Categories Selfstudyhistory.com

World War I- Part III: Causes Of The World War I

World War I- Part III: Causes Of The World War I

Causes of the first world war

  • Immediate cause of the war:
    • The immediate cause of the war was the bitter enmity between Austria and Serbia in the Balkans leading to murder of Archduke Francis, the nephew of the Austrian Emperor and heir of throne in Serajevo by a Bosnian.
    • Austria by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, provinces akin to Serbia in blood and language, had created a second Alsace-Lorraine in the Balkans.
    • A lively agitation was set afoot by the Serbians with the object of securing the union of these provinces with their own country.
    • But Austria was determined to prevent the expansion of Serbia.
      • She feared that Serbia with her territory enlarged and prestige heightened, might attract to herself millions of Croato-Serbs under Austrian rule.
      • Austria felt that if Serb and Slav nationalist ambitions for a state of Yugoslavia were achieved, it would cause the collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
    • It was at Austrian demand that Serbia was deprived of some of the fruits of her victory in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and it was at her instance that the artificial state of Albania was erected to prevent Serbia from getting any outlet to sea.
    • But in spite of Austrian opposition Serbia managed to enlarge her territory and to heighten her prestige. Her impassioned patriotism led her to intensify the Pan-Slavic agitation. Austria in her turn was concerting measures to isolate Serbia and crush her.
    • It was at this posture of events when there was plenty of bad blood on both sides that Archduke Francis was murdered which started the World War.
  • It is difficult to analyse why the assassination in Sarajevo developed into a world war.
      • Some blame Austria for being the first aggressor by declaring war on Serbia;
      • some blame the Russians because they were the first to order full mobilization;
      • some blame Germany for supporting Austria, and
      • others blame the British for not making it clear that they would definitely support France. If the Germans had known this, so the argument goes, they would not have declared war on France, and the fighting could have been restricted to eastern Europe.
    • The point which is beyond dispute is that the quarrel between Austria-Hungary and Serbia sparked off the outbreak of war. The quarrel had become increasingly more explosive since 1908, and the Austrians seized on the assassination as the excuse for a preventive war with Serbia.
  • The Austro-Serb quarrel explains the outbreak of the war, but not why it became a world war.
  • The Great War of 1914 was the culmination of the developments that had been going on for more than a generation. Its causes are to be sought in the conjunction and intermingling of various forces and tendencies which had been at work for a long time among the nations of Europe. Here are some of the reasons which have been suggested for the escalation of the war:
  • Nationalism:
    • Resounding triumph of nationalism in Italy and Germany invested it with new vigour and made it a potent force in politics.
    • It inflamed the racial pride of the people, stimulated them to exalt their country above all others and made them arrogant in their attitude to their neighbours. That was why Lord Acton had branded nationalism as an absurd and criminal principle.
    • It was the excess of nationalism that embittered the rivalries of states like Germany and Great Britain and encouraged them to naval and military competition.
    • It was aggressive nationalism that led the Powers to squabble over their interests in Asia, Africa and the Balkans.
    • It was the outraged nationalism of French people that kept alive their spirit of revenge for the loss of Alsace Lorraine and made them the bitterest enemy of Germany.
    • The cry of Italia Irredenta (unredeemed Italy) was the expression of the national ambition of Italy to wrest from Austria the Italian-speaking districts of Trieste and the Trentino.
    • Unsatisfied national aspirations of the Balkan peoples made the Balkan Peninsula a vertiable tinder-box which before long set all Europe ablaze.
    • Hence excess of nationalism was at the back of most of the occurrence that led towards the war.
  • The alliance system or ‘armed camps’:
    • It owed its origin to the diplomacy of Bismarck who realised that France could not easily forget the humiliation inflicted upon her by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
      • Hence to safeguard Germany against a possible French attack, he initiated a system of military alliance.
      • This, in its turn, provoked counter-alliances, and in the result Europe was divided into two hostile armed camps.
