The question of moral responsibility for World War I first asked by the participants of Great War a long time ago, has been in existence for quite a long period but with archive opening may get its final answer at the present time. Being constantly in danger of missing the point of some important detail, this article will make an attempt to reveal the answer to this century lasting question. I am not sure that I am right in that endeavor, but my guess is the following interpretation no matter how dilettantish has in itself a proper measure of objectivity to be interesting and useful. Hence the following text is left for your assessment.
Traditional Diplomacy, Great Powers and Terminology
Period from 1875 to1918 demarcates the end of historical segment of world diplomacy that we shall call "traditional diplomacy" for the purpose of this text. The characteristics of traditional diplomacy is that it is the diplomacy tied to the state relationships with states being the largest political subjects on the world political scene. This should be distinguishable from the present globalists' moment when the supranational globalist relationships i.e. owners of big capital are the authoritative factors of world policy. In the period of traditional diplomacy wars have been officially declared and interstate treaties have been agreed upon among great powers. The term "great power" is often unduly used in history as defined although it is not really so. That is why I think that practically in reading and comprehending the historical phenomena there is a serious misinterpretation among average readers. We shall consequently pay due attention to this and related terms.
Great power is a state which has sufficient military power and the results of it's warfare evident in a certain historical period to such extent that it is recognized and admitted as such by other states. Practically speaking great power is a state with respectable millitary potential, willingness and capability to use that power if it wants.
In the period of traditional diplomacy there are great powers, enslaved nations and recognized small states. International relationships are practically understood by traditional diplomacy as a parallel entity to feudal society with the remnants of slavery system in it. Great powers are similar to nobility in the feudal state, small states have similar rights as serfs belonging to the nobility and supporting them, and enslaved people are on slave level and support all them.
Small state can become great power only if it defeated some existing great power on battlefield. All disputes among great powers are resolved in the period of traditional diplomacy usually by a limited war, because large and overwhelming wars diminish the nobility income, so there are no world wars in that period. Conflicted great powers always sign the international agreement at the end of war operations in the presence of witnesses or guarantors which are great powers too. That is how great powers act like a "happy family" in the traditional diplomacy by settling their mutual relationships. Some remnants of traditional diplomacy exist even now although in a very different context.
Small States and Enslaved People
Enslaved people which is in fighting spirit and capable to win a war against great power can become recognized as small state. In practice that was the case when great power is on downward path of it's military and organizational abilities, either temporarily or permanently. However, even if enslaved people wins the war against great power, it cannot get it's freedom until it finds at least one great power willing to generously proclaim it as kingdom. In that case enslaved people gets it's patron or protector in that great power similarly as mobs offer their "protection" to the victim.
Practically the enslaved people representatives must promise the permanent favors to their big patron and keep their new obligations in further course of actions.
In the period of traditional diplomacy it is very rare for enslaved people to get it's support from great power with no particular conditioning or accepted large economical and political obligations, i.e. permanent debits to his "protector". The very rare exception from this rule is the relationship between great Russia to small Serbia. However in practice great powers, unable to stop the historical process of liberating enslaved peoples, are stepping forward into role of mob "racketeers" providing protection for their debtors. Newcomer great power settles down the newly created situation with the defeated great power: that happens in the high circles of traditional diplomacy core.
Still from the Middle Ages giving the title of a sovereign or a king to the leader of enslaved people was the formal insignia of recognizing the new status of his people.
The Importance of Period 1871 - 1914 in European State Affairs
1871-1914 is the period of historical overture for the Great World War, although not exactly planned or known by anyone. That is the end period of "happy family" of traditional diplomacy. The aristocracy reign period was replaced with capital control, as well as relocation of world financial center from London to Washington and enthronement of globalism. This site contains a lot of articles on globalism in the Globalism section (in the horizontal menu).
Being a preparation for the (first) World War, the 1871 - 1914 period is very much in the focus of interest of lots of historians. By opening of archives, for the first time we have an insight to the facts that caused the horrible tragedy and extreme suffering in mankind during the world war. That is why the constantly posed question "could it be possible to avoid the war", "who is guilty for the Great War" and such has their answer just in the understanding the events in the period 1871 - 1914.
