The Causes of World War I
One of the most brutal and destructive wars in human history began in Europe in August 1914; it would last until November 1918. By the end of 1918, 60 declarations of war had been made between countries. Contemporaries and historians have argued ever since 1918 over what caused this catastrophe. This chapter looks at the long-term, short-term, and immediate events that led to the Great Powers of Europe, their empires, and their allies into armed conflict.
- 1 Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871)
- 2 Characteristics of Great European Powers c. 1900
- 3 Long-term causes of World War I
- 3.1 Bismarck's web of alliances
- 3.2 The New Course and Weltpolitik
- 3.3 Imperialism
- 3.4 The emergence of the Alliance System
- 3.5 The naval race
- 3.6 The situation in the Balkans
- 4 Short-term causes: the crisis years (1905-13)
Franco-Prussian War (1870−1871)
After the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815, there were 39 seperate Germanic states in Europe; the two largest were Austria and Prussia. The Prussians, under the leadership of their Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, fought three wars with the objective both of consolidating these smaller states into a new German state, and of asserting themselves as the dominant Germanic state instead of Austria. The Prussians defeated Denmark and Austria in 1864 and finally France in 1871.
The final war in 1870–71 saw the well-equipped Prussian Army not only defeating, but also humiliating, France. In early September 1870, at Sedan, one French army was forced to surrender its 80,000 men. The core of the French Army, some 150,000 men, was encircled for two months at Metz and surrendered in October. The war continued for another three months. Paris, which had been under siege since mid September, finally fell in January 1871. Cut off from the rest of France, Paris had suffered horrendously, and there were some clear signs of the effectiveness of modern technology in supporting warfare; for example, in Prussia's use of railways to deliver men and material to the battlefield. Prussia won the military battles, and crippled Paris in an economic blockade.
Thee terms for peace were severe. France lost the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, had to pay an indemnity of 5,000 million marks, and suffered Prussian occupation of parts of France until this sum had been paid. There was also a Prussian victory march through Paris. The King of Prussia was proclaimed the German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in January 1871. German unification (with Austria) was complete.
In France, political and socio-economic problems followed the humiliation of defeat. There was a desire for revenge in France that manifested itself in the political revanche movement.
From tomorrow, France will have only one thought: to reconstitute its forces, gather its energy, feed its sacred anger, raise its generation ... from an army of the whole people, work relentlessly to study the processes and talents of our enemies, to become again the great France, the France of 1792, the France of the idea and the sword ... Then suddenly one day it will rise ... regain Lorraine, recapture Alsace.—The French poet Victor Hugo, 1871.
Characteristics of Great European Powers c. 1900
Before reviewing the key developments in Europe that led up to World War I, it is important that one has a clear idea of the characteristics of the Great Powers of Europe by 1900.
Germany was a democratic monarchyits system system was authoritarian, with power held by the Kaiser and the Chancellor. The power of the German parliament, the Reichstag, was limited. In the 30 years following the Franco-Prussian War, Germany become the strongest industrial power in Europe. By 1900, Germany had overtaken Britain in industrial output. However, although its economy was strong and effective, Germany had acute social problems. Rapid industrialisation had produced a large working classin the expanding cities and a growing middle class. There were socio-economic tensions between these two groups and also between these groups and the authoritarian government. The great Prussian landowning classes, the Junkers, retained political dominance, promoting militarism and allegiance to the Kaiser; they were against reforms designed to move Germany towards becoming a more liberal democracy.
A growth in the German population, and pressure from capitalists to secure international markets and raw materials, led the German government to pursue the 19th century European policy of developing and expanding an overseas empire. Yet, at least initially, the government was cautious in its approach, and attempted to cooperate with the other imperial powers – for example, at the Congress of Berlin in 1884, where the continent of Africa was carved up between the Europeans.
The key problem here was that although Germany wanted colonies, the globe had already been divided up by the other European powers. Britain's empire was, territorially, the largest. Germany's leaders were apparently undecided at the turn of the new century whether to attempt to work with Britain as an ally, or to compete with the British.
France was a democratic republic and offered extensive civil liberties. Its economy was agriculturally based, with most of the population living and working in the countryside. Nevertheless, France was a wealthy nation. It had a large empire, sizeable gold reserves and had made much overseas investment, particularly in Russia. Politically, the nation was broadly divided between 'pacifist' left wing and the revanchist right wing. France was plagued by short-lived governments, which swung between left and right. This instability had a serious impact on foreign policy, as the right wing wanted to pursue imperialist ambitions and the reclamation of Alsace-Lorraine, whereas the left were against these ambitions. France looked for an alliance with Russia to help 'contain' Germany.
