Causes Of World War IOn June 28, a Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip, spurred Europe into the most catastrophic event of modern history, assassinating Austrian Archduke, Francis Ferdinand. Yet, somewhere behind this simple act lies a much deeper and complex origin to a war unlike any had ever seen or even imagined. Profound improvements in war technology, growing tensions between neighboring European ethnic groups, and a comprehensive system of alliances and treaties, which all defined The First World War, resulted in the essential annihilation of an entire generation of European men and led to an equally devastating War twenty-five years later. The causes of such, and the appointment of blame, have been tenaciously argued and re-argued by historians from all perspectives and biases. This paper will also examine the question of who is to blame for World War I.
The initial conclusion to the question of responsibility was handed down at the treaty of Versailles following Germany’s signing of the armistice on November 11, of 1918, ending the War. The treaty placed the blame of the war solely on Germany’s shoulders, dealing her tremendously harsh punishments that ensured severe detriment to Germany’s economy, military and general prestige. This would also lead a shamed Germany into a decade of despair and finger pointing that would see a radical Adolf Hitler lead his downtrodden masses into the Second World War. The Versailles treaty, plainly drafted by avaricious victors seeking exorbitant reparations on the basis of renewed sentiments of hate, prejudice and blind fury, in no way reflects the true picture of responsibility for World War I. Though Germany deserves an allotment of the blame, and possibly a greater portion than any other participant in the war does, certainly there were factors outside of Germany’s control that led to the war. These factors, which find their roots dispersed throughout a half century’s time leading up to the war, include: the establishment of alliances among the leading powers of Europe, following a history of wars seeking to maintain a balance of power among these nations; nationalist ideals of unity and ethnic supremacy; and an inability by the leading statesmen of the time to work out an efficient and compromising solution to the problem at hand. Ultimately, every major power involved in the War, and the representatives of those countries, without exception, can be justly apportioned, to a greater or lesser degree, based on the aforementioned criteria, a part of the blame.
The calculated system of alliances that determined the sides for World War I were carefully established in the mid-19th Century to sustain an even balance of power throughout Europe. Germany’s Otto Von Bismarck established these alliances in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. France, soundly defeated, lost territories in Alsace and Lorraine, as well as being handed heavy war debts, and Bismarck predicted an eventual attempt by the French to regain their land and integrity. The politically savvy Bismarck, to prevent any French aggression, organized a triumvirate of leading European powers, Germany, Austria and Italy, and formed the Triple Alliance in 1891, effectively isolating France within Europe. This, the most significant of a number of alliances established by Bismarck with other eastern powers including Russia, also allowed Germany to mediate and ease tensions as Russia and Austria continually jockeyed for dominance in the Balkans. Therefore, of the countries that made up the Triple Alliance, clearly Germany had the greatest influence on the outcome of the events leading up to World War I.
Opposing Bismarck’s Triple Alliance was France, Russia and Great Britain’s Triple Entente. France, who had obvious agitation with Germany, sought to counter the Central Power’s with an alliance of its own. France immediately looked to Russia whom they knew had a fierce conflict of interest with Austria, Germany’s most powerful ally. Russia, who was experiencing intense domesticate volatility, did not hesitate to join forces with a reliable French nation. Lacking from the dyad was a third power that could counter Germany’s well-established military forces. England initially remained neutral, as it sought no defense or expanse of European territories. However, as the late 19th Century dragged on and Germany continued a frenetic expanse of their navy and began to challenge Britain’s military and economic prowess, England had no choice but to join France and Russia for England’s best interest at home and abroad. Thus, the Triple Entente was formally established in 1914 and the opposing sides of World War I had taken shape.
