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What factors led to the outbreak of war in 1914?

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The war that broke out in 1914 was one of the worst, if not the worst, wars in human history. It had left millions dead and a scar burned into European history forever. However, if we do not identify why war broke out in 1914, stopping others wars will be impossible. Clearly, we may never know the answer to this, but many sources give many interpretations. In this essay, I will try to recognise the key factors that led the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 and try to identify the most significant of these causes.

Many historians, such as Martel, believe that it was the attitudes and views of the time that would make the outbreak of war in 1914 inevitable. The fact that everybody at the time thought that were superior to everybody else led to confidence on a national level. Everyone expected to win any future war, and war was seen as very attractive for any country, as there seemed to be far more reasons to join a war than not to. At the turn of the twentieth century, everyone seemed to anticipate a war so that they could show the world how strong and powerful they were. This meant that people also began to adopt a very complacent view on war, believing that if there ever were a war, their country would, no doubt, win easily.

This nationalism and patriotism was further encouraged by national leaders, policies and jingoism and without the internet or other world-based source of information, the only place people could look for what was going on in the world was the media of their own country. This made it even easier for governments to keep up popular nationalism up to the war. A sense of xenophobia led to a racial distrust of foreigners and also a glorious view of war, further presenting the idea of war as an attractive idea. This self-vanity is especially significant in leaders and national figures, such as Chamberlain, who are figures of national inspiration and motivation. This strong nationalism may also be responsible for the rise of many new expansionist states, such as Germany and Italy.

Others may blame Imperialism and Colonisation for the war. As a specific pressure of 1914, this increased tension between the powerful nations, all wanting more land than the others. This attitude goes as far back as the reign of Bismarck, with rich powerful countries wanted to expand in the popular belief that a strong industrial nation must have an empire. But when one power gets more territories than other, potential conflict can arise over unfair shares of territories. Even with an end to the expansion of the great powers and the end of an era of colonisation, conflict still may be likely, as attention is now focused back on Europe, not on the gain of African colonies. This can be seen in Morocco in 1906 and 1911, where France and Germany argued over who had the right to own this country and lost trust in each other, over a matter of their colonies. This did not help when tensions escalated in 1914 with the mistrust that had built up within the nations of Europe. Colonisation also led to a desire for independence in the countries that were part of Empires. Naturally, they didn’t all like being ruled by people with different languages and religions and this led to conflicts that could (and did) involve other nations, however these dissatisfactions were generally ignored by the colonising powers and most historians agree that they were also too insignificant in regards to the power of these countries, to have any real impact on the causes of the war.

Another view among some historians is that war arose as part of a desire to divert attention from domestic dangers by engaging in war abroad. A German historian, Eckhardt Heir put forward the idea that ‘Crisis, even war would come to be seen by those making decisions to be a more attractive alternative than domestic reform’. This could be true for many of the countries involved in the war. Austria, for example, was faced with the collapse of the parliamentary system and national divisions and therefore it could be argued that she most appreciated the value of a good, short war as World War I had been expected to be, further strengthening the idea that war was beneficial to most countries at the time.

Many, on the other hand, blame the flaws in the world’s alliance systems for the war. Development of political and military alliances caused tension and hostility among nations leading up to World War I. Two major alliance systems developed due to conflicting national interests, which had been evident during the past two decades throughout Europe. These were the ‘Triple Alliance’ of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy and the ‘Triple Entente’ of Britain, France and Russia. Also several smaller countries became indirectly involved in the alliances, which effectively divided Europe into two ‘Armed Camps’. Russia pledged to support Serbia in order to prevent further Austrian-Hungarian expansion into the Balkans. Germany stated its support for Austria-Hungary and Britain had given its support for Belgium’s independence in 1839. However, historians such as A. J. P. Taylor argue that ‘Pre 1914 alliances were so precarious and fragile that they cannot be seen as the major cause of war’. This points to the fact that it should also be stressed that even a formal alliance in 1914 did not guarantee support for war, therefore not being a significant factor.

