The ’cause’ of the First World War

The ’cause’ of the First World War has always been a subject of intense debate. There are many explanations on offer and it is easy to conform to one of the crude views expressed by the warring governments that it was one power or a group of powers that provoked war. We must look at the wider picture; from the cometh of war in 1914 all the major powers had some military plans drawn up for the eventuality of conflict, be it a war of attrition or a war that had been forced upon them, they all had plans which would defeat at least one major adversary. Early in the war Lenin a Russian Marxist, living in Switzerland offered an explanation that the war was the product of large economic forces embedded in the capitalist system. This view argues it was militant imperialism which capitalism had created, rather than mismanagement of the July Crisis of 1914.

Alternatively, Geiss argued that German was aggressive by its very ‘nature’ as it defined her role based on the theory of Social Darwinism; that is the belief in the survival of the fittest.

With the ‘concentric circles’ of Joll we can identify such a link with capitalism and militant imperialism. Especially when we look at the roles of Walther Ratheneau head of the industrial giant A.E.G. and Deutsche Bank’s Von Guwinner both men supported a war as it would result in huge profit.

This was indeed the fact as the German Air Force ordered and used the G.IV bomber throughout the war, also Von Guwinner would have profited as the High Command required loans to purchase these weapons. These businessmen were of major importance in influencing government; this becomes clear as Ratheneau participated in discussion of the war aims in several memorandums with Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg.

Another view, expressed while the conflict raged was that it was not the fault of individuals or the economic situation; it was purely due to the ‘old diplomacy’ i.e. long standing rivalries. That is, a faction of unelected permanent officials in the foreign offices which either intentionally or unconsciously caused great tensions and divisions.

They bound the countries of Europe together within a system of competing alliances. Bismarck had highlighted a need for alliances to achieve Germany’s aims and had joined Germany with Austria to form the Dual Alliance in 1879 with Italy joining in 1882. France and Britain formed the Entente Cordialle in 1904 after the Boer War – Germany supported the Boers possibly planning to exploit Britain’s weakness. In 1907 Russia joined the French and British, there were now two opposing camps within the main body of Europe sparked by rivalries in different theatres. These alliances seemed to do nothing but aggravate the situation as Grey noted in 1906 “It is the lees left by Bismarck that still foul the cup,”.

The alliance system left no freedom of choice or room for manoeuvre when a particular quarrel erupted. This becomes apparent when we look at the July crisis; each country involved had pressure from an ally who felt obliged to respond in whatever manner without limitation. This is apparent when the Germans offered reassurance even if it meant war with the ‘blank cheque’ to Austria, and the Russian military support for Serbia with a guarantee of French support in the eventuality of a conflict, which in turn would have the support of Britain through a ‘scrap of paper’ – the ‘Treaty of London’ was signed in 1870 after Prussia had won a great victory over France which resulted in the establishment of the German Empire which had upset the balance of power and agitated the British; with them pledging to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality in any resulting conflict.

Without such support / pressure / rivalry, disputes could have been contained and war avoided, however the alliance obligations to one another had dragged them into a Europe wide disaster, however neither the Warsaw Pact or NATO and the fact of them being armed camps did not make war inevitable.

Wars are the tantalizing product of fears and enmities generated by the changes in the balance of power. That is, when Germany found herself in a “great good fortune and power and prosperity” Von Bulow highlighted that this would “awaken envy” as early as 1899 from Britain and France as they would suffer a loss in retained and established influence.

Europe had been alive with tension as rivalry flowered. One example of this would be the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71 when the Germans after winning a quick victory claimed a small French region between Luxemburg and Switzerland known as Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans claimed the land ‘rightfully’ theirs although the majority were not German. This lead to the French equipping a large army and building strong defensive positions along the border, wary of an attack. This in turn had in fact made Germany suspicious of French intentions and Belgium seeking support from Britain. We can identify some rivalry between France and Germany and how the French may exploit the Balkans or vice versa to start a war and take back the lost region.

Envious nations were also fluent in the Balkans an area situated between Austria and Turkey an area much of which was ruled by Austria, with most of the population having strong links with Russia and Turkey. The area had been under the control of the former Turkish Empire however, many states (often patronized by Russia) had shaken off the chains of Turkey. Serbian nationalists were fearful that Austria would be the new Turkey. The area had often been bickered over by Turkey, Austria and Russia which had lead to the Russo-Turk war in 1878. Each state supported internal groups which were opposed to their foe, in a hope to gain support and control of the area.

Militant imperialism had played a major part in European policy. Britain had established itself on the world scale long before and as an island nation had a large and strong Navy. German Kaiser Wilhelm II had a dream of being an imperial ruler; he set his sights on having an Empire to match that of the British. In order to do this, he required colonies and its aims with the Second Fleet Act in 1900 a large Navy to accompany. This made the British suspicious of Germany’s intentions and with the aim of an equal force by 1917; a naval race began with the construction of the British ‘Dreadnought’, responding the German’s also began construction, there actually appears to be an armament race between the two nations as statistics show how spending on the military increased dramatically between the years. For example, Germany on her army alone in 1880 spent a total of 18.2 million (Britain 15m) then in 1914 the total had raised to 88.4 million, with the Germans spending four times as much as Britain. The Navy had also seen a significant boost in spending, which had increased from 2.4 million in 1880 (10.2m Britain) to 22.4 million in 1914 actual five fold increases with the British spending practically double that.

