Throughout the course of history, Europe has experienced two wars that have affected both society and government in the modern era. The First World War in 1914 and the Second World War in 1941 dramatically changed Europe. During the Second World War, it was easy to distinguish between good and evil. On the other hand, during the First World War, the lines were not as clearly drawn. Though people view the Germans as the instigators of the First World War, this is not entirely true. The clarity of which country started what was mixed up between varieties of different circumstances during the time. Before the First World War, many new ideas about government and views had been preached and they were beginning to take root.
Countries such as Austria-Hungry were threatened by nationalism and other ideas. On the other hand, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism helped the new German nation, created in 1871 by the Franco-Prussian wars, grow stronger militarily (Online: German Notes). Countries had been introduced to the concept of developing foreign relationships to receive aid from allied nations if they were attacked by a common enemy. These new alliances contributed greatly to the First World War because they enabled countries with minimal means to engage in a world war. The First World War could have been prevented, but European countries witnessed the creation of a system of alliances, nationalism, militarism and imperialism, which had an impact on the outbreak of war in 1914.
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Though the First World War occurred due to several different factors, the most significant factor was the creation of an intricate system of alliances between countries in Europe. Before the First World War, there were two sets of alliances between the most powerful nations in Europe. The two alliances were called the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. The Triple Alliance was composed of Germany, Austria and Italy and was created in 1882 (Online: Tonge). Britain, France and Russia created the Triple Entente in 1907 (Online: Tonge). Germany created a strong alliance with Austria because they anticipated war and they wanted someone to guard their eastern side (Simkins, 11). France and Russia had created alliances with each other in 1892 because they saw the growing threat from the new German nation (Simkins, 11).
Britain had not yet made a military pact with Russia and France, but soon felt threatened by the growing German navy since Britain could not expand their navy under the Naval Defense Act in 1899 (Simkins, 12). These major alliances could create a World War because the countries had military treaties with each other and if one attacked the other, most of Europe would be at war. Before the First World War, the alliances proved to be dangerous during two situations; the Algeciras (1905) and Agadir (1911) Incidents (Gibson, 9). These two incidents almost started the First World War but they were resolved peacefully. They showed that Europe could easily be thrown into a World War.
Ignoring these previous warnings, the two alliances did not weaken and they kept their relationships strong. This proved deadly when all of Europe entered into a World War on July 25, 1914, when Austria declared war with Serbia because Serbia did not comply with all of Austria’s demands in an ultimatum (Gibson, 13). By attacking Serbia, Austria brought Russia into the war due to an alliance created between the two countries (Perry, 512). Once Russia had entered, Germany felt threatened by the partial mobilization of the Russian troops, so Germany decided to fully mobilize their troops and declare war on Russia (Perry, 513). “This action caused France to mobilize and set in motion the remaining cogs in the intricate machine of European alliances” (Simkins, 23). Germany then started its plan to take over France, which required them to go up through Belgium and then into France (Simkins, 24).
Belgium was unwilling to allow the German army to pass, which resulted in the conquest of Belgium after Germany declared war (Simkins, 24). Britain felt inclined to help Belgium and to protect its superior power on the water, so they declared war on Germany (Perry, 513). This declaration of war by Britain’s officially brought the Triple Alliance against the Triple Entente. The system of alliances brought the major countries of Europe into a war against each other. The system of alliances was a major cause of the First World War because it brought the major countries of Europe against each other.
Nationalism in Europe was another major cause of the First World War because it had different effects on the people and government of Germany and Austria. Historians today believe that nationalism was “the most powerful spiritual force of the age” (Perry, 503). Nationalism gave people pride in their country and the people were inspired for their countries to become a world power (Crowe, 274). Germany believed that if they wanted “to have a voice in affairs of the larger oceanic world she must be made a ‘World Power,” so Germany needed to find some way of achieving this (Crowe, 274). Since nationalism was very heavily practiced in Germany, this aided and drove their dream of becoming a world power and entrance into the war because the people were not afraid to fight for their country.
