The conventional answer to this question, of course, is “the Central Powers, and especially Imperial Germany.” But the conventional answer is not always or necessarily the right one, and the linked paper by Paul Gottfried points out the error of choosing to “attach overwhelming responsibility to the losing side while making the Allied governments look better than they were.”
The victor writes the history, of course, and so it has largely been in the hundred years, or nearly, since the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” finally came to an end with the defeat of those Central Powers by a coalition (the Allied Powers) consisting primarily of France, Britain, Russia (until the Bolshevik Revolution took it out of the War), and eventually, the United States.
But what I have come to discover, in recent years, and what this article makes clear, is that the truth is much more complex; and a fair-minded look at the political maneuverings, prior to the War, takes some of the shine off the Allies. As Gottfried notes,
“The charge that Germany was the unprovoked aggressor should have rung hollow by 1914, given the intrigues that had gone before. Of course, no one is denying that Germany’s catastrophic blunder furnished the casus belli. But as the historian Thucydides noted thousands of years ago, a true historical study examines the genesis of events. Such an account is not limited to the immediate causes of a war nor to the pretext or excuse (prophasis) that is given for one when it breaks out.”
Furthermore, during the War itself,
“France and the US suppressed civil liberties more than their adversaries… In 1914 Germany and Austria permitted more, not less, academic freedom and free expression of political views than now exists in such ‘liberal democratic’ citadels as Sweden, Canada, and the German Federal Republic. These state-of-the-art ‘liberal democracies'” – unlike the Central Powers in WW I – rigorously punish so-called hate speech and monitor politically correct behavior, of course in the name of ‘democracy.'”
World War One was a tragedy, plain and simple. It did not have to happen; it was the result of blunders and miscalculations on both sides, but also – as this article makes clear – of calculated and long-standing plans to bring down Germany. And the horrific casualties, including some 11 million European military personnel on all sides, and about 7 million civilians, was a catastrophic loss that continues to resonate to this day.
It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But we cannot learn from it properly if the lessons are obscured by ideology. A more clear-eyed and balanced view of the roots of the First World War might help us to avoid similar missteps, and similar catastrophic consequences, today. Or so one may hope!