Many European nations also desired Empire or at least the economic benefits of one. Between 1870 and 1914, much of Africa was colonised by the European community, the ‘scramble for Africa’ had began with the German Kaiser wanting his ‘place in the sun’ , German colonies which had led to several disputes one of which being over Morocco in 1906-11 between Germany and France. The argument had seen France move towards Britain both of whom had similar interests to guarantee French interests and with the Algeciras Conference had done so. This highlights the old system of using the threat of war to achieve aims or how it may strengthen your position to have a partner as there is safety in numbers, if this was so it is easy to see how nations might declare war either as a bluff or as a way of achieving economic superiority.

Germany was now in a desperate position and was to play a major role, it had the military and economic muscle, however it had no room to flex it. As the historian Fischer notes “Germany not only wanted a war, prepared for it, and ultimately provoked it in 1914 in order to further Germany’s position in the World”, but would not a balance be struck between Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Von Bethmann-Hollweg resulting in firm but fair policies towards nations such as Britain? The idea that Fischer presents could be backed up with a look at military spending which rose to over 300% and the rivalry of the ‘Naval race’. It could also be argued that Germany had done nothing but provoke war with a look at the statement in a secret memo written by a British Foreign Office minister Francis Bertie who commented Germany has “beaten and taken… and has designs on the Belgian Congo”, from this it is apparent that Germany was highly aggressive and warlike and did nothing but aggravate the July crisis in the belief that a major war would further her position in the world.

Referring back to the Balkans it is easy to recognise how the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand had ‘sparked’ the First World War. The internal instability of established regimes such as Austria had placed great influence on the alienated ethnic minorities who contested the ruling �lites through terrorism and fought a battle for self-determination that is a right to their own state and governance. These minorities also chose to provoke external conflict as a means of applying pressures from within. So, the several Serbians who had set out to assassinate the Crown Prince had done so with the hope of gaining external support in winning independence from their suppressor Austria.

With the old system of alliances established by the �lites there was no restraints as allies expressed full support, certainly Austria’s rivals Russia had offered military help for the terrorists for influence in the region. Was it due to the alliance system that Europe ‘stumbled into war’ as articulated by Lloyd George or was it with their own aims that allies pushed the region into conflict in the hope of striking the ‘anvil’ when the ‘hammer’ was hot in the “battle for existence” or with most of the World colonised the ‘battle for Empire’ as A. J. P Taylor duly remarked “there is nothing evitable about war until it starts” however if that was true then how do you explain the set plans and security blankets also known as the alliance system?

He also highlighted that Europe was as peaceful in 1914 as it was at any time in the previous half-century. In other words, the system of ‘old diplomacy’ played a particular role as there had been a string of disputes and resulting conflicts throughout pre-WWI and although they had left tension between rivalling Empire-nations they had been as easily conciliated. Looking at the events that played after the assassination a series of elements, not really ’causes’ but a mixture of trivialities, opportunity, accidents, and ‘old diplomatic’ moves that went awry, declarations of war that were intended as a bluff rather than incite war, and in the case of Russian mobilization in accordance with train timetables present themselves.

Unexpected events had been misjudged and caused direct and hard-hitting decisions, ultimatums, and failed deterrents for example Ritter argues that B. Holweg was a “victim of circumstance” this presents itself when he wired the Austrians during the July Crisis and requested that they did not respond with force to the Russian mobilization; however the cries of the Army High Command under Von Molkte to respond to matters of ‘national defence’ had caused the Austrians to ignore the pleas of the Chancellor and follow the wishes of the high command, which believed that it was time to mobilise Germany’s armies. Perhaps it was the integrity of Nations that caused the conflict, the unwillingness to budge – the stiff upper lip, the mobilization scheme planned to keep the stature of a nation that dragged Europe into the oblivion.

Blame cannot fall upon a single nation nor can explanation for the ’cause’ be all encompassing.

It is my view that Nations although not wanting war had recognised it as the only alternative to consider, as ambiguous aims took control and decisions were taken that directly undermined the Empire-Nations integrity.

Concentrating on ‘old diplomacy’ Britain underwent a ‘diplomatic revolution’ during the later stages of the century. Previously it signed an alliance with Japan to guard against Russian expansionism and took pre-emptive action against such French measures. However, it reconciled it differences with France and then Russia. Germany possibly unconsciously had kept to the more traditional methods of using might to achieve their aims; expansion and Empire, building a fleet to challenge the British and the Schlieffen Plan to defeat France and Belgium. However, despite making this plan Zechlin justifies the action “Germany was ready to accept the risk of war, but had no desires to provoke it”.

With the ‘concentric circles’ of Joll which discuss the mix between personalities and the Marxist arguments of economics as the driving force. We may be able to contradict the view that Germany’s warmongering caused the First World War through the Willy-Nicky telegrams (between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II) which are thoroughly friendly; with the “Need for peace…loving relationship”. Or is this material only partly useful as it is on purely a peaceful front, written by two cousins – if the two were friendly was it economics which dragged Europe into war? Whatever, the national, economical or personal attributes if the Marxist views are accepted the blame lies on the power struggle between the imperialist powers and capitalist economics.

“Was it a badly mismanaged Balkan crisis or long-standing rivalries that caused the First World War?”


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