At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 after the end of formal fighting in World War One, Britain and France, over the objection of the United States, forced Germany to accept a war guilt clause. This clause put the complete responsibility for dragging Europe into the war in 1914 on Germany, forcing the state to accept draconian punishments. These included complete disarmament, significant land concessions, and substantial war reparations. While the German delegation had little choice but to sign it, the reality is that Germany did not prove to be the state most at fault for the descent into war.
After the Habsburg heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian freedom fighters, the Dual Monarchy understandably was enraged with its small satellite state. They issued Serbia with a list of demands—an ultimatum—which the small country had to meet to avoid a war. One of these demands was a joint investigation into the assassination to determine responsibility. The Serbian government, however, was unwilling to agree to such an investigation due to the prior knowledge some high-ranking governmental officials had of the assassination.
Serbia, fearful of an Austrian invasion, turned to its regional ally, the Russian Empire, for assistance. Since the two states shared a common history—both are Slavic people—Serbia was nearly certain that Russian assistance would be provided. Wishing to avoid another Balkan war, Serbia hoped that by bringing Russia into the equation Austria-Hungary would back off from its bellicose position and allow cooler heads to prevail.
Austria-Hungary, however, was not in a particularly peaceful state of mind and had not been even before Ferdinand was assassinated. Tired of its Southern Balkan satellite states resisting its control, many high Austro-Hungarian officials desired a regional war to straighten the problem out. Ferdinand had provided a prominent voice for a peaceful and negotiated settlement; but after his assassination, there was no Habsburg voice—at least no strong voice—for peace. Additionally, with the spread of nationalism threatening the multinational empire, many government officials believed that a war would strengthen the monarchy and the people’s ties to it, thus preserving the old ways for more years.
While thus far Germany was not involved in the process at all, the empire was soon brought into the equation when the Austro-Hungarian Empire asked for support for their planned invasion of Serbia. In what would be a focal point of the German blame assignment post-war, Germany gave Austria-Hungary the famous “blank check” of support. This was a calculated risk by the German government; a risk which quite literally blew up in its face. Kaiser Wilhelm believed that the local war which Austria-Hungary sought was possible, in which case the “blank check” would not have to be cashed. While the state could have chosen to play a peacemaking role, the empire believed that the Habsburgs could win a quick regional war which would not only pose no threat to German security but also bolster the strength—both internally and externally—of its primary ally. These calculations and assumptions were dashed when Russia answered the Serbian cry for help.
The Russian Empire, always a few steps behind the rest of the European continent, desired to increase its influence in Eastern Europe, the Balkans in particular, in its never-ending quest for a warm water seaport. As such, they eagerly answered Serbia’s call for two additional reasons. First, the empire had been embarrassed a decade earlier in the Sino-Russo War and sought to repair its international reputation by protecting Serbia. Second, as revolutions were shaking the foundations of the monarchy, the government believed that a war—particularly one to rescue an ethnic sibling—would reinspire domestic faith in the empire. As such, the military quickly mobilized its military against both Austria-Hungary and Germany, as its mobilization plan called for, despite Germany’s minuscule role in the affair.
Thus, once Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, Russia invaded both Austria-Hungary and Germany, which required Britain and France to mobilize against Germany as well. While Germany’s support for its ally certainly played a role in the outbreak of the war, the assertion that “Germany bears principle responsibility for Europe’s descent into war in 1914” is incorrect. No party was thinking clearly, as all seemed to disregard the alliance system which created the domino effect of cascading war. Instead, the brunt of the blame should belong to Austria-Hungary and Russia. Austria-Hungary for seeking to thoroughly punish Serbia more than was necessary, and Russia for its over eagerness to repair its international reputation by military intervention in a regional conflict. Additionally, both states foolishly believed that a war, regardless of scale, would help to preserve their crumbling monarchies. Germany played a role, but to a much smaller degree than the egos of both Vienna and Moscow.