However while these political and military alliances were in place, some believe that there is actually no direct evidence to indicate that any nation declared war on the basis of alliance systems. There had been several ‘crisis’ during the period 1905-1913. First the Moroccan crisis involving France and Germany during 1905 and 1911. No wars occurred, only tensions and fears regarding Germanys aggressive expansionist policies. Britain supported France being involved in Morocco and France conceded some territory in the Congo to Germany. Second the 1908 Balkans crisis occurred because of the collapse of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and subsequent rivalries over who profits the most from this collapse. Austro-Hungary annexed the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia was angry and sought Russian assistance. Germany became involved and Russia backed down. Finally, two wars developed in the Balkans.

The first Balkan war, in 1912, was between Turkey and the ‘Balkan League’ (Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece) with Turkey being driven out of the Balkans. The second Balkan war, in 1913, occurred between Bulgaria and Serbia/Greece. Winning this war strengthened Serbs position but also resulted in Austro-Hungary concern regarding its influence in the Balkans. The main significance of the Balkan wars was the position of Britain and France placing restraint on Russia and Germany restraining Austria-Hungary. Condron writes in his book, ‘The Making of the Modern World’ that this did not happen with the July crisis of 1914 which resulted in World War I, making them two separate events with no direct relevance to each other.

Also, another historian, Grolier, writes in his book, ‘World War I’ that the two Balkan wars resulted in renewed opposition between Bulgaria and the other Balkan states, especially Serbia, and this caused general dissatisfaction because of the interference of the great powers in Balkan politics.

Both of these historians seem to agree however, that although evidence does support that while these various events did not contribute directly to World War I they did indeed contribute to extreme tensions and suspicions between the great powers and certainly fueled the arms race which in effect prepared nations for the World War I.

Also, the Entente Cordiale, an alliance between France, Russia and, later, Great Britain led to a German fear of encirclement, which Germany used to justify the building up of her armed forces. Of course, France, Russia and Great Britain copy, leading to a tense and dishonest mood between them, and if you can’t trust your neighbors, war with them becomes even more likely. Alternatively, some may say that the alliance systems had little significance in the causes of the war, since they were weak and untrustful anyway.

The massive naval race, and arms race, which began in 1896 when Germany took the decision to significantly expand its navy is another viable interpretation to the cause of the war. The attitude of Great Britain was especially significant in this, since she had grown an expectation of having naval supremacy at all times, since she is an island (Britain thought it was essential to have a navy at least 3 times the size of any other nation). This intense competition that developed created significant tensions between Germany and Britain. The intensity to expand was further fueled following each major crisis, which developed during the period 1905-1913. Britain hardened its position towards Germany and the arms race also extended to other areas such as the expansion and modernization of armies in both countries.

In response to this, some historians suggest that due to the large increase in expenditure on navies and armies, Britain and the European nations were in fact preparing for a war that they knew would eventuate at some stage since Germany ignited the arms race with its aim to develop a navy two thirds the size of Britain’s to protect the vulnerable North Sea and possibly through the fear of “encirclement”. But some historians point to evidence that supports that Britain led the arms race and thus this action contributed significantly towards the war.

The assassination of Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary occurred on the 28 June 1914. Austro-Hungary was presented with an opportunity to move against Serbia and resolve it’s Balkan problems. Germany agreed to support Austria-Hungary and presented them with the ‘Blank Cheque’ resulting in unconditional support, encouraging Austro-Hungary greatly. Austro-Hungary issued an ultimatum containing impossible demands, which, in effect, provoked war with Serbia. However, Serbia agreed to most of the demands and Germany advised Austro-Hungary to negotiate but instead they declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Russia immediately mobilised its troops and Germany supported Austria-Hungary. By August 1914 all major European powers (except Italy) had become involved. Britain delayed its entry until German troops moved through Belgium in order to attack France. Although, most historians see the assassination of the Archduke as the spark to the war, not really classified as a cause.

