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Historians are still today debating on what actually caused World War One. This is because the actual origin was a combination of many different factors. Short-term as well as long-term causes influenced the outfall of events, however some are more important than others. What is mainly agreed on1 is that Germany was the nation most to blame, however most of the more influential nations of Europe were somehow involved in the conflict.
England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary didn’t “stumble” into the war like Germany, but they all played an important role.
Many historians have used the phrase “stumbled into war” to describe how Germany inevitably ended up in a total war against her neighboring countries. Unlike previous conflicts in history, more than two or three nations were involved, which is mainly due to the many alliances made in the years before.
What makes it even more difficult to determine the origin of the war is that several non-human factors, like nationalism and imperialism, had key roles in developing the events that took place.
The politicians and military leaders of the European nations were influenced by these ideas and therefore directed their nations almost inevitably into a major crisis, as it came out. This leads to the human factors of the war, like the arms’ race and the failure of diplomacy taking place during the beginning of the 20th century.
Therefore I must stress that it was the combination of all these factors that eventually made this cataclysmic total war spread throughout Europe. The July Crisis as it later came known was the drop that made the glass flow over, but any other similar event could have had the same outcome.
The European powers were so tense and aggressive, and some even thought about revenge from previous wars2, or simply to expand their territory. In this essay I will evaluate the relative importance of imperialism, the arms’ race, and the failure of diplomacy as origins for World War One. Appropriate events and theories have been taken as examples for each of these three categories, to compare the significance of each. 3 Body Imperialism During the industrialization of the 19th century, all great European powers consumed vast amounts of natural resources to supply the many factories emerging in the industries.
However since these natural resources are limited in abundance within Europe, these overseas empires, as for example Britain, France, Spain, and later Germany, sought beyond towards other continents in search for colonies. The colonies then provided their mother country with the natural resources needed in the rapidly spreading industrialization. In Germany this development was known as Weltpolitik4 and later became the term used to describe the overseas expansionism that European leaders sought to achieve. These ideas became stronger in the 20th century and drove the European powers into several conflicts.
Several times between 1898 and 1914 the economic rivalry in Africa between France and Great Britain, and between Germany on one side and France and Great Britain on the other, almost precipitated a European war. 5 Most significant were the conflicts in the Balkans between Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Balkan nations. Imperialist Austria-Hungary sought to influence the Balkan nations and annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 after thirty years of remote administration. But nationalistic movements in the Balkans led to two Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913.
The first war was an uprising against Austria-Hungary, which was crushed. The Second Balkan War was fought between Bulgaria and most other Balkan nations. Although Bulgaria was overwhelmed and the war ended rapidly, no single nation was satisfied with the post war negotiations creating more tension. As an origin of World War One this is significant because the tension in the Balkans became crucial in the summer of 1914. When Crown Prince Ferdinand (heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne) was assassinated in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary was forced into war with Serbia.
This clashed with Russian interests, and when Germany declared full support to Austria-Hungary6, it left Russia in a vulnerable situation, eventually having to mobilize herself. Therefore the imperialist desires of Austria-Hungary led the nation into serious conflicts in the Balkans, and eventually created the most important short-term cause for World War One. Therefore imperialism did have influence as an origin of war, as it became the mentality of the leaders of the European powers, and in this case forced Austria-Hungary and Russia into protecting national interests.
Although imperialism itself was a long-term cause of war, it played a significant role in creating the short-term causes. It is agreed among historians that the importance of imperialism rested in the fact that it left the politicians fewer options to deal with regarding diplomacy. This conflict later became known as the July Crisis. 7 Arms’ Race Not only colonies measured the strength and prestige of European empires. The emerging industries of the 19th centuries provided the nations with significant armies and weapons of destruction.
As imperialism became a significant part of the political agendas in the beginning of the 20th century, the great nations attempted to show their strength through developing great armies. With Germany becoming a significant power after 1872, the European balance of power was tipped off. This triggered an arms’ race between the leading nations, France, England, Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. With vast amounts of industries being brought in from colonies and produced within Europe, the countries were able to produce great amounts of war material.
Especially the continental armies of Germany and Russia were competing in numbers. As Russia was becoming an industrial nation, it wouldn’t take many years for her to surpass match the might of the German army (if not the superb efficiency and leadership). Therefore the German military leaders, under pressure from the Triple Entente8, had to calculate the risks of war. The conclusion came to be that if a war was to come between Germany and Russia, then rather sooner than later. 9 Germany’s Weltpolitik aimed to turn Germany into an overseas empire.