Britain and the Belgium Question
Certain historians are explicating the reasons for WWI by breaching or fulfilling the international treaties, i.e. the most important Treaty of London of 1839 (Convention of 1839). The Convention is the formal convention between Britain, Austria, Prussia, France, Russia on one side, and Holland from the other side, denoting separation of Belgium from Holland. The so called Article 7 of that treaty declares that Belgium was formed as neutral and independent country. In the same Article Belgium was to keep that neutrality towards all states.
As Germany attacked Belgium in august of 1914, as a response to that act Britain chose to declare war on Germany because of Convention of 1839. But of course nothing else could be further from the truth: the Convention has no substantial connection to the real reasons why English entered the war. Namely although that was the period of traditional diplomacy where international treaties were generally fulfilled, Convention of 1839 not only was very old, but even in the formal sense does not determine Britain to be an independent or unilateral guarantee on anything in this Convention and specifically not Belgium's neutrality. All 5 signatories have put their signs to agree to the text of Convention, and no more then that. The word guarantee or anything similar in the Convention is not used even as a synonym. Even the Convention could not legally hold because the participants (at least Prussia and Austria) refused to follow the Convention articles; so Britain could not be the "exclusive owner" of the Convention because it fell apart anyway. The bogus Convention could not be the real reason for entering the war, but English used it anyway!
So the formal reasons quoted in history, very spread in historical textbooks and other books, supported by a lots of historians, quoting that solid treaties between great powers were the causes of Great World War is the basic misinformation.
This nonsense originated from English press and from English diplomatic circles during Great War, where Britain claimed the Convention as a justification of entering the war. However even brief glance of English press from that period reveals the opposite doubts of Englishmen themselves who noticed that official English policy was not based on facts. What was needed is namely to claim any reason in front of public opinion for the large war bloodshed! It is interesting that this misinformation exists up to nowadays, although it is clear to everybody that conventions do not make interests, but interests are what dictate conventions.
Germany attacked Belgium namely to invade France and defeat it on that direction which is military much more convenient for attacking than the alternative direction. By reviewing it's reasons for attack, Germany did not want or expected British would enter war, what eventually happened. The point is Germany did not foresaw English interest for Belgium to stay neutral. That is why a German diplomat argued that Britain should (not) going to declare war on Germany "for a scrap of paper"?! That reaction show German complete misunderstanding of a situation anyway.
Take a look now the map of English colonies below at the end of 19th century. Britain had a highly lucrative business with occupied territories (i.e. Britain colonies), first of all with India, which they mercilessly plundered economically. The vast income and easy life on which Britain based their high standard and world domination was payed by foreign swat, foreign work and foreign merchandise and robbed resources which Britain has pulling out of their colonies and traded with them.
If Germany was allowed to get out to the seaside over Belgium harbor Antwerp, the most powerful European economy would get the immediate approach to Atlantic. If that happened, the whole basically small English island economy based on colonial exploitation as well as world domination would depend of Germany. By getting egress to the Antwerp, Germany would build a mighty fleet in no time and use it to immediately threaten English trade supremacy, and German military could block at any time the golden trade links by which London was connected to robbed colonies that this small island country had on almost every continent. What a terrible impact would that be for Britain!
Now take a look at German colonies at the time:
As additional bonus, English robbers spot the opportunity to grab German colonies, primarily in Africa. Actually knowing they will win the war with their vast resources, English entered the war also for the clear reasons of robbing other nations, and quite consciously turned European war into the World War I.
So history of Great War gives correct explanation of "imperial interests" as one of warfare causes. However such a sterile explanation does not contribute to the comprehension, what can be seen from the previous text. English signed treaties in the turbulent 1870 separately with France and Germany about respecting Belgium's neutrality in order to stop any eventual disturbance of sanitary cordon of states blocking mighty Germany's expansion.
As a consequence to French - Prussian war in 1870, the European situation (remember the upper definition of emerging great power), by the defeat of France, that was considered one of dominant large powers in Europe, the situation emerged so that Prussia could gather other German states and form German empire, so the new great power rose in Europe. That way one great power (France) quietly got itself in isolation, and the other one climbed to the European throne.
However the problem arose because of the political moves chancellor Bismarck drew after 1870.
