Causes of World War I
For the war itself see World War I
The causes of World War I vary from the immediate (the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne by Serbian nationalists), to the complex (such as ethnic nationalism across Europe, the arms race, and the competing alliance systems) to the remote (the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871).
Political scientists generally say the war was not inevitable—that it was caused more by accident, misunderstanding and too-hurried decision-making. Historians say the deep forces would inevitably have caused a war.
Four "MAIN" causes
Four of the causes of World War I are often referred to by the acronym "MAIN", which stands for Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism.
What caused the Great War? Historians still debate the questions involved. How did the conflict start? Was it a case of small mistakes escalating into a conflict that no one really wanted, or was the war an unavoidable consequence of deep conflicts? Why did it become stalemated? Why could it not be terminated? Most ominous of all, could it happen again? The war began in 1914 between two coalitions. The "Central Powers" comprised the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, later joined by the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. The "Allies" included the British, Russian and French Empires, Japan, and Serbia. The powers had vast overseas empires in Asia, Africa and the Western Hemisphere (including Canada) that were active participants.
In examining this war the "who" and "when" questions are less interesting than the "how" and "why" problems. Since 1870 there had been no large war in Europe, largely because the major countries joined one of the two great alliances. Fear of a small conflict escalating into a large war provided deterrence—until 1914 when the system broke down. Historians and political scientists have debated endlessly why the system of alliances and deterrence collapsed, and how the Great War could have been avoided.
Nationalism and ethnic tensions between Germans and Slavs were the basic reasons that the war was fought. Religious affiliations (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim) overlapped language to produce closed ethnic communities which were highly motivated to fight their traditional enemies. Typically, each ethnic group dominated a central homeland, which had minorities, and also claimed a larger territory. Some claims were centuries old, others were new; they all overlapped. The incantation "it's ours because we were here first" cast a spell on otherwise peaceful peoples and guaranteed perpetual hostility.
For 800 years the Germans had been moving towards the Slavic parts of Central Europe in Europe, attempting to push out the Slavs. Wealth was based on agriculture, so possession of land was decisive. Germany had been unified from Prussia and numerous smaller countries in 1870, and rapidly built a powerful industrial economy with a strong agricultural base. Active imperialism led to the acquisition of numerous colonies in Africa and the Pacific, such as New Guinea. None of the colonies were profitable, but now Germany had a world empire. German’s main rival was Britain, with a smaller home population and a much larger empire, well protected by the world's strongest navy. By 1914 under the leadership of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany had a good fleet, but the Royal Navy remained well ahead in sea power. The naval race heightened rivalries between the two powers, but did not itself cause the war.
After 1900 the Slavs—led by huge Russia and little Serbia—were fighting back. Militant Pan-Slavic ideology demanded that oppressive German, Hungarian and Ottoman rule be overthrown, so that the Slavs could have their own nation states. Trouble flared in the Balkans, where two recent wars had revealed a propensity to use violence as a first remedy. Belgrade (the capital of Serbia) promoted unrest among Serbs in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, a multi-ethnic region that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had recently taken from Turkey and now planned to incorporate. The imperial capital, Vienna, was increasingly nervous that unrest among the various minority groups would lead to the breakup of its empire. The only way to keep control was to aggressively suppress nationalist uprisings and stop outsiders from inciting rebellion. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne, visited Bosnia to legitimize his Empire's claim to that province and upgrade its status. In Sarajevo a team of Bosnian Serbs assassinated him and his wife.
Alliances and Escalation
The Austrian Empire’s response escalated the conflict. The escalation was facilitated by the alliance network the major countries had built. Austria was closely allied to Germany and Italy through the "Triple Alliance" of 1882. Turkey was close to Germany and hostile to Russia. Russia and France were allied since 1894. Russia, acting without French approval, played the role of protector of the smaller Slavic nations, especially Serbia.
Britain remained aloof from the alliance system. Germany, influenced by the naval theories of the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, embarked on a campaign of naval building, which the Kaiser and his naval minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, hoped would help Germany achieve her "place in the sun" among the world powers, and perhaps force the British into an alliance through fear of German naval power. The British responded with an even bigger naval program. The German naval building campaign could not meet its goals, and the British became increasingly alienated from the Germans, whom they increasingly saw as rivals and potential European hegemons. The "Entente Cordiale" of 1904, which dealt with outstanding colonial questions between France and Britain in North Africa, was not a military alliance but it did symbolized Franco-British rapprochement. The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 settled outstanding conflicts of interest between Russia and Britain. As a result, there was a general alignment of France, Britain, and Russia known as the "Triple Entente."