In order to achieve this Germany would need a considerable navy to compete with Britain. Combined with the economic pride of the German people, the German government embarked on the task to build a respectable navy. This would both help Germany defend overseas interests in for example Africa, and also as a defense against the mighty British navy in the North Sea. Hence a naval competition emerged between Britain and Germany. Admiral Fisher of the British Navy calculated in 1907 that it would take Germany several years to match the British fleet, especially considering the newly designed Dreadnought battleships.
Truly, in 1914 Germany only had thirteen Dreadnoughts versus Britain’s twenty10. The consequence of this large-scale arms’ race was international anarchy in Europe. Calculating war risks and making alliances were becoming constantly discussed subjects in European governments. When five great nations all strive to create large armies, it is obvious that war will become inevitable sooner or later. In 1914 the short-term cause happened to be the July Crisis, but it could in theory have been any other critical occasion.
Therefore it is important to observe the military tension developing between the nations, and the significance of diplomacy to balance the power. The diplomatic failures in the years leading to the Great War are therefore to be considered as well. Failure of Diplomacy As Germany was quickly becoming a very powerful force in the center of Europe, the surrounding nations were becoming doubtful of their national security. Therefore several military alliances were made between nations to contain rivals.
The Triple Alliance of 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy was still in effect at the beginning of the 20th century. To counter-balance this, France and Russia made agreements in 1892-94 to support each other in the event of war. Strategically placed on both sides of Germany, Russia and France posed a threat to the German empire. In 1904 Britain and France make a military understanding known as the Entente Cordiale. This was another measure to protect overseas interests as well as a balance against Germany.
To complete the containment of Germany, Russia and Britain make a similar agreement in 1907. Obviously this posed a serious threat to Germany, as she was not only threatened on two fronts, but also by the greatest navy in the world. This only encouraged Germany to continue the rapid production of military equipment, and to further enlarge the German Navy as well. Diplomacy also played an important role in the July Crisis of 1907. When Prince Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, Germany immediately promised Austria-Hungary unconditional support.
This furthermore threatened Russia, who would risk war with two nations on her front in a worse case scenario. Yet the conflict could have been settled with diplomacy at this point, but it failed terribly. In July 23 1914 Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia, proposing to enter the nation with troops, to help investigate the assassination. Unfortunately Serbia was only granted 48 hours to reply to this proposal, which didn’t seem in any way realistic. Having Austrian troops within Serbia would not end the domination that already existed, on the other hand it almost seemed like an invasion.
So Serbia did not accept the proposal. This seems to be the main diplomatic failure of the July Crisis. It was for one thing a very short notice the Serbs were allowed to work with, another thing is that it was unacceptable. Serbia was forced to pick sides between Russia, a nation with strong interests in the Balkans, and the Austria-Hungary, with clashing ambitions. It therefore seems like Austria-Hungary almost provoked the war with Serbia, leading to war with Russia. Surely the Austrian diplomats did not strive to avoid it. 11
Now Germany didn’t seem to want to solve the crisis, instead she mobilized her army, and thereby forced Russia into full-scale mobilization12. Germany knew that a war on two fronts was inevitable, and therefore created the Schlieffen Plan to counter it. This also shows how Germany was calculating risks, and had been doing so for years. It is therefore applicable to consider the statement that “Germany stumbled into war. ” She did not try to avoid it by negotiating, but did the exact opposite, provoked it. Therefore the failure of diplomacy was a significant factor towards the cataclysmic event that was triggered in July 1914.
However, the aggressive sentiments created by the arms’ race combined with expansionist ideas, left the politicians with very few possibilities in the time of crisis. Conclusion The three origins of war evaluated in this essay were not significantly different in importance. It was the combination of the several factors that pushed the different nations into war. The arms’ race created strong military tension; the many alliances pushed off the balance of power and further accelerated the arms’ race, and the imperialist ideas influenced the decision making of the military leaders in critical situations.
The situation created in Europe was not to last for very long, and maybe was the only way to achieve a more stable balance between the great nations. One can question the fact if war could have been avoided, but it is very hard to determine as so many different factors influenced the course of events. Many historians actually believe that war is the ultimate test of mankind to lead the evolution of strong nations and end the reign of weaker ones.
In some ways it makes sense considering that Austro-Hungarian Empire consequently came to an end, and many other changes could be seen on the European map after the Great War. Germany was forced down to her knees and lost much territory to France and Russia, however she managed to regain her strength in such a way that she eventually invaded most of Europe thirty years later. 13 Therefore the relative importance of the three evaluated origins is that they all combined and pushed the European powers into the cataclysmic war that defined the end of the Old World. 1