Basically Bismarck conducted too proactive policy by making an alliance after alliance, with Russia, with Austria, or Italy. When one alliance fall apart he formed another, and another. In all cases he carefully avoided France and so continued French isolation agony on European scene. This kind of policy Bismarck conducted 20 years and it was not before 1890 when he finally was compelled to withdraw from the large European politics. The alliance with Russia could not hold for long because Russia confronted with Austria over Balkan affairs, so Russia finally withdrew from such alliances with Germany.
This unusual politics is sometimes called "System of Bismarck alliances". While Bismarck was engaged in politics, posing as benevolent arbiter while working in the background only and solely for German interests, this system was somehow rolling with no larger wars.
However after Bismarck left European politics, after 1890 Bismarck alliances and probably the actions of Germany itself caused finally the suspicion in Europe, because it was clear that after so many German alliances a very dangerous military power was preparing it's moves. One by one, the great powers made counter-alliances to protect their interests. One can say Bismarck policy was the trigger for formation of large military alliances. As a consequence of System of Bismarck alliances, the Entente alliance emerged, finally in 1907, 25 years after the initial Central Powers. The forming of Entente alliance so late after Central Powers speaks well about Bismarck politics while he was active on European public scene. But basically on the long run Bismarck generated by far bigger problem then he contributed to the virtual European peace. Bismarck made the base for more permanent grouping of great powers. And that grouping was the precursor for the largest world slaughterhouse ever.
At the outbreak of the 1914 events Britain reluctantly entered the war. The very decision of entering war was apparently brought very irresponsibly from the global human interests, led by both imperial as well as political parties interests. What is the consequence of English entering the war?
Firstly one should understand that Germany has been the main and only candidate to win in the Germany against Russia and France war. This is true by the all feasible parameters of warfare, where Germany was beating Entente on most front lines, even after Britain joined the Entente forces on battlefield. Practically all information support the conclusion that Germany would win the war in Europe with enormous certainty if English did not enter war by Entente side.
Namely Britain with occupied colonies disposed of estimated GDP of $561 billions, compared to Russia ($264 bil.) or France ($170 bil.). When entering war Britain dragged into warfare not only the recruits from the island, but also the all available manpower from populous colonies they had. The total Britain population and it's colonies was 461 million of people, compared e.g. to Russia (176 million) or France (88 million)! Compare that with the total amount of Central Powers population of only 156 million, or to their total GDP ($361 bil.), just to immediately realize that Britain was equal or larger by manpower or economy in 1914 then all great powers from both Entente and Central Powers taken together! In spite of those facts, even against the English on the other side, German troops approached Paris to less then 50km on August 1914! If there has been no mistake of German commander to deviate from the Schlieffen plan and win the laurels, it is possible German would get Paris, with or without English by the Entente side.
The British decision to enter war contributed the stakes to be raised, and war has entered from European scope into the world contents. The enormous stake of forces when Britain entered war contributed to restless situation where war cannot enter phase of peaceful negotiation and talk, because all world powers engaged into war as participants so there has been no peace negotiator left that could be involved as intermediary by its integrity and authority and lead the warriors to the peace table before enormous casualties. By entering war by Entente side, Britain both prolonged war no less then 4 times and escalated the situation, the casualties number grew up enormously, and with it came the hatred against the enemy, and that is how, thanks to Britain, the war has become the endless series of horror that we cannot comprehend even today.
What Would Happen if Britain did not Enter War
If Britain stayed out of warfare ("normal" England), France and Russia would surely loose war against Central Powers in very short period of time. After singing a peace agreement with possible ("normal") Britain assistance, Germany would obtain the dominant role in Europe and exit to Atlantic.
The powerful German economy would strongly influence the European economy boost, as well as (possibly) the world. There would be no terrifying scarcity, inflation and social disturbances in Germany and other countries that occurred after WWI. All economies would stay vital and strong. Europe would apparently bloom economically and probably culturally. 10 million of civilians and 10 million soldiers killed by the war, as well as 40 million of people killed by flue after WWI because of shortages and war, would be mostly alive, healthy and lively. From those the healthy children would arise and make Europe the place of peace and welfare.
