Editor’s note: This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I, remembered mostly for its
four years of seemingly pointless trench warfare, in which an estimated 10 million died. The spark was an assassination on June 28, 1914, followed a month later by the war itself. Why and how it happened is still debated, in fact more so in recent years, says University of Illinois political science professor John Vasquez, an expert on war and peace and crisis diplomacy. He is a co-editor of the new book “The Outbreak of the First World War” and the author of “The War Puzzle” and other books. He also just finished teaching a monthlong course in Austria with U. of I. students, looking at the causes of the war. Vasquez spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
You describe the lead-up to World War I as one of the most complex cases in history. What has made the cause of the war so difficult to settle?
Part of the reason is that the First World War had such a psychological impact on the world, and on scholars. We have had consensus at various points in history over why the war was brought about, on some of its factors, but what has happened is that that consensus has broken down. It was always subject to different views on morality and blame and guilt, and we still have that today. The lessons get sketched out before really understanding what was going on. We are only beginning to emerge out of the shadow of that, so we can look at it more objectively.
Probably the most common view among Americans is that Germany was to blame for the First World War, just as it’s blamed for the second. But how and why did that view take hold?
First, the Germans were actually forced to sign this war guilt clause, legally binding them, in the Versailles Treaty, to accepting the blame for the war. Starting even in the 1920s, some scholars began to challenge that.
But the biggest influence in establishing what’s been called the “German paradigm” was a German historian, Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1960s, arguing that Germany was to blame and that its leaders actually sought it out. Only in the last maybe 15-20 years has that view been chipped away. You still can find plenty of historians and plenty of political scientists who accept it, but more and more people are chipping away at it, and I don’t really adhere to it.
So if Germany is not to blame, then who?
My view is that it was not brought about by any single country, though it’s clear there were hardliners in several countries who wanted war. I argue that contagion was very important, and by that I mean a process through which events and decisions built upon each other, with the help of alliances, such that a local war became a continental war and then a world war. The notion of contagion here, in its simplest form, is that if there wasn’t a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, then Germany would not have fought a war with Russia and France.
The “German paradigm” sees German leaders as plotting and looking for an opportunity, whereas the contagion model is saying, no, it’s not like this opportunity fell into their lap. It would not have occurred if this particular incident, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had not occurred.
Was the war inevitable?
My view is that the war could have been avoided, and it could have been avoided at several different important links. The decision-making process was such in that environment, though it might have been primed for war, that slightly different decisions would have prevented the war.
The decision-makers at the time actually didn’t think war would occur. There is much circumstantial evidence for that. The crisis lasts a whole month before war is declared. Many people thought it would be resolved.
One problem is that they wanted to keep the peace by fighting these coercive games in which you go almost to the brink of war. But some of these games, they break down. And this broke down. The notion is like in a chicken game, with two cars coming at each other. Normally both should swerve, and what happens here is that neither side swerves and we have this collision.
How did World War I change our view of war?
It had a huge impact. Before World War I, war was considered a glorious thing. People did not want to avoid it at all costs. The thought was that real men don’t waste their lives making money, real men go into the army and they do their duty and they fight for God and country. But there’s no glory in running into a machine gun.
Editor’s note: To contact John Vasquez, email email@example.com with the subject line “WW I.”