Causes Of World War I Essay Samples
The First World War was, without a doubt, one of mankind’s most wide-reaching and horrific conflicts in human history. Its legacy includes expanding the scope of warfare over several continents and disrupting the delicate balance of power that had existed in Europe for hundreds of years. In order to start such an incredibly widespread conflict, a variety of factors had to fall into place in order to bring about animosity between previously-peaceable countries such as France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom, among others, many of which were simply the culmination of tensions which had been simmering for forty years. World War I was brought about by a plethora of causes, all of them interweaving and complex and related to issues both political and economic – from mutual defense agreements to the escalation of tensions in Germany to distract from local problems, to the heated assassination of an Austrian royal, these factors and more led inexorably to the beginning of World War I.
One vastly important cause of World War I was the generations-long practices of imperialism and colonialism, particularly on the part of central European powers such as Great Britain and France. Through trade control and trade of foreign resources throughout the 19th century, these two nations established incredibly powerful economic and political empires in Europe, with many other countries following this model. However, as these countries did not achieve the same level of success as Britain and France, their progress became very frustrated. The trade balance that had been established through these imperialist nations prevented many other counties from establishing a foothold in international trade, and limited the number of natural resources that could be accessible. To that end, nations like Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary felt stunted in their potential to establish empires like France and England. The Russians, in particular, held as a primary goal the need to ensure that they could protect themselves from Turkey, which was gradually expanding their military might, aided by German technology, training and personnel. By the time they had joined the First World War, Russia’s major goal was to oust the Turks from Constantinople, annexing Galacia and other countries, in order to establish Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea.
The nature of alliances in Europe in the early 20th century is yet another important factor to consider in discerning the causes of World War I. At this time, many nations in Europe had mutual defense agreements with one another, in which countries would support its allied nations in wars that they would enter out of a sense of obligations. While the overall goal is to ensure a balance of power, this also ensured the widening of the scope of World War I, as the countries that had mutual defense agreements with Germany and Austria-Hungary, in addition to Serbia and Russia, were forced into a conflict that they had no direct involvement in. Among this interlocking web of allied countries included Belgium, France, Great Britain and more, who were dragged into the larger conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, which turned the international conflict between two countries into a world war.
Central to the development of World War I’s political background was Germany, whose political atmosphere began to change in 1912. Prior to this, Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire in the 1860s, set out to create a unified and powerful Germany out of the various states of which it was comprised at the time (including Austria) by waging war with Austria in 1866. Though the war lasted seven weeks (thus its name of ‘The Seven Weeks War’), it resulted in the Prussian military increasing in power and falling under German control. Once he had Germany united, Bismarck turned his eye to France, setting off the Franco-Prussian War in which the Germans beat back France soundly.
In 1912, however, Germany elected several left-wing parties, including the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), to power, which began to disturb groups like the Prussian Junkers, a conservative group that sought to diminish the nationalist zeal for these parties. Considering the need to distract the people from the rise of SDP and other left-wing parties like it, the prospect of war became more and more appealing to the German right wing. To that end, a war with an outside nation became a deliberate effort for the German government in order to boost nationalism and patriotism and keep the population distracted. To that end, Kaiser Wilhelm II stated the Schlieffen Plan, in which a gambit was devised to conquer France and successfully fight against both the Western Front and the Eastern Front (in the form of Russia). In the creation of this plan, Wilhelm cemented the nation’s inexorable march toward war as a means of restoring its glory and securing its economic growth if they were to win.
Much of the groundwork for World War I was laid within the nation of Austria-Hungary, which had operated chiefly in a feudal status for some time. However, in the beginning of the 20th century, the German aristocracy started to lose power over the Austrian people as they enjoyed a new wave of nationalism and a desire to be independent. To that end, the Ausgleich was established, restoring the German aristocracy to even more deeply consolidated power. Given this re-establishment of German dominance over Austria-Hungary, the Austrian people began to feel dissatisfied with the way their country was being run, and felt disenfranchised at their nation’s future. Furthermore, Serbia became a new threat as war began to loom between Austria-Hungary and the increasingly-militarized country. As Serbia escalated their military forces, this became one of the major factors contributing to the beginning of the First World War.