If Britain did not enter war, America would not send material aid by sea to Britain, so there would not be conflict between Germany and America on the sea over war provisioning aid. Shortly America which entered war in 1917 and finished the Germany's destiny and it's almost guaranteed war victory, would not even enter the war! hat is more Britain would end colonial robbing of world sooner and learn to live on their own swat and work. What a wonder would that be, for change!
Is it necessary to mention that certain corporal Adolf Hitler, participant of WWI almost certainly could not come to powers in Germany and lead the next world war and genocide against Russian, Polish, Serbs and other nations? The Second World War would be superfluous and could not break out because the Europe would be ruled, instead of sick states and their weak governments, by strong and stable Germany. The revenge from WWI would not exist so Germany would not have any reason or motive to create the Second World War!
Austrian-Hungary, Serbia and Russia
So we come to the very trigger for war. Austrian-Hungary, as explained in my articles about Mlada Bosnia, was experienced almost disturbed hostility against it's small neighbor Serbia. As a large part of Slavs ethnological groups has been occupied under severe Austrian-Hungary occupation, all Serbs as well as other Slavic peoples looked at small, proud and free Serbian state on the borders of big Empire as a miracle and foresaw the near freedom.
Stirring of Slavic nations that comprised the considerable part of Austrian-Hungary Empire, caused high alert in the empire and depicted Serbia as permanent enemy of the empire who had to be punished or destroyed even with no guilt by itself. On the other hand, Russia with it's respectably numerous army was the protector of Serbia. So, Austrian-Hungary has achieved, by provoking war against Serbia (military maneuvers on the Serbian border, empire military recruitment, unprecedented threats to Serbia, incredibly formulated Ultimatum for Serbia over isolated assassination in Sarajevo, and other), finally caused war that empire prepared and instigated a long time ago. After war declaration, Russia started to mobilize it's armies to give a helping hand to small Serbia. By itself, small Serbia accepted the Austrian ultimatum even it was depicted as unprecedented diplomacy document for any sovereign country; that did not help because AH empire simply ignored the Serbian acceptance of their own Ultimatum!
It is to know however that Austria obtained the personal confirmation directly from German Czar that Germany would give unlimited military support to Austria if empire enters war against Serbia! Here one can see Germany was hoping to enter war against Russia, knowing that Russia is the protector of Serbia! Instead to localizing war conflicts and leaving Austria-Hungary and Russia to disentangle themselves one to one, Germany has raised the level of confrontation to higher level without warring at all about the consequences of such an aggressive policy.
After Russian mobilization was declared, Germany posted an ultimatum to Russia and soon declared the war against it. According to it's already elaborated military plans Germany declared war against France, and also attacked Belgium soon after posting ultimatum to it, in order to conquer France as soon as possible!
As one can see there is hard to find larger responsibility for instigating world war then the Germany aggression against so many European great powers. Because of the strength of it's armies, Germany started European war after their union 1870-1871. That European war was rose to the level of world war because of English. On those acts of German aggression, from already known reasons explained in the previous paragraphs, Britain declared war against Germany and so, in the Germany-Britain packet arrangement the WWI has begun!
Conclusion: Responsible for WWI
Now we have disentangled the clew of most relevant motives for warfare and their actors.
War was initially prepared by very wrong German policy of grouping military powers in alliances that naturally caused the reactions of the opposition, paving road to war preparations.
Austrian-Hungarian Empire has been war trigger because they arrogantly and wrongfully hoped for war, provoked war, forced war, and entered war against small Serbia awaiting fast and easy victory. Very funny is the nowadays cries of Austrian "historians" trying to declare teenage assassination in Sarajevo as Serbian state policy and by all means share their guilt with Serbia for warfare events in WWI. That is covered in my Serbian version of articles about Младa Боснa (Serbian article).
Easy and arrogantly entering of Germany into Austrian conflict with the premeditated aim of spreading war to most of Europe, definitely puts Germany as the most responsible for European phase of world war.
As a chronologically third but by far the most important and most relevant of all, in this sad raw of responsibility there is certainly Britain, who not only protected but also spread it's "imperial interests". English are the most responsible for progressing the warfare with all the horrors of human and material victims from limited European stage and bringing it to the world level and prolonging the war somewhere from 4-10 times longer period. This English decision to enter war has seriously helped Second World War outbreak just after the WWI.
So simple as that.