There are many factors that can be used to argue about what lead to the outbreak of World War 1. Global imperialism, national alliances, and rivalry between countries can all be linked to one aspect, the region of Alsace-Lorraine and how it created a long-standing conflict between France and Germany. National and cultural identity in Alsace-Lorraine were oppressed by Germans that stirred a feud eventually leading to World War 1.
The mid 1870th century was a time filled with colonial expansion and imperialistic movement on a global scale never before seen.
The five Great European Powers, Germany, France, Britain, Russia were racing to expand their colonies to attain more resources, ‘The imperialism of the late nineteenth century was undoubtedly ‘new’. It was the child of an era of competition between rival industrial-capitalist national economies which was new, and which was intensified by the pressure when the peripheral part of the global economy become increasingly significant…’ (The Age of Empire, 1989, pp.72-73). Due to the economic growth that took place, Germany was quickly developing into a major power.
The German emperor Wilhelm II expressed imperialistic intentions when he took power and stated that his aim was to turn Germany into an imperial power. With the declining fall of the Ottoman Empire, the world powers scrambled to secure the territory for their own and the tension that was building in Europe would eventually factor in as a cause for World War I. If not for imperialism, and social nationalism, Germany wouldn’t have felt the need to show off their power to the other countries, further expanding their empire and building up their navy.
This strategy however, led to increased suspicion in Great Britain, France and Russia who were otherwise continuously in contact with each other.
As a region that wasn’t fully established by boundaries, Alsace-Lorraine instigated a disagreement to whose control the country would come under after France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. When the German Empire got ahold of Alsace-Lorraine, it completely changed the balance of power in Europe and strengthened Germany’s position as the leading continental power. Following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, the nation of France was deeply wounded, and resentment began between the two countries. When the time came around for Germany to integrate Alsace-Lorraine into German rule, there were many who opposed the idea completely and thought Germany had no business dealing with French territories. Yet there were many reasons that Germany used to validate their reasoning for occupying the region…one being based on strategic reasoning, wanting to use the Vosges Mountains as a defense system against enemies.
The other being purely for economic reasons, since Alsace-Lorraine contained a lot of coal, iron and other minerals that Germany could utilize. In 1862, the newly appointed chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, in his famous ‘Blood and Iron’ speech, claimed that the provinces were necessary for future defense against France, ‘We are too hot-blooded, we have a preference for putting on armor that is too big for our small body; and now we’re actually supposed to utilize it. Germany is not looking to Prussia’s liberalism, but to its power…’ (Bismarck: Collected Works, 1924-35, pp. 139-40). Later on, August Bebel, who was the leader of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, went on to write a speech defending his party’s refusal to grant the funds needed to carry on the military campaign against France. In his speech he points out the likelihood of the French government staging a retaliation attempt fueled by revenge, ‘It is necessary to refrain from anything that might help drive France to extremes and, instead, to leave France today with what has been hers for centuries. This is all the more important because, after all, with the exception of a few dozen people, the entire population of Alsace-Lorraine is clearly opposed to this annexation’ (August Bebel: His Life in Documents, 1968, pp.158-62). Needless to say, the German government carries on with the annexation of Alsace and began their military rule.
Germany, taking advantage of their newly gained power, tried to enforce their cultural identity onto the Alsace-Lorraine people. Such as stating the official language of the provinces to be German, even though majority of the citizens spoke French, and banning new business signs to be printed in French. A good majority of the inhabitants, who considered themselves still French, rejected the German’s rule and refused to assimilate, ‘In 1871 they were handed over to the German Empire much against their will, and when the French National Assembly ceded these provinces to the victorious enemy, the deputies from Alsace-Lorraine protested against this cruel separation from the mother country…’ (The Alsace-Lorraine Question, 1918, pp. 431-443). While some claim that many Alsatians actually had been wishing to secede from France, most can agree that whatever the attitude the people of Alsace-Lorraine had, they wanted nothing more than to be an independent nation.
Since the area was restored to the German Empire, the Germans felt a sense of superiority and need to restore the nations culture and ethnicity, claiming it was for their own good, which was far from the truth, ‘They have regarded these provinces as conquered lands and have treated the people in the very ways that would be designed to intensify the existing spirit of protest and opposition,’ (The Alsace-Lorraine Question, 1918, pp. 431-443). One of the most striking instances that portrayed German rule in Alsace-Lorraine was the Zabern affairs in 1913. A lieutenant had said some inappropriate remarks to his men about Alsatians, using the term ‘screwball’ while teaching them military maneuvers. Word got out around town, and the townspeople proceeded to harass him, leading him to earn only a minimum sentence in jail. In a report from Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg’s to the Reichstag, (Sarajevo) he stated that ‘the Alsatian people felt themselves to be insulted by use of the term ‘screwball’ and he suggested that ‘the Alsatians should not be more sensitive than other branches of our people…’. After hearing the German’s reaction, needless to say the civil population was discontent with the way the German government handled the whole issue. Their callous response indicated that the military government was indeed dominant over all, while the masses had absolutely no rights and no respect.
