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Hi, I'm John Green, this is Crash Course World History, and today we continue our discussion
of how a regional conflict became World War I. We're also going to look at who started
the war and although no one nation is truly to blame, some nations are more to blame than others.
Like America, for once? Blameless. Well, not totally blameless. Largely blameless.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! That's easy, the Germans started the war.
Well, Me from the Past, as it happens many historians and British politicians would agree
with you. I mean, you have an opinion that can be defended. And I can't wait for you to defend it.
Uhh... maybe they just, like, really liked war? I'm not really in the defending positions business,
Mr. Green, I'm more in the like, bold proclamations business.
Yes, Me from the Past, noted. But it turns out, there's more to life than that.
So the topic of who started World War I remains one of the most controversial and interesting
topics to discuss in World History, not least because, you know, we'd like to avoid having another one.
But in general, when we talk about World Wars, as when we talk about World Cups, we pretty
quickly end up discussing Germany.
The idea that the root cause of World War I was Germany, or more specifically, German
militarism, continues to be popular. This has been the case ever since the 1960s when
this historian, Fritz Fisher, identified Germany as the chief cause of the war. But Germany's
guilt for the war was also written into the Versailles Peace Treaty, in article 231, and
most of you will be familiar with the idea that anger over that clause its incumbent
debts helped lead to Hitler's rise.
Also, pretty much however you slice it Germany was definitely responsible for starting World
War II, and looking back that made it more plausible that they would have also stated
World War I, because, you know, they had a history of starting wars. To be fair, the
definition of a Western European nation is "has a history starting wars."
Unless you're the Swiss.
Cue the Switzereel, Stan!
Yeah okay, but the thing is attributing characteristics like militarism or authoritarianism to entire
national populations is a little problematic. Also one nation's militarism is another nation's
strong national defense, and when you live in the country, as I do, that spends more
on defense than any other nation, it's probably not that good of an idea to call people militaristic.
There's just something about that broad-brush painting of an entire nation sharing a particular
characteristic that feels a little bit propaganda-y. Also, it wasn't just Germans who were militaristic
in 1914. The idea of "the glory of war" was a very popular concept all over Europe, and
really there's no evidence that the German people of 1914 were any more or less militaristic
than the French or the Russians, They all had poetry that celebrated heroic sacrifice
and dying for the Mother and/or Fatherland.
That's not usually and. Maybe, though. I'm gonna stay open minded.
But there's another problem with the whole idea that the Germans were more eager for
war than anyone else in Europe. That argument relies a lot on the behavior of Kaiser Wilhelm
II, the German leader, and the Kaiser did make some pretty bellicose and stupid public
statements, which in turn made people fear that Germans were eager for war. So Wilhelm
became kind of a stand-in for German aggression, a literal cartoon villain, upon whom the world,
especially the English, could project their stereotypes.
So I would argue that the German character isn't to blame for World War I, and in fact
no national character has ever been to blame for any war. But I am not going to let the
Germans off the hook entirely.
So you will remember that Germany offered the so-called "blank check" that Germans would
always support Austro-Hungarians' ultimatum to Serbia. And in some ways this empowering
by Germany's support encouraged Austria's foreign minister Berchtold to behave as recklessly
as possible, under the mistaken impression that this is what the Germans wanted him to do.
So basically, Austria thought that Germany wanted a war, so they were like, "Oh, we'll
just behave really recklessly and we'll give the Germans the war they've been so excited
about." But the Germans were offering the Austrians the assurance of support in the
hopes that it wouldn't lead to war.
So you could argue that in fact most of the blame for starting World War I should fall
on the shoulders of the Austrians, after all, they were the ones who issued the ultimatum
to Serbia, and they were the first to declare war, although only against Serbia. But, the
Germans were the first to declare war on a major power, Russia, on August 1st, and the
German advance on France through Belgium is what brought Britain into the war. And those
are pretty solid arguments that Germany turned the conflict from, you know, a regional thing
in the Balkans, which isn't unprecedented, to like this big pan-European war.
But I don't think we're done assigning blame, because we didn't just have a pan-European
war, we had a world war. Russia.
Now you'll remember that of all the major powers, Russia was the first to mobilize its
massive army, and it was Russia's mobilization that drew Germany, France, and Britain into the war.
Putin is looking at me, isn't he, Stan. I'm just trying to--ah! you so scary!
Stan, can you please make Mr. Putin go away, I'm just trying to talk about history, I'm
not talking about any current conflicts.
And it makes me nervous to say this, but there was really no good reason for Russia to mobilize
in the first place. I mean, when Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28th, the Austrians
could not mobilize their own troops for two weeks, because they were on harvest break.
I mean, if we've learned anything about agriculture, it's that it's hard to have a large-scale
war without it, so we can't go to war until all the wheat has been farmed.
But even if Austria had mobilized and attacked immediately, their initial plan was an attack
on Belgrade, not Russia, which by the way was called somewhat confusingly, Plan B. Now,
Vienna did have a plan to mobilize against both Serbia and Russia, but they never used
it. But even if Austria had launched an all-out attack on Russia, Russia had begun its pre-mobilization,
the period preparatory to war, on July 25th, and while I usually don't care about dates,
with the start of World War I, very important, because July 25th was before the Serbs had
even responded to the Austrian ultimatum.
