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The Causes of World War One

Essay Topic: ,

‘World War One was the result of a series of unintended and disconnected events. ’ Does this opinion adequately explain the causes of World War One? It is understandable that historians ponder on what exactly caused a war that destroyed Europe’s economy, cost the lives of 37 million men and involved a country from every region of the world (from the Americas to Asia). The opinion this essay will discuss implies that the events that led to this major conflict were unintended and disconnected; and in order to emit a judgement that would agree or disagree with this view it is important to first identify the causes of world war one.

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Therefore this essay will first discuss the different types of causes (long, mid and short terms), respectively nationalism, imperialism/militarism and the ‘blank cheque’. Hence this essay will evaluate whether these were ‘disconnected and unintended events’ or if there is a connection between the causes. The main sources used in this essay are Coles’ general notes on world history and historian Martin Gilbert’s book entitled ‘First World War’. The long term causes prepared the ground for the war.

Nationalism can be categorized into the long term causes because it had influenced Europe prior to 1914, and as French writer Guy de Maupassant argues, ‘it is the eldest cause of any war’. Quite a popular phenomenon in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th, nationalism produced pride in one’s country’s achievements. The world war one themes paper observed that this ‘led to xenophobia and ideas of racial superiority’; but what it fails to mention is that as much as nationalism could provide feelings of superiority it could also provide feelings of equality.

For example, minorities that previously were dominated by larger powers were now swept with waves of nationalism. This could be observed in the Balkans in the prelude of the world war; where small states were experimenting Pan-Slavism, ‘a nationalistic movement for political and cultural solidity of all Slavic people’ thus a threat to the Austrian Empire who dominated the South Slavs.

One could argue that this form of nationalism led to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by an extreme Serb nationalist group, or that it was the Austrian’s nationalism (their pride in their achievement of an empire) that pressured them into keeping all minorities within the empire at all costs; this leading to the Austro-Hungarian ‘impossible’ ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd of July 1914.

Nationalist mood in Europe could also be seen in France; more than 30 years after the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian war a black cloth still veiled the statue of Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde and it was a symbol, a constant reminder of the loss of the two eastern provinces, Alsace and Lorraine. The French still remembered the defeat and often spoke of ‘La Revanche’ (the revenge).

As historian Gilbert argues, ‘War, if it came, would be an irresistible opportunity to fulfil long harboured desires or to avenge long-nurtured hatreds’. Historian Martin Kelly also argues that ‘it was nationalism, that manifested itself in the pan-Slav feeling of the Russian population, that tied Russia and Serbia together whilst Austria declared war, and thereby triggering what would have been a limited local conflict into world war’.

When the Russian tsar signed the order commanding full mobilisation of Russian troops because ‘Russia could not remain indifferent to a declaration of war on Serbia’ and as the ultimate proof of the stimulating effects of Nationalism, editor Alex Bein remembered that ‘the Russian popular sentiment applauded the fullest possible solidarity with the beleaguered fellow Slavs of Serbia’. In this particular case it is difficult to determine whether these events occurred under the ‘Nationalism’ potential cause or the ‘Alliances’.

Without dropping into philosophical or anthropological arguments, this essay will assume that alliances themselves were generated because of nationalism, as countries really wanted to increase their power by allying themselves with other powers, which in the end is motivated by a nationalist feeling. It is often observed in general history that events sometimes only occur because they are in a specific context. ‘Mid-term’ causes, if it the events that occurred slightly prior to the commencement of the war (between 1970 and 1914) can be labelled so, could be held responsible for creating a context specific to that time.

In this case, militarism and imperialism greatly shaped the relations between the powers and consequently the political shape of pre-war Europe. Imperialism was a symbol of power that allowed the European powers to expand their overseas territories and therefore ‘gain new markets, raw materials and fields of investment’. The movement of ‘the Scramble for Africa’ left most of the African continent occupied by Europeans, notably colonies of Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Belgium; Germany did have some overseas territories, but as historian Gilbert remarks ‘The Kaiser did not make ffective use of its colonies, and owned them by name rather than by practice’. This observation shows that the Kaiser attached a symbolic importance to colonies. The ambitious German king wished that his recently united Germany (the German unification had only occurred in 1971, not even half a century before the war) would possess more overseas territories. Unfortunately most of the African continent was already ‘occupied’; leaving the Kaiser with a bitter feeling of rivalry with Britain and France.

