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Critically asses three major causes of the First World War

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There are many causes to the First World War, many of which are results of complex developments which took place for a number of years before the war, such as the conflict over the Balkans and the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The most obvious cause may be the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. However, upon close examination of the events leading up to World War One, we shall see that this was merely the spark that set off the chain of events leading up to the Great War.

One of the main causes of the war was the system of alliances between countries at that time. Alliances such as the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and the Triple Entente between Great Britain, Russia and France, effectively divided Europe into two opposing camps and pitted major powers against each other.

In doing so, major alliances such as the ones quoted above reduced much of the flexibility of the old balance of power in Europe, and that which had existed under the Bismarckian system of old.

These alliances also meant that what might previously have been minor conflicts now had the very real possibility of escalating into full-scale conflicts that would rapidly involve the major powers in Europe, thus dragging the whole of Europe into war.

“The alliances created an excessively rigid diplomatic framework, within which relatively small detonators could produce huge explosions” (A.J.P. Taylor)

This made it much harder for statesmen to preserve peace.

An example of this is the Moroccan Crises that started when Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the port of Tangier in 1905 and publicly declared support for Moroccan independence. The Kaiser did this to test the strength of the Anglo-French entente. This was solved by the Algeciras Conference in 1906 (which ruled in France’s favour). A second crisis broke out thereafter, that also ended in France’s favour, but very nearly resulted in war between France, Britain and Germany (and possibly the rest of Europe as well). This served to bring France and Great Britain closer together, a result the Kaiser had not anticipated, as well as distancing them from Germany.

Another crisis was Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which brought outrage from the Serbian people, as there was a large population of Serbs in Bosnia. There was a crisis among the Great powers and it brought Europe to the brink of war. Russia, however, bowed to German pressure when they supported Austria and they agreed to the annexation. However, Russia was determined not to be humiliated again.

This crisis resulted in bringing Austria-Hungary closer to the Germans, and in heightening tension between Russia and Germany.

The crises described above thus served to reinforce alliances by bringing allied countries closer, and widening the rift between rival countries.

Alliances and diplomatic agreements before the Great War were often made behind closed doors, and it was not unusual for clauses to be kept secret. Treaties were sometimes made public, but the terms were generally hidden. This often meant that countries did not know exactly what the others were doing and were left to guess at their intentions, which contributed to a climate of suspicion and paranoia, and encouraged treaties to be made that were aggressive in nature, all as a result of this climate of secrecy which bred fear and suspicion. The Triple Entente, for example, was made primarily to discourage any attacks from Germany and her allies.

It is also because of Austria-Hungary’s alliance with Germany that it declared war against Serbia, even though Serbia agreed to 90% of the ultimatum (except for one main point: to let Austrian police arrest Serb terrorists, as Serbia wanted to be the one to do this). Normally, a country’s accepting 90% of an ultimatum is exceptional and this would be accepted by the country that issued the ultimatum. Germany’s backing (or ‘blank cheque’, as it is often called, because Germany told Austria it would back her no matter what), however, made Austria-Hungary bolder than it would have been otherwise, thus it rejected the ultimatum and declared war on Serbia.

These treaties would have of course not been possible if diplomatic negotiations had been as open and publicised as they are today.

It may be argued that these treaties were not binding, for example Italy remained neutral during the war, and that the Triple Entente by no means forced any of its members to take up arms if war involving one of them should arise. However, I do not think the treaties themselves are overly important. Rather, I think that the climate created by these treaties, and the actions taken as a result, are important, and even crucial, to the start of the First World War. Also, if we are to extend this argument, no treaty is truly binding and all treaties can be broken. Thus I think alliances still did constitute one of the main causes of the First World War.

Another major cause of the ‘War to End All Wars’ was militarism. Militarism was prevalent in Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century. War was viewed by many in a positive light: it was seen as ‘noble’, glorious and even desirable. Nowadays war might be viewed as morally wrong, and justifiable only in cases of dire necessity or for self-defence, however at that time war was seen as a perfectly acceptable means for a country to pursue its goals or ambitions, or as a way to enforce its national policy. For example the outbreak of war was greeted by cheering crowds in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. As A.J.P Taylor wrote, “the people of Europe leapt willingly into war.”

The period of 1914-1918 saw many technological advances, particularly in the military field, with such innovations as the machinegun, long range artillery, the submarine, new warships such as the dreadnought, etc. These were products of increased militarism and of the desire of governments to gain superiority over their rivals. Major powers such as France, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, began to spend large amounts of their national budget on the building of new armaments. Europe had now entered into an arms race. A good example of this was the naval race between Great Britain and Germany, which resulted in an enormous amount being spent on the building of battleships (such as the new Dreadnought-class warship that practically made others obsolete).

“We want eight and we won’t wait!” was the popular response in Britain at news that Germany was building four battleships. This ‘arms race’ may have led to an increasingly heated atmosphere of competition and rivalry between countries, and this may well have contributed to the start of the First World War. The armament industries gained much profit from the arms race, and this in turn lead them to gain much power, perhaps so much power that they began to have an influence on government policy… After all, the First World War was the first industrialised war in known human history, and it is on the occasion of this war that the Military-Industrial complex was created.

