Debate Persists Over WWI Blame

Politics Society

Japan’s Active Role in World War I

A hundred years have elapsed since the outbreak of World War I. The conflict became a “world war” when Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914, joining Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Germany, France, and Britain in the fighting. Until the hostilities expanded to the Middle East with the entry of the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, only Japan’s participation gave the war its global dimension.

While the main theater was in Europe, Japan deployed troops and naval forces in such varied locations as China, Siberia, South Africa, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean in support of Britain, Russia, France, and the other Allied Powers. It also supplied 500,000 rifles to Russia in 1915 and 12 destroyers to France in 1917. This demonstrated Japan’s increasing capacity for military mass production at the time.

At the end of 1917, the commanding officer of the French forces, Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929), made a request for Japanese troops to be sent to Europe. The request was refused, but instead Japan dispatched soldiers to Siberia to intervene in the intensifying Russian Civil War. Under an agreement with the United States, Japan was to send 7,000 men, but its military leaders, independent of civilian oversight, ended up dispatching more than 70,000 soldiers to Siberia and northern Manchuria. In short, Japan played a more active part in World War I than is generally known.

The War Guilt Clause

A lot of research has been published recently about Japan’s role in World War I and the significance to global history of its participation. Meanwhile, books on the background to the outbreak of war have sparked ferocious debate in Europe over which country bears responsibility. After the end of the war, Article 231 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, known as the “War Guilt Clause,” placed the entire blame on Germany. It was the first peace treaty to clearly attribute war responsibility, and as such was vehemently criticized by the Germans.

The dispute over responsibility for World War I continued in Germany and elsewhere following World War II. The idea that it was inappropriate to blame Germany alone, and that the war had resulted from the formations of alliances in Europe, was regularly expressed after 1945. However, the historian Fritz Fischer (1908–99) maintained that the conflict had been caused by German aggression, sparking the famous 1960s “Fischer Controversy,” so that ultimately the view that Germany was solely responsible for World War I became dominant.

The Sleepwalkers

But that dominant interpretation was upset once again in 2013 with the publication of the book The Sleepwalkers by University of Cambridge historian Christopher Clark. The book has drawn a great deal of attention in Europe, but opinions are divided among German academics about the author’s claims.

Clark asserts that World War I was triggered by a variety of figures, such as French President Raymond Poincaré, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, and Russian Ambassador to France Alexander Izvolsky. Some have reacted with displeasure to what they see as his diminishing of German war responsibility, while others criticize his academic methods, blasting his thesis as untenable.

On actually reading the book, though, despite the impression the title gives, it is surprising that it does not in fact seek to absolve Germany of all responsibility. The word “sleepwalkers” gives the book its provocative title, but searching in the electronic edition I found that apart from the title the term only appears in one other place—in the very last sentence of the book. Clearly, the view that Germany has a large share of responsibility for starting World War I, which has become established over many years, remains difficult to challenge.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 10, 2014.)

▼Further reading

Japan and World War I
A hundred years have passed since the outbreak of World War I. Some have likened the fraught situation in today’s East Asia to that in Europe prior to the start of hostilities in 1914. In this series we look at Japan’s response to the global upheavals of the 1910s—1920s, a watershed period in the country’s modern history.

Europe history Saaler Sven war World War I WWI