And just as a general rule, it's hard to play the blameless victim when you're moving all
of your troops to the border. Hey, why are you here again, Putin?
So here we have Austrians and Germans receiving reports of Russian troops massing on their
borders, and you know, that seems kind of like war. A lot of it comes down to how you
understand Russia's period preparatory to war. I mean, do you focus on the "period preparatory",
or do you focus on the "to war"? Regardless, Russia became the first power to actually
put its war machine into motion.
Let's go to the Thought Bubble.
So talking about Russia leads us to some of the more meta arguments about the causes of
World War I because it's difficult to understand what Russia was doing when it mobilized without
trying to understand why they mobilized. After all, an Austrian attack on Serbia was hardly
an existential threat to Russia, I mean, look at the map. Russia's huge, and at the time,
probably had the largest army in Europe, if not the world. So why would they care about
what was likely to be a skirmish on the Bosnian border?
Well, here's where geo-politics and history come in. So, looking at the map, you can see
that the Balkans are right next to the Dardanelles, the straits that give access to the Black
Sea. Russia needed to maintain influence there in order to ensure traffic through those straits,
especially if the Ottomans were going to form an alliance with the Germans, which they did.
Also, at least in its own estimation, Russia was in danger of becoming a laughingstock
in European politics: their humiliating loss to Japan in the Russo-Japanese War was followed
by Russia's inability to stop Austria from annexing Bosnia from the Ottomans in 1908,
and that was the event that sparked Serbia's drive to expand its own territory. Its history
of prior weakness meant that Russia's foreign policy makers feared that without some decisive
action, Russia wouldn't be taken seriously anymore.
In the wake of Austria's ultimatum, Russian foreign minister Sazonov concluded that Russia,
quote, "Could not remain a passive spectator whilst a Slavonic people was being trampled
down. If Russia failed to fulfill her historic mission, she would be considered a decadent
state and would henceforth have to take second place among the powers...if at this critical
juncture, the Serbs were abandoned to their fate, Russian prestige in the Balkans would
collapse utterly."
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So judging from what we just learned in the Thought Bubble, it was really the Ottomans.
If they could have just stopped Austria from annexing Bosnia in the first place, none of
this would have happened. And if I may go a little further back, there wouldn't have
even been an Ottoman Empire without the stupid Romans. And of course the Roman Empire was
largely dependent upon constant expansion and looting, so if only the Gauls could have
defeated Caesar, none of this would have happened.
In short, no wonder Caesar was assassinated, he was about to start World War I in 1900 years.
I bring that up because that's the tricky thing about the blame game. You can trace
the causes of World War I back a bunch of ways. I mean, I can't think of anyone who
you can't at least partially assign blame to - well, I mean except the Mongols.
Actually you know what, if they'd just kept control of Russia, probably no World War I.
Anyway, all of this only scratches the surface of the arguments about who's to blame for
World War I. I mean, I haven't dealt with stuff like the alliance system or European
imperialism, or you often hear about the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany, and then
there are the ideological causes, like nationalism, and the Social Darwinist thinking that led
people to believe that war was a natural and inevitable state of human affairs.
You can tell all those origin stories of the Great War, and they're important, but ours
centers on diplomatic history. There are a few reasons for this, first, the decision
to go to war was ultimately in the hands of a very small group of diplomats. I mean, even
in the most democratic countries, Britain and France, popular opinion didn't force mobilization.
Also, in most countries that's still the case. It's still diplomats who decide whether to
go to war. So understanding what makes governments and diplomats decide to go to war is very important.
But looking at the diplomatic causes of the war also reveals something to us about the
pitfalls of writing history. I mean diplomats are famous for keeping pretty detailed records
of their dealings, both at the time and in retrospect, and then historians have to sift
through all these sources and make choices about which ones to emphasize. And sometimes,
even which ones to believe, because of course, often these sources are in direct conflict.
Now, I'm no historian, but in creating this episode, we had to make choices that many
of you will disagree with. Either because you don't think we gave enough evidence or
because you don't like the things that we emphasized, and that's great. It's these constructive
and critical conversations that lead us to dig deeper, to consult more primary sources,
to read more broadly, and that in turn leads to a richer understanding of the world and
a more engaged life.
All that noted, the alliance system was certainly important and I'm sure you'll be discussing
it in your classes, and in comments.
Thank you for watching, I'll see you next week.
Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and Stacey Emigholz Studio in Indianapolis, and
it's made possible because of these people's hard work and also because of your contributions
on Subbable. Subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows you to contribute directly
to Crash Course for the monthly price of your choice and it allows us to keep Crash Course
free for everyone forever, so thank you to all of our Subbable subscribers, and thanks
to everyone who watches.
As we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.
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Who Started World War I: Crash Course World History 210

3825 Folder Collection
Fong Chen published on February 19, 2017
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