The following article on causes of WW1 is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazonand Barnes & Noble.
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The first world war began in August 1914. It was directly triggered by the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on 28th June 1914 by Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip.
This event was, however, simply the trigger that set off declarations of war. The actual causes of the war are more complicated and are still debated by historians today.
Causes of WW1: Alliances
An alliance is an agreement made between two or more countries to give each other help if it is needed. When an alliance is signed, those countries become known as Allies.
A number of alliances had been signed by countries between the years 1879 and 1914. These were important because they meant that some countries had no option but to declare war if one of their allies. declared war first. (the table below reads clockwise from the top left picture)
Causes of WW1: Imperialism
Imperialism is when a country takes over new lands or countries and makes them subject to their rule. By 1900 the British Empire extended over five continents and France had control of large areas of Africa. With the rise of industrialism countries needed new markets. The amount of lands ‘owned’ by Britain and France increased the rivalry with Germany who had entered the scramble to acquire colonies late and only had small areas of Africa. Note the contrast in the map below.
Causes of WW1: Militarism
Militarism means that the army and military forces are given a high profile by the government. The growing European divide had led to an arms race between the main countries. The armies of both France and Germany had more than doubled between 1870 and 1914 and there was fierce competition between Britain and Germany for mastery of the seas. The British had introduced the ‘Dreadnought’, an effective battleship, in 1906. The Germans soon followed suit introducing their own battleships. The German, Von Schlieffen also drew up a plan of action that involved attacking France through Belgium if Russia made an attack on Germany. The map below shows how the plan was to work.
Causes of WW1: Nationalism
Nationalism means being a strong supporter of the rights and interests of one’s country. The Congress of Vienna, held after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, aimed to sort out problems in Europe. Delegates from Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia (the winning allies) decided upon a new Europe that left both Germany and Italy as divided states. Strong nationalist elements led to the re-unification of Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. The settlement at the end of the Franco-Prussian war left France angry at the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and keen to regain their lost territory. Large areas of both Austria-Hungary and Serbia were home to differing nationalist groups, all of whom wanted freedom from the states in which they lived.
Causes of WW1: Crises
In 1904 Morocco had been given to France by Britain, but the Moroccans wanted their independence. In 1905, Germany announced her support for Moroccan independence. War was narrowly avoided by a conference which allowed France to retain possession of Morocco. However, in 1911, the Germans were again protesting against French possession of Morocco. Britain supported France and Germany was persuaded to back down for part of French Congo.
In 1908, Austria-Hungary took over the former Turkish province of Bosnia. This angered Serbians who felt the province should be theirs. Serbia threatened Austria-Hungary with war, Russia, allied to Serbia, mobilized its forces. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary mobilised its forces and prepared to threaten Russia. War was avoided when Russia backed down. There was, however, war in the Balkans between 1911 and 1912 when the Balkan states drove Turkey out of the area. The states then fought each other over which area should belong to which state. Austria-Hungary then intervened and forced Serbia to give up some of its acquisitions. Tension between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was high.
This article on causes of WW1 is from the book The Yanks Are Coming! A Military HIstory of the United States in World War I © 2014 by H.W Crocker III. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazonor Barnes & Noble.
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Editor's Note: Please also see Michael Peck's recent article How Germany Could Have Won World War I.
The centenary of the beginning of World War I has revealed a deep divide between perceptions of the war held by the general public and historians, at least in the English-speaking world. Pundits and commentators and politicians routinely opine that World War I was a needless and unavoidable catastrophe, variously attributed to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, runaway arms races, imperialism in general, or “sleepwalking” politicians who stumbled blindly into catastrophe. The general impression among the broader public is that nobody in particular was to blame for the greatest conflagration in world history before the Second World War. Literary and cinematic masterpieces like Remargue’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Kubrick’s Path’s of Glory have reinforced the perception that the conflict proved the absurdity of war. The lesson is that war is like catastrophic climate change—a destructive force that must be avoided and for which everyone is partly to blame.
In the Anglophone world, this popular interpretation of World War I has deep roots in strains of isolationism, the international peace campaigns of the early twentieth century, and, not least, Woodrow Wilson’s call for a “peace without victory.” In the European Union, treating World War I as the product of abstract forces like arms races or nationalism is doubtlessly useful in minimizing national animosities.
But unlike the chattering classes, most historians, ever since Fritz Fischer published Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961), have tended to agree that the major cause of World War I was Imperial Germany’s determination to become a “world power” or superpower by crippling Russia and France in what it hoped would be a brief and decisive war, like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Following the Archduke’s assassination, Berlin deliberately used the crisis in relations between its satellite Austria-Hungary and Russia’s satellite Serbia as an excuse for a general war that would establish German hegemony from Belgium to Baghdad. World War I started in 1914 for the same reason that World War II started in 1939—a government in Berlin wanted a war, though not the war it ultimately got.
The secret “September program” of the German government in 1914 envisioned lopping off territory from France and turning Germany’s neighbors into “vassal states” (a term used in the document for Belgium). The 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, negotiated between Germany and the Soviet government that it had helped to install in Moscow, removed Russia from the war, gave Germany the Baltic states and part of Belarus and made an independent Ukraine a German satellite. Put the September program and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk together, and you have a striking vision of a German continental empire as expansive as the one imagined by Hitler—although, unlike Hitler’s genocidal German settler empire, the Kaiser’s empire would have been a more traditional empire of German-dominated vassal states.
Defenders of the “everyone was at fault” interpretation of World War I point out that Germany’s enemies had expansive war aims, too, and that Britain and France carved up the Ottoman empire following the war. But this misses the point. The alliance of Russia, France and Britain was defensive, provoked by Germany’s bellicose drive to become a global rather than merely regional power. There had been numerous Balkan wars in the preceding decades and the conflict between Austria and Serbia could have been confined to the Balkans, if Berlin had chosen that option. Instead, Germany’s rulers used Sarajevo as an excuse to do what it wanted to do anyway: convert itself into a “world power” by dominating Europe through war.
The British historian Niall Ferguson once suggested that if Britain and the U.S. had stayed out of World War I, a Mitteleuropa established by the Kaiserreich might have evolved into something like today’s European Union. Nonsense. Within Imperial Germany, victory would have strengthened the authoritarian militarists and weakened the forces of liberalism and democracy. The political culture would have been not that of today’s bourgeois Germany but that of a Latin American banana republic or today’s Thailand or Egypt, illiberal regimes in which generals and colonels pull the strings.
A German victory in World War I would have created a European superpower which, if less maniacal and murderous than Hitler’s aborted superstate, would have been much more formidable than the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia was a backward nation that controlled the poorest half of Europe during the Cold War. If it had prevailed in World War I, Imperial Germany would have been the most advanced nation of Europe, dominating the richest region in the world.
Would this new superpower, created in a bloody war of aggression by Berlin, have been a status quo power? It seems more likely that the German imperial elite, emboldened by success, would have charged recklessly on to wage cold war against the British empire and against the U.S. in the western hemisphere. In any hypothetical German-American Cold War, Imperial Germany might have mobilized superior scientific and technological resources, including areas like chemistry and rocket science in which it led the world. And unlike the Hitler regime, a triumphant Kaiserreich probably would not have allowed distinctions between “Jewish science” and “Aryan science” to get in the way of developing atomic weapons.