Who Started the War?

Europeans had no desire to fight one another. Only after a score of men drove their nations into battle did their peoples learn to hate.

In this artist's rendition, a Serbian nationalist shoots Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife on June 28, 1914. (Associated Press)

I must begin by protesting against the view, industriously disseminated by the English, and, no doubt, by the French and Russian press, that the only cause of the war was the wickedness of Germany. For this view clearly is much too simple and superficial; and it leads to a wrong conception of the remedy. Let us then briefly examine it.

“Germany,” we say, “made the war.” Germany? But what is Germany? The German people? The peasants? The factory laborers? The millions of Social Democrats? They made the war? Is it likely? Ten days before the war broke out they, like the people everywhere, were working, resting, eating, sleeping, dreaming of nothing less than of war. War came upon them like a thunderclap. The German people are as peaceable as every other … Now that the war has come, the German people are fighting; but they are fighting, as they believe, to protect their hearths and homes against the wanton aggression of Russia, France, and, above all, England. Like all the other people, they are fighting what they believe to be a defensive war. That is the tragic irony of it. Whoever made the war, it was not any of the peoples.

“Then, it was the German government.” Yes, or else it was the Russian, or else it was both. In any case, it was a very few men. The peace of Europe was in the hands of some score of individuals. They could make war, and the hundreds of millions who were to fight and to suffer could not stop it. That is the really extraordinary fact. That is what is worth dwelling on. How could it happen? Why are the nations passive clay in the hands of their governments?

First, because they do not know one another. They speak different languages, live different kinds of lives, have different manners and customs. They do not hate one another, but neither do they understand or trust one another. They do not feel that they belong together. Left to themselves, they would never, it is true, want to fight one another. They do not even think of one another; they are occupied with their own lives. But since they do not know foreigners as they know one another, they can easily be made to believe that foreigners are their enemies. They do not think of them as real individual men and women. They think of them as a great solid mass, and attribute [to] this mass any qualities suggestion may put into their heads. So, at the moment, the ordinary Englishman believes that “the Germans” are treacherous, brutal, bloodthirsty, cruel, while the Germans believe that “the English” are cowardly, hypocritical, and degenerate. They believe these things because they are told to believe them, by the people who want to make bad blood. And they believe them the more readily because they are at war.

The fact, then, that to every nation every other is “foreign,” makes the peoples of Europe the prey of those who want to make wars …

At the origin, then, of this war, there was no good cause at all. It was one of the many wars for power and position. Englishmen, it is true, have been strongly moved by [Germany’s] invasion of Belgium, and I throw no doubt on the genuineness of their feeling. But it was not the invasion of Belgium that made the war, although that was a contributory cause of the English intervention. The origin of the war was ambition and fear.

Originally titled "The War and the Way Out"