Britain was a well-established parliamentary democracy, with a monarchy retaining limited powers, and had been the first European power to undergo an industrial revolution. It had built a vast overseas empire and established itself as the most powerful international trader of the 19th century. Britain had indeed been the number one economic power of the 1800s, but by 1900 it was, to a certain extent, in decline, both in terms of its international dominance of trade, and in its position as the primary economic power. Not only had the USA overtaken Britain in industrial production, but by 1900 Germany had too. Britain had similar socio-economic problems as Germany, with much working-class discontent. The long-standing political system, however, combined a degree of flexibility with coercion and therefore appeared better able to cope than Germany's autocratic flegling democratic monarchy. The British government had learnt to be alert to public opinion and the power of the popular press.
The changing balance of power in Europe led to a corresponding change in the shape of British foreign policy. In the 19th century, Britain had followed a policy of 'Splendid Isolation', not wanting to be drawn into conflicts between other nations, as this could negatively impact its international trade. By 1900, with competition from the USA and Germany, Britain was starting to review this policy and to look for allies. Britain's major military power was its navy, however, in this strength lay Britain's weakness. Britain depended on the navy but only to defend itself against attack, its sea-based trade, and, consequently, its vast empire. Resources were overstretched. It was paramount that the navy was invulnerable. Britain's traditional enemies and rivals had been the French and the Russians, and it remained particularly suspicious of Russia regarding its relationship to the overland Asian trade routes to India. Britain's interests lay in maintaining its dominance of the seas, preserving the balance of power in Europe and defending the Indian trade route.
Austria-Hungary was a 'dual monarchy'; an Emperor presided over the Austro-Hubgarian Empire, with Austria nad Hungary having their own parliaments. The system was heavily bureaucratic and inefficient.
There had been slow economic grown in this land-based empire. The key problem for the dual monarchy was the national rivalries within their European empire. The 19th century had unleashed powerful nationalist forces and ambitions across Europe, leading to demands for national liberation from states within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire lacked military strength, which had been highlighted in the breif war with Prussia in 1866. A key concern for the Habsurgs was the demise of the Ottoman Empire on their border. This process had strengthened the nationalist cause of many Slavic peoples, who now strived for independence from the Ottomans, and ultimately, wanted to unite with their 'brothers' within the borders of the Habsburg Empire. The Austro-Hungarian regime, therefore, pursued a foreign policy of containment in the Balkans, and as the Ottoman decline left a vacuum of power which Austria-Hungary intended to fill.
Austria-Hungary was a multi-national European empire in an age of nationalism. In general, the empire lacked cohesion economically, politically, and socially. Its greatest concern was the hostility and aggression of Serbia. The anxiety was accentuated by the support given to the Serb nationalists by Russia, who saw itself as the great defender of the 'Slav people'.
The Habsburgs were the rulers of the dual monarchy set up in 1867, Austria-Hungary, and the territories under the Austrian and Hungarian control were known as the Habsburg Empire.
Russia was an autocratic 'divine monarchy,' the Tsar being perceived by many as having been appointed by God. The state was again heavily bureaucratic and ineffective. There had been rapid industrialisation at the end of the 19th century, yet the majority of people in Russia remained peasants, working the land with intensive labour processes long outdated in the modernised European states.
By 1900, discontent towards the regime was growing among the middle classes and among the new urban workers. This mood exploded into revolution in 1905 after Russia had been defeated in a disastrous war against Japan. Although this revolution did not achieve regime change, it led to a very limited degree of democracy being introduced. Working conditions, however, did not improve.
After its defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56) and then in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), Russia was no longer viewed as a 'great military power'. Russia's strength in 1900, was also a weakness, as the Russian people were were increasingly unhappy with their regime. Russia wanted to encourage Slav nationalism in the Balkans to establish its own influence in the region; however, it also wanted to prop up the ailing Ottoman Empire to prevent any expansion of Austria-Hungary.
Turkey was the 'sick man of Europe.' The Ottoman Empire was in decline, and the power of its rulers – the Sultan – had been terminally undermined in most areas. The regime was corrupt and ineffective. Revolts by some national and Islamic groups within the empire could not be contained. Its weakness was exploited by the other European powers for commercial interest, and by 1900 foreign debt and political discontent meant the empire was near collapse. There were divisions between Turks, Slavs, and other Europeans in the Turkish Empire, including between Christians and Muslims. European interference led to widespread Muslim resentment. The Sultan was overthrown in 1909 by the 'Young Turks,' a group whose aim was to modernise Turkey, economically, and politically.
