The First World War (Part 1: The World In 1914)


(a) Europe still dominated the  rest  of the  world in  1914

Most  of  the  decisions  which  shaped  the  fate  of  the  world  were  taken  in  the  capitals  of Europe.  Germany was the  leading power in  Europe both militarily and economically.  She had  overtaken  Britain  in  the  production  of  pig-iron  and  steel,  though  not  quite  in  coal, while France, Belgium,  Italy and Austria-Hungary (known as the Habsburg Empire) were well behind.

Russian industry  was expanding  rapidly  but had  been so  backward  to  begin with  that  she  could  not  seriously  challenge  Germany  and  Britain.  But  it  was  outside Europe that the most spectacular industrial progress had been made during the previous 40 years.

In  1914  the  USA  produced  more  coal,  pig-iron  and  steel  than  either  Germany  or Britain and  now  ranked  as  a  world  power.

Japan  too  had  modernized  rapidly  and  was  a power  to  be  reckoned  with  after  her  defeat  of  Russia  in  the  Russo-Japanese  War  of 1904-5.

(b) The  political  systems  of these  world  powers  varied  widely

The  USA,  Britain  and  France  had democratic forms  of  government.  This means that  they each had  a  parliament  consisting  of  representatives  elected  by  the people;  these  parlia­ments had an important  say in  running the country.

Some systems were not as democratic as  they  seemed:  Germany had  an  elected  lower  house  of parliament  (Reichstag),  but real power  lay  with  the  Chancellor  (a  sort  of  prime  minister)  and  the  Kaiser  (emperor).

Italy was  a monarchy  with an elected  parliament,  but  the  franchise  (right  to  vote)  was limited to  wealthy  people.

Japan  had  an  elected  lower  house,  but  here  too  the  franchise  was restricted,  and the emperor and the  privy council held most of the power.

The governments in  Russia and Austria-Hungary were very  different  from the  democracy of the  West.  The Tsar  (emperor)  of  Russia  and  the  Emperor  of  Austria  (who  was  also  King  of  Hungary) were  autocratic  or  absolute  rulers.  This  means  that  although  parliaments  existed,  they could only advise the rulers;  if they felt  like it, the rulers could ignore  the parliaments and do  exactly  as they wished.

(c) Imperial  expansion  after  1880

The  European powers had taken part in  a great burst of imperialist  expansion in the  years after 1880. Imperialism  is the building up of an empire by seizing territory overseas.

Most of  Africa  was  taken  over  by  the  European  states  in  what  became  known  as  the ‘the Scramble for  Africa’; the idea behind it was mainly to get control of new markets and new sources  of  raw  materials.

There  was  also  intervention  in  the  crumbling  Chinese  Empire; the  European  powers, the  USA  and  Japan  all,  at  different  times,  forced  the  helpless Chinese to grant trading concessions.  Exasperation with the incompetence of their govern­ment caused the Chinese  to  overthrow  the  ancient  Manchu dynasty  and  set  up  a republic (1911).

(d) Europe had divided itself into two alliance systems

The  Triple Alliance:

  1. Germany
  2. Austria-Hungary
  3. Italy

The  Triple  Entente:

  1. Britain
  2. France
  3. Russia

In  addition,  Japan  and  Britain  had  signed  an  alliance  in  1902.  Friction  between  the  two main groups (sometimes  called  ‘the armed camps’) had brought Europe to the verge of war several times  since  1900.

Europe in 1914

(e) Causes of friction

There were many causes of friction which threatened  to  upset the peace of Europe:

  • There was naval rivalry  between Britain and  Germany.
  • The  French  resented  the  loss  of  Alsace-Lorraine  to  Germany  at  the  end  of  the Franco-Prussian War  (1871).
  • The  Germans accused  Britain,  Russia  and  France  of trying  to  ‘encircle’  them;  the
    Germans  were  also  disappointed  with  the  results  of  their  expansionist  policies (known  as  Weltpolitik – literally  ‘world  policy’).  Although  they  had  taken possession  of  some  islands  in  the  Pacific  and  some  territory  in  Africa,  their empire  was small in  comparison with those of the other  European powers, and not very reward­ing  economically.
  • The  Russians  were  suspicious  of  Austrian  ambitions  in  the  Balkans  and  worried about the growing military and economic strength  of  Germany.
  • Serbian  nationalism was probably the most dangerous cause  of friction.  Since  1882 the  Serbian  government  of  King  Milan  had  been  pro-Austrian,  and  his  son Alexander,  who  came  of  age  in  1893,  followed  the  same  policy. However,  the Serbian  nationalists bitterly resented  the  fact that  by the  Treaty of  Berlin signed in 1878,  the  Austrians  had  been  allowed  to  occupy  Bosnia,  an  area  which  the  Serbs thought should be part of a Greater Serbia. The nationalists saw Alexander as a traitor;  in  1903  he  was  murdered  by  a  group  of  army  officers,  who  put  Peter Karageorgevic  on  the  throne.  The  change  of  regime  caused  a  dramatic  switch  in Serbian  policy:  the  Serbs  now  became  pro-Russian  and  made  no  secret  of  their ambition  to  unite  all  Serbs  and  Croats  into  a  large  South  Slav  kingdom (Yugoslavia).  Many  of  these  Serbs  and  Croats  lived  inside  the  borders  of  the Habsburg Empire;  if  they  were  to  break  away  from  Austria-Hungary  to  become part  of  a  Greater  Serbia,  it  would  threaten  to  break  up  the  entire  ramshackle Habsburg  Empire,  which  contained  people  of  many  different  nationalities.  There  were Germans, Hungarians, Magyars,  Czechs,  Slovaks,  Italians,  Poles, Romanians, Ruthenians and  Slovenes, as well as Serbs and  Croats.  If the  Serbs and Croats left  the  fold, many  of  the  others  would  demand  their  independence  as  well, and the Hapsburg Empire would break up. Consequently some Austrians were keen for what they  called a  ‘preventive war’  to  destroy  Serbia before she  became strong enough  to  provoke  the  break-up  of  their  empire.  The  Austrians  also  resented Russian  support  for  Serbia.

Arising from all these  resentments and tensions came a series of events which culminated in the  outbreak  of war in  late  July  1914.


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