Causes of World War I

June 20, 2014 7:54 am


A WWI memorial in New York/AFP
A WWI memorial in New York/AFP
PARIS, Jun 20 – What led Europe at the height of its power to plunge into such a self-destructive conflict? Two historians, Gerd Krumeich of Duesseldorf University and John Horne of Trinity College, Dublin, offer their explanations.

What were the root causes of World War I?

GERD KRUMEICH: “Without a doubt, the roots of the conflict lie with the rivalries born of European nations’ imperial ambitions. At the turn of the century, all believed that having an empire was vital for their development, even their survival in a world faced with rapid industrialisation and international competition.

Germany — at that point Europe’s leading industrial power — was keen to acquire a colonial empire to match its economic dynamism. But it set about doing so in an aggressive way that was to upset the balance of powers on the continent. To Britain’s alarm, Berlin embarked upon an naval arms race, it squabbled with France over African territories, and helped the Ottoman Empire — Russia’s great rival — to modernise its army.

These initiatives were countered by Germany’s rivals, leaving it with a sense of frustrated ambition. Berlin felt encircled by the British, French and Russians — who themselves felt threatened by Germany’s ambitions and closed ranks against it. That state of affairs fuelled an arms race during 1912 and 1913, coupled with a flare-up of nationalist sentiment in both Germany and France.

In Berlin, military leaders believed a war was coming and thought they could win only if it came soon — before Russia was able to finish reinforcing its army. That explains the key role played by Germany in triggering the conflict.”

JOHN HORNE: “For decades before 1914, an ideological rivalry set the dynastic and multi-ethnic empires of Eastern Europe against the principle of nationality, incarnated by the nation-states of Western Europe and founded on the principle of popular sovereignty.

In the Balkans, emergent nationalism, especially that of Serbia, threatened Austria-Hungary in particular. At the same time, the balance of power in Europe was profoundly modified by the unification of Germany in 1871.

This turned Germany into a great power while French strength gradually declined. Colonial and economic rivalries exacerbated these tensions, but were not their main cause.

The balance of power gradually came to depend on the equilibrium between two armed alliances and on concerted action by the great powers on both sides to prevent regional crises inflaming the entire continent.

This mechanism worked to limit the two Balkan Wars in 1912-13. But in July 1914 it failed. If those in power had understood the nature of the war to come, they would certainly not have embarked on it so casually.

Instead, they considered war a rational option, a risk certainly, but not one that would transform the very nature of the world in which they lived.”

What triggered the outbreak of war?

GERD KRUMEICH: “It seems clear to me it was the Germans who pressed the ‘war’ button by refusing, throughout the crisis sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, to engage in any negotiation that would have allowed Serbia to withstand the aggression from Austria-Hungary.

The Austrian government decided to use the assassination to subdue Serbia, which had become, since the Balkan wars, a worrying neighbour with ‘pan-Serbian’ policies which threatened to pull apart the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire.

Germany, an ally of Vienna, saw the crisis as an excellent opportunity to test Russia’s intentions: if Russia came to the aid of Serbia against Austria-Hungary, it would be war — a war that Berlin thought it could win. If, on the other hand, the Russians allowed the Austro-Hungarian forces to wipe out Serbia, Russia would emerge weaker from the crisis.

The German government’s calculations were driven by the military, who believed a European war was inevitable and that it would be better for Germany to enter it as quickly as possible. The other powers concluded from this that Germany — deaf to any attempts at making peace — wanted to go to war.

Russia, reassured by the support France had offered during the crisis, took the risk of a robust response in the hope of intimidating Vienna: for the first time it decided to introduce conscription while continuing to negotiate.

But this conscription in fact set in train the German war plan — the Schlieffen Plan — which meant that Germany, if threatened by Russia, would quickly attack and conquer France so it could then turn all its forces on Russia, avoiding the nightmare of a war on two fronts.”

JOHN HORNE: “All those who accepted a Europe divided into two armed camps and the idea that war was an acceptable tool of politics — if not a Darwinian necessity — had their share of responsibility for the outbreak of war.

But the role of the Austrians and above all the Germans – without whose approval Austrian action was unthinkable – was fundamental.

The question of who was ‘responsible’ for the war must nonetheless be seen in the context of the conflicts and understanding of the European balance of power at the time.

It only became a fundamental issue after the conflict in view of the gulf between the causes of the war and its outcome, which destroyed the pre-war world.”


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