The Eastern Question
This 'question' of what to do about the decaying Ottoman Empire preoccupied the other European Powers. As its decline would lead to a power vacuum in the territories it formerly ruled over, there was the potential for a conflict between the powers for the spoils. Most European powers agreed the best solution for the time being was to 'prop up' the Turkish regime, and try to persuade it to modernise. The Russians, on the other hand, preferred to promote self-government for the Balkan states, but Austria-Hungary was deeply opposed to this idea.
Long-term causes of World War I
As we have seen, the creation of a new state in Europe – particularly one with the economic, military, and imperial potential of Germany – created a certain amount of nervousness among other European countries. France, of course, was particularly hostile in its attitude towards Germany after the humiliation of the war in 1870, and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Nevertheless, Germany under its first ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and its chancellor, Bismarck, did not pursue an aggressive foreign policy. Bismarck worked at creating a web of alliances that would protect Germany from future attack and would allow Germany to work on consolidating its position in Europe. These alliances can be seen below. Germany's main aim was to keep France isolated and stay allied with Russia to prevent the possibility of a two-front war.
Bismarck's web of alliances
The Dreikaiserbund or Three Emperors' League (1873)
The Dreikaiserbund joined Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary into an alliance. Its terms were very vague, but it served Bismarck's purpose of keeping France isolated.
The Dual Alliance (1879)
Austria-Hungary and Russia came into conflict over events in the Balkans and the Dreikaiserbund collapsed. In its place, Bismarck made a separate treaty with the Austrians. This alliance was part of Bismarck's system to limit the possibility of war between the Europeaon powers, and was primarily defensive. Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed to assist one another if Russia attacked them. Each country also agreed to remain neautral if the other was attacked by another European country.
The Three Emperors' Alliance (1881)
Russia, feeling isolated in Europe, turned back to Germany, and Bismarck drew up a revised version of the Dreikaiserbund. Again, this offered Bismarck security. The terms of the alliance included an agreement that if either Russia, Germany, or Austria were at war with another power, the others would remain neutral. The alliance also tried to resolve Austro-Russia disputes in the Balkans.
The Triple Alliance (1882)
This Alliance was between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. If any of the signatories were attacked by two or more powers, the others promised to lend assistance.
The Reinsurance Treaty (1887)
The Three Emprerors' Alliance fell to pieces due to Balkan problems in 1885. Thus, this separate treaty with Russia was drawn up in order to avoid any risk of war on two fronts. Bismarck had to make new arrangements to ensure that Germany stayed friendly with Russia.
The New Course and Weltpolitik
In 1888, the young and ambitious Wilhelm II came to the throne of Germany, and Bismarck was replaced as Chancellor by Leo von Caprivi in 1890. Kaiser Wilhelm II and Caprivi took German foreign policy on a 'new course' that would overturn Bismarck's carefully nurtured system of alliances. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was allowed to lapse that year, creating the conditions for the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894. Militarily, the alliance promised mutal assistance if either was attacked by Germany. It alsoa greed immediate mobilisation in response to a ny member of the Triple Alliance mobilising. There was also a political clause, which agreed mutual support in imperial disputes; the focus of this cause was essentially anti-British. Bismarck's system was destroyed. France was free of its isolation, and Germany now could face a war on two fronts.
Undeterred, however, Germany policy makers from the mid 1890s began to look beyond Europe and to follow a policy that they hoped would make Germany a colonial power, with an overseas empire and navy. Such a policy would also have the benefit of diverting the German population away from the social and political problems at home. This policy, known as Weltpolitik – which was supported by various patriotic groups such as the Pan-German League within Germany – was bound to have an impact on Germany's relations with other countries.
One of the main causes of tension between the European powers in 1880–1905 was colonial rivalries. Over the course of the 19th century, the Europeans had increased their domination of countries in Africa and the Far East, competing to build vast empires. This effort was initially drive be economic motives (cheap raw materials, new markets, and lost-cost labour forces). Over the course of the century, however, territorial acquisition increasingly occured due to a mixture of the Social Darwinian belief that the spread of Western civilisation was 'God's work' and also nationalistic competition with the other European powers (and to a certain extent the USA).
Germany's desire to make its influence felt outside Europe was to bring it into conflict with more established colonial powers, particularly Britain.
The emergence of the Alliance System
Germany's policy of Weltpolitik brought it into conflict with Britain in other ways as well. In 1897, Admiral von Tripitz was appointed as Secretary of State for the Navy. He shared the Kaiser's belief that Germany should mount a naval challenge to Britain, and within a year he had pushed a Naval Law through the Reichstag that provided for the building of 17 ships over the next seven years. This bill was followed by a second Naval Law in 1900.
