The War Guilt Controversy: Germany as a Benevolent Challenger in WWI

The War Guilt Controversy: Germany as a Benevolent Challenger in WWI


Conventional scholarship, along with the Treaty of Versailles itself, have characterized Germany as one of the chief aggressors of World War I. In addition to the necessary historical conditions that set the stage for war, WWI could also be viewed as the culmination of a series of miscalculations among military strategists of European great power states, including Germany.   I argue that while Germany did not consciously instigate WWI, it did make attempts at challenging the present world system and achieving its state aims, which gave rise to interstate hostilities that ultimately culminated in war. It was by no means a bullied victim forced to defend itself, yet should not be characterized as an aggressor with malicious intent, as WWI should ultimately be viewed as a collective European failure to preserve the balance of power. While indeed ambitious with its political conquests and succumbing to a rigid mobilization schedule that was largely based upon the cult of the offensive, the German Empire could be characterized as a benevolent challenger that merely took advantage of the events of the July Crisis.

Bedrock assumptions of realist theory, including an anarchic international system, unitary state actors, states’ pursuit of survival and the desire for power maximization basically apply to the period preceding WWI 1. Europe had effectively been divided into two hostile camps, with the Franco-Russian Alliance forcing Germany closer towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In addition to these two rival blocs, the Balkan League was also formed in direct opposition to the Ottoman Empire. Established states and scattered, independent insurgent forces in the Balkans were eager to drive Turkish influence out of Europe, and the continuously waning power of the Ottoman Empire encouraged a reset of the balance of power in the region 1. Turmoil in the Balkans served as a prelude to the July Crisis. Within this context, offensive realism, which holds aggressive power-maximizing tendencies liable for state behavior 2, is a lens through which Germany’s role in the Great War is commonly perceived.

In order to evaluate Germany’s alleged role as perpetrator, it is useful to examine existing scholarly views in the context of both realist theory and historical events. The first common viewpoint, which characterizes Germany as a chief aggressor in WWI, focuses on the individual agency of Germany, rather than the systemic circumstances that led to the outbreak of war. This view emphasizes the conditions in the pre-war period that prompted Germany to resort to aggression. For example, the 1890s saw a period of deepening German isolation that sharpened its insecurities. The 1905 Russo-Japanese conflict served to tighten the alliance system, heavily restraining Germany’s freedom of movement and leading it to see conflict as an opportunity to weaken the two alliance blocs 4. Scholars in support of the first viewpoint hold that such circumstances prompted Germany to tend toward military conflict and instigate war, in order to “prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition of great powers” 5. In this narrative, either to preserve the current balance of power or to further augment its own power, Germany set in motion the events of war. On the most basic level, Germany’s Wilhelmine expansionism, belated imperial ambitions and its claim to the right of conquest were blamed for disrupting the balance of the world order.

In “Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914”, Christopher M. Clark states that rather than aggressively waging a preventive war, Germany merely sleep-walked into war alongside its European peers. This is representative of the second viewpoint, which emphasizes the structural influences of the international system that led to war, primarily focusing on the Balkan Conflict. Rather than looking at the agency of individual states, such as Germany, Clark shifts the blame from specific powers to the lack of such a defining voice, as “the weight…would manifest itself during the July Crisis of 1914…through the eloquent silence of those civilian leaders who, in a better world, might have been expected to point out that a war between great powers would be the very worst of things” 6. The inevitable problem of the anarchic international system then becomes the chief culprit in Clark’s narrative – among a myriad of competing voices, public opinion and mediocre statesmen, the end result was fragmented, ineffective and even non-existent decision-making.

The first “German war guilt” narrative too heavily concentrates on Germany criticisms that could similarly be applied to other European great power states. Yet the second story, characterizing Germany as a hapless sleepwalker, at the same time dismisses some of Germany’s conscious intent in acquiring state power, and relegates Germany to passivity. I argue that middle ground can be found between the two claims. Historical examples of German action indeed point to Germany favoring conflict – but one should note the distinction between simply furthering state aims and seeking to aggressively disrupt the world order. Adopting Clark’s structural lens when analyzing the outbreak of WWI, one should look beyond causes such as human error, public opinion, technological progress and shifting class structures, and trace the breakdown of systems – the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and breakdown of alliances. On the eve of war, waves of upheaval and dramatic shifts were in large part triggered by the movements of ambitious states aiming to assume supremacy, and Germany was merely one of many state actors. The chief instigator of WWI, should not be characterized as any challenger, but rather, one that is explicitly anti-systemic, and working to disrupt existing empires.

Instead of simply focusing on the concept of offensive doctrines, it is important to examine the nature of various state offenders that followed them. There is an important distinction between “anti-systemic”, or insurgent, and “system-reform”, or benevolent, challengers. In the case of WWI, one may define anti-systemic forces as those that not only harbor expansionist goals, but also seek to disrupt the present balance of power. Benevolent challengers, on the other hand, attempt to rise peacefully within the system without presenting any obvious threat, or merely try to maintain the status quo. In this case, it would be inadequate to equate “expansionist” with “anti-systemic”.

Examining Germany as an aggressive “offender” was supported by the prevalence of the ideology of the offensive, also named “the cult of the offensive”. From the latter part of the 19th century to the decade leading up to WWI, the ideology of the offensive played an integral role in prompting European great power states to pursue an aggressive, offensive strategy, despite strong evidence that a defensive strategy was better suited for the battleground 6. The theory suggested that the advantage of first-strike offense in inflicting more casualties on the opponent than suffered by the home army was so great that many states invariably deemed it the superior battle plan. With the spread of this theory in mind, WWI scholars effectively reached the consensus that an offense-minded Imperial Germany embarked on a quest to become a superpower by devastating Russia and France through what it initially envisioned as a brief and decisive war. In an almost “domino theory” fashion, the largely unnecessary offensives that an antagonistic doctrine encouraged eventually culminated in the disastrous conflict.

