War War I Causes: Contributing Factors

Figure 1.-- Post cards of children playing war were common before World War I and during the War. The Alsatian girl (note the folk dress) here is greating the French soldier, "Sois bienvenu chez, nous. petit soldat de Franc. Grace a toi, notre Alsace chante la délivnance!" That means something along the lines of, " We welcome you. small soldier of Franc. Thanks to you, our Alsace sings délivnance!" As Bismarck feared, the German seizure of lsace-Loraine bought the perpetual emnity of France. And when Kaiser Wilhelm II ignored Bismarck and allowed the Russian treaty to lapse, French diplomats negotiated a tgreaty with Russia--placing Germany in a vulnerable strategic position.

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.

Entagling Alliances

After the War the system of "entangling" alliances was seen as the major cause. This was an especially popular concept in America which did not negotiate alliances with foreign countries. Even when the United states entered the War, it did not sign an alliance with Britain and France. The alliance system in Europe did build two opposing camps. This was not the case throughout much of the 19th century. As late as the mid-19th century there was a a great deal of anity among the European powers which cooperated in the supression of the revolutions of 1848. This spirit of cooperation began to change with the Crimean War, but the touvhstone was the Franco-Prussoian War. The German annexation of Alsace-Loraine insured perpetual hostility between France and Germany. And when Kaiser Wilhelm II allowed the Russian treaty to lapse, France moved to sign a treaty with Russia. This created the Entant, an alliance that posed a serious security threat to Germany whose primary ally was Austria-Hungary. This alliance became known as the Central Powers. Not all the provisions of the treaties were made public. The obligations under the treaties did not complel any of the World War beligerants to launch an attack. They were mostly mutual assistance treaties, oblligaring the countries to assist allies if they were attacked. This was the case of the Frenco-Russin treaty. In the case of Britain, the key obligation to Belgian neutrality. The critical alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany did not require Germany to provide a guarantee to Austria-Hungary if it attacked Serbia, but Kasiser Wilhem decided to do so. There were also ouliers like Turkey, determined to win back territory from Russia. And outliers like Italy which failed to comply with its obligations to the Central Powers and negotiated for the best deal.

Arms Race

The division of Europe in to armed camp was the major factor giving rise to an arms race. Here France's decire to be better prepared for a future war with Germany was a facto. Germant was the strongest land power in Europe with a well armed professuonal military. Other countries attempted to copy the German preparations that led to victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). This included universal conscription, a highly professional military baccked up with a trained reserves, and detailed staff work and planning. Both the Entaht and Central Powers had detailed mobilization and war plans. Vast sums were spent on research and the production of arms. The German von Schlieffen Plan was desigbned to attack abnd defeat France before Russia with its huge manpower resources could mobilize. The French developed Plan 5. These plans entailed massive armies that had to be trained and equipped. Armies were greatly expanded. The French and Germany standing army doubled between 1870 and 1914. Technological advances as a result of the spending created armies with extroduarily leathal weapons. A naval arms race also developed. Britain since Trafalgur had unchallenged control of the sea. The major challebnge to the Btitish Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries had been France. Kaiser Wilhem decided to challenge the British Royal Navy. Britain was a European outlyer, avoiding Continental commitments and even avoided concription. The German challenge, however changed British attitudes pusgh them toward the French. The British Admiralty decided that to maintain naval supremecy that they needed a navy two and a half times as large as the second-largest navy. This was because potential adversaries might combine their navies. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)demonstrated the effectiveness of big-gun battleships. Admiral Sir John Fisher's response was Dreadnought which rendered every other battleship obsolete. Rather than guarantee British superiority, it provide Germany the chance of reaching naval parity. German desire for greater power and international influence, which sparked a naval arms The battleship was the super weapon of the era and enormously expensive. The German naval challenge fundamentally changed the relationship between Britain and Germany. Efforts for worldwide disarmament at the Hague Conferences (1899 and 1907) failed. , international rivalry caused the arms race to continue to feed on itself.

Capitalism and Imperialism

Left wing analysts tended to see the war as a result of capitalism and imperialism. Surely the European alliance system played a role in the conflict, but the Marxist explanation lacks any real insight into the conflict. Nor does it make any economic sence. Capitalissm intertwined Europeam economies. The Great Powers all benefitted from trade. The economic cists of war were mamouth, far exceeding trade advantage that were gained. Nor did corporations as a hole bebefit. Gearing up for required costly conversions tht would prove worthless once the War ended.

Arms Manufacturers

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. Despite extensive hearings, no real proof was ever found that industry played any important role in launching the War.

Aggreived Nations

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 aggreved 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 aggreved 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 toiward 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.


