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The Significance of German Imperial Ambition in the Origins of the First World War

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The First World War lasted from July 1914 to November 1918, a war that some historians argue was the fault of Germany’s Imperial ambitions. Others disagree presenting it as the inevitable fault of strained international relations, some arguing that the countries “slipped” into the war. This essay will attempt to evaluate the extent and significance of Germany’s aggressive policies and practice to extend their ‘rule’ over other territories. Indeed, to asses the significance of German Imperial ambitions in the origins of the First World War, one needs to asses the validity of the argument brought fourth, and the provenance of both argument and historian. German imperial ambitions and strained international relations are the most significant causes for the “war that ended peace” - by 1913 war was inevitable. Consequently, this essay will argue that German Imperial ambitions were extremely significant to the origins of the First World War. Evidence of its significance can be seen throughout the 30 years prior to the eve of The First World War.

Fritz Fischer - a famous German historian - published Germany’s Aims in The First World War in 1961. Based on extensive and meticulous archival research he sought to expose the extent of German annexationist aims in the First World War, and suggested that the German government provoked war in order to achieve this.2 As evidence of this assertion, Fischer presents the reader with Bethmann Hollweg’s programme of 9th September, which were ‘provisional notes on the direction of our [German] policy on the conclusion of peace.’ The ‘general aim of the war’ was, for him, “security for the German Reich in west and east for imaginable time.” “For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontiers and her domination over the non-Russian peoples broken”3 Indeed, David Blackbourn rightfully states that “German war aims only exceeded those of any other combatant; they were aspirations to world power.”4 Germany’s unification of her separate 39 states in 1871 “fulfilled a deep wish in German hearts” 5, giving them a sense of destiny. On the pretext of protecting these colonies and her expanding trade, Germany began to build a battle fleet. Fischer argues that the German government accepted, and indeed hoped, that a major European war would result due to her provocation and backing of Austria-Hungary after the July Crisis. Ergo, the argument that Germany was willing, and even eager, to wage a ‘preventative war’ on the Entente powers after the events of July 1914 - ‘the window of opportunity’ - is supported by David Stevenson and David Herman. Moreover, Fischer draws on detailed documentary evidence to substantiate his argument that there was a strong ‘will to war’ amongst German leaders before 1914. Indeed, the Chief of the General Staff, Von Moltke, stated “In my opinion war is inevitable, and the sooner the better”. However, this new evidence of Germany’s aims for the First World War was slow to be accepted and is still disagreed with to this day. In order to understand and agree with Fischer’s controversial argument and evidence – as suggested by Immanuel Geiss, Fischer’s former student - one must look again at the policies pursued by the German leaders in 1914. The German government used war as a solution for difficult internal and international problems.

Additionally, in War of Illusions, Fischer was able to use the diaries of Admiral Müller - published in 1965 – which referenced a meeting on 8th December. He argues that the ‘War Council’ of 1912 was evidence that the “path to war had already been decided upon”. 6 Interestingly, Hamilton and Herwig argue that “the logic of imperialism seemed plausible” because ‘everyone’ was doing it. They argue that Bismarck was an “exception” to this rule, “recognising the costs, he ended Germany’s limited Imperialist effort.”7 This is evidently a loosely based assumption that Wilhem II did not want war. This can very easily be contradicted with the fact that his first public speech was addressed to the army and not to the German people. Additionally, he stated “We belong to each other, I and the army, we were born for each other and we’ll insolubly leave each other…”. Prussia was at the core, the German empire was the most powerful military state in the world, and at its head stood the ‘all powerful’ Kaiser challenging Europe. Moreover, James Joll argues that there is so much evidence to suggest German politicians, generals and admirals were very conscious of the connection between domestic and foreign policy. “We must not forget that for many leading Germans the positive pursuit of world power or the negative securing of Germany’s position in what was regarded as a hostile world.” 8Furthermore, as Henig states, Germany’s strategy in 1914 had been one of high risk, but argued that it had been “justified by the Russian military build-up and construction of railways9”. The prospect of encirclement seemed real enough to large numbers of Germans and it would therefore not be difficult for her leaders to win general public support for military conflict. This fear of encirclement is evident after the First Balkan War in 1912. The obsession in Berlin that Germany was being encircled and the ever-increasing Slav threat provided the context for most policies over the coming months. While it was clear that neither Germany, nor for that matter Austria-Hungary, were under any immediate threat, the issue was one of fear of the future. Although the size of her army had substantially increased, the Entente powers were also increasing the size of their armies – and were closing in – therefore, as Von Moltke expressed, the best time for war was the present. Indeed, the circumstances of June-July 1914 offered the ideal opportunity for a German army at the peak of its strength and power to challenge the military forces of the Entente powers. Overall, Fischer claims that domestic, social and political factors were instrumental in shaping Germany’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Inevitably, Germany’s programmes of military expansion provoked strong reactions from France and Russia, and even a reaction from Britain. Therefore, in evaluating the significance of German imperial ambitions in terms of the extent and significance of her aggressive policies and practices to extend her ‘rule’, Fischer’s evidence heavily supports the argument that Germany wished for, and happily invited, a Europe at war. Germany was an extraordinarily strong nation at the outbreak of The First World War – especially as she was a young empire - and Wilhelm II and Germany were jealous of the British Empire and sought to rival its power and prestige.

