The Origins of the First World War
A Comparison of Howard, Ferguson, Williamson and Schroeder
Literature Review 2011 5 Pages
The Origins of the First World War
In 1900, the German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow remarked that ‘"[Germany] had no intention of conducting an aggressive policy of expansion"’ (Hobsbawm, 1994: 302). Yet, most conventional accounts identify Germany as bearing the brunt of responsibility towards initiating the First World War in 1914, largely on the basis of expansionary aims (Mommsen, 1966: 47). Nevertheless, vast disagreements exist among scholars as to who or what is to blame for the outbreak of war. This essay will examine four different accounts by Michael Howard, Niall Ferguson, Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. and Paul W. Schroeder, respectively, in the context of their analysis of the geography of the origins of the war, the importance of agency and structure, as well as the significance of domestic and international factors. It will be argued that an exaggerated attention to Western Europe is misleading, and that agency has to be understood in the context of structural imperatives, which, together with predominantly international factors, formed the central catalysts in the lead-up to war.
Firstly, Howard's and Ferguson's accounts account deal almost exclusively with Western European factors. While Howard briefly outlines the German concern for the Russian challenge (2003: 24), Austria-Hungary and Serbia are hardly mentioned. According to Howard, East Europe served as a mere excuse for existing Western European war aims (2003: 29). Ferguson pursues an even narrower avenue, highlighting the relationship between Germany and Britain in military, economic and political terms. He does examine tangentially Britain's impetus for its role in the Triple Entente, and therefore engages in a short analysis of France and Russia (Ferguson, 1999: 88, 96). By contrast, Schroeder and Williamson attend to Eastern Europe as the main area of focus. Schroeder sees Austria-Hungary as an essential component of the efforts to maintain the Concert of Europe, hence connoting its breakdown as a causal factor leading to war (Schroeder, 1972: 344). He does identify Britain as playing a crucial role, however not so much in relation to Germany, but to Austria-Hungary, whose troubles it exacerbated (Ibid.: 342-3). Lastly, Williamson is the only author who concerns himself with the Balkans and its position in between Russia and Austria-Hungary. He illustrates that because of Austria-Hungary's feebleness and Russia's power politics, Serbia became the tinderbox that triggered the final lead-up to the war (Williamson, 1988: 225). Thus, after examining geographical determinants, it must now be analyzed how large-scale patterns and individual actions influenced the causal chain of war.
Both Howard and Ferguson offer little in the way of exploring structural impetuses of the war's genesis. While Howard does refer to structural underpinnings such as the new era of warfare made possible by technology and peacetime conscription (2003: 19-21), he specifically highlights governments' decisions, for instance the German gamble on a neutral Britain (Ibid.: 26). Ferguson in particular demonstrates a stark disregard of structure as playing a causal role. Hence, in Ferguson's view, the Anglo-German relationship on the eve of war was mainly constituted by the consequences of leaders' decisions made on the basis of assumptions and limited information (Ferguson, 1999: 96). Therefore, Ferguson invokes a notion of contingency. Significantly more balanced examinations are put forward by Schroeder and Williamson. In contrast to Howard and Ferguson, Schroeder identifies Austria-Hungary as a crucial structural component in the European System (Schroeder, 1972: 323). Thus, Schroeder comes to the conclusion that its demise, partly caused by Britain, has to be seen as a major catalyst for the outbreak of war (Ibid.: 344). Alternatively, Williamson takes into account what he calls imperialism ‘as a Balkan phenomenon’ (Williamson, 1988: 233) and a disruptive Austrian nationalism (Ibid.), while also considering contingent events such as the Archduke's assassination (Ibid.: 235). Having covered the debate about structure and agency, one must now turn to how this was evident in the domestic and international realms.
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- origins first world comparison howard ferguson williamson schroeder great war international history