Nationalism was certainly an important factor leading to the War. International issues can be negotiated, even serious matters. Emotional sentiment generated by nationalism complicate these negotiations. In the years before World War, there were a series of international incidents involving the Great Powers , any one could have led to War. Each was resolved through negotiation. Nationalistic thought, however, complicated each of these negotiations. None of the major European powers wanted to be seen as weak or backing down to the other powers. And public opinion in the various countries was highly nationalistic. This was especially the case of France and Germany. This led to a highly charged international environment. There was some pacifist sentiment, in part associated with the rising Socialist movement, but it was no where near as strong as nationalist sentiment. Here Germany as a new nation was particularly nationalistic and the country's bombastic Kaiser did not dampen down the nationalist sentiment. The Kaiser and many Germans believed that their new nation was not given the requisite recognition and deference due. The Kaiser was seen as reckless in several international crisis, especially by the British to whom he had family ties. This was a substantial change from the Bismarck era. And the fact that Germany had Europe's strongest army, meant that Germany's strident nationalism was bolstered by military power. France was also extremely nationalistic. Here a major factor was the loss of Alsace-Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). France continued to see Alsace-Loraine as lost provinces which had to be regained and the only way of achieving this was war. French war ardor, however, was tampered by military reality of a powerful united Germany. he Franco-Prussian War had taught them never to fight the Germans without allies. And French diplomacy had gained them a vital ally in the East -- Russia. And in addition, the French and Britain in the face of an increasingly aggressive Germany were making an historic rapprochement. The nationalism of the Great Powers, however, was not the only nationalist spirit to be considered. There were nation states with a core ethnicity, but most of Europe was governed by multi-ethnic empires which included ethnic groups that aspired for independence. And the Great Powers were championed some of these groups creating conflicts. Russia had championed the Christians in the Ottoman Balkans whose nationalist sentiment led to independence movements. And Russia was also championing the Slavs within the Austro-Hungarian Empire who also aspired for independence. This would be the spark that would finally set off a war between the Great Powers.

German Militarism

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, German militarism was seen as a major cause of the war. The victorious Allies blamed theGermans for the War. As the passions of the moment slowly ebbed and historians and journalists began to assess what happened, the idea og German war guilt and German militarism began to ebb and other explanations began to emerge that were not just focused on Germany, causes like entagling alliances, the arms race, capitalism, imperialism, arms manufacturers and other issues. With the rise of the NAZIs and World war II, the idea of German militarism reemerged as a cause of World War I. There is no question that the German Army had considerable prestige and influence in the German Empire. Historians point out that in most countries the Army supports the state, but the history of Prussia was more like a state supporting an army. Brandenberg-Prussia was a relatively small, poor country. It could survive in a rough neigborhood (north central Europe) only by training and equipping a substantial army. This was expensive and state revenue went primarily to support the army. Prussia expanded because of its standing army. It fared well in a series of wars, most of which were short. Countries with standing armies tend to do best in short wars. The Prussian military traditiin ton incourage aggresiveness and attack because the Prussian advantage wained if wars were not ended quickly and Prissia with its limited resources was at a disadvantage in long wars of attrition. It was Brussia with its military tradition an the Hohenzollern dynasty that finally united Germany. Thus the institutions and values of Prussia became central in the new German Empire. Imperial Germany was not, however, a poor country witn limited resources. Imperial Germany with its large army and substantial industry was the most powerful country in Europe and had the capability of dominating Europe. It is not fair to say that the German military was the cause of the World War I, but it certainly is a cause. The German military advised Kaiser Wilhelm that they could defeat France in a short campaign before the Russians could mobilize. And Kaiser Wilhelm was predeposed to accept their advise. As a boy, he had watched his father, Crown Prince Fredrich retirn from a successful campaign againsr France. He undoubtedly wanted the same kind of milatary laurels.

Terrorism and Assaination

Despite all the bickering over colonial possessions, it was the Balkans that would provide the spark for war. Terroism provided that spark in a chilling reminder to our modern age. The Balkans was particularly unsettled and wars occured there just before the outbreak of World War I. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbia developed as an independent state in the mid-19th century and an expanding Serbia came into conflict with an expanding Austro-Hungarian Empire. And beause large numbers of Serbs lived in Bosnia which the Austro-Hungarian annexed, the conflict between the two states intensified. Serbia was a much smaller country and as a result, declined to confront Austria openly. Serbian officials, however, supported Serbian nationalists in Serbia to destabilize Austrian rule. The best known Serb terrorist group nwas the Black Hand. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. This might have been a localized incident. The two countries, however, had treaty and cultural relations with larger powers. The Serbs were Slavs and Russia had a pan-Slavic foreign policy. The Austrians had a treaty with Germany. Austria would have reacted cautiously to the assiasination if they knew they would have to fight Russialone. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. The Austrians did not think Russia would dare fight Germany.

Imperialism/ Colonialism

Marxist authors will stress colonialism as a cause of World War I. It was what Marx predicted. In fact there is little evidence of this. Colonialism certainly raised a range of issues before the war and was a destabilizing issue, primarily because the Germans did not think their overseas colonies adequately reflect what their national greatness merited. Most of the imperial issues, however, were settled as a result of the Scramble for Africa. There was simply no outstanding colonial issues that were of any importance that could have generated a general European war. The Scramble for Africa resolved most of the major colonial issues. The war was triggered by entirely European issues. Ethnic conflict in the Balkans resulted in the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke by a Serbian nationalists. Russian mobilized its huge army to protect Serbia. Russia also did not have colonies unless you consider imperil interests in Manchuria and Korea and there the conflict was with Japan. Germany responded to Russian mobilization by invading Belgium, setting off the War. The only major unresolved colonial issue between European colonial powers was the Great Game between Britain and Tsarist Russia — the Great Game. This was the collision of Russian colonial interests in Central Asia and British colonial interests in India. While much has been written about this, it obviously did not play a role in triggering the War because Britain and Russia fought on the same side. So European nationalism was certainly involved, European ethnic conflicts were involved, European terrorism was involved, and European security interests, but not colonialism in triggering the War.


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Created:6:13 AM 8/4/2010
Last updated: 11:11 PM 7/30/2017