared great figures from Greek history and mythology with those Romans whose achievements he felt mirrored them. As with some modern biographers Plutarch sought to gain an insight into each character and uncover the reasons for their later greatness through examining the tales told of their childhoods and early lives, onto their later successful (or otherwise) careers. It was character rather than narrative history that interested Plutarch and it was these traits with which he attempted to illuminate the actions of his subjects.

The Vitae

Another little known example of classical biography comes in the form of the Vitae (Latin for Life). We have a number of these anonymous works centering on the great Athenian dramatists; Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. To create a work elucidating the life and character of these individuals, of whom very little personal detail otherwise exists, the author extrapolated recurring ideas and comments from their own works and, in the case of Euripides, those of the Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes; in whose work Euripides is often a central, and much satirised, character. The effect of this is much the same as if one attempted to write a life of James Joyce with only his poetry and prose as source material.


With the age of the Emperors in full swing a type of biography emerged, around the imperial court, with the Roman historian Suetonius (69? – 130 BCE) its principle exponent. These tales of court life and drama centred around an Emperor whose life and deeds are told using certain stories and occurrences to illustrate facets of character. Suetonius’ voice can be heard in his assessments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Emperors. Nero, for example is shown to be kind and generous as a youth, but when corrupted by power and his own insanity because a typical example of a despot. Augustus on the other hand is treated more reverentially.

Hagiography and Charlemagne

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, lives of saints and other martyrs, named Hagiographies (the study of saints) became the popular form of the style. Through these, miraculous deeds and heavenly intervention could be recorded and embellished, and their name has since been associated with partisan or biased factual writings. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Charlemagne’s (742 – 814 BCE) Franks were the classical world’s intellectual successors and it was around the figure of the great Emperor that Einhard, a trusted courtier, wrote a life aping the style of Suetonius and thus attempting to place Charlemagne as a new Roman Emperor.

Still the Lives of Great Men

From its genesis, biography has typically been used to mark out the lives of great men, whether good or evil, and attempts to gain an insight into the individual characteristics possessed by such men that lead them to committing the deeds that they did, and achieving the glory or infamy that resulted from these actions. Pick up any modern biography, and though the content and analysis has changed; the search for what makes a man rise above his contemporaries and achieve great things remains.

John B Knight

See also John’s article on What Is History?

Thucydides’ Concept of Past and Present

The Greatest war?

“I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distant past or even of the history preceding our own period, yet, after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods in warfare or anything else”. – Thucydides; 1.1

So Thucydides (460-395 B.C.E) opens his narrative of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E). In terms of historical method his technique for studying the distant past, in a time where archaeology did not exist and history was but an infant branch of literature, appears sound. However this declaration is not all it seems. Thucydides’ criticisms of past culture and warfare are not exclusively based on a lack of available source material, but a more complex double edged sword. His declaration that “it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past” (1.1) seems directly aimed at his predecessor Herodotus (484-425 B.C.E).

Thucydides is aware that it is against the chronicler of the Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.E) that he and his work will be compared and thus sets out the greatness of the task which he has undertaken. Furthermore in claiming his own period to be vastly superior he is propounding the idea that Athens was at its cultural and social peak (what we now call “The Golden Age of Athens” [448-429 B.C.E]) particularly under the guidance of the statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.E).

The Archaeologia

The vast majority of what we now view as the introduction to Thucydides’ work consists of the Archaeologia, an account of the development of Greece from its earliest inhabitants to the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was motivated to justify claims of superiority of subject and to place the war in its historical and Hellenic (Greek) context. The available evidence for this period would likely have consisted of the Homeric Epics (The Iliad andOdyssey), lyric poetry, tradition, and anecdotal evidence. Thucydides rejects the heroic tradition that fuelled the majority of Greek thought on pre-historic events and instead concentrates on the distribution and development of power that is to provide the fulcrum for events in his own day.

His analysis of the Kingdoms and political entities of this past focuses on their power, stability, wealth, and naval capability. Through these factors he traces the birth of the great conflict of his own time. Observation of contemporary politics and behaviour is used to rationalise the heroic and legendary accounts of the past. From a modern perspective Thucydides’ Archaeologia is a good example of a theoretical framework on which the traditions and stories of the distant past can be hung, shorn of their unbelievable, supernatural, and self-contradictory detritus.

What uses does the Archaeologia have?

As a tool with which to study the events of prehistoric Greece, theArchaeologia offers very little. Thucydides’ analysis of this period is based on contemporary observation, not intensive research which, in any case, would be almost impossible given his resources. However, that it functions as a microcosm for the growth and interactions of contemporary states, the Archaeologia gives us an insight into Thucydides as a Historian; we are offered a shortened version of his theories behind the rise and fall of great powers. Furthermore he holds to the traditions and myths of his time and in doing so attempts to rationalise them (as he does contemporary events) primarily through the removal of divine explanation. The body of his great work is reflected and his methods summarised in this fascinating introduction.

John B Knight