    • The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria and Italy confronted the Dual Alliance of France and Russia, supported by the Triple Entente of England, France and Russia.
    • The worst feature of the alliance system was that the treaties were secret. Hence the alliances designated to preserve peace actually aroused fears and suspicious.
    • The alignment of Powers into mutually suspicious groups was fraught with grave menace to international peace.
      • In the recurring crises that occurred from 1906 to 1914 the rival groups confronted each other and took sides.
      • Each of the groups had met with diplomatic rebuffs causing loss of prestige.
      • Thus Germany had been outplayed in the two Moroccan crises by France and Great Britain and this was regarded as the defeat of the Triple Alliance. But in the Bosnian crisis of 1908 the Austro-German combination won a victory over the Triple Entente and humiliated Russia.
      • Such alternate diplomatic rebuffs and victories caused increased bitterness, intensified the rivalry of the two system of alliances and thereby set the stage for war.
    • As suspicions mounted between the two opposing camps, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany got themselves into situations which they could not escape from without suffering further humiliation; war seemed to be the only way for them to save face.
    • However, many historians think this explanation is not convincing; there had been many crises since 1904, and none of them had led to a major war. In fact, there was nothing binding about these alliances:
      • When Russia was struggling in the war against Japan (1904-5), the French sent no help nor did they support Russia when she protested at the Austrian annexation of Bosnia;
      • Austria took no interest in Germany’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent France from taking over Morocco (the Morocco and Agadir Crises, 1906 and 1911);
      • Germany had restrained Austria from attacking Serbia during the Second Balkan War.
      • Italy, though a member of the Triple Alliance, was on good terms with France and Britain, and entered the war against Germany in 1915.
    • Hence there is a view that no power actually declared war because of one of these treaties of alliance.
  • Competitive militarism:
    • The rising nationalist sentiments, the increasing tension among the Powers and the existence of the two rival systems of alliances, produced a deep sense of insecurity in the minds of the Powers.
    • The two groups faced each other with the utmost vigilance and suspicion and vied with one another in making military preparations against possible attack.
      • Germany greatly increased the size of her standing army.
      • France lengthened the term of compulsory service from two years to three.
      • Russia adopted a new programme of army expansion.
      • Great Britain added considerably to her already large naval expenditure.
    • This competitive race in armament produced fear and hostility among all nations.
    • Anglo-German naval rivalry was one of the contributory causes of the war.
  • The naval race between Britain and Germany
    • The German government had been greatly influenced by the writings of an American, Alfred Mahan, who believed that sea power was the key to the successful build-up of a great empire. It followed therefore that Germany needed a much larger navy capable of challenging the world’s greatest sea power – Britain.
    • Starting with Navy Law of 1897, the Germans made a determined effort to expand their navy.
      • The rapid growth of the German fleet probably did not worry the British too much at first because they had an enormous lead.
      • However, the introduction of the powerful British ‘Dreadnought‘ battleship in 1906 changed all this because it made all other battleships obsolete. This meant that the Germans could begin building ‘Dreadnoughts’ on equal terms with Britain.
    • The resulting naval race was the main bone of contention between the two right up to 1914. For many of the British, the new German navy could mean only one thing: Germany intended making war against Britain.
      • However, early in 1913 the Germans had actually reduced naval spending in order to concentrate more on strengthening the army.
      • As Winston Churchill correctly pointed out, in the spring and summer of 1914, naval rivalry had ceased to be a cause of friction, because ‘it was certain that Britain could not be overtaken as far as capital ships were concerned’.
  • Economic rivalry:
    • World history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was characterised by a struggle for markets, for sources of raw materials and fields for investment of surplus capital and for settlement.
    • This struggle was at the bottom of most of the international crises that occurred during the two decades before the outbreak of the war.
    • In industrial and commercial competition Germany was gradually gaining ground and this aroused great apprehension in Great Britain or she feared that Germany would outdistance her in the race for the world commerce and trade.