Germany viewed the time of peace before the war as “a national misfortune for Germany” and “the preservation of peace can and never shall be the aim of politics” (Scheidemann, 279). The Germans took advantage of this patriotic population and entered into the war to achieve a world power status. Once Germany had entered the war, the people felt “that they belonged together,” and it was “what they should have felt in peacetime ” (Zweig, 277). Nationalism helped unify the people and make them feel like a team instead of an individual during the war. Unlike Germany, the Austria-Hungry Empire was threatened by the growth of nationalism in small groups and attempted to repress the threat. With its diverse culture of Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, and more, Austria-Hungry faced difficulties satisfying the citizen’s needs and containing the nationalist minorities because of the diversity (Online: The Corner, “Nationalism”).
Serbia only heightened this problem by attempting to unite the minorities in Austria and overthrow the Austrian government (Perry, 511). Once Gavrilo Princip, a member of a Serbian nationalist group called the Black Hand, assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, who was next in line for the throne, on June 28, 1914, Austria was unable to ignore this nuisance anymore (Simkins, 22). On July 23, 1914, Austria presented an ultimatum to Serbia who agreed to all but one of the demands. Nevertheless, Austria still declared war on Serbia (Perry, 511). Nationalism contributed to the First World War because it unified the people of the new German nation but, attempted to destroy the Austria-Hungry Empire in Europe.
Militarism was another factor that influenced the countries of Europe to enter into the First World War because of an increase in the use of new weapons and an interest in expanding countries’ borders. During this time period, many new technologies, weapons and machines were introduced for warfare. The rifle and a new quick-firing machine gun replaced the previous guns that were slow and hard to reload (Gibson, 6). Tanks and artillery were invented, which made generals apply new methods of warfare and introduced stronger forces on the battlefields (Gibson, 6). Also, the invention of steam power brought about trains, which were able to carry troops and supplies farther and faster (Gibson, 6). These new advances in warfare excited the German ruler, Wilhelm II, and he developed the country’s industrial power to support their production (Simkins, 11). Germany believed that “the union of the greatest military with the greatest naval power in one state would compel the world to combine for the riddance of such an incubus” (Crowe, 275).
Germany was able to build up a massive army, which threatened the European countries adjacent to Germany (Simkins, 11). As Germany built up its army, France and Russia were inclined to match the power of Germany and build up their armies. This build-up of armies went back and forth and they all slowly built up their power and size in Europe. This was a cause of the war because all of the countries were ready to attack each other with their new and large armies (Online: The Corner, “Militarism”). Germany not only built up their land force but, also built up its naval power. This started a race between Germany and Britain to have the largest naval fleet in order to control the North Sea (Online: The Corner, “Militarism”). The two countries went back and forth but in the end, Britain achieved dominance over Germany for the largest naval fleet in Europe (Simkins, 12).
Not only did Germany have a large fleet and army, but they also had generals and politicians that promoted war passionately. “Statesmen were generally more willing to solve international disputes by military rather than diplomatic means” (Simkins, 14) and “the military-political-industrial elite … was fully prepared to contemplate war … as the quickest way of realizing their ambitions” (Simkins, 15). Germany’s government did not want to solve their problems by negotiations but rather by using military force. Militarism influenced the First World War because it provided countries with new weapons, larger armies and the mindset that the only way to acquire something was to take it with force and war.
Though imperialism was regarded as a less important factor of the First World War, it influenced European country’s economies and Germany’s interest in expanding into a world power. Since the creation of their nation in 1871, the Germans wanted to expand into China, Africa and Europe to access the supplies that they needed to fund their growing industries, naval fleet and army (Gibson, 6-9). This caused conflicts between Germany and other European nations, such as France and Britain, because Germany was capturing areas held by the other countries (Online: The Corner, “Economic Rivalries”). The tensions between European countries were the highest during the Bosnian Crisis. Countries close to the Balkans, roughly around Turkey, attempted to unite the area to get a good staging area into the Mediterranean (Gibson, 11-12).
