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The war had not been deliberately unleashed, but Europe had somehow ‘slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’, as David Lloyd George famously put it.
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.
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?
Arguments were advanced which highlighted Russia’s and France’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war, for example, or which stressed that Britain could have played a more active role in preventing the escalation of the July Crisis.
In the interwar years, such views influenced a newly developing consensus that no longer foregrounded Germany’s war guilt, but instead identified a failure in the alliance system before 1914.
Historians have returned to the arguments of the interwar years, focusing for example on Russia’s and France’s role in the outbreak of war, or asking if Britain’s government really did all it could to try and avert war in 1914.
Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s roles are deemphasised, and it is stressed that there were decision-makers in all the major capital cities who considered a general European war in August 1914 to be a risk worth taking.
Many did concede, however, that Germany seemed to have made use of the July Crisis to unleash a war. In the wake of the Fischer controversy, historians also focused more closely on the role of Austria-Hungary in the events that led to war, and concluded that in Vienna, at least as much as in Berlin, the crisis precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as a golden opportunity to try and defeat a ring of enemies that seemed to threaten the Central Powers.
In recent years this post-Fischer consensus has in turn been revised.