    • As a matter of fact British suffered from a veritable “Made in Germany” complex which boded ill for the peace of Europe. This economic competition led to frictions between the two nations and made the people of one look upon the people of the other as rivals and enemies.
    • In lessor degree there were similar economic rivalries among other nations.
    • Note:
      • It has been argued that the desire for economic mastery of the world caused German businessmen and capitalists to want war with Britain, which still owned about half the world’s tonnage of merchant ships in 1914.
      • Marxist historians like this theory because it puts the blame for the war on the capitalist system.
      • But critics of the theory point out that Germany was already well on the way to economic victory; one leading German industrialist remarked in 1913: ‘Give us three or four more years of peace and Germany will be the unchallenged economic master of Europe.’ On this argument, the last thing Germany needed was a major war.
  • Imperialism:
    • Imperialism was constant source of friction among the powers.
    • As the result of the imperialistic outlook of the age, the greatness of the nation was considered to depend not merely on its standing in Europe, but upon the value and extent of its non-European possessions.
    • Judged by this new standard Germany found herself dwarfed by her rivals. England, France and Russia, each of them had built up a huge colonial empire and had practically parceled out among themselves the non-European possessions- a share quite disproportionate to her real status.
      • Hence Germany sought a “place in the sun” and was determined to carve out for herself a world empire commensurate with her position.
      • She tried to find out possible outlets for expansion in every direction but everywhere found the way closed against her.
      • Her rivals, England, France and Russia had most lucrative portion of the world.
      • As a matter of fact her unsatisfied imperialist ambition was the chief source of international frictions and crisis that presaged the outbreak of the Great War.
    • Criticism:
      • The argument that German disappointment with their imperial gains and resentment at the success of other powers helped cause the war is not convincing.
      • Although there had certainly been disputes, they had always been settled without war.
      • In early July 1914 Anglo-German relations were good: an agreement favourable to Germany had just been reached over a possible partition of Portuguese colonies in Africa.
      • However, there was one side effect of colonial rivalry which did cause dangerous friction- this was naval rivalry.
  • Russia made war more likely by supporting Serbia
    • Russian backing probably made Serbia more reckless in her anti-Austrian policy than she might otherwise have been.
    • Russia was the first to order a general mobilization, and it was this Russian mobilization which provoked Germany to mobilize.
    • The Russians were worried about the situation in the Balkans, where both Bulgaria and Turkey were under German influence.
      • This could enable Germany and Austria to control the Dardanelles, the outlet from the Black Sea. It was the main Russian trade route, and Russian trade could be strangled.
      • Thus Russia felt threatened, and once Austria declared war on Serbia, saw it as a struggle for survival.
    • The Russians must also have felt that their prestige as leader of the Slavs would suffer if they failed to support Serbia.
    • Possibly the government saw the war as a good idea to divert attention away from domestic problems, though they must also have been aware that involvement in a major war would be a dangerous gamble.
      • Shortly before the outbreak of war, one of the Tsar’s ministers warned that a long war would put a severe strain on the country and could lead to the collapse of the tsarist regime.
    • Perhaps the blame lies more with the Austrians: although they must have hoped for Russian neutrality, they ought to have realized how difficult it would be for Russia to stay neutral in the circumstances.
  • German backing for Austria was crucially important
    • It is significant that Germany restrained the Austrians from declaring war on Serbia in 1913, but in 1914 encouraged them to go ahead.
      • The Kaiser sent them a telegram urging them to attack Serbia and promising German help without any conditions attached.
      • This was like giving the Austrians a blank cheque to do whatever they wanted.
    • The important question is: Why did German policy towards Austria-Hungary change? Several different interpretations have been put forward by the historians:
      • After the war, when the Germans had been defeated, the Versailles Treaty imposed a harsh peace settlement on Germany. The victorious powers felt the need to justify this by putting all the blame for the war on Germany.
        • After a few years, opinion began to move away from laying sole blame on Germany and accepted that other powers should take some of the blame.
      • Germany was responsible for war:
        • Some historians suggested that Germany should, after all, take most of the blame, because they risked a major war by sending the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria-Hungary.