Britain quickly responded to this threat of its naval supremacy. It was clear to many in Britain that the British position of 'Splendid Isolation' was no longer appropriate or useful. Britain had clashed with France in the Sudan over the territory around Fashoda and was a rival with Russia in the Far East over China. Now, with Germany challenging Britain, it seemed the right time to seek security through alliances. Thus, in 1902, Britain made an alliance with Japan, which gave Britain an ally in the Far East and allowed the Royal Navy to bring back warships from this area. This alliance was followed by an entent with France. Although this entente was not a formal alliance, it settled the rivarly between the two nations over colonial issues and set a completely new direction for Anglo-French relations.
The other effect on Germany's maritime challenge to Britain was to start a naval arms race. In 1906, Britain had launched a super-battleship, the HMS Dreadnought. The battleship's name literally meant that this ship 'feared nothing', as its speed, range, and firepower were far superior to those of any other existing battleship. The irony of the creation of this battleship was that it potentially nullified Britain's historical naval advantage over the other great powers. The dreadnought class made all the older battleships obsolete; this meant that in battleship terms Britain had taken the race back to zero and their traditional numerical advantage was lost. A competitor now could construct similar battleships and catch up with Britain. This situation triggered a 'naval scare' in the winter of 1908–09, as fears grew concerning Germany's rapidly expanding fleet. The British government responded by ordering the construction of eight battleships in 1909.
The naval race also caused a complete change of mood within the British population itself, as newspapers and popular fiction now portrayed Germany (rather than France or Russia) as the new enemy threatening Britain. As Norman Lowe observes, Britain's willingness to goto war in 1914 owed a lot to the tensions generated by the naval race.
The situation in the Balkans
The Balkans was a very unstable area that also contributed to the tensions that existed in Europe before 1914. As you have already read in the introductory section to this chapter, three different empires had interests here – Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.
Turkey had once ruled over the whole of the Balkans, but was now largely impotent. The Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgars had already revolted and set up their own independent nation states and now Turkey was struggling to hold on to its remaining Balkan territories.
The Austrians, by 1900, were losing their grip on their multi-ethnic empire. Of the various ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary, the most forceful in their demands for independence were the southern Slavs – the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – who were beginning to look to Serbia for support. They wanted to break away and form a South Slav kingdom with their neighbour, Serbia. Serbia was thus seen as a threaty by Austria-Hungary.
Russia also had ambitions in the Balkans. First, the Russians sympathised with their fellow Slavs; indeed, Russia saw itself as the champion of the Slav people. Second, the Balkans was strategically important to Russia. The straits of Constantinople had to be kept open to Russian ships en route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. With ports in the north of Russia's vast empire iced over for six months of the year, continued access to war-water ports was vital.
The fact that Turkey's power was so weak and could in fact collapse at any moment led the powers to talk of the 'Eastern Questions', i.e. what would happen in the Balkans if and when this situation arose. Clearly, both Austria-Hungary and Russia hoped to benefit from Turkey's declining power.
Growing tension in the Balkans after 1900
In June 1903, the pro-Austrian King Alexander of Serbia was murded and replaced by the Russophile King Peter, who was determined to reduce Austro-Hungarian influence. This appointment caused great anxiety in Austria-Hungary, which already feared the influence of a strong Serbia on their multi-ethnic empire. A tarrif war began in 1905–06, and the Serbs turned to France for arms and finance. Tension increased when the uncompromising Baron von Aehrenthal became Austria's foreign minister. He believed that an aggressive foreign policy would demonstrate that Austria was still a power to be reckoned with and would stamp out Serbian aspirations.
Short-term causes: the crisis years (1905-13)
Between the years of 1905 and 1913, there were several crises, which, though they did not lead to war, nevertheless increased tension between the two alliance blocs in Europe and also created greater instability in the Balkans.
The First Moroccan (Tangier) Crisis (1905)
Germany was worried by the new relationship between Britain and France and set out to break up the entent by attacking France and Morocco. Germany's plan was to expose the weakness of this new friendship. As part of the entente agreement, Britain supported a French takeover of Morocco in return for France recognising Britain's position in Egypt. Morocco was one of the few remaining areas of Africa not controlled by a European power. The Germany thus announced that they would assist the Sultan of Morocco to maintain his independence and demanded an international conference to discuss the situation.