Similarly, military officials also held some influence at that time regarding government policy, especially in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Military officials in Austria-Hungary, for example, saw that the balance of power in Serbia was turning against Austria-Hungary, and thus argued for a preventive war against Serbia to remedy this. German chiefs of staff were in a similar position, seeing Germany’s ‘encirclement’ (by Triple Entente countries such as France and Russia) as dangerous. This, coupled with the growing strength of the French and Russian armies (that they viewed as a threat), led them to suggest that it would be better to start a war sooner rather than later.

War plans also played a big role in the outbreak of the war: all of the major European powers had developed detailed plans in the case of war, which were all offensive in nature and involved rapid action and movement of troops. These military plans were especially influential in Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the latter, chiefs of staff urged a lightning assault against Serbia, and in the former, German generals strongly advised the Kaiser to implement the Schlieffen Plan, which involved a war on two fronts (against Russia and France) and also involved a quick offensive.

The Schlieffen Plan consisted of Germany swiftly attacking France (Germany assumed that if a war was to break out against Russia, France would inevitably join, or vice-versa), taking over Paris from the North and achieving a speedy victory ( the plan calculated that to defeat France, Germany needed 6 weeks at most). Once victory over France was achieved, Germany would then move its troops to the Eastern front to fight the Russians. This Plan relied on Russia taking a long time to mobilise (around six weeks), as the Germans thought the Russians to be highly unorganised. The Russians, however, surprised the Germans by taking around half the time the Germans had anticipated in order to mobilise.

The major European powers were so well-prepared for war (their plans were so detailed and the military commanders so keen on implementing them) that once Serbia began to mobilise (the tensions ran so high that mobilisation, although not a hostile action in itself, was considered threatening and taken as a declaration of war at that time), it started a chain of events, like a cog in a great machine, and the wheels of war started turning. One by one, all the major powers in Europe mobilised, declaring war on each other. These events are said to have been almost mechanical in nature: all the powers in Europe had detailed war plans which they would follow, and one country taking action would lead to all the others taking action as well, mobilising and following their respective plans, which meant that it was as if events took a life of their own, and it is said that once the wheels of war started to turn, there was no stopping them.

This really shows the extent to which militarism had a role to play in causing the war.

The last major cause of World War One we shall examine is nationalism.

This was the belief in nationhood, the feeling of sharing a consciousness, a common past, and the feeling of closeness of speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, which made people into nations, e.g. Pan Slavism, Pan Germanica, etc.

Nationalism, much like militarism, was omnipresent in Europe and the world at the start of the 20th century.

Many countries believed in their own superiority over others. A quotation of Wilhelm II illustrates this well: “God has called us to civilize the world.” he once said, referring to the Germans.

This fierce nationalism led to Germany adopting a “Weltpolitik” (world policy), for example. The policy sought for Germany a “place in the sun” commensurate with its rising industrial strength, primarily through the creation of a colonial empire to rival those of other powers. The most dramatic element in the policy was the construction of the High Seas Fleet, a navy which would rival, or even surpass, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy in strength. It led to the previously mentioned Anglo-German naval race, for example, where each sought to outbuild the other in Dreadnoughts.

Such a feeling of nationalism was not just present in Germany, however. There was a strong feeling of nationalism in Great Britain for instance, that also led them to engage in the naval race against Germany, as well as to increase military spending (which by now almost all European powers were doing).

Russia, after its disastrous campaign against Japan in the Manchurian war, turned its attentions to the West, to the declining Ottoman Empire (“the sick old man of Europe”). Russia was hoping to profit from Turkey’s decline, as it wanted to extend its territory. Russia supported Serbia and its ambitions, concealing its real motives that were to acquire a warm water port in the Mediterranean Sea.

France also had its fair share of nationalism, as it was resentful of Germany because of the Franco-Prussian war and wanted to get back Alsace-Lorraine which was now in Germany’s hands.

The Serbs were very resentful of the Austrian-Hungarians as a result of the latter’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This led to a crisis (the Pig War, 1906-1909) which almost resulted in war. The Serbs engaged in terrorist activities (supported by the Serbian government) against Austria-Hungary. Serbia wanted to prevent the Austrian-Hungarian annexation and hoped to gain some provinces as well as access to the Adriatic Sea. Serbia also stood in a good position to benefit from European rivalry in the region, as is the opinion of historian Joachim Remak.

Austria-Hungary in turn was resentful of the Serbs for opposing its plans and ambitions and for engaging in terrorist activities, and it wanted to invade Serbia to settle accounts militarily. It also felt threatened by the imbalance of power in the Balkans (the balance of power was not tipping in Austria-Hungary’s favour). The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the perfect pretext to do this. John Leslie, a British historian, believes that Austria-Hungary planned a local Austro-Serb conflict, linked to its fears about Balkan nationalism. He also believes Germany mainly supported Austria-Hungary because it suited its own goals, including deliberately starting a European war (which Austria-Hungary had never desired).

As we can therefore see, all the major powers in Europe had a strong sense of nationalism: all wanted superiority over the others, all wanted to expand their territory, acquire new colonies, and have superior armies… Inevitably, this led to conflicts, which in turn led to the Great War.

There were many influences and factors leading to the First World War, but from the above analysis we can see that three causes can be isolated as having been determining causes: political alliances, militarism and nationalism. Political alliances created a climate of mistrust in which militarist technical development and nationalist sentiment thrived, thus creating an ideal environment for any meaningful event to trigger a chain reaction leading to what is remembered as the Great War – with horrendous losses and suffering being recalled to this day through a few survivors and the literature of the time (and letters from soldiers at the front, Rupert Brooke’s poems, etc.)

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