Countries fought over the land because this area would provide trade and other advantages that came from being connected to the Mediterranean (Perry, 510). Not only did Germany want the land for supplies, but a British official, Eyre Crowe, observed that “a healthy and powerful State like Germany, with its 60,000,000 inhabitants, must expand, it cannot stand still” (Crowe, 274). Germans declared that they “must have real Colonies, where German emigrants can settle and spread the national ideals of the Fatherland” (Crowe, 274). Germany was looking for a way to spread its culture to the world in order to obtain power worldwide. Germany also believed that if they want “to have a voice in affairs of the larger oceanic world she must be made a ‘World Power'” (Crowe, 274). Imperialism was affecting Germany because they believed that the only way to be heard was by being a great empire like the British. Since the world’s amount of land for sale was declining, Germany had little choice but to acquire the land by militaristic means and Austria helped them by declaring war on Serbia.
The tensions between Germany and other European countries and Germany’s increasing demand for land and supplies caused the country to go to drastic measures in order to achieve their goal of being a “World Power”. If the alliance system, nationalism, militarism and imperialism had not been used, then Europe may not have experienced the First World War. The alliance system had brought about the war because it obliged countries to enter into the fight. The alliances between the powerful nations divided Europe in two; the people on the Triple Alliance and those on the Triple Entente. Similarly, nationalism helped accelerate the war because it encouraged countries to fight for their nation. Also, nationalism threatened empires such as Austria-Hungry because of the diverse interests and the country could not satisfy the needs of all the different people.
Militarism also had an impact on the First World War because of the powerful armies and the production of new weapons, such as rifles and tanks. It gave power to the generals, who thought the solution to everything was using force. Finally, imperialism influenced the war because Germany needed to spread its culture and obtain the supplies necessary for them to maintain its army and navy. Alliances, nationalism, and militarism all contributed to the start of the First World War and if these developments in society had been avoided, there may not have been a history of the horrific events of the First World War.
- Crowe, Eyre. “Germany’s Yearning for Expansion and Power” quoted in Perry, Marvin et al., Sources of the Western Tradition, third ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995). 273-275
- Duffy, Michael. “The Causes of World War One.” 2004. April 25, 2007, <http://www.firstworldwar.com/origins/causes.htm>
- Gibson, Micheal. Spotlight on the First World War. ( England, Wayland Publishers, 1985). 4-15.
- German Notes. Causes of World War 1. 2007. April 25, 2007, <http://www.germannotes.com/hist_ww1_causes.shtml>
- Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History. 4th ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). 502-506, 510-515.
- The Corner. Economic Rivalries. 2007. May 14, 2007. <http://www.thecorner.org/hist/wwi/military.htm>
- The Corner. Militarism. 2007. May 12, 2007. <http://www.thecorner.org/hist/wwi/military.htm>
- The Corner. National Rivalries. 2007. May 12, 2007. <http://www.thecorner.org/hist/wwi/national.htm>
- Tonge, Stephen. Causes of the First World War. 2006. April 25, 2007. <http://www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/causeww1.htm>
- Treitschke, Heinrich von. “The Greatness of War” quoted in Perry, Marvin et al., Sources of the Western Tradition, third ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995). 269-270.
- Scheidemann, Philip. “Berlin: ‘The Hour we Yearned for'” quoted in Perry, Marvin et al., Sources of the Western Tradition, third ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995). 278-279.
- Simkins, Peter. The First World War: The Western Front 1914-1916 (Great Britian, Osprey Publishing, 2002). 8-24.
- Zweig, Stefan. “Vienna: ‘The Rushing Feeling of Fraternity'” quoted in Perry, Marvin et al., Sources of the Western Tradition, third ed. (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995). 277-278.