Unraveling the Roots: Exploring the Causes of World War I

Category: World War, World War I
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2023
Pages: 5 Views: 57

The period of time between the late 1800s and the early 1900s was one of great political change and instability. It marked the lead up to one of the greatest wars in history and was filled with challenges based on nationalism, imperial rivalry, colonial rivalry, and international alliances. Possibly the earliest significant event in the wind-up to WWI was in 1839 where, through the Treaty of London, Belgium's neutrality was ensured by Britain, Austria, France, Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands. Before this, Belgium had been part of the Netherlands and after years of conflict had won its independence.

The treaty recognised this, and under Article 7, Britain promised to act as a protector of Belgium if any country should threaten it. Over three decades later, in 1870/71 the Franco-Prussian war was fought and Germany came out victorious. It gained the areas of Alsace and Lorraine, both important sites for acquiring raw materials, and left France feeling the victim of the encounter and in a hopeless situation. Furthermore France felt humiliated by the new conditions of the Peace of Frankfurt and a desire for revenge (la revanche) rose in France. In 1879 the dual alliance was formed. This treaty was between Germany and Austria-Hungary and only 3 years later in 1882, turned into the triple alliance with Italy becoming the final player.

These new alliances formed with Germany trying to ensure it had support from its closest geographical neighbours in case of conflict and also moved to ensure that in case of war France, now Germany's sworn enemy, would be isolated. This plan for the isolation of the French continued until 1889 with the appointment of Kaiser William as new leader of Germany. The new Kaiser was focused on proving Germany as a great military power and insisted upon military expansion to help ensure Germany's 'place in the sun' and her deserved respect. These new ideas contrasted to those of the moderate Bismarck who was soon forced to resign. Without Bismarck's guidance the German empire soon saw itself arrogantly neglecting international agreements and diplomacy and in 1891 Germany failed to renew its Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. What this meant was Russia now needed a new ally and in 1894 signed the dual entente with France.

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This new agreement stopped France's isolation and stated that in case of an attack France and Russia would support each other (especially against Germany). Germany's new found position led her to greater investment in her military. By 1898 Germany had the world's best army and began building a navy to challenge the British fleet. This action led to increased fears from the already paranoid French who placed pressure on Britain to ensure that she would not allow Germany to grow out of control. In 1904 the entente cordiale was signed between France and Britain, a friendly agreement which was to pave the way for future military alliance. In 1905 the first Moroccan Crisis occurred. The German Kaiser, staying true to his policy of expanding his empire and attempting to assume control of a key trade outlet, travelled to Port Tangier of Morocco. Here he declared his support for Moroccan independence from French rule. The Kaiser demanded an international conference to settle Morocco's status.

In 1906, in Algeciras, Spain, France was assured her position in Morocco by Britain Russia, Spain, Italy and the US. Only Austria-Hungary stood by the Germans. The result of the situation was opposite to what the Kaiser imagined. Instead of establishing a colony and weakening France's political ties, Germany found itself politically isolated and in late 1905/06 British and French generals started secret discussions on how best to fight Germany in a European war. Germany, having accepted its hostile position, had started searching for military plans in case of war. Accepting Germany could not fight a war on two fronts successfully, it accepted the Schlieffen Plan as its ideal and only course of action.

The plan was to take France (through Belgium) in six weeks and then proceed to the eastern front to fight Russia. As this was the only military plan held by the Germans, most of Germany's infrastructure was planned around it. With Germany's increasing preparations for war Britain released its new Dreadnought battleship which could out fire/race/perform any other ship. Germany responded by starting a serious and desperate naval race against Britain in a fight to get the strongest and most powerful navy. This military arms race prompted Britain to sign a military alliance with Russia forming the triple entente (France was already aligned to both Britain and Russia). Now the major powers in Europe were clearly divided into two parties, the triple alliance of Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary and the triple entente of Britain, France, and Russia. Only a year later in 1908 the Ottoman Empire began losing control of its remaining European territories. Austria- Hungary gained two of these areas, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

This was not taken well by neighbouring Serbia who had hoped to take the area for itself. In a movement known as 'pan-Slavism' the Serbs (supported by Russia due to the Russians desperate need for a warm water outlet which it hoped Serbia could secure) attempted to gain control of a greater amount of the Balkan region. Warfare, however, would have been suicide against Austria- Hungary and its ally Germany. Therefore Russia called for an international conference to settle the dispute. Austria-Hungary, however, refused to attend and after Germany came to Austria-Hungary's full support Russia had no choice but to back down.

In 1911 order broke down in the capital of Morocco, Fez. The French dispatched troops to protect foreigners in the city. This was not allowed under the 1906 Algeciras conference and therefore Germany sent a gunboat, Panther, to the port of Agadir. This over-reaction sparked alarm throughout Europe and Germany claimed French Congo as its own as compensation of Morocco. Britain responded to the Crisis by assuring France its rights in Morocco and a strengthening of the entente. In 1912/13 Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro joined together to fight Turkey in the first Balkan War. Turkey lost Albania and Macedonia. Later in 1913 Bulgaria, wanting more territory, fought the second Balkan War against its former allies Greece, Serbia, Romania and Turkey.

Serbia was victorious and won more territory. Serbia's newly increased power threatened Austria-Hungary and its plans to expand into the Balkans. In 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne visited Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, a new part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where great instability was present. A pan-national sentiment was high and Serbia offered Bosnia a means of uniting into the greater Slavic peoples of Southern Europe. The Arch-duke decided to visit Bosnia on June 28, the national day of the Serbian people which angered Serbs in and outside of Bosnia. A terrorist organisation, the Black Hand, planned an assassination. Although the original assassination attempt was unsuccessful the Arch-duke was assassinated later on the planned day being shot alongside his pregnant wife.

On the 5th July Germany declared its support for any Austro-Hungarian action. A few days later (23- 07) Austria-Hungary sends an ultimatum to Serbia with a 48 hour deadline. Serbia provides a conciliatory reply on the 25th and on the 26th Britain proposes a conference to resolve the dispute. Austria-Hungary rejects this response and two days later declares was on Serbia. Serbia calls on the support of its ally Russia which manages to mobilise in two days, not two weeks as the Germans had originally suspected. On the 31/07 Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia in order to stop its mobilisation and enquires of France's attitude towards the situation. Russia fails to stop its mobilisation and therefore Germany declares war on Russia. In order to be able to perform its sole war plan (aka Schlieffen Plan) Germany on the 03/08 declares war on France. A day later German troops enter Belgium, and in honouring of the Treaty of London, Britain declared was on Germany. With Britain and its colonies now involved in conflict the war had become the First World War.


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Unraveling the Roots: Exploring the Causes of World War I. (2023, Jun 16). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/unraveling-the-roots-exploring-the-causes-of-world-war-i/

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