Karl Kautsky

War Guilt

(7 December 1922)

Karl Kautsky, War-Guilt, Justice, 7 December 1922, p.8. (letter)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The following letter from our comrade Karl Kautsky appeared recently in the Nation and Atheneum. We reprint it as we consider it a valuable and historical contribution to the subject.

Sir – My attention has been drawn to a number of remarks which have recently appeared in The Nation and the Athenaeum on the question of war guilt, and which have been attributed to me. This fact has only just come to my knowledge; but perhaps it is not yet too late to discuss it.

My friend Belfort Bax declares in the number of The Nation and the Athenaeum published on September 30, that “it has been conclusively proved by the State documents published in Kautsky’s Wie der Weltkrieg entstand (How the World War Originated) that the German mobilisation preceded the Russian.”

The Nation and the Atheneum of October 14 contains a letter from Count Montgelas, in which he contradicts this statement and declares that nothing of the kind had been said in my book.

I must admit the truth of Count Montgelas’s words. Never and nowhere have I said that the German mobilisation preceded the Russian. Bax’s memory must have played him false. That the Russian mobilisation caused Germany to declare war on Russia is a fact far too well known to need the documentary evidence I have collected in the German Foreign Office to make it clearer.

It was only after Germany’s declaration of war that the Government issued the order to mobilise. The declaration of war was sent to St. Petersburg at 1 p.m. on August 1, and at 5 p.m. mobilisation was proclaimed. Although I agree with Count Montgelas on this point, I cannot agree with him in the conclusion he draws from the fact that Russia mobilised before Germany. He contends that this action proves that Russia began the war, and backs his contention by quoting a number of statements made by various generals. These statements are, however, open to many different interpretations and prove nothing. It is not a question of what one or the other general thought about the consequences of the mobilisation, but whether the European Governments were agreed that mobilisation was, in effect, a declaration of war.

Here we must bear in mind the following points:–

When Russia mobilised, the Government declared emphatically that mobilisation did not mean war, and that negotiations were to continue. France made the same statement while mobilising. Even Austria’s mobilisation was not followed by an immediate declaration of war, and although her order to mobilise was issued almost simultaneously with Russia’s, she only declared war five days after Germany and Russia had been at war. Nor was them anything in the military situation which made it necessary for Germany to combine her mobilisation with a declaration of war. Naturally, Germany had to reply to Russia’s mobilisation with her own. But even members of the German Army admit that Germany would have suffered no military disadvantage had she waited a little longer before sending in her declaration of war. In the meantime negotiations could been continued and possibly the threatened peace have been saved.

If Germany had waited perhaps another couple of days, it might have been Russia who took the first steps in the offensive, even if war could not have been avoided altogether. Germany’s international position would then have been far stronger, and she would have been regarded as the attacked, not only by her own people, who were eventually made to believe this by many artful manoeuvres, but by those nations who played a decisive part in the conflict. That all this has been disregarded is due to the dogma laid down by the Prussian militarists that mobilisation and the declaration of war must be simultaneous. But there is no reason why we should accept this dogma as an historic fact. However, this is not the only reason for Germany’s declaration of war. The principal factor was the confusion which seems to have reigned in the leading circles of Germany on August 1, 1914. How can we otherwise account for the fact that Wilhelm declared war at 1 p.m. mobilised at 5 p.m., and sent a telegram to the Tsar at 9:45 in which he once again asks him to maintain the peace? Indeed confusion, short-sightedness and recklessness are the characteristics of the Government during those days, but not a diabolical talent for deep laid scheming. It may well be that the German Government planned and furthered the attack on Serbia in conjunction with Austria, but in no way had she planned the world war which only her carelessness and recklessness brought about.

Thus it happened that the world war broke out under conditions which placed the German people in a most unfavourable position, both from a military and moral point of view. Not only Belgium, Serbia and Northern France have been offered up as a sacrifice to Wilhelm’s policy, but Germany as well. This must not be forgotten when the question of war guilt arises.

However, it seems to me that the importance of this question is greatly exaggerated in many circles. Surely we have got beyond those times in which the outcome of the war was regarded as God’s judgment. For us the conquered is no longer, of necessity, the sinner, nor the conquered the just man. But in every way it is the conquered who pays the cost. Germauy lay on the ground beaten and overpowered – sufficient answer to the question of who was to pay the costs and reparations. The only point left open for discussion was how much she was to pay and under what conditions.

This is an economic and not a moral question.

It demands an examination of Germany’s capabilities, and an examination of the consequences which arise from the various methods of taking great masses of wealth from one country to another. An unprejudiced economic examination of this kind is urgently needed.

It can only hinder, and cannot better, matters always to be bringing the question of war guilt to the fore.

Neither French nor German statesmen and publicists serve their country or the reconstruction of the world by new discussions on this question. If they leave it the historians to decide, and make the question of world economy and reparations their practical policy, we shall all be the gainers.


Yours, etc.
Karl Kautsky


Last updated on 22.12.2004