|The New York Times carries news of the event that would draw Europe into war (Public Domain)|
The Immediate Cause of World War 1
On 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, a young man named Gavrilo Princip set in motion the events that would spark World War One. Princip, a physically small and weak teenager, held no military rank nor did he hold a position of power, yet his actions on that summer morning plunged the world into the bloodiest conflict it had ever known. On the face of it, his crime, dreadful though it was, doesn't appear to merit the industrial scale slaughter that followed.
|Gavrilo Princip (Public Domain)|
The man Princip murdered was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Princip's motives for murder were political; he was a Serb who wanted Bosnia to be part of Serbia, rather than under Austro-Hungarian rule. His actions might have been expected to result in his trial and execution (in the event, he was imprisoned and died in 1918) and perhaps some retribution against his nationalist comrades. Just how did this local crime turn into a global war?
The Long Term Causes of World War 1
Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke may have been the spark that lit the fuse for World War One, but Europe was already a powder keg waiting to explode. Pressure had been building in Europe throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, with the leading nations vying for power and influence. By the early years of the twentieth century the scene was being set for war, though undoubtedly no one could have imagined that when it came it would be so prolonged or so bloody.
In broad terms, the four factors that built up during the decades preceding World War One and which caused the war were:
These factors were not always discrete and could overlap. For instance, German militarism found expression in the national identity whilst growing militarism all over Europe led to the system of alliances.
The Growth of Nationalism Before World War 1
During the pre-war period the European powers were not suffering any crises of identity. France, Germany and Britain all had their own very clear national identities and revelled in them. People were not afraid to show their love of country and saw it as their duty to show their support. Just as they loved their own countries, they tended to have a deep-seated distrust of their neighbours.
Germany was a relatively new nation, formed when the German states, led by Prussia, unified in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Germans were proud of their military tradition, their technology and Teutonic history. In 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm II succeeded to the throne and quickly pushed out Otto Von Bismark, the Chancellor who had used all his guile to keep the fine balance of power between the major powers. Germany now had at its helm the Kaiser, an arrogant and unstable man who never appeared in public unless wearing a military uniform; Germany's die was cast.
France was a nation with a smouldering hatred of Germany since the Franco-Prussian War. The French were defeated and a humiliating treaty was signed at Versailles which took from the French their territory of Alsace-Lorraine. They wanted it back. A few years after the Franco-Prussian War the French adopted The Marseillaise as their national anthem. One verse calls the French to arms and hopes that the impure blood of the enemy will water their fields. Germany is not stated to be the enemy, but no doubt many Frenchman had that in their minds as they sang the words.
Great Britain was a nation unburdened by any sense of humility during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The sun didn't set on her empire, her navy ruled the waves and a great many Britons were probably sure that God, if not actually British, was certainly on their side. Rule Britannia, indeed!
Whilst the major players were secure in their national identities many other people were trying to establish their own. In particular, the people of the Balkans were struggling against oppression. Austria-Hungary ruled a vast territory which included many different races, many of whom wanted independence. Gavrilo Princips was one such person, backed ultimately by the Serbian government.
|Wilhelm II (left foreground) and his cousin George V (right) in Berlin 1902|
Imperialism in the Run-Up to World War 1
Europeans had started expanding their territories into Africa and Asia as early as the sixteenth century. Colonisation expanded rapidly during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as governments realised how lucrative their colonies were. Not only did the colonies produce natural resources but they provided a market for European goods. By the nineteenth century the empires of the various European powers were largely funding their economies.
The main colonial rivals were:
- · Britain
- · France
- · Belgium
- · Italy
- · Holland
- · Germany
Britain's empire was the largest; at it's peak the British had annexed around a quarter of the world's land and ruled around a fifth of the total population. The Kaiser had ambitions to rule an empire that was at least equal to that of his cousin George V. Since so many countries had already been swallowed up by other European powers, the Kaiser's empire-building was bound to lead him into conflict over land.
The Arms Race and Militarism
Kaiser Wilhelm had a deep-seated envy of Britain and in particular its navy. The Royal Navy was the largest in the world and the Kaiser was determined to out-gun it. Several other nations, notably Japan and the United States, also increased their navies, but nothing like on the scale undertaken by the British and Germans.
In the dying years of the nineteenth century, Germany passed laws to allow the expansion of her navy. Britain responded in kind, and in 1906 the first of a revolutionary kind of battleship, HMS Dreadnought, was launched. Dreadnought was just the first of the new ships; more followed, with the British public demanding "we want eight and we won't wait!". The navy had no intention of stopping their ship building, planning to have a fleet that was at least the size of the combined fleets of the next two largest navies. Their planning worked; Britain entered with war with the largest fleet of all the nations.
Whilst Britain was preoccupied with the seas, France and Germany made plans for a land war. Both countries doubled the size of their armies between 1870 and 1914. Unlike Britain, they also had universal conscription to bolster their standing armies. In addition, Germany was a country steeped in militarism. Ever since Prussia was conquered by Napoleon, the Prussian nobility had been trained as army officers to ensure that such an ignominious defeat was not repeated . Since the former Prussian nobility held senior positions in the German civil service and government, the interests of the State and the army were closely linked.
Germany, renowned for her efficiency, also drew up plans for war, which they thought was inevitable. The Schlieffen Plan, designed to knock out France, intimidate Britain and hold Russia at bay, was put into play following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Alliances Prior to World War 1
|Triple Alliance countries are shown pink. |
Triple Entente countries are grey.
The build up of militarism and the race for colonies was bound to create tensions between the European powers. Whilst on the one hand the arms race was used to intimidate potential aggressors, on the other diplomacy was employed to foster mutually beneficial defensive alliances. Throughout the last part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Europe split into two camps.
In 1882 the Triple Alliance was formed. This was a military alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The allies promised to support each other in the event of an attack by any of the other European powers.
France had been isolated since the end of the Franco-Prussian War and following the Triple Alliance Russia too felt insecure. In 1894 the two countries entered into the Franco-Russian Alliance.
The British and Japanese signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 which marked the end of Britain's previous policy of "splendid isolation".
Italy reneged on the Triple Alliance by entering into a secret agreement with France, guaranteeing that Italy would not join an offensive against France.
In 1904 the French and British laid aside their ancient enmity and signed the Entente Cordiale.
Britain and Russia entered into the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 which ended a period of tense relationships between the two Empires. The signing of this agreement brought about what was known as the Triple Entente, the alliance between Britain, France and Russia. The Triple Entente also had various other agreements with the United States, Spain, Portugal and Brazil and, as mentioned above, Japan.
In addition, there were various treaties, agreements and alliances between the European powers and their smaller neighbours. Russia was bound to Serbia by such an agreement and Britain was determined to honour Belgium's neutrality. Germany either overlooked or ignored these considerations.
As per the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans marched into France through Belgium. They had assumed that Britain would ignore the treaty of neutrality, but they were proved wrong. Despite the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force in France on 7 August 1914, the Schlieffen Plan looked likely to succeed. However, by 12 September the combined French and British armies held up the German offensive at the First Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914). Russia's mobilisation was quicker than expected and troops intended for France had to be diverted to the eastern front. The Germans were denied their quick victory and very quickly both sides started entrenching. The Great War had begun.