Germany of course.
If you ask almost anyone, “Who started WWI?” the answer will be that it was the Germans. Getting past that may elicit the agreement that yes, a Serbian student affiliated however loosely with an anti-Austrian group did, ahem, trigger the chain of events by assassinating someone, but Germany gave Austria a “blank check” to beat up on Serbia after Russia told them not to, and then Germany invaded Belgium and war began. That was the version that appeared in the 1920s and was reinforced by the events of the 1930s-40s. Since Germany had started WWII, of course they started WWI. Except . . . Except things are changing a little as archives come open and people are looking at documents in new ways. A quick refresher of what everyone in the field agrees on. Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in June of 1914. Austria demanded justice and no one argued with that, even the Russians. People could not be allowed to go around murdering political leaders without being punished, as Czar Nicholas II well knew from family experience. Then Austria waited, and waited, and only in late July “got around” to presenting a list of demands to Serbia. As they did, Russia warned Austria that if they threatened Serbia with too much, Russia would be forced to intervene in some way. Austria looked to Germany for help, and Kaiser Wilhelm II’s government gave Austria a promise of support, no matter what Austria decided to do, including invade Serbia. As the war clouds gathered, Russia invoked a mutual defense treaty with France and all sides began to mobilize, Germany and Austria first. In order to keep from fighting a protracted two-front war, Germany attacked France through Belgium, and we all know what happened for the next 5 years or so.
The devil was and is in the details. Although the new-in-1918 Soviet government opened the military and diplomatic archives and dumped almost everything out, so that the world could see how corrupt and incompetent the imperial government had been and workers would be inspired to ruse up against their own governments, they didn’t release absolutely everything. And the French kept quiet. The Serbians didn’t really have much in terms of archival materials, but a number of Serbs blamed Russia for starting the war and then leaving them out to dry, or bleed in this case. The German archival materials, such as were available, looked rather damning, likewise the Austrian. Thus the understanding that Germany started it with the “Blank check” and mobilization of its armies, and that once mobilization began, the military would not and possibly could not stop it and war ensued.
Over time, researchers began to notice holes in the records. The French and Russians had met in St. Petersburg just before Austria issued its ultimatum, an ultimatum that it turned out the Russians read in advance because they had broken or obtained the cipher. No one who attended the meeting left a copy of what had been discussed. Since this was the President of France and his senior diplomat discussing . . . things . . . with the Russian Foreign Minister and Czar, the hole is, shall we say, exceedingly convenient and has led several historians to suspect that the ongoing dispute with Austria-Hungary and Germany was a major topic, and that agreements were made about how to deal with the pending ultimatum.
Were all the Russian governmental officials sad to see the Archduke and his wife dead? As individuals most likely, although there were a few exceptions. As symbols of the Germanic regime that was oppressing Slavs and blocking Serbia (Russia’s client) from creating a Slav state? Not at all in some cases, which may be why the Russian representative in Belgrade took two weeks to present his personal condolences to the Austro-Hungarian representative, and to deliver a bit of a warning to Austria in the process.
There is also the matter of the Russian Council of Ministers meeting on the afternoon of July 24, held to discuss the contents of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. At that point a decision was reached to implement martial law in Russian Poland and the frontier areas (including St. Petersburg), and to hold reservists in the ranks for a few more months as well as calling up some of the army near the Black Sea and shift them around. These events were documented and reported by a number of observers on June 25-26, and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians took them to suggest that Russia had started mobilizing.
One of the rock-basic assumptions by historians has been that Germany started mobilizing first, and that once the process began, it could not be halted. This was in part because the word “mobilize” was or was not used in various government documents in Russia and the other countries. However, given the tensions at the time, and the German and Austrian assumptions that 1) Russia needed almost twice as long to mobilize as did France and Germany and Austria-Hungary, and 2) that Russia was eventually going to attack the Germanic powers because of the long hostility between Slavs and Germans, and 3) that what they were seeing was the beginning of preparations for war, even if they were not officially announced mobilization, it was a pretty sure bet for Germany and Austria to assume that if it looked, walked, and quacked like a duck, they were seeing a duck.
