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Why did Germany go to war in 1914

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  • Category: German War

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The assassination of the Archduke of Austro-Hungary in Sarajevo on June 28 1914 and the declaration of war by Austro-Hungary on Serbia one month later were undoubtedly catalysts for the war which was to follow, however can also easily be seen as exchangeable factors in the build up to Germany entering into the Great War. Significant as these points are, they were only short term causes among many larger, longer term factors which led the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to join the war on the side of Austro-Hungarians and many other nations to take up arms on one of the two sides.

The true reason for the outbreak of war on such a global scale will undoubtedly be found to be concealed within a complex entanglement of alliances and grievances going back several decades. I intend to look political and economic factors of how and why Germany took a road from unification in 1871 to war in 1914 and link these in with Nationalistic, Militaristic and Imperialistic tensions that existed in the decades before the war and extract the key arguments for causes of Germany entering the conflict.

From the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the start of the first world 99 years later in 1914, much of Europe saw a level of peace it had not experienced for several centuries. This did not mean however there were not significant wars in this period. Perhaps the most significant of all these wars, especially in regards to Germany’s entry into The Great War, was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. This war, largely believed to be indirectly pushed for by the largest of the pre German unification states, Prussia.

Otto Von Bismarck the Prussian chancellor planned to unite Germany by stirring up tensions between Prussia and France and then hopefully gaining the support of the independent southern German states against the French thus unifying a new Germany. As planned it was indeed it was the French who reacted to these tensions and declared war on Germany thereby convincing many Germans of French responsibility for the wari. The war lasted from July 1870 until January 1871 and was a comprehensive humiliating loss for France.

France’s loss brought Germany the prosperous territories of Alsace-Lorraine and the first steps on the way to an Imperialist Empire that Bismarck craved. France was also forced to pay Germany Reparations of $1 Billion dollars which although paid was an embarrassing forfeit for France. The significance of this war is crucial to Germany’s entry to the war. Tensions between these countries lasted up to and beyond the First World War as France never relinquished the desire for revenge and in regards to all other tensions of the era ‘none seemed more irreparable than that of France or Germany’ii.

Bismarck, in order prevent France from regaining the lost territories of Alsace-Lorraine and becoming a serious rival to the newly united Germany, quickly set about the beginning of a period where international agreements would dominate the politics of Europe known to historians as the Alliance system. Bismarck tried to isolate France by allying with Austro-Hungary and then Russia; this was solidified by the Three Emperors’ League between the three nations.

Outwardly this seemed like a good move on behalf of Bismarck however it was not long before tensions arose over the Balkan region between Russia and Austro-Hungary as both had long standing interests in the region since it broke from the Ottoman Empire. This tension in the Balkans was to play a major part in the years up to and immediately prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. The three Emperors league did not last long as in 1879 Bismarck, fearing expansionism from Russia formed a new alliance with Austro-Hungary called the Dual Alliance.

Bismarck had hoped that Allying closer to Austro-Hungary would pull Russia closer to Germany however this excluded Russia and instead had the effect of pushing them towards France and indeed in 1892 France formerly allied with Russia thus creating the first beginnings of the 2 ‘super blocks’ of Europe. iii Britain throughout most of this period allied with no one, she saw her navy as strong enough to protect her from the squabbling of Europe, however the Boer war at the turn of the century saw much world opinion (especially from Germany) turn against Her.

Feeling threatened Britain signed treaties with both the US and Japan and perhaps more significantly a little later with France in 1904. This effectively allied Britain, France and Russia (The Triple Entente) on the one side with Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy (The Triple Alliance) on the other. This situation was the basic outline of how it remained until the outbreak of war with only smaller states entering the fold thereafter. Powers on both sides, including Germany, believed to some degree that the creation of two such powers would promote peace by both acting as each others deterrent and therefore discouraging wariv.

This of course proved to be devastatingly inaccurate, for when Austria-Hungary Declared war on Serbia in 1914 Serbia’s close ally Russia was pulled in to the war thus setting of a chain reaction whereby all members of the two opposing blocks of allies were formally obliged to enter the war. This point can easily be argued to be a strong cause of Germany entering the war for they were closely allied to Austro-Hungary and therefore were duty bound to aid their ally, especially after the inclusion of Russia to which Austro-Hungary were unlikely to be capable of defending herself.

The argument for the cause of Germany going into the war so far has been based largely on the Alliance argument; however this alone is far from sufficient to paint a clear picture of why Germany entered the war. Alliances were crucial to Germanys entry into the war but the detail of why they formed were perhaps a little more useful to gain a full understanding. Nationalism had been growing in Europe for several decades prior to the onslaught of World War I. This was perhaps strongest in Germany where nationalistic writings went as far as to claim that war was the only necessary in order to attain the German race was supremev.

Nationalism in Europe that had a role in the built up to war can be traced back to 1815 and the congress of Vienna where nationalism was dismissed as a consideration in the treaty and significantly Germany and Italy were left as separate states which although appears to be on the outside as a move which would have reduced the prospects for nationalism in these countries and in the short term arguably did, in the long run it served only to unite them both in a nationalistic quest for unification.

