When global war broke out in 1914 dreams of world peace and prosperity were shattered. Accordingly, the First World War was arguably one of the most traumatic episodes in the history of international affairs. Geopolitically speaking, the First World War (also described as WWI in this essay) was unprecedented in both scale and sheer loss of human life. Never before had the world witnessed such carnage and violence perpetuated through the use of modern technology.
The First World War touched much of the world and the implications of this conflict reverberated across the globe. Seeking to understand the historical explanations as well as the role that nationalism played in the outbreak of the First World War, this essay will explore the multiple causes of the development of global hostilities in 1914. Using a three pronged analytical model, the causes of the WWI will be discusses with reference to the pre-conditions and precipitants for conflict and the triggers which sparked the war.
Understanding that WWI was an international event with global repercussions, we will analyze the various antecedents for the emergence of armed conflict through a multi-causal approach. This essay will argue that a variety of factors led to the outbreak of the First World War and while there is not one single causal explanation for the emergence of global conflict in 1914, a proper explanation of the origins of this conflict takes into account the amalgamation of each of these factors.
While nationalism was an important factor leading to the outbreak of international conflict between the warring parties, this essay will argue that in fact, nationalism was an important precursors to the emergence of conflict but the sole and deciding force in the violence which erupted on the shores of Europe and reverberated across the planet. Although the First World War has recently been overshadowed in the aftermath of the WWII, this conflict was the first in terms of scale and sheer destruction and thus continues to be worthy of scholarly analysis. Nationalism in International Affairs
Nationalism is an important force in international relations and has been so for centuries. As a basic principle of the international order, concepts of state sovereignty are intrinsic to our understanding of the world system. Accordingly, the international system is predicated upon the existence of nation-states and nationalism is a belief or sense of identity within the nation. The Treaty of Westphalia established the principle of state sovereignty, another fundamental principle of the international order which established the nation-state as an autonomous political entity.
Similar to tribalism or a sense of social kinship, nationalism as a potent political force began in Europe in the late eightieth century and was connected with a decline in overall religiosity, the development of industrialization, Enlightenment thoughts and a concerted effort by political elites to “build states”. By inculcating a sense of nationalist fervor in the citizens of their respective countries, elites have been able to manipulate nationalism for political purposes. Mass mobilization towards a variety of specific causes through an appeal to nationalist sentiment has been used as a political tool for centuries.
Although not exclusively a negative force, nationalism remains an important ordering principle of the international system and a force to be reckoned with (Anderson 2006). Preconditions to the Outbreak of Conflict There were a variety of preconditions to the emergence of the conflict, which up until that date, had been the largest that the world had ever seen. The First World War represented the dueling alliances of the Triple Entente – composed of Britain, France and Russia – and the Triple Alliance – comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
Pre-conditions are best described as the precursors to conflict and there were many underlying long-term causes for the belligerent behaviour of the states of Europe in 1914. An arms race, underway for years, and growing at a rapid pace just prior to the emergence of the First World War set the stage for violent conflict between the major states of the region. Accordingly, the arms race occurring at the time exacerbated the global balance of power and led to an increased likelihood of aggressive behavior between the armies of Europe.
As the European armies grew and competed with one another for size, manpower and prestige, the naval race between German and Britain contributed to a partition of the major states of the continent into two opposing camps. Competition was surely facilitated by nationalist tendencies and a desire to counterbalance the political, diplomatic and military ambitions of one’s rival. In addition to international arms races, domestic pressures and a willingness of the part of the citizens of some countries to engage in war helped precipitate the conflict.
Accordingly, the diplomatic isolation of Germany, Austro-Hungary was another important contributor to the outbreak of global war in 1914. German nationalism, largely ignored in the settlement of the Congress of Vienna almost one hundred years before, did experience a resurgence particularly after the imposition of what was then conceived by many to be an unfair Treaty in Vienna and gained prominence in the middle to late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
Accordingly, a German nationalism movement led a revolution to unify the country in 1871 – a similar movement in Italy served to unite that country in 1861 – and remained an important, although not solely important, force in attempting to explain the preconditions of conflict in 1914 (Joll and Martel 1992). In addition to the pre-conditions above, a series of crises from 1904-1914 also helped pave the way for the emergence of the First World War and were important pre-cursors to this conflict. The First Moroccan Crisis from 1905-1906 resulted in a German offensive which created the Entente.
This was followed by the Bosnia-Herzegovina Crisis of 1908/1909 in which Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. This important precursor to future conflict forced Russia to reevaluate its geopolitical situation and in turn view Germany and Austro-Hungary as a potential threat. The Second Moroccan Crisis (1911-1912) united Russia, Britain and France against Germany and was an important stabilizer for the Triple Entente informal alliance. The final conflicts which were important pre-conditions to the outbreak of violence in 1914 were the Balkan Wars 1912-13.