Since the tensions kept getting worse, many wartime propaganda campaigns took advantage of the situation to create newspapers, posters, and articles to showcase the war as men being courageous and defending their national identities, ‘Propagandists on all sides presented war as a heroic and moral crusade – in Germany as a defense of Kultur against British Civilization, in Britain to protect ‘Little Belgium’ from treaty-breaking militarism, and in France as a physical defense against a menacing aggressor and long-held enemy,’ (World War I and Propaganda, 2014, pp.139). While in fact the war was anything but broken treaties, hostility between governments and a rush for military advancements. To make matters worse, the German’s invasions in Belgium and northern France provided plenty of reasoning to justify Great Britain’s involvement in the war, which would later lead to the creation of the Triple Entente, an alliance between France, Russia and Britain in 1907. Now Europe was fully divided into two power rival blocs, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on one side, France, Germany, and Britain on the other.
Using the momentum from nations choosing sides, and tensions at an all-time high, allied propaganda campaigns began spreading brutal stories headlined with graphic images to invoke emotional feelings and hatred towards the Germans. Other reasons behind this act was to recruit more soldiers, provide a moral justification for military involvement and in the hopes to prompt countries, specifically the United States to join the fight overseas. The Germans, now on the defense, also had little success with their propaganda effort regarding their continued possession of Alsace-Lorraine. In particular, the authorities sought to avoid discussions of the regions’ future status in the German Empire and did not allow criticism of military rule in the area, ‘German Officials sought above all to avoid discussion of the region’s future; referring to the post-conflict status of the region in local papers brought the swift wrath of censors,’ (World War I and propaganda, Paddock, 2014).
There were multiple attempts by local representatives to protest this official decree, but not with any success. Needless to say, the press in Alsace-Lorraine were under heavy censorship. Further feeding into the allegations against German soldiers, in a London pamphlet titled The Truth about German Atrocities a witness describes an incidence he remembered when German troops invaded his town and began shooting innocent people, ‘In one household alone the father and mother were shot, the daughter died after being outrages, and the son was wounded.’ Propaganda continually emphasized the horrors and barbaric nature of German soldiers towards civilians effectively ignited animosity regarding the Germans.
The significance of Alsace-Lorraine to World War 1, is as you can see, a huge factor. The fact that France was always determined to recapture the territory, it set a state of mind for revenge and fueled a sense of nationalism in the French citizens. In contrast to their rival, The French gave Alsace-Lorraine a much more central role in their propaganda efforts, ‘French officials wanted to make sure to generate support for one of the key French aims of the was the eventual return of Alsace-Lorraine to France,’ (World War I and Propaganda). This more positive attitude toward the Alsatians worked well with their message of promising to deliver freedom, equality and community, as opposed to German’s aim of disregard, outcast and forceful Germanization. Such propaganda on France’s end worked quite well, as the region of Alsace had long-standing ties to France.
What ensued following these events, will be known as the straw that broke the camel’s back. In 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II went to Tangier Morocco under the pretense of declaring support of the sultan wanting to liberate the Moroccan people and to promote their independence. This only made matters worse with Germany’s relationship with France and Britain, later on becoming known as the First Moroccan Crisis. Back in April 1904, there was an alliance formed between long-standing imperialist rivals Britain and France regarding expansion in North Africa. The terms set forth by the settlement was that Britain could have Egypt while France was free to expand into Morocco. Germany was subsequently excluded from these decisions and angered that their own influence and power in the world was being challenged. Although it was Germany’s attempt to drive a wedge between Britain and France, it only strengthened their bond and reinforced the power balance of the rival blocs. Completely dismissing the efforts of Bismarck to diffuse the strain between nations, Germany increasingly isolated itself from its allies. Not more than 3 years after the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911, would all of these factors lead to the outbreak of World War I.
As capitalist-fueled imperialism and the rise of industrialism produced a new wave of colonization that lead to competition for resources, it eventually divided the world into rival powers. Granted, there were many other factors that played into the outbreak of war, the main long-term causations were undoubtedly social nationalism, expansionism, and alliance disputes. World war I was a war that shocked the world to its core and changed the nature of major European powers for many years to come.