In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Politics and Diplomacy of the First World War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • First World War Diplomacy and Political Relations – Overall Approaches
  • Separate Peace Feelers and Peace Moves During the War
  • Armistice 1918

International Relations The Politics and Diplomacy of the First World War
Holger Afflerbach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0299


The politics and diplomacy of First World War are a complex topic. Tens of thousands of books, articles, and editions of primary sources were published on many aspects of the question, but very few works try to cover the ground comprehensively. The reason is the sheer complexity. The attempt to cover the topic in its entirety and in depth would fail to amalgamate the enormous amount of information. There is not a simple “line of events” to follow. A thorough analysis of the politics and diplomacy of First World War has to cover the events and the political intentions and actions of key protagonists, and then to link them with internal politics, with military events and strategic expectations—and this for the entire duration of the war. The task is massive; over thirty states fought in this war. Many neutrals as well as non-state-actors, like for example the churches, would have to be included in such a survey. It is evident that it is very difficult to deliver such an analysis for the entire period of the war in reasonable depth; and maybe it would not even be sensible to try. Many studies analyze developments in politics, strategy, and war aims on the level of single states or on the level of wartime alliances, or they examine single political events of international nature. What is missing are not the “unit level” studies, but “system level” analysis of First World War diplomacy and political relations covering the entire war. We have to pay a significant price for the non-existence of thorough international studies of the war. It leads to serious and unavoidable shortfalls in interpretation because the “unit level” view—let’s say, the view of the contemporaries living during the Great War—tends to survive and perpetuate itself and to dominate research up to our present times. This bibliography reflects this state of research, by offering first an introduction to some key works on the start of the war (i.e., the July crisis) and introducing then some useful studies which cover the entire topic of international politics and wartime diplomacy. It will then turn toward the politics and diplomacy of First World War on a “unit level,” state by state. It ends with literature on the armistice in 1918. It abstains from covering the Versailles peace negotiations which are a closely linked but separate topic.

General Overviews

Some general surveys of the war give a good first orientation and discuss First World War diplomacy and political relations in the context of overall developments of the war. Only some of the most important newer surveys can be mentioned here, namely the books Leonhard 2018, Michalka 1994; Stevenson 2004, Stevenson 2011, and Stevenson 2017; Strachan 2001, and Winter 2014.

  • Leonhard, Jörn. Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674985421

    First published in German in 2014 (Die Büchse der Pandora. Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs. Munich: C.H. Beck), Leonhard’s book became available in English translation in 2018. Different from Stevenson 2004 and Strachan 2001, he does not offer a comprehensive and balanced synthesis, but a thought-provoking, nearly essayistic and impressionistic approach, which often discusses a vignette-like event to describe and characterize larger developments. The book is insightful, but not particularly interested in aspects of wartime diplomacy and war aims, and even major events are left out or covered only in passing.

  • Michalka, Wolfgang, ed. Der Erste Weltkrieg: Wirkung, Wahrnehmung, Analyse. Munich: Piper, 1994.

    This collected volume of essays written by specialists contains a large number of useful articles; some of them on politics and diplomacy of the First World War.

  • Stevenson, David. Cataclysm. The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

    This book is most likely the best one-volume history of the First World War. Stevenson’s thorough expertise on practically any aspect of the war is remarkable, his judgement sober and in nearly all questions balanced and convincing. He has a strong focus on wartime diplomacy and political relations.

  • Stevenson, David. With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. London: Allen Lane, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674063198

    Stevenson’s book on 1918 demonstrates the same scholarly qualities as his books Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (2004) and 1917: War, Peace and Revolution (2017)—thorough and profound scholarship. It has a very solid and informative focus on politics, diplomacy, and the question of peace.

  • Stevenson, David. 1917: War, Peace and Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    The book covers events of 1917 comprehensively and is an example for the combination of competent analysis and clear judgement. Its argument of a “war trap” adds very much to our understanding of First World War peace moves and the reasons for their failures.

  • Strachan, Hew. The First World War. Vol. 1, To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    The same praise for David Stevenson’s books ought to be applied to Hew Strachan’s opus magnum, which can be considered as “definitive” as a history can be. It is the first of three volumes. It is a stunning piece of research and synthesis that offers a departure point for future research. It may even be in some ways historiography’s last word. Strachan has a strong focus on politics.

  • Winter, Jay, ed. The Cambridge History of the First World War. 3 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    This is a state-of-the-art collection of essays, written by first rank specialists, which was published in 2014 on the occasion of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It contains articles on diplomats (by David Stevenson), and contributions by Georges-Henri Soutou, Samuel Kruizinga, Martin Caedel, Helmut Konrad, and others on questions of diplomacy, neutrality, pacifism, and peace negotiations.

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