This led to the dangerous Agadir crisis, in which the Kaiser had ordered a fleet to establish a port at Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The British feared this would give the Germans an undesired strong grip in Northern Africa, and thus threatened them to respond in ‘a hostile manner’ if the German gunboat did not depart immediately. ‘The threat was effective, but the rancour which left it was equally strong’, noted Gilbert. At the Reichstag, a few weeks after the event, a social democrat commented in a worried tone that tensions could lead to a war, to which a parliamentarian responded: ‘After every war things are better! The imperialistic tendencies of Europeans unavoidably led to tensions within Europe itself, generating mutual suspicions and fear. This could explain why the European powers felt the need to invest in the military: in the 1870s, all six major European powers had adopted compulsory military training, which resulted in some 4 ? million men under arms by 1914. Each power’s General army staffs had well-drawn battle plans in readiness: the French had ‘Plan 17’, the Germans had ‘Schlieffen plan’ and Russians had ‘Plan A’. By the beginning of the conflict a total amount of $2 billion a year was spent on armament (all powers combined).

It can only be logically concluded that if the powers were investing so much time and money in military they were intending to use it. Finally, it was the ‘short term’ causes led to critical events that escalated into the war. A general historical view observes that it all began when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, on the 28th of June 2014. The Italian foreign minister at the time observed that ‘The telegram indicated that the assassination of the Archduke was the occasion rather than the cause of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, and it reveals the reason for Austria’s action [invading Serbia]’.

This view can also be supported by the fact that ‘between 1906 and 1914 the Austrian Chief of Staff General Hotzendorf had asked more than 25 times for a ‘surprise’ war on Serbia’. The Austro-Hungarians wanted to reduce Serbia’s power by attacking her. When they were provided with an excuse to do so (Ferdinand’s assassination) ‘They were not fully confident to attack immediately for fear of Russian retaliation,’ argues Gilbert: ‘but the fact that they had unconditional German support if ever the conflict widened gave them confidence’.

It is argued that the Germans had given their full support because the Austro-Hungarians were their most precious allies, and they could not afford losing the cooperation of the other central power when they were encircled by the Triple Entente (Russia, Britain and France). Therefore, to some extent, it can be argued that it is this unconditional support that pushed Austria to declare war on Serbia, without considering the Russian factor. The main issue with identifying causes of the world war is that there are several and none that can be granted full prominence because opinions vary.

It is also difficult to establish a cause and effect relationship, because there is no precision and again, it is subjective. This considered, a link can still be noticed in the causes enumerated above: Nationalism made European powers want to achieve more for them, leading to prestigious and expensive colonization. Unfortunately these imperialist tendencies created conflicts between the powers, creating mutual suspicions and alliances. The tensions gave the powers a feeling of insecurity, and led way to intense militarisation which meant that the powers could be ready in a matter of weeks in the event of a war.

The Germans were so prepared for a war they could afford giving their unconditional support to Austria, who then attacked Serbia, and triggered the alliance system. It is a way to explain how the causes are linked; but it is not necessarily pertinent in the sense that these events could have been simply events; they only became causes because of the war. For example, if we use counterfactual history and assume that Austria would have never attacked Serbia, perhaps the war would have broken out over Britain and Germany fighting for an access to the Suez Canal, which at that time would have been likely.

Perhaps the war would have never happened if the Europeans did not see war as an acceptable method to solve conflicts: as the German parliamentarian had pointed out, ‘after a war all things are better! ’ and the view that most historians believe that actually the war ‘had long been in the making’. As the American historical review states, ‘There was no slide to war, no war caused by ‘unintended’ events, but instead a world war caused by a fearful set of elite statesmen and rulers making deliberate choices’.

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