Primary Documents - Report of Commission to Determine War Guilt, 6 May 1919

The Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties was instituted at the plenary session of the Paris Peace Conference of 25 January 1919.  Its purpose was to formally assign war guilt, a judgement that inevitably saw blame fully attributed to the Central Powers.

The commission was comprised of two representatives from each of the five main Allied powers - the U.S., Britain, France, Italy and Japan - and one from Belgium, Greece, Poland, Romania and Serbia.  Robert Lansing was selected as its chairman.

The commission's two conclusions briefly summarised the findings of the report, in particular the first, i.e.: "The war was premeditated by the Central Powers together with their Allies, Turkey and Bulgaria, and was the result of acts deliberately committed in order to make it unavoidable".

The key first chapter of the commission's report, which was accepted at the Paris Peace Conference on 6 May 1919, is reproduced below.

On the question of the responsibility of the authors of the war, the Commission, after having examined a number of official documents relating to the origin of the World War, and to the violations of neutrality and of frontiers which accompanied its inception, has determined that the responsibility for it lies wholly upon the Powers which declared war in pursuance of a policy of aggression, the concealment of which gives to the origin of this war the character of a dark conspiracy against the peace of Europe.

This responsibility rests first on Germany and Austria, secondly on Turkey and Bulgaria.  The responsibility is made all the graver by reason of the violation by Germany and Austria of the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg, which they themselves had guaranteed.  It is increased, with regard to both France and Serbia, by the violation of their frontiers before the declaration of war.

Premeditation of the War: Germany and Austria

Many months before the crisis of 1914 the German Emperor had ceased to pose as the champion of peace.  Naturally believing' in the overwhelming superiority of his Army, he openly showed his enmity towards France.  General von Moltke said to the King of the Belgians: "This time the matter must be settled."  In vain the King protested.  The Emperor and his Chief of Staff remained no less fixed In their attitude.

On the 28th of June, 1914, occurred the assassination at Sarajevo of the heir-apparent of Austria.  "It is the act of a little group of mad-men," said Francis Joseph.  The act, committed as it was by a subject of Austria-Hungary on Austro-Hungarian territory, could in no wise compromise Serbia, which very correctly expressed its condolences and stopped public rejoicings in Belgrade.

If the Government of Vienna thought that there was any Serbian complicity, Serbia was ready to seek out the guilty parties.  But this attitude failed to satisfy Austria and still less Germany, who, after their first astonishment had passed, saw in this royal and national misfortune a pretext to initiate war.

At Potsdam a "decisive consultation" took place on the 5th of July, 1914.  Vienna and Berlin decided upon this plan: "Vienna will send to Belgrade a very emphatic ultimatum with a very short limit of time."

The Bavarian Minister, von Lerchenfeld, said in a confidential dispatch dated the 18th of July, 1914, the facts stated in which have never been officially denied: "It is clear that Serbia cannot accept the demands, which are inconsistent with the dignity of an independent state."

Count Lerchenfeld reveals in this report that, at the time it was made, the ultimatum to Serbia had been jointly decided upon by the Governments of Berlin and Vienna; that they were waiting to send It until President Poincare and Mr. Viviani should have left for St. Petersburg; and that no illusions were cherished, either at Berlin or Vienna, as to the consequences which this threatening measure would involve.  It was perfectly well known that war would be the result.

 The Bavarian Minister explains, moreover, that the only fear of the Berlin Government was that Austria-Hungary might hesitate and draw back at the last minute, and that on the other hand Serbia, on the advice of France and Great Britain, might yield to the pressure put upon her.  Now, "the Berlin Government considers that war is necessary."  Therefore, it gave full powers to Count Berchtold, who instructed the Ballplatz on the 18th of July, 1914, to negotiate with Bulgaria to induce her to enter into an alliance and to participate in the war.

In order to mask this understanding, it was arranged that the Emperor should go for a cruise in the North Sea, and that the Prussian Minister of War should go for a holiday, so that the Imperial Government might pretend that events had taken it completely by surprise.

Austria suddenly sent Serbia an ultimatum that she had carefully prepared in such a way as to make it impossible to accept.  Nobody could be deceived; "the whole world understands that this ultimatum means war."  According to Mr. Sazonoff, "Austria-Hungary wanted to devour Serbia."

Mr. Sazonov asked Vienna for an extension of the short time limit of forty-eight hours given by Austria to Serbia for the most serious decision in its history.  Vienna refused the demand.  On the 24th and 25th of July, England and France multiplied their efforts to persuade Serbia to satisfy the Austro-Hungarian demands.  Russia threw in her weight on the side of conciliation.

 Contrary to the expectation of Austria-Hungary and Germany, Serbia yielded.  She agreed to all the requirements of the ultimatum, subject to the single reservation that, in the Judicial Inquiry which she would commence for the purpose of seeking out the guilty parties, the participation of Austrian officials would be kept within the limits assigned by International law.  "If the Austro-Hungarian Government is not satisfied with this," Serbia declared she was ready "to submit to the decision of the Hague Tribunal."