An atmosphere of crisis and the threat of war was cultivated by the Germans throughout 1905, until the French gave in and agreed to a conference at Algeciras, Spain, in 1906. Much to the surprise of Germany, the British decided to back the French and their demands for influence in Morocco. The Germans had little support in the conference, and after several weeks had to admit defeat. Their only gain was a guarantee of their commercial interests.
The result of the first Moroccan Crisis were a disaster for Germany:
- Germany had not gained notable concessions in North Africa, which was a failure for Weltpolitik and a blow for German pride.
- Germany had not undermined the Entente Cordinal - they had strengthened it. Military talks between France and Britain were initiated in January 1906. British foreign policy was now directed to support French interests.
- Several states had considered war as a possible outcome of the crisis, thus signalling an end to the relatively long period of peaceful relations in Europe.
- Germany was now seen as the key threat to British interests.
The Bosnian Crisis (1908)
Following the First Moroccan Crisis, the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was signed, thus confirming to many Germans the idea of a conspiracy to encircle and contain them. This fear of encirclement forced Germany into a much closer relationship with its Triple Alliance partner, Austria-Hungary, a shift that was to have an impact in both the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 and later Balkan Crisis of 1914.
In 1908, an internal crisis in the Ottoman Empire caused by the Young Turks revolution again raised the issue of the Eastern Question, and Austria-Hungary decided to act by annexing the two provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina that Austria-Hungary had occupied since 1878, but which were still formally Turkish. The Austro-Hungarian annexation caused outrage in Serbia, which had hoped that these provinces would ultimately form part of a Greater Serbia and provide access to the sea. Russia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Petrovich Izvolsky, had earlier met with Aehrenthal and secretly given Russia's acceptance for this move on the understanding that Austria would support Russia's demands for a revision of the treaties governing the closure of the Bosporus and Dardanelles. However, Aehrenthal went ahead with the annexation before Izvolsky had managed to gain any international support for his plan. In fact, not only did he encounter hostile reactions in London and Paris, but the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, and the Tsar were unenthusiastic about any agreement giving Austria control over fellow Slavs.
Relations between Austria-Hungary and Russia became very strained and there was talk of war. It was at this point, in January 1909, that Germany decided to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with its ally. Germany reassured Austria-Hungary that it would mobilise in support if Austria-Hungary went to war with Serbia. By contrast, Russia had little support frm Britain or France. The Russians – weakened by the 1904–05 war with Japan – had no alternative but to capitulate to the German 'ultimatum' and recognise Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia. Serbia, facing the overwhelming military potential of Austria-Hungary and Germany, backed down.
The results of the crisis were important in raising tension in the region, and between the alliance blocs:
- Russia had suffered another international humiliation, following on from its defeat by Japan. It was unlikely that Russia could back down from another crisis situation and retain international influence and political stability at home. Russia now emabrked on a mssive rearmament programme.
- Serbia was enraged by the affair, and it led to an increase in nationalist feeling. The Austrian minister in Belgrade reported in 1909 that 'here all think of revenge, which is only to be carried out with the help of the Russians.'
- The alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary appeared stronger than commitments of the Triple Entente.
- It ended the era of cooperation in the Balkans between Russia and Austria-Hungary; the situation in the Balkanas became much more unstable.
- Germany had opted to encourage Austro-Hungarian expansion rather than acting to restrain their approach to the region.
The Second Moroccan (Agadir) Crisis (1911)
In May 1911, France sent troops to Fez, Morocco, on the request of the Sultan to suppress a revolt that had broken out. The Germans saw this as the beginning of a French takeover of Morocco and sent a German gunboat, the Panther, to Agadir, a small port on Morocco's Atlantic coast, hoping to pressurise t he French into giving them some compensation for such an action.
The Germans were too ambitious in their claims, demanding the whole of the French Congo. This assertiveness was popular with public opinion in Germany, but such 'gunboat diplomacy' as it was called by the British implied the threat of war. Britain, worried that the Germans might acquire Agadir as a naval base that would threaten its naval routes to Gibraltar, made its position clear. David Lloyd George (Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer) gave a speech – called the Mansion House Speech – to warn Germany off. He said that Britain would not stand by and watch while 'her interests were affected.' This speech turned the Franco-German crisis into an Anglo-German confrontation. In November, the crisis was finally resolved when Germany accepted far less compensation – two strips of territory in the the French Congo.
The results of the crisis, again, increased tension between the European powers:
- German public opinion was hostile to the settlement and critical of their government's handling of the crisis, which was another failure for the policy of Weltpolitik.
- The entente between Britain and France was again strengthened. Naval negotiations between the two began in 1912, and Britain agreed a commitment to the defence of France by 1913.
- There was increased tension and hostility between Germany and Britain.