So, what blame if any can be handed down with respect to the establishment of alliances? For Germany this question is complicated. When one examines the initial intentions of Bismarck in creating Germany’s allies it is clear that Bismarck was solely devoted to the interest of peace and balance of power. He had the means and support to increase an already large German Empire but opted for a more tranquil Europe at the expense of land and economic gains. However, Bismarck’s greedy successors, namely Kaiser Wilhelm, according to most contemporary sources saw the Triple Alliance as a tool to expand the German Empire. Just prior to the War Germany and the Kaiser maintained its status as a non-aggressor, saying that Germany, Is ostensibly making every effort to preserve peace and that Germany is, Ready to mediate for peace with Austria(480). The other side of the argument of German motive is presented by German historian Immanuel Geiss, who shows that the Triple Alliance was a German attempt to become a world power, not a world peacekeeper. Geiss’s essential argument is that the Triple Alliance, Was a result of the German desire to raise the Reich from the status of a continental power to that of a world power(501). Geiss is quick to note that Germany’s ambitious naval program, as well as its ever-increasing influence in European affairs, as indicators of aggression. Donald Kagan, another historian, reinforces the points made by Geiss: From the late 1890’s imperial Germany was fundamentally dissatisfied power, eager to disrupt the status quo and to achieve its expansive goals, by bullying if possible, by war if necessary (520). The ultimate proof of Germany’s ambitious plans are spelled out in the September Program which was released immediately following the outbreak of war. German historian Fritz Fischer claims that the September Program had been established well in advance of the war and that, Germany unleashed the war precisely to achieve its purposes (518). The provisions of the plan, set in motion by the forming of the Triple Alliance, would establish Germany as the unequivocal dominant force in European economy and politics. Germany would seize lands and forge its influence over, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden and Norway (519), as stated directly by the September Program. However, Germany was not the only country who saw the alliances as a means to advance an empire. France too was possibly guilty of having intentions other than peace in mind when forming its alliances. Max Monteglas, defending Germany’s innocence, notes that France, Aimed at recovering Alsace Lorraine and also hoped to annex the Saar Basin (449). He also shows that France, in an aggressive move, Compelled England to abandon her neutrality before Belgium’s neutrality was violated (452). Though Monteglas’s arguments are intriguing, one could easily look at France’s ambition to re-take Alsace Lorraine as justifiable and her eagerness to join with England as a simple matter of defense against a much stronger Germany. Like France, the nations of Austria, Russia, England and Italy all could justify their attachment to a particular alliance as a matter of self-defense against a greater force. Only for Germany did the Triple Alliance offer the potential to increase an empire and disrupt the stability of European affairs.
Adding to the brewing chaos in the European situation was the ever-powerful feelings of ubiquitous nationalism among the competing powers. The Slavic peoples of Russia had deep sympathy for their ethnic brothers in Serbia and so offered them support. Serbia, recognizing Russian defense, felt they had the power to question their Austrian rulers who ignored Serbian demands to liberate their people. Austria, ethnically dissimilar from the Serbians they governed, looked to a history of German association to counter the Serbian threat of Russian involvement. Germany, without need of an ally, saw the Austrian proposal as a means to create a stronger Germany, one that could compete with Europe’s historical powers, France and Britain and the world’s up and coming powers, The United States and Russia. If nothing else, ethnic differences between opposing nations led to considerable distrust and lack of respect. In a reaction to Serbia’s reply to Austria’s demands following the Archduke’s assassination, Kaiser Wilhelm went so far as to say, The Serbs are Orientals, therefore liars, tricksters, and masters of evasion (480). This statement clearly exemplifies the implications of ethnic differences among nations seeking understanding to avoid conflict. With such attitudes compromise is essentially impossible. Unfortunately, the Kaiser was not alone in his pre-conceived evaluations of different peoples. All of Europe can be partly to blame for wild, unfounded assumptions that only furthered tensions and thus brought Europe that much closer to a world war.
The most significant factors leading up to World War I lie deeper than systematic alliances or ethnic differences. It was in the month’s time between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Germany’s declaration of war on Russia that a world war became inevitable. June 28 to August 1, saw a complicated series of futile attempts by all sides to prevent war, or at least that is what they claimed, foiled by bad timing and ineffective diplomacy.
Austria was the first nation to blunder in effectively dealing with the Archduke’s assassination. Austria’s failure was a result of her inaction immediately following the murder. German Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Zimmermann expressed the consequences of Austrian hesitation: Austria-Hungary failed to act without delay and under the powerful impression of the Sarejevo murder…This mistake gave he Entente Powers the welcome chance to exchange views and arrive at an understanding(458). Zimmermann implied that a localized war, involving exclusively the Balkan region, would be possible only if Austria took immediate action. Austria itself recognized the need for immediate action: There should be no time lost in going into action as to take Serbia and the chancelleries of Europe by surprise(457). This, of course, was not the case. Austria gave Europe sufficient time to establish political position and Serbia time to establish sufficient defense.
