It’s well known both sides use propaganda in wartime, what we now call ‘fake news.’ It’s also well known that “history is written by the victors” (Winston Churchill). So it really shouldn’t be a surprise after we won WWI and WWII, we used our own propaganda to point the finger of blame.
This is why most of us—anyone schooled after 1939—have a clear idea Germany started both wars and is guilty of crimes against humanity.
I’m going to deal with this in three parts, starting with WWI. Did Germany start it? Let’s look at the sequence of events and see where and when Germany enters the picture.
- 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo where he and his wife were assassinated by Serbian nationalists.
- 23 July, Austria-Hungary delivers to Serbia the July Ultimatum, a series of ten demands that were made intentionally unacceptable, in an effort to provoke a war with Serbia.
- 28 July, a month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
- 29 July, Russia, in support of Serbia, declares partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary. The next day Russia orders general mobilisation.
- Germany asks France not to support Russia if it comes to the aid of Serbia. The French do not respond but start mobilizing.
- 1 August, after the Russian response, Germany mobilizes and declared war on Russia.
So, just looking at that sequence of events we see Serbia started it with an assassination, Austria overreacted with a loaded demand, Serbia refused to accept it, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia and then, more than a month later, Germany mobilized. It should be pointed out that, at the time, full mobilization was considered the same as declaring war; it was a “fact on the ground” and meant a declaration was sure to follow.
Germany had two war plans, both of which involved simultaneous attacks on Russia and its ally, France. The attack on France was to go through Belgium, but first Germany asked (demanded in British history books) for permission to pass through Belgium. Incredibly, it promised to pay for any damages as its army transited the country. What country “invading” another country promises to pay for damages and reparations? Damaged bridges, potholes, scuffed curbs? Well, none.
Here’s what the German Secretary of State said to the Belgian ambassador:
“If the Belgian army,” the Secretary of State replied, “allows us to pass freely, without destroying the railways, without blowing up the bridges and tunnels, and if it retires on Antwerp without attempting to defend Liege, we promise not only to respect the independence of Belgium, the lives and property of the inhabitants, but also to indemnify you for the loss incurred.”
The Belgians, who could have demanded the exact same guarantee from the French, instead refused. As a result, the Germans invaded Belgium on August 4.
Even that would have limited the conflict to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France, Serbia and Russia, but Great Britain, in an act of willful adventurism, declared that a 75-year old peace treaty between Belgium and Holland gave it the right to intervene, and declared war on Germany.
Of course, this was all Germany’s fault: the Serbian assassination, the Austrian response, the Russian response to Austria, the French alliance with Russia, signed years earlier, the British interpretation of a Belgian-Dutch treaty; all Germany’s fault.
Or at least it was after British propaganda was through with it. Given the horrendous death toll it had to be someone’s fault! Britain, which was last in the group to act, wasn’t to blame. And certainly France, which was only interested in defence, couldn’t be blamed. And Russia was only trying to help its fellow Slavs. And Austria, for all its bluster, was the victim, was it not? That leaves Serbia.
Historians like to muddy this up; like to confuse readers with the details of of the crisis, like to cover up the fact that Germany was responding to a Russian-French mobilization pincer movement. They concentrate on German actions and ignore the Russian-French alliance which provoked them.
If there had been no French alliance with Russia there would have been no attack on France. But do you ever see France blamed for WWI? Or Britain, which involved itself for no reason? No. Of course not.
Germany’s guilty, we all know that, right?
It can be argued Belgium was in an impossible situation; if it agreed to German’s request, it would be seen to be aiding Germany. If it refused Germany’s request, it would be aiding France. All the same, it had been in precisely this situation for 75 years and should have had a policy to accommodate this eventuality.
The policy could have taken the form of a civil agreement, a contract if you will, for indemnification. It could have been stated like this:
The Kingdom of Belgium will entertain a request for the passage of large bodies of men and equipment from any of its neighbours providing they agree to the following conditions:
- A deposit of 10 Million francs must be paid as security, refundable after satisfaction of any claims against it under clause 4.
- The requesting authority must agree, in writing, to respect the independence of Belgium.
- The requesting authority must respect the lives and property of the population.
- The requesting authority must indemnify the Kingdom of Belgium for any damage to persons or property incurred by the transit of its men and equipment, at a rate set out in Appendix A.
- The requesting authority will be entirely responsible for the feeding and supply of men and equipment. Any requests for additional food and fodder must be paid at commercial rates at the time of delivery.
- Any warlike activity inside the Kingdom of Belgium, whether or not directed at Belgium, will incur charges commensurate with the nature of the activity, and those charges will increase daily until such activity ceases.
- Transit requests will be prioritized by the time and date received as only one such movement will be allowed at a time.
- Embassies of the Kingdom of Belgium are authorized to seek legal means in third countries to recover any unpaid dues, fines or charges if these are not paid within 60 days of invoices being rendered to the requesting authority.
Germany would likely have paid the fee and sprinted across the country at a quick march. The front line of the subsequent war would then have been deep in France, not Belgium. Britain would have faced a dilemma; since Belgium had retained its neutrality and territory, there was no excuse to intervene, and no time to do so.
Germany wins and the war in the West is over by Christmas. The war in the East concludes the following year.