"A quarter of an hour before the expiration of the time limit," at 5:45 on the 25th, Mr. Pashitch, the Serbian Minister for Foreign Affairs, delivered this reply to Baron Giesl, the Austro-Hungarian Minister.

On Mr. Pashitch's return to his own office he found awaiting him a letter from Baron Giesl saying that he was not satisfied with the reply.  At 6:30 the latter had left Belgrade, and even before he had arrived at Vienna, the Austro-Hungarian Government had handed his passports to Mr. Yovanovitch, the Serbian Minister, and had prepared thirty-three mobilization proclamations, which were published on the following morning in the Budapesti Kozloni, the official gazette of the Hungarian Government.

On the 27th Sir Maurice de Bunsen telegraphed to Sir Edward Grey: "This country has gone wild with Joy at the prospect of war with Serbia."  At midday on the 28th Austria declared war on Serbia.  On the 29th the Austrian army commenced the bombardment of Belgrade, and made its dispositions to cross the frontier.

The reiterated suggestions of the Entente Powers with a view to finding a peaceful solution of the dispute only produced evasive replies on the part of Berlin or promises of intervention with the Government of Vienna without any effectual steps being taken.

 On the 24th of July Russia and England asked that the Powers should be granted a reasonable delay in which to work in concert for the maintenance of peace.  Germany did not join in this request.

On the 25th of July Sir Edward Grey proposed mediation by four Powers (England, France, Italy and Germany).  France and Italy immediately gave their concurrence.  Germany refused, alleging that it was not a question of mediation but of arbitration, as the conference of the four Powers was called to make proposals, not to decide.

On the 26th of July Russia proposed to negotiate directly with Austria.  Austria refused.

On the 27th of July England proposed a European conference.  Germany refused.

On the 29th of July Sir Edward Grey asked the Wilhelmstrasse to be good enough to "suggest any method by which the influence of the four Powers could be used together to prevent a war between Austria and Russia."  She was asked herself to say what she desired.  Her reply was evasive.

On the same day, the 29th of July, the Czar dispatched to the Emperor William II a telegram suggesting that the Austro-Serbian problem should be submitted to the Hague Tribunal.  This suggestion received no reply.  This important telegram does not appear in the German White Book.  It was made public by the Petrograd Official Gazette "January, 1915).

 The Bavarian Legation, in a report dated the 31st of July, declared its conviction that the efforts of Sir Edward Grey to preserve peace would not hinder the march of events.

As early as the 21st of July German mobilization had commenced by the recall of a certain number of classes of the reserve, then of German officers in Switzerland, and finally of the Metz garrison on the 25th of July.  On the 26th of July the German fleet was called back from Norway.

The Entente did not relax its conciliatory efforts, but the German Government systematically brought all its attempts to nought.  When Austria consented for the first time on the 31st of July to discuss the contents of the Serbian note with the Russian Government and the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador received orders to "converse" with the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Germany made any negotiation impossible by sending her ultimatum to Russia.

Prince Lichnowsky wrote that "a hint from Berlin would have been enough to decide Count Berchtold to content himself with a diplomatic success and to declare that he was satisfied with the Serbian reply, but this hint was not given.  On the contrary they went forward towards war."

 On the 1st of August the German Emperor addressed a telegram to the King of England containing the following sentence: "The troops on my frontier are, at this moment, being kept back by telegraphic and telephonic orders from crossing the French frontier."  Now, war was not declared till two days after that date, and as the German mobilization orders were issued on that same day, the 1st of August, it follows that, as a matter of fact, the German Army had been mobilized and concentrated in pursuance of previous orders.

The attitude of the Entente nevertheless remained still to the very end so conciliatory that, at the very time at which the German fleet was bombarding Libau, Nicholas II gave his word of honour to William II that Russia would not undertake any aggressive action during the pourparlers, and that when the German troops commenced their march across the French frontier Mr. Viviani telegraphed to all the French Ambassadors "we must not stop working for accommodation."

 On the 3rd of August Mr. von Schoen went to the Qual d'Orsay with the declaration of war against France.  Lacking a real cause of complaint, Germany alleged, in her declaration of war, that bombs had been dropped by French airplanes in various districts in Germany.  This statement was entirely false.  Moreover, it was either later admitted to be so or no particulars were ever furnished by the German Government.

Moreover, In order to be manifestly above reproach, France was careful to withdraw her troops ten kilometres from the German frontier.  Notwithstanding this precaution, numerous officially established violations of French territory preceded the declaration of war.

The provocation was so flagrant that Italy, herself a member of the Triple Alliance, did not hesitate to declare that in view of the aggressive character of the war the casus foederis ceased to apply.


 1. The war was premeditated by the Central Powers together with their Allies, Turkey and Bulgaria, and was the result of acts deliberately committed in order to make it unavoidable.

 2. Germany, in agreement with Austria-Hungary, deliberately worked to defeat all the many conciliatory proposals made by the Entente Powers and their repeated efforts to avoid war.

A Kite Balloon was an observation balloon controlled by a cable from the ground.

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