War and Social Upheaval: World War I--Causes


Figure 1.--Prussia against Bismarck's advise, after the Franco-Prussian War annexed Alsace-Loraine. The recovery of the two provinces became a cause-celebre in France. The children here in this French postcard are dressed in Alsatian folk costumes. (Notice the wooden shoies.) The card reads, "Chanson d'Alsace. Drapeau béni! nous chantons à tia Glorie. De toi nous attendons la Victoire." That means something like, "Song of Alsace. Blessed flag! We sing with tia Glorie. For you us let us achieve the Victory." France was deeply commited to reclaiming the lost provinces. Click on the image to see the back. Notice it is being sent as an affectionate note to a little girl. This shows just how deep-seated the desire to regain the provinces were. French leaders had learned there lesson well from 1870. There would be no goung to war with Germany alone. Thus the alliance with Russia was a major event.

The Allies in the Versailles Treaty followung the War forced Germany to accept responsibility for the War. Germany did play an important, if not central role, in the outbreak of the War. Unlike World War II, however, the Germans were not solely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. The causes of World War I have been the subject of great historical debate. At the time many people in Europe had convinced themselves that Europe had progressed to the point that war was no longer possible. The European econommy was so intertwined that it did not seem possible that major European countries could go to war. It was uncreasingly seen as an uncivilized vestage of the past. After the War the system of "entangling" alliances was seen as the major cause. Left wing analysts tended to see the war as a result of capitalism and imperialism. A recurrent theme was that arms manufacturers , referred to as the "merchants of death" helped bring the war about and profited from it. There were widely publicised Congressional investigations in America. Surely the European alliance system played a role in the conflict, but the Markist explanation lacks any real insiht into the conflict. The War can best be understood in the sence that that the number of countries and national groups that felt agrevied reached a critical mass. In this regard only Britiain in the final analysts had no real basic interests involved--until German armies crossed the Belgian frontier. The groups most agreived were the nationalities governed by the empires that controlled much of Europe (Austrian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires). And it was here that the spark that set off the War came. Serbs were agreved by the Austrian annexation of Bosnia. Austrians were agreved by Serb support for terroism and Russian backing of the Serbs. And the Slavs were just one of many nationalities within the Empire. The Russians felt agreved by Austrian efforts to supress the Serbs (fellow Slavs). The Germans decided to support the Austrians. This has been blamed on the alliance with Austria. In fact, Germany's decession to go to war reflected a widely held belief in Germany that their country should play a leading role in Europe and was not being given due deference by other countries. The Frence since the Franco-Prussian War desired to regain their lost provinces--Alsace-Lorraine. They were not, however, about to confront Germany on their own. This was why France's ability to negotiate an alliance with Russia was such a key step. Britain was more of a question. The Kaiser's belicocity and decesion to buld a highseas fleet had changed British attitudes toward Germans. Even so, Britain had no desire to enter a European War. The Germans created the one cause for British participation--an attempt to dominate the Continent and especially the Lowlands. Given the enormity of the disaster that made up World War I, the grevances felt by the beligerant powers may seem small even trivial. But few wars begin on the basis of rational thinking.

Issues

Wotld War I fought at the begining of the 20th century is no longer a major imprint on the public mind. Cmpared to the moral clarity of World war II, the causes and issues involved in World War I are far more murky. A British historian posed the question succintly, "Why should a Maori New Zealander have died in Turkey and been buried Greece because an Austrian had been shot by a Serb in Bosnia?" [Roberts] The answer is perhaps not as difficult as it may seem. Today a small country like New Zealand is free and independent ans the Maori in New Zealand benefit from a democrativ society and the rule of law. Any even smaller countries than New Zealand live in a world unthreatened by larger more powerful states. This was not the case at the time of World War I. German uninfication set in motion a process that led to World War I. Power in Europe had been divided after the Napoleonic Wars so that no single power dominated the continent. Treaties protected small states like Belgium. German unification and victory in the Franco-Prussian war left Germany the single most powerful country in Europe, but surrounded by competing, hostile states. World War I was sparked by terrorism in the Balkans, but the kaiser decided to back Austria, in part to firmly establisgh Germany as not just thel most poweful state, but the dominant power in Europe. And the German Army came close to brining it off. The issue wold bedecude on the Marne (September 1914), although the fighting would rage unabated for 4 years. It would set in motion the even more horendous struggle of World War II where Germany set out not only to dominate Europe, but to colonize it.

German War Guilt

The Allies in the Versailles Treaty followung the War forced Germany to accept responsibility for the War. Germany did play an important, if not central role, in the outbreak of the War. It was the Germans that by essentially writing Austria-Hungary a blank check that turned a Balkan incident into a European crisis. This was the central act that sent the count-down to the war ticking. And it was of course the Germans that took the first military action outside of the Blkans, invading France through neutral Belgium. Unlike World War II, however, the Germans were not solely responsible for the outbreak of World War I. France in particular was determined to get back Alsace-Loraine. Austria-Hungary was determined to punish the Serbs who were invomved in terrorism. But there were Balkan wars in the early 1910s that did not set off a general European confligration. Germany backing Austria-Hungary was the key difference.

Contributing Factors

The causes of World War I have been the subject of great historical debate. At the time many people in Europe had convinced themselves that Europe had progressed to the point that war was no longer possible. The European econommy was so intertwined that it did not seem feasible that major European countries could go to war. War was increasingly seen as an uncivilized vestage of the past. Thus the War came as a great shock. After the War, scholars addressed the causes of the War in considerable detail. There are a large number of contributing factors. The popular imagination after the war focussed on arms merchants. While there were many contributing factors, two emmerge as central to the disaster of World War I. First was the hyper-nationalism of the new German Empire and the conviction of many German leaders than Germany was not properly respected in unternational councils. This was comined with the status of the military in Germany and the willingness of Germany to resort to the military. The second factor was the perpetual emnity that Germany brough with France when it seized Alsace-Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Interestingly the historical assessment was most pronounced in the victorious Allied countries. In Germany, the debate was less about what caused the War, and more about how mighty Germany with its highly professional army could have lost the War.

Sources

Roberts, Andrew.






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Created: 9:52 PM 8/14/2007
Last updated: 6:05 AM 8/4/2010