        • They claim that Germany deliberately planned for, and provoked war with Russia, Britain and France in order to make Germany the dominant power in the world, both economically and politically, and also as a way of dealing with domestic tensions.
          • In the elections of 1912, the German Socialist Party (SPD) won over a third of the seats in the Reichstag (lower house of parliament), making it the largest single party.
          • Then in January 1914, the Reichstag passed a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor, Bethmann, but he remained in office because the Kaiser had the final say.
          • Obviously a major clash was on the way between the Reichstag, which wanted more power, and the Kaiser and Chancellor, who were determined to resist change.
        • A victorious war seemed a good way of keeping people’s minds off the political problems; it would enable the government to suppress the SPD and keep power in the hands of the Kaiser and aristocracy.
      • Other historians emphasize the time factor involved:
        • The Germans wanted war not only because they felt encircled, but because they felt that the net was closing in on them.
        • They were threatened by superior British naval power and by the massive Russian military expansion.
        • German army expansion was being hampered by opposition from the Reichstag which refused to sanction the necessary tax increases.
        • On the other hand the Russians had been helped by huge loans from the French government.
        • In 1914, German military chief Moltke stated that there was no alternative for the Germans but to make ‘preventive’ war in order to defeat their enemies before they became too powerful.
        • The German generals had decided that a ‘preventive’ war, a war for survival, was necessary, and that it must take place before the end of 1914. They believed that if they waited longer than that, Russia would be too strong.
      • Some historians reject both of above points and suggest that Germany did not want major war at all; the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and Chancellor Bethmann believed that if they took a strong line in support of Austria, that would frighten the Russians into remaining neutral – a tragic miscalculation, if true.
  • The mobilization plans of the great powers
    • Some historians believe that the German plan for mobiliza­tion, known as the Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by Schlieffen in 1905-6, was extremely risky and inflexible and deserved to be seen as the start of disaster both for Germany and Europe. It gave the impression that Germany was being ruled by a band of unscrupulous militarists.
    • A. J.P. Taylor argued that these plans, based on precise railway timetables for the rapid movement of troops, accelerated the tempo of events and reduced almost to nil the time available for negotiation.
    • The Schlieffen Plan assumed that:
      • France would automatically join Russia; the bulk of German forces were to be sent by train to the Belgian frontier, and through Belgium to attack France, which would be knocked out in six weeks.
      • German forces would then be switched rapidly across Europe to face Russia, whose mobilization was expected to be slow.
    • Once Moltke knew that Russia had ordered a general mobiliza­tion, he demanded immediate German mobilization so that the plan could be put into operation as soon as possible.
      • However, Russian mobilization did not necessarily mean war- their troops could be halted at the frontiers.
      • Unfortunately the Schlieffen Plan, which depended on the rapid capture of Liege in Belgium, involved German troops crossing the frontier into Belgium on 4 August, thus violating Belgian neutrality.
    • Almost at the last minute the Kaiser and Bethmann tried to avoid war and urged the Austrians to negotiate with Serbia (30 July).
      • Wilhelm suggested a partial mobilization against Russia only, instead of the full plan; he hoped that Britain would remain neutral if Germany refrained from attacking France.
      • But Moltke insisted on the full Schlieffen Plan; he said there was no time to change all the railway timetables to send the troop trains to Russia instead of to Belgium.
    • It looks as though the generals had taken over control of affairs from the politicians. It also suggests that a British announcement on 31 July of her intention to support France would have made no difference to Germany: it was the Schlieffen Plan or nothing, even though Germany at that point had no specific quarrel with France.
    • Doubt was cast on this theory by some historians.
      • They argue that the Schlieffen Plan was only one of at least five alternatives being considered by the German high command in the years after 1900.
      • One alternative dealt with the possibility of a Russian attack at the same time as a French invasion; in this case the Germans would transfer considerable forces by train to the east while holding the French at bay in the west. Schlieffen actually carried out a military exercise to test this plan towards the end of 1905.
