Why does Germany bear war guilt and given the title of the aggressor?
Let’s wheel the clock back to 1871 and get an overview from the beginning. Bismark, after cleverly tricking the French into declaring war would unite the German states with Prussia, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, and Saxony leading the charge into a single Germanic State. They would in the process of peace negotiations seize the French territories of Alsace-Lorraine and as the result of the war Napoleon III would be ousted and the Third Republic would be declared.
After this war and the 1866 war with Austria to seize other German lands, Germany would be declared and they would overnight rise into being a world power. By 1880 they would be the leading industrial power in Europe…and they would be completely surrounded by “great powers” — Britain in the seas to the North, France to the West, Austria-Hungary to the South, and Russia to the East. This is where we briefly mention Bismarkian politics or what is more aptly referenced as the “3/5th’s rule”. That is, Germany must always have alliance 3 out of the 5 “great powers” as to secure the risk from total encirclement. In 1879 they would create a defense treaty with Austria-Hungary w.r.t. the mutual threat of the Russian Empire. In 1887 Bismark would also secure a non-aggression treaty with said Russian Empire which would state both parties would remain neutral in each others respective conflicts unless the other was the aggressor.
This was precisely what Bismark wanted — he had completely secured his Southern and Easterly borders. With the addition of Italy to the group Germany would only have to worry about her French enemies to the West and a potential British threat in the North Sea. When Willhelm II ascended his fathers throne in 1888 he had big shoes to fill and felt the need to do it on his own with his own new troupe of advisers, thus sacking Bismark to retirement and taking up the reigns of diplomacy himself. When in 1890 Russia (rather persistently) tried to renew the treaty for a more permanent, more alliance sounding one Willhelm II would just as persistently refuse. The Russian Tsar, Alexander II, would (rightfully so) feel exposed and without any friends. The British hated Russia and vice versa because of the Crimean War and Central Asian colonial ambitions, Austria-Hungary was a natural enemy to them because of conflict in the Balkans, Germany was supporting Austria-Hungary and was giving him the cold shoulder, but France remained. And boy, France would take Russia in with open arms creating a formal alliance in 1892.
Now we can start discussing aggression. This is the formal state of affairs going into the 20th century: Germany and Austria-Hungary have a defensive pact with regards to Russia. France and Russia have a mutual defense treaty against Germany. The United Kingdom is allied to nobody formally but is unfriendly to the Russian Empire, neutral with the French Republic, and neutral with a leaning of cordial with the Germans.
Kaiser Willhelm and frankly the German people as a whole were incredibly insecure about their status in the world. They were less than 50 years old at this point and were bordered by nations which had been around for almost a thousand and at times can trace their history back even further. They had no great national history or prestige to work off of as a unified Germany. They also came into the game in 1871 — well after the 16th and 17th century colonial rushes. They had no colonies. Germany is a notably isolated region and as the industrial leader relied on foreign imports to keep its factories churning out goods but perhaps equally important is the concept of prestige.Wilhelm II embarked on a policy of “Weltmahct,” or world power. A common turn of phrase in Germany was “Weltmacht oder Niedergang,” world power or downfall. They legitimately believed, the Kaiser, the government, and the people themselves, that it was Germany’s time to be the world power. That the German people, through social darwinism, were the superior and they were to seize prestige, colony, and resources through aggression. Don’t conflate this with Nazism, it wasn’t by any means. However, the concept of social darwinism was a popular one in this time and would last well into the 20th century.
To get colonies and to secure colonies though, you need a navy. So Germany would start a rapid buildup of said navy. This had a twofold purpose — one of creating a colonial fleet to secure shipping lanes and seize lands through war and to secure an alliance with the British. By performing a rapid naval buildup and flexing German muscle, combined with a shared cultural heritage, he had hoped that Britain would see Germany as too strong too culturally similar to be an enemy and would fall right into Germany’s arms with an alliance. Does any of that make sense? No, because it doesn’t and it failed horrendously. Britain told Germany to stop building up such a massive navy (which was being created for the express intent of contesting British naval hegemony) and Germany repeatedly refused.
As the Germans continued to contest British naval hegemony into the 20th century, we get to our first major date! In 1904 the French and the British, already uneasy with the German buildup, would begin to create some of the first legitimate and lasting bonds of friendship in their entire history. It actually wasn’t initially made with any regard toward Germany but rather a mutual understanding between the two powers. France would recognize the U.K.’s control over Egypt and likewise the U.K. would recognize French hegemony of basically the rest of North Africa Westward from there, Algiers and Morocco namely. In a few years Britain would also begin to make nice with Russia by diplomatically solving the the disputes in central asia (ie: Persia primarily) permanently.