In addition to the Serbian militarization prior to World War I, the Anglo-German naval arms race played a significant part in expanding the military might of these nations, which prepared them even further for war. In the years leading up to World War I, Germany facilitated a dramatic expansion of its navy, which inspired Great Britain to expand the Royal Navy in order to match the potential threat of naval attack by Germany. While Great Britain enjoyed a “Splendid Isolation” at the time, which was a policy set about in the 1870s to help England stay relatively far away from the increasing tensions of the other European nations, the threat of militarization was simply too pressing to ignore.
While the German naval buildup eventually plateaued, the threat of expansion led Great Britain to join the Triple Entente, which included France and Russia, in 1907, offering an unofficial mutual defense agreement between these three larger powers – the powers did not declare mutual defense, but merely mentioned it as a “moral imperative”. This was a development from the establishment of the Entente Cordiale, which was an agreement centered mostly around Britain and France. This decision was not taken lightly; in previous years, all three nations had competed for Asian and African colonies; however, given their suspicions that Germany was to attempt to conquer Europe, the Triple Entente became a viable solution for these three nations.
This move acted as yet another step in the construction of the alliance system that built the Austria-Serbian conflict into the First World War, as well as helping to establish Germany as a larger, more powerful military force, making it a more involved entity in the war outright. This also furthered the common philosophy of European countries attempting to achieve dominance through military might; since Germany was becoming so strong militarily, the Triple Entente was formed in order to increase these nations’ power to match it. To that end, the increasing development of these nations’ militaries made the scope of World War I higher as a result of this constant militarization.
On the Russian front, the nation was dealt a surprising blow by Japan in 1905, thus weakening it militarily and making it more nervous about Germany’s military might. In 1903, Russian turned down the offer from Japan to recognize Russian interests in Korea and Manchuria in exchange for the same treatment, leading to the Japanese attacking Russian warships in Korea and China in a devastating attack. Shortly afterward, the Battle of Tsushima on May 27, 1905 led to an incredible loss by the Russians, with the destruction of their entire fleet for only two torpedo boats from the Japanese. While peace was brokered between the two nations (with America as mediator), Russia’s reputation and morale was hurt dramatically by this loss, inadvertently bringing about the Russian Revolution in 1905. To that end, Russia was more than willing to enter a new and glorious conflict in order to restore the failing nation’s sense of glory.
Previous conflicts also played a significant part in building up the tensions and military disposition of nations for World War I. Most notable is the Franco-Prussian War, which lasted from 1870 to 1871, and helped build Germany into its most powerful state to date. Because of Germany’s military might and success in its victory in the war, the balance of power in Europe was disturbed – other European nations became concerned that Germany was more militarily strong than they could effectively control. In addition to that, German nationalism was at a fever pitch, and it had built a strong economy, putting it in great shape for expansion. France, in particular, responded negatively to Germany’s progression, establishing tensions after the German’s annexed Alsace-Lorraine from the French. These defeats led the French to desire revenge on Germany, but the destabilizing of France from a political standpoint made them less able to fulfill that desire. This led to the start of the French Third Republic, which was plagued by social upheaval and unstable political leadership. While France eventually recovered from the Franco-Prussian War, the anti-German sentiment in France that had been established because of it helped bring about open warfare with the Germans in World War I.