The alliance system failed to prevent war as previously but perhaps nations generally did not expect the war to escalate outside the Austro-Hungary and Serbian borders. Russian mobilisation may have been a show of strength for Serbia or perhaps it was in relation to the Schlieffen Plan (a German plan to quickly defeat France in case of war, so as to avoid a war on two fronts with France and Russia). However the speed with which the mobilisation of European armies occurred would not have given time for negotiation. The Schlieffen plan was put into action by Germany and controlled by the Generals rather than the German government. Some believe that Germany saw that it was the Schlieffen Plan or nothing, even though Germany at that point had no specific quarrel with France, leading to the war.

The short war in 1970-71 between Germany and France was won by Germany and took the regions of Alsace and Lorraine from France. Germany claimed it was rightfully German, although the majority of people living there were French. This angered France that it had been taken advantage of by Germany and also led to a fear that Germany would attack again. This made both nations more suspicious of each other and this tension may have contributed directly to the escalating tensions up to 1914.

Another interpretation is that Germany was the main cause of the war. Historians, such as Fritz Fischer (in his book, ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’) and John Keegan, blame Germany’s expansion and grab for world power since the reign of Bismarck, as well as it encouraging Austro-Hungary to fight Serbia. Germany was further to blame for its totally unconditional support for Austro-Hungary who was the aggressor in the war with Serbia. The ‘blank cheque’ Germany provided to Austro-Hungary in July-August 1914 gave Austro-Hungary confidence to confront Serbia and, with a powerful nation at its back, not back down.

Fischer therefore blames Germany for provoking this threat to Serbia. Russia subsequently appears to back up Serbia and both powers begin to mobilize their troops. France is then forced to mobilize, due to its alliance with Russia, and when Germany attacks Belgium, Britain is dragged into the war as well, since it has guaranteed Belgium independence. This is also an example of the flaws in the alliance systems and shows how small disputes between small countries can turn into world wars. Fischer also comments that as tensions escalate and war becomes more likely, military figures begin to take over the government and this makes war even more likely.

While many historians, such as Fritz Fischer, blame expansionist countries, such as Germany, for the war, some believe that Russia, Germany and France can also share blame over the war due to their mobilisation plans- particularly Russia who commenced action first. Britain must share some blame because had they been more decisive in supporting France, then Germany would most certainly have had second thoughts about invading France under the Schlieffen Plan. Some also argue that the size of the British Empire, the biggest in the world at that time, was threatening to Germany and all Germany could do to react to this was trying to expand in order to catch up to Britain.

In the summer of 1914, Sir Edward Grey was the man responsible for Britain’s foreign policy. Some historians have suggested that if Grey had made different decisions to those that he took during the summer of 1914, such as a more hardline approach to dealing with Germany, it could have helped stop the outbreak of the First World War.

Historians today still cannot agree upon the causes of World War I and it is difficult to decide upon a definite cause to the war since any interpretation and cause can be affected by multiple causes. Military alliances resulting in Germany’s encirclement, diplomatic mistakes, the arms race, imperial rivalries and immediate causes combined to cause World War I. Each was a significant factor, however no one cause was the sole cause. Nevertheless it is suggested that the events and factors leading up to it, such as imperial rivalry, the arms race, alliances and the Balkan wars though not directly related must each share some blame. This view can be supported due to the immense tensions and hostility that was generated between Britain and the European nations. Evidence suggests that there was no single major cause for World War I but in effect there was several major events associated with the start of it.

Personally, I believe that the most significant was the overall policies of the expansionist European powers at the time, such as Germany and Austro-Hungary, which led to anticipation for war and I agree with the accounts of Franz Fischer. For instance, the seemingly impossible demands made by Austro-Hungary upon Serbia after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Franz Ferdinand, were at first accepted by the Serbian government, who also showed a willingness to negotiate over the matter. However, the rejection of their own demands by Austro-Hungary show that their true intention was to start a war, which Germany backed up with unconditional support for Austro-Hungary.

Also, documented from an account of Germany’s war aims, stated that ‘The general aim of the war is security for the German Reich in West and East for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken’. This clearly shows the aggressive policy of Germany. This, I believe, is the main factor, which eventually resulted in all European countries, except Italy, being involved in the most horrific war in history, the Great War.






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