When Serbia refused one of the conditions in the ultimatum, Austria declared war on July 26. Why take so long? Because the Hungarian part of the Empire balked until diplomatic groundwork was laid to Minister President Tisza’s satisfaction, which took quite a while. This led the British to accuse Austria of undue delay, and of trying to punish Serbia for defiance instead of seeking justice. The British Ambassador to Russia, in St. Petersburg, had seen unusual military activity and people cancelling parades and formations, and knew of the declaration of martial law, but took at face value the Russians’ assurances that it related to labor strikes and unrest. That the unrest had been diminishing probably went unnoticed because of other things. Thus the British missed Russian moves that amounted to the first step of mobilization, and took Russia at its word that they had not started to mobilize before Germany did.
If you are thinking to yourself, “There are an awful lot of assumptions going on here,” you’re right. The Central Powers assumed that Russia was weaker than it was and that it needed far longer to mobilize than it actually did. They also assumed that Russia would blink, as it had in 1908, 1912, 1913. Russia assumed that Austria-Hungary would collapse and that Germany couldn’t defend its eastern, Slavic, lands. France assumed Russia would last longer and keep more of the Germany army tied up. French generals assumed that the attack always beat the defense, and that fighting spirit could win battles against machine guns. The Germans assumed that the Belgians would either stand aside or/and that France would invade Belgium first to get at the Germans. A whole lot of people assumed that the war would be fast and decisive, like the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.
There is a reason for the English-language proverb about “assuming makes an ass out of you and me both.”
So who was to blame?
It’s tempting to point to Archduke Franz Ferdinand for going to Sarajevo (1) on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo* (2) to rub in Austrian power (3) and to bring his wife because she would get military honors (4) that Emperor Franz Josef denied her because of her low rank, and for ignoring warnings about security (5) and then not taking shelter after the first assassination attempt failed (6). But a whole lot of people even them didn’t believe war would break out, or if it did that it would spread to engulf all of Europe and part of Southwest Asia. Nothing had happened during the yearly scares since 1908, so why would war start this time? Some, like Irving Bloch, argued that economics and modern industrial systems would prevent war.
I’m currently leaning 45% Germany, 45% Russia, 3% France, 2% Great Britain, once we move past the assassination itself, which was 100% Serb nationalist. Because the Russian government backed the Serb nationalists and funded the individual who was the military intelligence colonel who managed the Black Hand, that plus the timeline changes incline me to give more credit to Russia and a little less to Germany.
What if things had been different once the fighting started? For one idea see my A Carpathian Campaign, the story from the Austro-Hungarian view.
*This may not have even been known among the Austrians at the time, and if so was probably discounted, since they didn’t pay much attention to commemorating the dates of 500-years-gone battles.
For more historical sources: Dominic Leiven uses the long view in The End of Czarist Russia and leaves the blame for the war on Germany’s support of the Austrians. This is very detailed and opens up the sausage of Russian government and foreign policy from 1905-1917. Not always an easy read because of the names and stories of in-fighting. I also think he under-plays the importance of the pre-mobilization movement and how it was viewed by Germany and Austria, but see McMeeken below.
Margaret McMillan The War that Ended Peace. Not as good as her history of the making of the Versailles and other treaties, but a decent traditional synopsis.
Sean McMeeken’s The Russian Origins of the First World War.
McMeeken is controversial, in part because only the first 20-25 percent of the book really looks at the outbreak of the war. He is firmly convinced that Russia, and France to an extent, pushed the situation until Germany and Austria responded, especially Germany. There are vehement disagreements in the reviews, as you can well imagine, but I found his arguments suggestive if not entirely persuasive. The author’s July 1914 is a detailed (at times painfully so) account of the events of June 26-August 1.
The classic is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. It is decidedly anti-German, pro France, beautifully written, and as gripping as a novel. There’s a reason it is a classic and still in print. You can find used copies all over and it is a library staple.
If you want to post a nationalist essay in the comments about how X country bears all the blame and your country is as pure as the driven snow, and you are not Belgian, please do it on your own blog or website.