With a multitude of states seeking expansion, the realist assumptions of “power maximization” and “survival” are indeed satisfied, but not all sought to disrupt the system. I argue that while Germany, harboring “paranoid imperialism” 7, sought to assume expand territory and challenge British naval supremacy, its choice here could be simplified as a preference for risk over compromise. In this case, “advancing one’s aims through risking conflict had serious drawbacks that became increasingly evident. Blustering during a crisis as well as disappointment in its outcome left a residue of hostility…” 8. In a collective search for balance of power, negotiations and diplomatic maneuvering were essential components of international affairs. Conflict was risked inevitably occurred in some cases. With the goal of finding a naval and commercial place in the sun, Germany chose to risk conflict and ultimately contributed to disrupting the European order. This should not be viewed as conscious, anti-systemic behavior.

Geopolitical ambition was one of the faults attributed to Germany. Germany’s expansionist goals and offensive military doctrine, exemplified by the Schlieffen plan, were readily obvious. Yet it would be partial to claim that Germany was the only aggressive and expansionist power in Europe. Europe during this period was effectively clustered with states seeking to maximize power, and by 1914, the “cult of the offensive” had already been elevated to a dominating ideology throughout Europe 9. Each major European state promptly adopt an aggressive military doctrine, and such behavior can be seen in David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill 10, Alexei Brusilov and Raymond Poincare 11, and in Joseph Joffre 12. The cause for heavy reliance on the cult of the offensive was each state’s natural pursuit of self-interest, a characteristic not unique to Germany. In terms of intent, Germany’s incentive for largely favoring an offense-heavy strategy – to prevent the formation of other great power alliances – can even be grouped in the benevolent camp.

Territorial expansion was also not a goal unique to Germany before and during WWI. Within “territory expanders”, there also existed peaceful challengers and those that disrupted the system. While Germany was driven closer to Austria-Hungary by the Franco-Russian alliance and, it made no apparent attempts at breaking down the alliance. On the other hand, in the prelude to the July Crisis, the Balkan League, consisting of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, was motivated by the sole aim of driving out Turkish rule. Within the allies, France was strongly motivated to recover Alsace-Lorraine, annexed to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War 13. In addition, it could be argued France’s deeply entrenched resentment of Germany and its fears after being reduced to a second-rate power by Prussia-Germany, prompted it to dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Germany was similarly criticized for the inflexibility and hostility of its diplomacy. While this criticism holds true, it can also be applied to countless statesmen other than Kaiser Wilhelm II. The impact of diplomacy on the escalation of WWI should be viewed as a collective calamity, rather than the fault of Germany alone – “it was rather the civilian leadership of Nikola Pasic in Serbia, Count Leopold von Berchtold in Austria, Sergei Sazonoc in Russia…they were neither ‘sleepwalkers’ nor ‘fatalists’ but seasoned politicians and diplomats’ who pursued their own national interests to the detriment of the entire continent” 14. Furthermore, the Reinsurance Treaty merely saw Bismarck’s attempt to prevent a Franco-Russian alliance, while the Agadir Crisis showed German desire to gain Britain as an ally. Germany’s failed episodes of diplomacy during this time, while disastrous, did not reflect aggressive, hawkish goals.

If the breakdown of peace is viewed as the dissolution of the main alliance systems of the early 20th century, then the chief aggressor was seeking to achieve dominance through acting as an anti-systemic force. The systemic level of analysis does not exculpate Germany, but does not absolve Germany of all blame. The fault of Germany was that it sought to advance its state aims at the risk of detrimental consequences on the continent, yet these consequences were not intentionally inflicted. Germany’s actions preceding WWI, while often perceived as aggressive in nature, were guided by self-interest and territorial expansion. Rather than attempting to dismantle the order of the international system, it can be argued that Germany’s opportunistic perceptions prompted it to use the events of July 1914 as a window to conquer Serbia. While Germany had not consciously planned for war, it later succumbed to the rigidity of its military schedule and was unable to exit.



  1. Alan Palmer, The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (New York: M. Evans, 1992) 2-32.
  2. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001) 54-60.
  3. Christopher M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Penguin, 2012) 232.
  4. William Mulligan, The Great War for Peace (New Haven: Yale UP, 2014) 72.
  5. Konrad Jarausch, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2015) 68.
  6. George H. Quester, Offense and Defense in the International System (New York: Wiley, 1977) preface XX, 30-40.
  7. Clark, 13.
  8. Jarausch, 72.
  9. Jack L. Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984).
  10. Mulligan, 173.
  11. Snyder 90-95.
  12. William J. Philpott, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (The Overlook Press, 2015)
  13. Philpott 94.
  14. Jarausch, 68-70.

Works Cited

Clark, Christopher M. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Penguin: 2012.

Jarausch, Konrad Hugo. Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century. Princeton UP: 2015.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Norton: 2001.

Mulligan, William. The Great War for Peace. Yale UP: 2014.

Palmer, Alan. The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire. New York: M. Evans, 1992.

Philpott, William J. War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War.

Quester, George H. Offense and Defense in the International System. New York: Wiley, 1977.

Snyder, Jack L. The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914. Cornell UP: 1984.