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If one argues that German Imperial ambitions were the most significant, one must surely question whether it was the fault of every great power, because as Mulligan rightfully states: “The great powers had few conflicting vital interests, although their ambitions collided around the globe.” The reason Germany’s imperial ambitions are deemed significant is because she was a young country but strove for the same ‘great’ empire Britain, Russia and France had already established and were continuing to establish. The problem therefore arose due to her rapid growth, as with the unity of Germany came an extraordinary upsurge of energy and expansion, not merely an expansion of population – from 41 million in 1871 to nearly 68 million in 1913. At the turn of the century the ‘foundation of economic strength’ was in the steel and coal industries, in which Germany had made great strides. In 30 years, steel production had multiplied by 12, coal by nearly 5, manufactures by 4, exports by 3, exports of chemicals by 3 times and exports of machinery by 5.10 Additionally, in 30 years Germany’s share in world trade had risen by a third. Her territorial claims can be seen as a provocation against the ‘original’ great powers. Ergo, one can evidently see that there was increased tension in already strained international relations. Indeed, Britain’s alarm grew as the German fleet did. In 1908 Lloyd George met the German ambassador and explained that the “growing antagonism towards Germany” was not jealousy, but rather “fear of her growing Navy”. The Kaiser did “not wish for a good understanding with England at the expense of the extension of the German fleet”.11 This response in itself is evidence that Germany was not looking for compromise – she wasn’t content with military might and industrial supremacy but desired an empire. Indeed, history privileges conflict at the expense of restraint, crises at the expense of their solutions, recklessness at the expense of compromise.12 Between 1884 and 1890 Germany’s sovereignty was proclaimed over an area over 4 times larger than Germany herself. With reference to his first ‘utterance’ as Kaiser, for 30 years Wilhelm II had vexed and perturbed peace in Europe – but always short of war. With Prussia at the core, Germany’s empire was the most advanced military organism in the world. With this in mind, there is no doubt that Germany’s imperial ambitions were very significant in the origins of the First World War, going ‘hand in hand’ with the strained international relations between the great powers for more than 30 years prior.

Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace is a very in-depth and insightful ‘novel’, in which one ‘cannot see the wood for the trees’. It is a populist book, enlivened with fascinating stories. MacMillan emphasises, multiple times, that war “was not necessary”. While it is true that war is not inevitable, Europe had not been at ‘relative peace’. “Somehow any explanation of how the Great War came about must balance the great currents of the past with the human beings who bobbed along on them but who sometimes changed the directions of the flow.”13 Indeed, MacMillan argues that the one thing that is clear, is that those who made the choices had very much in mind previous crises and earlier moments when decisions were made or avoided.14 Concluding that the start of the First World War was the fault of every European leader is metaphorically like congratulating every race runner for winning the race. This is wrong on two levels: firstly, in a race there is clearly a ‘winner’ and therefore - in the context of the Great War - there is clearly a person, nation or belief at its origin, in this case - German imperial ambition. Furthermore, concluding that every European leader caused the First World War in some way or another, gives those who did not partake in such proceedings, or partake to such extent, the recognition for something they had no hand in. Though there are undoubtedly many origins to the First World War, one cause was of greater magnitude in comparison. Therefore, this essay will contradict Margaret MacMillan’s argument that it was the fault of many. Instead, it will present the fact that the First World War was the result of strained international relations which were the result of German Imperial ambitions. MacMillan herself states that “Germany’s foreign relations had not been well managed since 1890”, drawing on both the Balkan Wars and Moroccan crises. These events prove the extent to which Germany’s imperial ambitions affected their relations with not only the great European powers, but also internationally. MacMillan’s line of argument is essentially open-ended, and somehow hind-sightedly blames those in charge for not seeing what could arise as a consequence of their actions. Political, economic, and social unrest and crises reinforced the call for war - though cannot be viewed as the single underlying cause. “The history of international relations before 1914 is both the history of the origins of the First World War and a history of the international system as it is today”.15 MacMillan’s pro-British stance is undeniable. An Oxford graduate and professor, she utilises her descriptive nature and in-depth studies of character to contest British innocence, through almost praising those in charge at the eve of the war. However, MacMillan is slightly disingenuous about how her family was impacted by the war and also fails to mention her relationship with David Lloyd George – whom she references on multiple occasions. Indeed, her Prime Minister great-grandfather had a critical role in its outcome and the shaping of the modern world. Therefore, it is undeniably evident why MacMillan takes such an obvious stance ‘protecting’ British innocence. Furthermore, this essay argues that German imperial ambitions were extremely significant in the origins of the First World War. Consequently, one can utilise her pro-British innocence stance to push the significance of German imperial ambitions. Fear played a large role in the attitudes of the powers to each other, and in the acceptance by their leaders of war as a tool of policy. “Looking back, we can of course see the forces that were making war more likely: the rivalries over colonies, economic competition, ethnic nationalism…which put pressure on leaders to stand up for their nation’s perceived rights and interests.” 16 The military plans that came along with the Arms Race and the alliances have often been blamed for creating a “doomsday machine” that once started could not be stopped. MacMillan introduces a new question, “why did the long peace not continue?”17. Indeed, Paul Schroeder states that the history of the origins, requires an analysis of the loosening of the bond of peace”18. However, the lack of directly conflicting territorial claims meant that state and nation-building wars, as had happened in the 1850s and 1860s, were highly unlikely. With Germany’s “perceived rights and interests” being her hopes of European domination and world power status “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”.19

German leaders saw their hopes of European domination and world power status being threatened by a declining Austria-Hungary and a rapidly industrialising Russia. Indeed, there can be no doubt at all that German leaders were prepared for war in 1914 and exploited many previous crises, most notably the July Crisis, to bring it about. Just as Germany sought to increase their power, Britain and France sought to contain it. Moreover, neither France nor Britain were prepared to see a German domination of Europe. Therefore, in this sense it could be argued that both powers fought to restore the sense of balance to Europe. Henig argues that it was not so much that “German leaders had laid plans for a major war as that they believed that sooner or later Germany would have to fight to survive and expand as a major power.” Furthermore, the entrance of Britain and France into the conflict was in no way the result of an accident or a miscalculation. Ergo, one is left with the strong impression that what really “marked out” the decade before 1914 was a “failure of statesmanship and of hope”.20 The First Moroccan Crisis (1905-1906) serves as a prime example of this failed statesmanship and strained international relations. In March 1905 Kaiser Wilhelm visited Tangier in Morocco, hoping to drive a wedge between Britain and France through demanding an international conference to discuss the future of Morocco. In fact, quite the opposite happened. In addition to this, Germany’s naval dreams made Britain a greater potential enemy. Just as her military might have kept alive the hostility of France, the two nations were drawn together against Germany's challenge: the Entente was forged by 1914 when King George V paid a state visit to Paris. The First Moroccan Crisis provided humiliation for the Germans. A mentality was emerging that was to have a profound impact on her military and political leaders for the next eight years. For many Germans, the fear of encirclement was real.

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