The French and Spanish would divvy up Morocco between them (with the French getting the majority, obviously) and Germany would respond in its second act of aggression — the May 1905 Moroccan Crisis. Kaiser Willhelm II would sail to Morocco just as these deals were being finalized and gave a keynote speech with the Sultan in front of a large crowd crying out for Moroccan independence from “foreign oppressors” and that Morocco should remain independent and free from influence. This was an attempt to undermine French legitimacy and drive a wedge between the British and French relationships by giving the Entente Cordiale a strenuous test w.r.t. the legitimacy of their agreement. It would have the exact opposite effect as you might already imagine. The French and British, already uneasy by the German build up, would be pressed closer than they would at any point in history. While it would be nothing formal, Britain began seriously considering Germany a threat at this point and would, more as an act of informal policy and general thinking than anything else, lean toward supporting France in a theoretical European conflict.
The third major event would be the coming of the famous Dreadnought — with one pictured here. The coming of the Dreadnought shook the naval world, so much so that every battleship in recent memory before it became known as “pre-Dreadnoughts.” They would completely and utterly outclass anything any other nation was fielding. Their range and their firepower and their new engines and armor was like a fencing sword facing up against a claymore. and it would “reset” the naval arms race between Britain, Germany, and the world as a whole. You see Britain’s policy was called the Two-Power Standard — that is, having as many ships as the next two highest powers combined. They were a naval nation and they had naval hegemony. This gave Germany its first real shot, as both were starting from a blank slate essentially, to create a fleet that could legitimately contest the British in the North Sea region. It should be noted that Dreadnought’s were not exactly long range fighters, which made them useless for colonial protections. They had one use, attacking the British fleet in the North and Baltic Seas. The Germans would begin an unprecedented buildup buildings dozens upon dozens of these ships and constantly making orders for more.
All these tensions would finally culminate in 1911 — the Second Moroccan Crisis. Oh those Germans were back for a vengeance and it would totally work this time. Right guys? The Moroccans would rebel against French rule and the French were going to send troops to protect its interests. Kaiser Willhelm, always the opportunist, would seize the situation by the proverbial horns and send a gunboat — the SMS Panther — to be backed up by the SMS Berlin shortly after to go “protect German trade interests.” Let’s call a spade a spade however, Germany sent war ships to go intervene in a conflict between France and a country which had, in the very conference Germany called for in 1905was determined to remain under French influence. Germany would also demand territorial concessions in sub-Saharan Africa from the French along with pulling out of Morocco entirely. Not only would Britain back up France again driving them closer, Austria-Hungary wouldn’t even give Germany diplomatic support — let alone military backing.
Germany had at this point completely abandoned Bismark’s strategy of balance: Constantly giving conciliatory gifts or speeches or letters to rival powers to calm their nerves and keep everyone friendly. Remaining content as not only a land power, but the land power of Europe. Not getting greedy about the idea of the superior German and German prestige. Germany was in a precarious position in the world and Willhelm II did everything in his power to do the worst possible options. France and Britain, who were formerly neutral at best were driven into the strongest friendship they’ve had in their 1000 year history. Britain, who in 1887 had no intent of getting involved in continental conflicts and was now drawing up plans for direct land intervention in Europe to assist the two powers and had an agreement with France to provide it naval support in the event of war with Germany. Even more astoundingly was how it drove Britain and Russia together. These were two nations who for all purposes wanted nothing to do with each other. Britain, fearing German control over the Baltic Sea (that one to the right of Sweden and bordering Russia and Germany) and a reciprocated fear from Russia would begin to fix former grievances. Britain and Russia would go from hating each other in 1900 to informal military support and friendship in 1912 because of Germany’s actions.
The last peg in Germany’s coffin of war guilt was their actions in between June 28th and July 28th 1914 — the July Crisis. This post is dragging on and this doesn’t require the most analysis so it goes like this: Austria-Hungary used the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand as a justification and premise for their long standing objective of annexing Serbia. They knew however this would definitively mean war with Russia, which means they need German permission before doing this. Germany would give them the infamous Blank Cheque — essentially telling the Austro-Hungarians to do whatever they want with Serbia and tacitly accepting war. Austria-Hungary would send Serbia, who to this day has absolutely no hard link to the assassins and by all accounts cut ties with the Black Hand well before the killing, an ultimatum. A list of concessions Serbia would have to agree to which amounted to essentially Serbia becoming a puppet state. Serbia would obviously decline. Russia would begin to mobilize, Germany would declare war.
Not only would Germany declare war, it was their strategic plan that sealed the deal of them being perceived as the aggressors. Fearing their ‘encirclement’ they wanted to strike at France with everything they had and knock them out immediately. Infamously it would be given 950 hours — 40 days, no more. To do this they couldn’t just go through the border and push the French back, they would need to crush the French with total encirclement. This meant attacking through neutral Belgium. This is a topic that goes into the “evil” discussion that I’ll talk about briefly but needless to say, Belgium had absolutely no ties to the French or Russians or Germans or anyone for that matter. They were sitting there by themselves and Germany saw them as a convenient stepping stone to knock the French out faster so they invaded this completely uninvolved power without provocation. This would be the primary accusation as to the claim of German aggression — someone who is merely defending against two fronts would not declare war and then immediately perform a massive offensive through an uninvolved neutral country for the express intent of encirclement and annihilation of the enemy army. That is aggression full stop.