      • Schlieffen never committed himself to just one plan: he thought war in the west would begin with a French attack and never intended that the Germans should send all their forces into France to destroy the French army in one huge battle.
      • It was only after the war that the Germans tried to blame their defeat on the rigidity and the constraints of the Schlieffen Plan, which had, in fact, never existed in the form they tried to make out.
  • A ‘tragedy of miscalculation’
    • Some historians suggest that the Germans may not have deliberately provoked war and that, in fact, war was not inevitable, and it should have been possible to reach agreement peacefully.
    • The war was actually caused by a ‘tragedy of miscalculation’. Most of the leading rulers and politicians seemed to be incompetent and made bad mistakes:
      • The Austrians miscalculated by thinking that Russia would not support Serbia.
      • Germany made a crucial mistake by promising to support Austria with no conditions attached; therefore the Germans were certainly guilty, as were the Austrians, because they risked a major war.
      • Politicians in Russia and Germany miscalculated by assuming that mobilization would not necessarily mean war.
      • The generals, especially Moltke, miscalculated by sticking rigidly to their plans in the belief that this would bring a quick and decisive victory.
  • Responsibility of war:
    • Germany:
      • A majority of historians believe that the outbreak of war was deliberately provoked by Germany’s leaders.
        • The Kaiser and his leading advisers and generals believed that time was running out for them as Russia’s vast armament plans neared completion.
        • It was a war to ensure survival, rather than a war to secure world domination, and it had to take place before Germany’s position among the Great Powers deteriorated too far for the war to be won.
        • German leaders gambled on a victorious war, even though they knew it was likely to last several years. As for world domination – that might well come later.
        • In the words of Moltke, the Germans took this gamble in 1914 in order to fulfill ‘Germany’s preordained role in civilization’, which could ‘only be done by way of war’.
      • Some historians argue that the German leaders deliberately started the war and that Wilhelm II bears the main responsibility because of his duplicity and his recklessness.
    • Austria:
      • Some historians believe that the government in Vienna had not taken a decision to attack Serbia before the assassinations at Sarajevo, because they had other political priorities.
        • In the circumstances that existed in 1914, war was certainly not inevitable, though it was possible.
        • Thus the murders of Franz Ferdinand and his wife really did provide the decisive moment: without that there would have been no decision for war in Vienna and therefore no general conflict.
        • Some also believe that German pressure and promises of support were not important – the Austrian leaders made their own decisions.
    • Russia:
      • It is also possible to argue that if Russia’s rearmament was indeed making the Germans so nervous, then Russia should bear at least equal responsibility for the outbreak of war.
        • Some historians argue that Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1905 had fatal consequences for the peace of Europe.
          • It sparked off a revolution in Russia which severely weakened the government, and
          • it forced the Russians to focus their foreign policies towards the Balkans instead of in the direction of the Far East.
        • This foreign policy had two main aims: the desire for peace and the necessity of winning back their lost prestige.
        • Until 1911 the desire for peace was paramount. But in that year the Russian leading minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who favoured peace, was assassinated, and the government began to succumb to the growing jingoistic public opinion which demanded that action should be taken to increase Russian prestige.
        • Consequently, following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, in February 1914 the Tsar promised to help the Serbs in the event of an attack by Austria-Hungary, and signed a naval agreement with Britain which, it was hoped, would help safeguard Russian access to the Mediterranean, if the Germans and Turks should ever try to block the Dardanelles.
        • These new policies had ‘a devastating impact on German foreign policy, bringing about an important shift in German thinking about the international system’.
          • The naval agreement outraged the Germans, who saw it as a betrayal by the British; and the promise of backing for Serbia convinced the Germans that it was vital for them to support Austria—Hungary.
        • Together with the vast Russian military expansion, all this was enough to galvanize the Germans into risking a war for survival, before Russia became any stronger.
    • Perhaps the most sensible conclusion is that Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary all must share the responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914.

One thought on “World War I- Part III: Causes Of The World War I”

Leave a Reply