Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Causes of World War I
Main article: World War I
On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo in a conspiracy involving Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb student, and several others. Though World War I was triggered by the chain of events this assassination unleashed, the war's origins lie deeper, involving national polities, cultures, economics, and a complex web of alliances and counterbalances that developed between the various European powers over the course of the nineteenth century, following the final 1815 defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. Napoleon's rise to power was, in turn, a direct consequence of the 1789 French Revolution, which overthrew the French monarchy.
The various categories of explanation for World War One correspond to different historians' overall methodologies. Most historians and popular commentators include causes from more than one category of explanation to provide a rounded account of the causal circumstances behind the war. The deepest distinction among these accounts is that between stories which find it to have been the inevitable and predictable outcome of certain factors, and those which describe it as an arbitrary and unfortunate mistake.
The system of sovereign nation states, sometimes referred to as the Westphalian system, was developed in Europe from the mid-seventeenth century. Nationalism or patriotism may be seen as the popular ideological expressions of this system. To understand why European populations were eager for war in 1914, some historians find it necessary to examine the roots of such ideology.
Napoleon Bonaparte and the Rise of Nationalist Sentiment
By the late eighteenth century, French society was on the verge of collapse. The old monarchy was ruling France by birthright and absolute authority. The structure of the French political system/society consisted of: a king on the top, the people on the bottom, with church and nobles somewhere at the upper-end. Over time friction occurred as the new social/economic class, the bourgeoisie rose in prominence. In time this new middle class began to push for reforms within the French political system and to demand political/social representation. In time, France's political/social systems became ripe for political change as the economy began to hit a reef. This was in no small measure due to two factors. The first being Louis XIV and his successors' lavish expenditures, such as the Palace of Versailles. It is estimated that by itself Versailles accounted for as much as a quarter of France's annual national income. Louis XIV and his successors also engaged France in a series of expensive wars such as the American Revolution, which drained the remaining financial reserves, and led to rampant inflation. Many of the middle class were outraged when taxes were raised and their purchasing power was diminished by inflation. What began as a movement to fix France's broken economy and society became the Napoleonic Wars, a continent-wide struggle for power.
The French Revolution resulted in chaos and the ascent of Napoleon to power. Napoleon's armies marched all over Europe, bringing not only French control, but French ideas. The rise of ideas of nationalism, devotion and love for one's common people and ethnicity, increased in popularity during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon encouraged the spread of nationalism, which he saw in his troops, to better the French war machine. The French people began to feel pride in their culture and ethnicity. The world watched nationalism for the first time and saw the power the French gained from it. Following the Napoleonic Wars, nationalistic ideas spread across Europe, although Napoleon was certainly not solely responsible for the spread of these ideas. Economic and technological factors played an important role in the spread of these ideas during the early 19th century.
The Congress of Vienna
After Napoleon's final defeat at The Battle of Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna followed in 1815. The congress was organized by the main victors of the Napoleonic Wars: Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria. The key figure of the congress was Austria's representative, Klemens von Metternich. Metternich advocated restoring Europe to the way it was before the French Revolution. He urged Europe to create a balance of power, where no European nation was stronger than another. He also created the concert of Europe, a system where nations would help each other to keep the old aristocracy in power. By preventing the single monarchy in a country from falling to nationalism it would prevent the entire continent from going up in flames under social revolution. If that were to ever happen, according to Metternich, Europe would be thrown into another continental war, as Napoleon and French Nationalism had shown. Metternich feared nationalism as a force that could tear apart multi-ethnic nations like Russia and the Austrian Empire.
In the years that followed the Congress of Vienna, conflicts began springing up all over Europe between those who cried out for change, and those who resisted it. By the mid-1800s, nationalism had become an evident force. A wave of unrest could be seen across the continent in the Revolution of 1848. The 1860s and early 1870s saw two great changes to the map: the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany. These two nations were formed on the basis of nationalism. German Unification was brought about by Prussia's "Iron Chancellor", Otto von Bismarck, through a series of wars from 1864–1871. As minister of Prussia, Bismarck gave a famous speech in 1862, including:
"Germany is not looking to Prussia's liberalism, but to her power. The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and majority decisions, that was the mistake of 1848, but by blood and iron."
Changes in Austria
In 1867 the Habsburg Empire fundamentally changed its governmental structure, becoming Austria-Hungary. For hundreds of years the Empire had been run in an essentially feudal manner with a german speaking aristocracy at its head. However, with the emergence of nationalism within the empire, some elements, including Emperor Franz Joseph, decided that a compromise would have to be made in order to preserve some of the power of the german aristocracy. In 1867 the Ausgleich was agreed upon which made the Magyar elite in Hungary almost equal partners in the government of the Empire.
