The Root Causes of World War I
Thesis: Whether it was caused by overarching nationalism, ethnocentrism, imperialism, race for arms or indeed Archduke Ferdinand’s blood, the root causes of World War I still remains a mystery to historians.
- Historical interpretations and debates into the causes of World War I.
- The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand sparked the immediate cause.
- State of international relations at the beginning of the 20th century
- The division of Europe and the Great Power nations.
- Competition in the Balkan region.
- Lack of an international intervening institution.
Causes of the War
- The arms race
- Lack of international laws
- Mutual Defense Alliances
Whether it was caused by overarching nationalism, ethnocentrism, imperialism, race for arms or indeed Archduke Ferdinand’s blood, World War I remains one of the most significant historical events of the 20th century. There have been endless debates and equally varied interpretations by many a historian on the actual causes of World War I. The War started in central Europe in 1914 and did not end for another four years. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it remains difficult to put a finger on the real causes of the war, but many agree that a combination of numerous intertwined factors such as conflicts and diplomatic tensions among Great nations did stoke the War. Ideologies such as nationalism, militarism, antagonism and imperialism are also other factors that led to the War.
There is little doubt that the events attendant to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the struggling Austrian-Hungarian Empire, provided the immediate spark or rather excuse for nations to relieve the long simmering political and economic tensions. This represented a coming to a head of the controversy following the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, contra to the wishes of the inhabitants of the provinces who wanted independence on one hand, and Serbia on the other, which wished to unite with the two provinces. The Empire defeated Serbia and acquired authority to rule the provinces to the embitterment of the later which sought to avenge the loss by hatching a plot to take the archduke’s life. The Empire, backed by Germany seized on the assassination to settle long standing rivalries by declaring war on Serbia, a war that snowballed to involve more and more countries. This marked the beginning of the World War I but was hardly the sole cause. Since if indeed, the regicide caused the war, why did it have to last that long if the warring sides did not have other intentions?
The early 1900’s presented the world with intractable ideological and geopolitical difficulties as well as conflicts which rendered war seemingly inevitable. Prior to the War, Europe had been divided into twin armed alliances; Central Power and Entente Powers. The latter comprised of Italy, Britain, Russia and France, backed by the US and Japan. The former consisted of both the Ottoman and the Austria- Hungarian Empires, besides Bulgaria and German. These Powers were bound by treaties to the effect that if a member country declared military action against its enemy, other states had no option but to offer support to the conflict irrespective of their own decisions. In addition, internal crises and bad management had led into failing Empires, notably the Ottoman Empire which lost control of the Balkans to nationalist movements and Balkan politics created not only a power vacuum but also tensions among countries such as Russia and Germany among others (Spencer, pp 137-163).
Away from the Balkans, tensions did exist too among varied nations, each of which was petrified by possible unknown enemies, which in turn fuelled the desire to amass weapons and develop strong armies. Thusly, militarism became the most sensitive ideology which unhelpfully spawned hatred, bitterness and suspicion among countries from the varied divisions. Every country tried to gain economic dominance of international markets, besides the incessant competition over colonies which hardly made for international cooperation and friendship. An instructive example of these is the competition for naval supremacy that pitted Germany against the mighty Britain and drove each country to establish strong navies. On her part, France was yet to recover from the internal tensions and hatred that dated back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which resulted into Germany acquiring the better part the of Alsace-Loraine region (Hillgruber, p. 120). Indeed, this comprised the major motivation for France’s support and involvement in World War I, if only to reclaim the lost region.
In addition, some content that existence of internationally recognized law could have formed the basis for providing solutions to souring international relations. The existing legal situation in the world was characterized by the lack of a moral authority that governed international agreements. This meant that no state could be held to account , a situation worsened by the confusion thrown up by Secret diplomatic actions among individual states such as the decision by Sir E. Grey, the then British Foreign Secretary, to hold military and naval negotiations with France.
The state of militarism that existed in Europe way before World War I can be put down to the deep seated hatred and rivalry between the two divisions of Europe. Each side insisted on steeling the muscle of their armies for defense reasons. Nations competed against each other in the acquisition of frenetic arms as well as recruiting more officers; an arms race that saw Germany spent a substantial amount on naval equipment in an effort to challenge the control of British supremacy at sea. A situation, which when coupled with the belligerent attitudes of both sides served to not only start the war but sustain it for years (Strachan, p. 57).
Feelings of togetherness build up in many states, and along with it, rising nationalism as borne out by the unification of Germany in 1871 and Italy in 1861 as well as the political tensions that existed in the Balkans (Simkins, p. 211). Feelings of nationalism among the Germans led them to create enmity towards the French. Nationalism could also have inspired the hatred and vengeance that existed between the Serbians and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and thus the explanation for the regicide that sparked off the war in the first instance.
International rivalries are historically closely linked to economic and political imperialism. Competition for the control of international markets and expansion of empires resulted to bitter rivalries among competing countries. Nations such as Germany made efforts to control regions that were under control of the British which heightened the tension and bitterness. Each country tried to outdo others in pursuit of economic dominance and super power. Therefore, War seemed to be the only solution that could be used to resolve the problem of economic dominance.
The lack of an internationally recognized institution or law is another factor that made it difficult for conflicting European nations to resolve their tensions. Resolutions that had been enforced by Statesmen at the 1899 and 1907 Conferences in The Hague failed to provide the expected results.
Finally, the roots of World War I can majorly be attributed to the role of various alliances and treaties that had been established by European nations. The alliances meant that a nation had no option to offer support to its ally in an event of declaration of war against its enemy. This created a complex network of international agreements that led to Europe being divided into two divisions; Central Power and Entente Powers. Russia was bound by a treaty to Serbia while Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary; hence Russia and Germany waged war against each other. Britain was allied to France and it had to offer support to France during warring times (Martin, p. 91-98). In the long run, a bitter situation became existent in Europe and as the events unfolded, War became an inevitable reality.
Work Cited List
Hillgruber, Andreas. Germany and the Two World Wars, translated by William C. Kirby,
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print
Martin, Gilbert, First World War. London: HarperCollins, 1994. Print
Simkins, Peter. Chronicles of the Great War: The Western Front 1914-1918. London: Bramley
Books, 1997. Print
Spencer, Tucker (Ed.). The European powers in the First World War. An Encyclopedia. New
York and London; Garland, 1996. Print