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The Outbreak Of The First World War

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Published: Tue, 02 May 2017

The First World War has always been considered a landmark event in the history of the modern world and many historians trace the roots of 20th century violence to the fall out caused by the First World War. [1] The immense impact of the First World War on 20th century events, has often led scholars to investigate and try to identify the one power that eventually caused the war. [2] However, the outcomes of such studies have been far from conclusive and have given rise to numerous extensive yet highly paradoxical theories.

According to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the ‘War-Guilt’ Clause within it, all responsibility of the Great War was placed on Germany and no other country was considered responsible in any way. It was believed that Germany triggered the war by encouraging Austria to attack Serbia and the clause, therefore, asked Germany to accept full responsibility for the damages of the war. [3] However, this theory lost its credibility over time and most historians declared that the war guilt clause was nothing more than an Allied attempt at humiliating Germany. This became widely accepted until the Fischer controversy. In 1961, 43 years after the end of the war, a German scholar named Fritz Fischer reopened the war guilt debate by publishing “Griff Nach Der Weltmacht”, in which he exposed Kaiser Wilhelm II and other German politicians as solicitors of a European war as a means for Germany to gain more power in continental Europe. [4] 

“The Hamburg Historian levelled three critical charges at previous interpretations of the origins of the First World War: that continuity in German aims and policies could be found from Wilhelm II to Adolf Hitler; that Germany did, in fact, bear the main responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914; and that the Second Reich’s vast annexationist schemes and downright racism in the First World War presaged the darker chapters of the Third Reich.” [5] 

Fischer’s thesis received a lot of criticism from colleagues at home and abroad and it was finally settled that despite the evidence that focused blame on Germany, the war had been caused by impersonal forces that were beyond human control. According to David Lloyd George, “the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war’ [6] . Most critics agree that while Germany did bear significant responsibility for the outbreak of war, it cannot be assumed that they had been planning the war all along. However, with the circumstances in Europe, it is not difficult to believe that war had become inevitable. F.H. Hinsley believed that “If the Sarajevo crisis had not precipitated a particular great war, some other crisis would have precipitated a great war at no distant date.” [7] 

Several other theories have been investigated to explain the causes for the Great War. The most common of these revolves around the idea of collective responsibility. Collective responsibility takes into account long-standing rivalries and alliances that may have been a major factor in the outbreak of war rather than a single power.

The Alliance system began in 1881 as a system of protection against threats from and rivalries with more powerful countries. This is the reason why Austria-Hungary allied against Russia and then grew to include Germany due to threats from, not only Russia, but also Britain and France. Therefore, a highly volatile and aggressive environment developed in Europe long before the hostilities of the First World War broke out.

Many of the world powers before the war were engaged in long-standing rivalries that predated the war by over a decade. The nature of these rivalries and their impact heavily contribute to the causes of the Great War. The most evident of these rivalries lay between neighbouring powers, Germany and France, caused by the Franco-Prussian war in the late 19th century. [8] Another prominent rivalry that existed at the time was the naval race between Great Britain and Germany. As a result, these countries remained aggressive toward each other for a major part of the pre-war period. In the midst of these striking rivalries, one must not forget the animosity that had grown between Russia and Austria-Hungary as well as the general hostility among strong European nations over the scramble for African territories. [9] 

In light of these strained relationships and plaguing hostilities, it is necessary to examine Europe’s political landscape in the years before the Great War in order to determine the extent of Germany’s role in causing it and the involvement of other European powers in contributing to the “inevitable” [10] war.