One of the results of this arrangement was a tremendous degree of dissatisfaction amongst many in the traditional German ruling classes. Some of them considered the policy to have been a calamity for their Empire because it often frustrated their intentions in the governance of the Empire. For example, it was extremely difficult for the empire to form a coherent foreign policy that suited the interests of both the German and Magyar elite.
Throughout the fifty years from 1867 to 1914 it proved difficult to reach adequate compromises in the governance of the emprire, leading many to search for non-diplomatic solutions. At the same time a form of social darwinism became popular amongst many in the Austrian half of the government which emphasised the primacy of armed struggle between nations, and the need for nations to arm themselves for an ultimate struggle for survival.
As a result at least two distinct strains of thought advocated war with Serbia, often advocated by the same people.
- In order to deal with political deadlock, some reasoned that more Slavs needed to be brought into the empire in order to dilute the power of the Magyar elite. With more slavs the south slavs of the empire could force a new political compromise in which the germans could play the magyars against the south slavs. Other variations on this theme existed, but many schemes were designed to cure internal stagnation through external conquest.
- Another fear was that the south slavs, primarily under the leadership of Serbia, were organizing for a war against Austria-Hungary, and even all of Germanic civilization . Some, such as Conrad von Hötzendorf argued that Serbia must be dealt with before it became too powerful to defeat militarily.
A powerful contingent within the Austro-Hungarian government was motivated by these thoughts and advocated war with Serbia long before the war began. Prominent members of this group included among them Leopold von Berchtold, Alexander Hoyos , and Janós Forgách Graf von Ghymes und Gács . Although many other members of the government, notably Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph, and many Hungarian politicans did not believe that a violent struggle with Serbia would necessarily solve any of the multinational empire's problems, the hawkish elements did exert a strong influence on government policy, holding key positions.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1)
Many of the origins of World War I can clearly be seen in the results and consequences of The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. This conflict brought the establishment of a powerful and dynamic German Empire, causing what was inevitably seen as a displacement or unbalancing of power: a new and prosperous nation had been formed, with the industrial and military potential to threaten Europe, and particularly those other powers already established. Germany had both the national fervour and economic resource to gain power, represented in the Anglo-German rivalry to come and the growth of its navy.
A legacy of animosity grew between France and Germany following the German annexation of parts of the formerly French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The annexation caused widespread resentment in France, giving rise to the concept of revanchism, or a French desire for revenge against Germany for the losses inflicted by the Franco-Prussian War: not only the losing of territory, but the damage done within the country, the death of French soldiers, and the upsetting of government and the revolution that followed, culminating in the formation of the French Third Republic. It was the violence and bloodshed caused by the Franco-Prussian War which fuelled this revenge. Bismarck was wary of this during his later years, and tried to placate the French by encouraging their overseas expansion. However, anti-German sentiment remained. A Franco-German colonial entente that was made in 1884 in protest of an Anglo-Portuguese agreement in West Africa also proved short-lived after a pro-imperialist government under Jules Ferry in France fell in 1885.
In Marxist theory and related strands of historical theory, the cause of the war is largely attributed to an alleged material dependency of advanced European nations on imperialism. By this group of theories, nations such as Great Britain and France could only maintain healthy domestic economies in the late 19th century through their control and exploitation of foreign resources, markets and territories. As a late arrival on the world stage, the German Empire would have been locked out of such advantageous positions. Intense rivalry between this emerging economic power and the incumbent Great powers would be the inevitable outcome.
Rivalry among the powers was exacerbated from the 1880s by the scramble for colonies which brought much of Africa and Asia under European rule in the following quarter-century. Under pressure from certain groups, even Bismarck agreed to the chase for overseas Empire, adding to Anglo-German tension as German acquisitions in Africa and the Pacific threatened to impinge upon British strategic and commercial interests. Wilhelm's support for Moroccan independence from France, Britain's new strategic partner, provoked the Tangier Crisis of 1905. During the Second Moroccan or Agadir Crisis (1911), a German naval presence in Morocco tested the Anglo-French coalition once again.
Anglo-German Naval Race
Another contributing factor to the war was the build-up of tension between Britain and Germany as a result of Germany's desire to become a naval power. The British believed that the only thing holding their vast empire together was their naval power, and consequentially felt threatened by Germany's aggressive naval policy.
Tension in the Balkans
A key ingredient in the emerging diplomatic powder-keg was the growth of powerful nationalist aspirations among the Balkan states, which each looked to Austria-Hungary or Russia for support. The rise of anti-Austrian circles in Serbia following a 1903 palace coup contributed to a further crisis in 1908 over Austria's unilateral annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, German pressure forcing a humiliating climbdown on the part of a Russia weakened (1905) by defeat at the hands of Japan and subsequent revolutionary disorder.