Britain thus was officially neutral but was unwilling to accept the possibility that Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would control the European continent militarily and economically. The United States refused to become involved in any way and insisted on complete neutrality.
The July 1914 Crisis and Declarations of War
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated while visiting the city of Sarajevo by a team of trained assassins sent by The Black Hand, a pan-Slavic group financed by Serbia. Following the assassination and Germany's giving of a"blank check" of support to the Austro-Hungarians, a series of demands were issued to Serbia by Austria-Hungary with a strict 48-hour deadline. While the Serbian government offered to meet many of the demands, Prime Minister Nikola Pasic refused to turn over three men identified by Austrian authorities as being behind the attacks, declaring that to do so "would be a violation of Serbia's Constitution and criminal in law." Three days later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.
Preparation for War
Convinced that now was the time for a showdown, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Germany supported Austria. Russia announced support for Serbia, and France supported its ally Russia. Each nation in Europe (except Britain) had long trained most or all its young men in the army for two or three years, then retained them for long periods in reserves. That meant each country had a small professional army, and a very large reserve army that could be mobilized in a few days. Russia mobilized on July 28, followed in a matter of days or even hours by its rivals and allies. The Central powers had about 7.5 million regulars and reservists; Germany had 4.5 million, Austria 3.0 million; (in addition they were joined by Turkey with 2.9 million and Bulgaria with 1.2 million.) The Allies had larger numbers, Russia 6.0 million; France 4.0 million; Britain and Empire, 1.0 million; and Serbia 200 thousand, for a total of 11.0 million at the start. Later the Allies were joined by Italy (5.6 million), and the United States (4.4 million), as well as smaller countries. In the course of the war 1914-1917 the Central powers used 23 million different soldiers and the Allies 43 million. In 1914 the long-term numbers did not matter—it only mattered how many combat soldiers could be sent in a few days to defend the border, or better, to invade the neighbor. The Germans, with better organization and better railroads, made the most effective use of their manpower, while the dinosauer-like Russian Empire ran far behind schedule.
Few leaders seem to have feared war in 1914—indeed, the prevailing mood was that the world had become too cultured, too dull and boring. Warfare was the challenge needed to restore "manliness" to its "natural" state of warlike being, after so many years of softening in factories and offices. War seemed better than peace—and peace itself appeared dangerous because everyone feared their enemies were growing stronger year by year. Throughout Europe the public therefore enthusiastically supported going to war—even the supposedly antiwar Socialists went along. All the nations wanted to win, and their generals told them the way to win was take the offensive. The logic comprised two parts: First, armies were more mobile because of elaborate railroad networks, telegraph systems and highly detailed mobilization plans. Second, firepower was much greater because of the vastly bigger armies and because the new industrial technology had created better offensive weapons, especially artillery, against which no one had developed defenses. Therefore, the offense could whip the defense, and the first to attack would win. The last great war, between France and Germany in 1870-71 had been decided in a matter of weeks. No one looked back to the drawn-out American Civil War, as a warning.
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- Sidney Fay, The Origins of the World War (1930) classic scholarly study; argues many nations shared guilt for starting the war
- Italy was originally a Central Power, but remained neutral in 1914 and joined the Allies in 1915.
- The term "Slavic" refers to languages, and by extension to the corresponding ethnic groups. The main Slavic languages were Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Slovak, and Bulgarian. Note that the Albanians, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, Romanians and Turks who also lived in Central Europe did not consider themselves Slavic, because their languages were distinctively different.
- The assassination was planned in Serbia with the assistance of Serbian mid-level military and government officials, but not the government itself. Bosnia receded into the background in 1914, only to reappear center stage 79 years later. In 1993 the powers issued an ultimatum to Belgrade ordering it to stop helping the Bosnian Serbs, who were engaged in "ethnic cleansing" against Bosnian Muslims
- R.Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History (1985) 990.