The second mistake was a consequence of Russian haste in mobilization and its disapproval of localized conflict. The German Ambassador to Russia, Pourtal?s, reported Russia’s stance to the Kaiser on July 25; It would be impossible for Russia to admit that the Austro-Serb quarrel could be settled by the two parties concerned(469). Clearly Russia intended on intervention if any Austrian aggression ensued. Though Russia had substantial ethnic ties to Serbia, it is questionable whether or not Russia was justified in a total defense against Austrian aggression. It was undeniable that Serbia had challenged the power of Austria and an Austrian response was expected. Had Russia, as painful as it might have been, allowed Austria to deal Serbia its punishment than Germany and thus France and England would have stayed out of any war and localization would have been achieved. However, once Russia had committed itself to action, France to Russia’s defense and Germany to Austria’s were obligated by their respective alliances to also commit themselves to eventual war. Great Britain, on the other hand, waited until mobilization by both parties occurred before taking the side of France and Russia. Interestingly, at one point the Czar reconsidered mobilization but balked due to immense domesticate pressure to defend Serbia. Pourtal?s accurately predicted of the Czar’s cowardice, saying on July 30, two nights before war declarations, Frivolity and weakness are to plunge the world into the most frightful war(487).
The third, and most vital mistake, belongs to Germany. Germany, seemingly determined to go to war, refused numerous offers and suggestions by primarily England to negotiate with Austria and Russia to prevent a continental war. After loudly dismissing an English proposal from Sir Edward Grey, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, to convene as one of four major powers to promote a peaceful end to the increasing tensions in Europe, Germany also ignored Britain’s request to mediate the Balkan conflict. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of the German Empire, recognized the implications of Germany’s refusal to adhere to Great Britain’s requests: Since we have already refused one English proposal for a conference, it is impossible for us to waive a limine this English suggestion also. By refusing every proposition for mediation, we shall be held responsible by the conflagration by the whole world, and be set forth as the original instigators of the war(478). Upon German defeat four years later, the Treaty of Versailles would be based heavily on these same principles.
Adjacent to Germany’s lack of interest in mediation was its vehement support of any Austrian action. This position by Germany was clearly expressed by Heinrich Leonhard von Tschirschky, German Ambassador to Austria-Hungary, when he relayed to Austria, That Germany would support the Monarchy through thick and thin in whatever it might decide regarding Serbia(460). This statement is hardly a mediative plea for Austrian compromise. Austrian confidence in this statement was strengthened when Kaiser Wilhelm offered Austria Carte Blanche, or total support, in its military actions. With Germany standing strong at its back, Austria was now poised to exercise harsh military punishment on Serbia that would undoubtedly trigger Russia’s and the rest of Europe’s involvement. Had Germany instead used its influence to pacify Austrian aggression and therefore subdue Russia’s fears, then the conflict could have remained localized and a world war could have been prevented.
It is pure speculation that Germany would have been able to pacify Austria. Austria seemed intent from the beginning to prove its power over Serbia by harsh militaristic means. It is even further speculation that in light of a German detachment from the Balkan conflict that Russia would have followed suit. Russia, seeking the same nationalistic growth as all of Europe’s competing powers, had a history of influence throughout the Balkan region that offered Russia potentials in economic and political expansion. Likewise, France’s involvement in the affair was not a simple matter of altruism. France sought to regain lands it had lost to Germany almost fifty years prior as well as a renewed respect as a world empire. Great Britain, though to all appearances innocent, selfishly bathed in its content while European tensions heated to a boiling point. Had Great Britain been clear on its stance from early on, then Germany may have stepped down as Europe’s playground bully.
In light of these arguments one cannot justly apportion blame to a single nation or person. Rather, it was a collection of nations all seeking economic, military, and territorial expansion at the expense of anyone who got in their way. Driven by false ideals of ethnocentrism, all convinced of divine supremacy, the leaders and peoples of those European nations found themselves spiraling into a half a decade of absolute death and destruction. Two gunshots by a Serbian nationalist triggered billions more and one man who killed for his country caused millions to die for theirs. Yet, behind it all lay a vast and complex political structure that for reasons to be argued about but never proven, crumbled to the ground and left Europe and the world to question, why?
world book encyclopedia 1982