Alarm at Russia's unexpectedly rapid recovery after 1909 fueled sentiment among German ruling circles in favour of a pre-emptive war to break alleged Entente "encirclement" before Russian rearmament could tip the strategic balance decisively against Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1913 both France and Germany were planning to extend military service, while Britain had entered into a naval convention and military discussions with France during the previous year.
By some historical accounts, the war was primarily the consequence of errors of judgement by European leaders, especially the monarchs of Russia and Germany. In this approach, leaders on all sides may be taken to have been too complacent about the real risk of war, or too in thrall to lobbies within their societies who favoured war. Other, specific oversights are sometimes offered as contributory to this general incompetence.
Ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm II
Under the political direction of its first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, Germany secured its new position in Europe by an alliance with Austria-Hungary and a diplomatic understanding with Russia. Bismarck began pursuing alliances and peace treaties. He made peace with almost every nation in Europe except France. He feared greatly that a war might destroy the newborn nation he had created in the 1860s. By the time of Wilhelm I's death, a system of alliances kept a tight peace in Europe.
The ascension (1888) of Kaiser Wilhelm II brought to the German throne a young ruler determined to direct policy himself, despite his rash diplomatic judgement. After the 1890 elections, in which the centre and left parties made major gains, and due in part to his disaffection at inheriting the Chancellor who had guided his grandfather for most of his career, Wilhelm engineered Bismarck's resignation.
Much of the fallen Chancellor's work was undone in the following decades, as Wilhelm failed to renew the 1887 Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, presenting republican France with the opportunity to conclude (1891–94) a full alliance with the Russian Empire. Worse was to follow, as Wilhelm undertook (1897–1900) the creation of a German navy capable of threatening Britain's century-old naval mastery, prompting the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and its expansion (1907) to include Russia in the Triple Entente.
The Schlieffen Plan
Germany's strategic vulnerability, sandwiched between its allied rivals, led to the development of the audacious Schlieffen Plan. Its aim was to knock France instantly out of contention, before Russia had time to mobilise its gigantic human reserves. Germany could then turn her full resources to meeting the Russian threat. Although Alfred Graf von Schlieffen initially conceived the plan well prior to his retirement in 1905, Japan's defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 exposed Russia's organisational weakness and added greatly to the plan's credibility.
The significance of the existence of this Plan is that it committed German military planners to what amounts to a pre-emptive strike at the first sign of war becoming inevitable - or Russia would have time to mobilise, and Germany would be undone. When, at the last minute, Kaiser Wilhelm II attempted to cancel the plan, to avert war, he found that it was too late - to scrap the plan would require a re-organisation of the German army that would leave Germany vulnerable for several months.
It appears that no war planners in any country had considered Germany's options, guessed at anything like the Schlieffen Plan, or advised politicians accordingly. Thus Europe's leaders debated calmly, without any sense of the requisite urgency, believing all parties would act patiently. But Germany could not afford patience.
Web of alliances
The complex set of treaties binding various players in Europe together prior to the war are sometimes thought to have been misunderstood by contemporary political leaders. Mobilisation by one, relatively minor, player would have a 'cascading' effect that could rapidly run out of control, involving every country. Yet leaders discussed the crisis between Austria Hungary and Serbia as if it were a localised issue. This is how Austria-Hungary's threat of 'police action' against Serbia eventuated in Britain's entry into the war:
- Austria Hungary threatens Serbia
- Russian treaties with Serbia commit it to mobilise in Serbia's defense
- Russian mobilisation kick starts the Schlieffen Plan, and the eventual invasion of Belgium
- France mobilises in sympathy with Russian ally
- Britain's treaty with Belgium commits it to defend Belgium from all aggressors
Over by Christmas
The belief that a war in Europe would be swift, decisive and 'Over by Christmas' is often considered a tragic underestimation - the theory being, that had it been widely appreciated beforehand that the war would open such an abyss under European civilisation, no-one would have prosecuted it. This account is less plausible on a review of the available military theory at the time, especially the work of Ivan Bloch, an early candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Bloch's predictions of industrial warfare leading to bloody stalemate, attrition, and even revolution, were widely known in both military and pacifist circles.
- Western Front Association
- Firstworldwar.com - accessible source for primary documents
- Web Memorial, Netherlands, with some controversial elements
Leslie, John. “The Antecedents of Austria-Hungary’s War Aims,” Wiener Beiträge zur Geschichte der Neuzeit ed. Elisabeth Springer and Leopold Kammerhofer, 20 (1993): 307- 394.
Schroeder, Paul W., “Embedded Counterfactuals and World War I as an Unavoidable War” in Unmaking the West: Counterfactual Thought Experiments in History, ed. Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow and Geoffrey Parker. 
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