Its the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One. The peace process would spin itself out into the summer of 1919, but November 11th became the day Europeans use to commemorate the end of the war. Americans used to celebrate Armistice day to, but in 1954 it became Veterans Day to honor all those who had served in the US military. In a sense, the American social memory of World War Two has eclipsed that of the Great War.
What is interesting is that the Europeans still choose to commemorate the First World War as a separate event. Arguably World War Two was a disaster of greater magnitude in terms of military and civilian casualties. Certainly, European social memory would be justified in reducing WWI to the status of a prologue or preview of WWII. But this is not the case. Instead, World War One has served to delineate the end of one era and the beginning of another. The 'long nineteenth century' begins in Paris in 1789 and ends on the Somme in 1914.
Due to World War One's status as a historical turning point, there are still scholarly debates about who started the war. It seems like the arguments boil down to the same propositions. One side suggests that a general European war was an accident sparked by nationalism in the Balkans facilitated by an interlocking system of alliances. In this explanation, a regional conflict between Serbia and Austria Hungary becomes exacerbated by a system of alliances that tied the diplomatic hands of the great powers. After 1918 some statesmen from both sides made this argument in their memoirs, perhaps because they were anxious to wash their hands of any responsibility for the preceding four years of indiscriminate slaughter. If you spread the guilt around nobody has to take too many lumps.
The other proposition is more straightforward and in a way its more emotionally satisfying in the Anglo-Saxon world: the Germans did it. This argument goes something like this: the Austrians would have never fought a preemptive war without the explicit backing of the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm II could have restrained Franz Joseph by refusing to declare war on Russia and her ally France. Instead the German government gave the Austrians a blank check. This version of history was written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Again, this explanation avoids examining the culpability of allied statesmen like Lloyd George and Clemenceau while dumping the problem in the lap of the fledgling Weimar Republic.
This question of World War One war guilt was even more important after WWII. It shaped the allied response to a defeated Nazi Germany and its allies. For example, the Moscow Declaration of 1943 declared that Austria was the first free country to fall to Nazi aggression and voided the Anschluss of 1938. This partially exonerated Austria of its participation in the war. The idea was to encourage the Austrians to throw off the Nazi yoke by promising them different treatment after the war. Similarly the allies planned on treating Italy differently after Mussolini had been overthrown in a coup. The assumption here was that the Germans were the main aggressors and that their partners in crime could be peeled off if given the right incentives.
The 4 D's (Denazification, Decartelization, Demilitarization and Democratization) of the German Occupation also reflected the Versailles interpretation of World War One. These policies placed an emphasis on curing the Germans of their autocratic and militaristic habits. The allies saw a continuity between Nazi and Wilhelmine war aims. Later, in the 1960s, a German historian named Fritz Fischer would develop this tacit assumption into a fully articulated historiographic argument in his book, Germany's Aims in the First World War. Fischer's book was revolutionary and provided an important jumping off point for a reinvigorated and more rigorous reappraisal of the Kaiserreich era (1870-1918).
There is a pretty good recapitulation of the "Germany Did It" argument to be found in a November 8th Guardian article by the British military historian, Gary Sheffield. Personally, there is a lot I like about the Sheffield article and his interpretation. But as a historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, I can't help but think blame should be allocated elsewhere. I have some sympathy for the 'accident thesis.' The system of alliances and the general atmosphere of competition between the great powers provided ample tinder for a general European conflagration, but it was the choice of Franz Joseph, the Austrian General Staff and the political leaders of the Dual Monarchy to wage a preemptive war on Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm did not push the Austrians into war, they went there of their own accord. But frankly, that's another post for another day...