In 1912 and 1913, these tensions were increased and heightened with the two Balkan Wars, which resulted in yet another change in the European balance of power, offering Serbia and Russia substantial advantages. The First Balkan War was caused by Serbia’s demand for a port in Albania, which the Austrians refused to do, leading to armed conflict. With the Second Balkan War, the conflict itself was caused by a Greco-Serbian preemptive strike against Bulgaria. Once the dust had settled on both Balkan Wars, this caused irreparable damage to the already-shaky alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary, as Germany had trouble coming to a consensus on whether or not they should continue supporting Austria-Hungary in its perpetual fight with Serbia. In the German Imperial War Council of 1812, the government chose to stop supporting the Austrians against Serbia and its allies, ending their mutual defense agreement. With this cutting off of foreign relations, Germany’s relationship with Austria-Hungary was severely fractured and strained.
The years leading up to World War I created a powder keg of cultural and political tensions, created through the strain of imperialist jealousy and the constant wearing down of countries through mutual defense agreements and smaller wars. However, the event that truly set off the First World War, igniting these tensions and creating an environment rife for word war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in June 28, 1914. Ferdinand was the presumptive heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. However, while in Sarajevo, he was killed by a group of Serbian assassins from Bosnia in a dramatic and brazen act of defiance. This group was known as the Black Hand, a secret society dedicated to Serbian nationalism, and whose goal was to unseat the imperialist occupation of Serbia by Austria-Hungary.
In response to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Austria-Hungary declared the July Ultimatum, ordering that Serbia fulfill their numerous demands within 48 hours or face the recall of the Serbian ambassador and a declaration of war. It can be argued (and was presumed at the time) that the egregious demands that Austria-Hungary set were meant to be so dramatic as to allow them a pretext for war either way. During this ultimatum, Germany declared their support for Austria and their position, and Serbia managed to conform to the vast majority of these demands. However, they hesitated on a few, with the reasoning that it would jeopardize their capacity to continue and survive as a nation. In addition to this, there were a few border skirmishes along the barrier between Serbia and Austria, leading a number of other European nations, including England, France, Russia and Italy to begin fulfilling their mutual defense agreements with Austria.
Once Austria-Hungary had made their decision to declare war on Serbia and invade, the stage was set to start World War I because of the many different mutual defense agreements that had been placed. Germany began supporting Austria-Hungary, while Russia mobilized its troops in support of Serbia. Since France was allied with Russia, the Germans turned their eye to France; in July 1914, they invaded, striking a decisive blow against the French Army in order to cripple their ability to defend Russia. Germany, in turn, chose to invade Belgium after these mobilizations, leading France and Great Britain to declare war on Germany; Germany declared war on Russia, and the cycle continued until all of the major parties involved in World War I were present. It was here that the constant militarization of European nations came crashing down around them, as the complex system of alliances was extremely unstable and prone to escalation. Given the immense push-and-pull of each country allying itself with another, what was formerly a small dispute between two nations soon snowballed into an international conflict of immense scale.
With this single movement, decades of military building, imperialism, nationalism and deep-seated animosity between nations was allowed to come to a boiling point, offering an environment in which world war was inevitable. The First World War would likely not have started without the tension of Austria-Hungary and Germany working to control Serbian interests, and the constant testing of national treaties on the part of these nations. These factors and more led to the unprecedented escalation of hostilities between several major European nations with deep-seated tensions and anxieties, all of whom in a complex web of alliances and treaties, dragging each other into the terrors of war out of a sense of obligation and the need to settle old grudges.
The First World War came about as a result of the gradual destruction of a delicate house of cards built on powerful imperialist forces, mutual defense agreements, and implicit understandings of territorial boundaries that began to get tested in the early 20th century. While the mutual defense agreements in place helped to maintain a balance of power, it prevented nations from being able to stay out of the inexorable conflict that occurred between nations as a result of the outcomes of previous wars. The balance of power began to shift over resources and these aforementioned outcomes, leading nations to take more nationalist steps towards dominance, rather than listening to the needs of other nations. All of these smaller mitigating factors were dispelled with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death led to the invasion of Austria-Hungary into Serbia, and whose defense agreements dragged a plethora of other nations into the fight out of a sense of obligation. Even though this was one single event, it propelled the European continent into world war.
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(1990), pp. 151-186.
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