In 1914, a common strain of thought amongst political and military elites in Europe seemed to be the inevitability of war and the belief that the outcome may be favourable rather than destructive. The German unification in 1871 is considered an important event in the timeline of pre-war conflicts and events. Once Germany was unified into a single, strong state, she immediately challenged Great Britain’s economic supremacy and naval superiority in Europe. In terms of colonial conquests, Germany lagged behind both Britain and which was a great blow to German national pride that drove them to work harder at carving out a niche for themselves in continental Europe. [11] German naval and military expansion was worrisome to the British and the French which heightened the perceived German threat within Europe and disrupted European peace and eventually resulted in a speedy arms race thus making war inevitable. It is highly debatable whether the arms race was caused by Germany or by the perceived threat from Germany but once the ball was set rolling, it was very difficult for the process to slow down. Each nation feared unpreparedness for war and increasingly sped up their production of arms and military strength resulting in a hostile and uninhibited environment prime for war.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, a nationalistic fervour swept across Europe with the populations within nations strongly identifying themselves along national lines. “Governments could not prevent or control forces which produced this shift” [12] toward nationalism and it created a sort of patriotism that helped boost the domestic governments’ popularity among its people. The effects of nationalism were widespread and resulted in the call for the Kaiser’s deposition after German defeat in the second Moroccan crisis. European leaders began to realise that neither diplomatic defeats nor military defeats could not be risked any longer without fear of losing power. Moreover, the theory of Social Darwinism [13] led people to believe that war was not something to be ashamed of but rather “God’s test of a nation’s soul” [14] . The impact of these concepts of nationalism and Social Darwinism gave rise to a general public acceptance of war and in conjunction with the growth of the press they threatened governments and leaders therefore raising the stakes and making nations more susceptible to war.

The alliances, rivalries, growing feelings of nationalism, acceptance of war as a possible alternative to diplomatic defeat, the arms race and the feelings of encirclement and threat within Europe had created the perfect climate for war by 1914. All that was required to light the fire of war was a tiny spark that came in the form of the events directly preceding the war.

That tiny spark came in the form of the assassination of the ArchdGuke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was caused by a Serbian nationalist secret society call the Black Hand and it set in motion a series of incidents that eventually culminated in the First World War.

The Austro-Hungarian reaction to the assassination of their heir came in the form of an ultimatum that comprised a long list of demands upon the government in Serbia, placing blame for the assassination on the Serbian government [15] . Serbia conceded to all of Austria-Hungary’s demands except a few minor clauses. Yet, despite Serbia’s cooperation, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914 with assured assistance from her ally, Germany.

Even though a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia seems inconsequential, it had far reaching implications that finally led up to the First World War. While both these countries were small and far less powerful than their neighbours, they were backed by strong allies who were bound by treaties to mobilise armies in conflict. Serbia had Russia as its ally and within six weeks of the war, Russia had mobilised its troops to defend Serbia. Germany, who was allied to Austria-Hungary, used Russian mobilisation as an excuse for declaring war on Russia. Another alliance between France and Russia saw France at war with Germany and therefore, Austria-Hungary [16] . At the same time, Britain ‘moral obligation’ to defend France caused Britain to declare war on Germany on August 4 1914. Britain was also bound to defend Belgium by a 75 year old treaty and German invasion in Belgium called for British intervention and thus further involvement in the war. Britain’s entry into the war with Germany and by extension, with Austria-Hungary meant the involvement of all her colonies including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa. Britain’s involvement also caused Japan to enter the war against Germany due to a military agreement. Italy’s alliance to Germany and her entry into the war in 1915 was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of peaceful Europe. With all the great European powers at war, a conflict between two minor countries turned into one of the worst wars the world has ever witnessed.

In 1947, historian A.J. Grant wrote that the “causes of the Great War will occupy the pens of countless investigators perhaps for the decades to come” [17] . To this day, the debate over which country caused the Great War has remained an unresolved one. While it seems like Germany had an important role to play in causing the war, it is impossible to place the entire blame on just one country or one event. If a domino theory does exist, it is the best theory to explain the causes of the First World War since each event and each nation’s reaction built up to the next and finally culminated in the Great War.

Bibliograpghy

Fischer, Fritz. Germany’s Aims in the First World War. Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus. Harlow,

Eng.: Longman, 2002.

Martel, Gordon. Modern Germany Reconsidered, 1870-1945. London: Routledge, 1992.

George, David L. War Memoirs. Vol. 1. London, 1924.

Wilson, Keith. Decision for War. St. Martin’s, 1995.

Setton, Kenneth Meyer., and Henry Ralph. Winkler. Great Problems in European Civilization.Englewood Cliffs, Nj: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Fischer, Fritz. War of Illusions. Chatto & Windus, 1975.

Merriman, John M. A History of Modern Europe: from the French Revolution to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Grant, A. J. Europe, the Story of the Last Five Centuries. London: Longmans, Green, 1947.


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