In the territory to be known as Germany, Prussia was by far the largest State and was towards the north east of the country where as the south consisted of several smaller city states. Powers in both sides of Germany desired unification however this wish was not uniform in took the Franco-Prussian war to create the unified Germany. Germany and the also recently unified Italy(1860) both set about ‘nationalising’ their peoples by teaching the vernacular language to the entire population, enforcing national supremacy beliefs, carrying out ceremonial parades and other similarly patriotic actsvi.

The results of this increased nationalism both in Italy and Germany, and to a slightly lesser extent the other European powers, was to lead them to more aggressive foreign policies towards one another thus making the likelihood of war slightly higher than it would otherwise be. In Germany where Nationalism went significantly deeper people were taught ‘their country was the greatest nation in history whilst their enemies were cravenvii reptiles’ and such like. This significantly reduced in Germany the obstacle of public anti war feelings.

Most Germans came to believe war was necessary to prove their supremacy over other nations and defend their interests. Also few Germans believed the war in 1914 would last beyond the Christmas of that year and many of the Leaders in Germany also believed in such nationalistic views, arguably none more so than the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, this therefore made the war in Germany strongly opposed by no one and can therefore be seen as a strong cause of Germany entering the war.

Among the selection of tensions that arose in Europe in the decades in the run up to the war, one that stood out in regards to Germany’s entrance to the conflict was the informal militaristic contests she had with Britain and France. Britain up to and beyond Germany’s unification had the largest and most powerful Navy by a significant Margin; however a new threat to her supremacy arose in Germany. Germany, and in particular the nationalists wanted Germany to become an equally great power, and to accomplish this believed she would need an equally great Navy.

Historians have contested the specific aims of the creation of the German national fleet; with some such as Paul Hayes see this move as a directly aggressive move with plans for a conflict with Britain in the back of the German leader’s minds. viii Other Historians such as Hobsbawn saw the act as more of conscientious move to gain respect and international acknowledgement from Britain and a deeper position in European and world affairs.

Hobbawns further pushes his point by claiming there was in fact not and serious danger of Germany deposing Britain as a global power by Naval means alone. ix However Hobsbawn does foresee the problem of a German Navy Stationed so close to the British Isles in the Baltic see. With France, Germany’s military tension lay in the race to build up ground troops, which intensified as the war drew closer and like attack from the water was to Britain the threat of attack via land was the same to the French.

Relating back to the alliance system one of the largest factors of the alliance between France and Britain, two of the oldest adversaries, was this new threat from Germany, without of which the formation of the two blocs within Europe would have been less likely as would the resulting war in which Germany was formally tied. It is difficult to measure or even estimate accurately the significance of the arms race in Germany’s entry to the war; it could be argued the arms race was in reaction to the imminent war however undoubtedly it played a role in Germany’s future.

Economically, unlike the other European powers, Germany’s economy relied solely on what was produced within its boundaries. Britain, France Portugal and many others had acquired vast colonies by the end of the nineteenth century and economically prospered as a result. Germany was openly jealous and from the 1880’s set about policies to gain her own colonies which she did with success, although again at the expense of the international relations within Europe.

This was once again most significant to the British and French colonial interests. The new policy, known in Germany as Weltpolitik, can hardly be criticised on the Imperialist front as a cause of why Germany exclusively went to war in 1914 as many countries acquired colonies through the nineteenth century. However, the British and French had conflicting colonial interests in Africa and the new world for much of the period since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and yet resolved their differences through diplomatic measures. Historians have often tried to point the finger of blame for WWI on Germanys over aggressive foreign policy. In contrast to WWII this argument is less clear-cut; Germany certainly did enforce an expansionist policy however this was no more so than the rest of the European nations. What was unique to Germany was the fact it was the largest of the late wave of European nations to acquire its colonies and therefore disrupted the older order colonial acceptance that had built through the centuries by countries such as Britain, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal.

Also space in the new world was beginning to run out, in Africa especially Imperialists were beginning to encroach on one another’s territories, leading to border disputes. The introduction of Germany further intensified these problems. This colonial interest and typified by the second Moroccan crisis of 1911 in which France claimed a protectorate over Morocco in violation of an 1906 agreement not to take control of the country led Germany to issue France an ultimatum to exchange Morocco for a vast track of land in what is now Congo.

After a period where conflict look like a possibility, France reluctantly agreed. This was largely because the French Army was in no fit state to be at war with the Germans. This example gives a good picture of how the tension due to imperialism built up in the decades before the war and the need to resolve these tensions is a plausible cause to why Germany entered the Great War. Ultimately Germany as expected went to war for a variety of reasons. To say a single factor was the decisive reason would be grossly inaccurate and naive.

The weeks leading directly up to the war in 1914 serve largely as catalysts for the war, as the tension and the build up to the war(most notably in the arms races) had been in existence for several decades, ruling out the short term cause as merely ‘excuses’ for the war. Of the longer term factors I am only able to give an opinion of what was to the greatest extent the cause of the German entry to the war, which is slightly in favour of the arms competition Germany had with both the French and the British as being the biggest cause of tension and the resulting war in which Germany was drawn.

The alliance system also proved crucial to the chain of events which led to the war but it is disputable as to whether the outcomes of the alliance entanglement affected Germany’s entry to the war. It is possible also to suggest that had the bloc’s outcome been different, through ambition Germany may still have gone to war 1914. Ultimately the real cause will be a mix of the main themes I covered from the alliance system to aggressive imperialistic ambitions of the newly unified state of Germany.

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