These series of wars removed the Ottoman Empire from the equation and led to an impressive German arms build-up (Strachan 2001; Joll and Martel 1992). On the Cusp of War: Precipitants to Conflict Precipitants are short-term crises that made the war seem inevitable and a series of crises, beginning with the assassination in Sarajevo of Franz-Ferdinand, Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made large-scale war in Europe seem like an inevitability. In fact, the months of late June/early July were replete with crises beginning with the violent assassination in Serbia of the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Assassinated on Serbia’s national day by a violent terrorist organization, the Black Hand, this event alone is described by many observers of the First World War as perhaps the most monumental precipitant to the outbreak of hostilities between the major powers of Europe. Following his violent death at the hands of a Serbian nationalist, Germany unilaterally supported the right of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to respond as it saw fit. This led to successive increases in belligerence on both sides and an ultimatum by Austria-Hungary to Serbia (Strachan 2001; Joll and Martel 1992). Triggers and the Outbreak of War
There are a variety of direct antecedents to the War of 1914 and the following will describe the important triggers for the world’s largest military mobilization to-date in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand, Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While there is not one single event which explains the emergence of large-scale conflict, the following will chart the important triggers which led to the internationalization of conflict and the explosion of a truly global war. Serbia’s rejection of the ultimatum put forth by the Austro-Hungarian represented a desire on its part to safeguard its independence.
By rejecting the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum and seeking Russian support, the Serbian republic unwittingly set the stage for the bloodiest war the world had ever known. Serbian intransigence and refusal to acquiesce to the demands of Austria-Hungary set the stage for Russian involvement which internationalized the conflict and significantly increased its scope. At the time, the Russian army was the largest army on the planet and the inclusion of Russia into the dispute significantly increased its scope and explosive potential.
Following the introduction of Russia into the equation, the first four days of August 1914 proved to significantly expand the horizons of the conflict. During those first few days of the month, Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, leading to the mobilization of Britain and the further internationalization of belligerence. Germany’s decision to declare war on Russia and the Entente powers represented an important expansion of the conflict on the side of the Triple Alliance and set the stage for the mobilization and later involvement of Britain in the brewing hostilities (Strachan 2001; Joll and Martel 1992).
Origins of the “Mass War” and Nationalism At the outbreak of World War One, states mobilized what scholars have described as “mass wars”: the uniquely modern phenomenon of warfare developed in the twentieth century which required the wholesale diversion of economies, labour and national productivity towards the war effort (44). Accordingly, “from 1914 on, wars were unmistakably mass wars…such a level of mass mobilization cannot be maintained except by a modern high-productivity industrialized economy. ” (Hobsbawm 1994).
State apparatuses grew and “mass wars” required governments to mobilize people, resources, and armaments to serve the war effort. Citizens were conscripted to fight, industry was instructed to produce arms, and the government became intimately involved in the establishment of monopolistic war economies. Although nationalism did play a role in the establishment of war economies and the growth of military-industrial complexes built up to support the war effort, many factors account for call to arms and the descent into extreme bloodshed and violence during the First World War.
Mass mobilization towards the war effort was certainly helped by nationalist fervor as the belligerent parties prepared for conflict which until then would have been on an unimaginable scale, but as has been shown above, nationalism is just one part of the equation in attempting to explain the origins of the First World War (Hobsbawm 1994). Concluding Remarks As one of the most traumatic episodes in the history of the world, the First World War represented geopolitical conflict on an unprecedented scale.
Never before had the world witnessed such carnage, bloodshed and violence. Seeking to understand the historical explanations and discuss the role that nationalism has played in the outbreak of the First World War, this essay has explored the antecedents for conflict in 1914. Important preconditions, precipitants and triggers have accounted for the emergence of this conflict. Nationalism, although an important factor which can help explain the emergence of World War One, is actually only one aspect of the overall conditions which lay the groundwork for World War One.
Nationalism may be a guiding principle of the international order but a focus which exclusively explores the role of nationalism in the causes of war gives an incomplete picture of this global conflict. While nationalism may have been a force in the establishment of alliances in Europe, there were a handful of other preconditions, precipitants and triggers which led to this conflict. As this essay has shown, many factors led to the violent episode now known as the Second World War and while each factor differed in substance, each contributed to the emergence of the “War to End All Wars”.
REFERENCES Anderson, B. 2006. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso. Hobsbawm, E. 1994. Age of Extremes: The Short History of the Twentieth Century: 1914-1991. London: Abacus. James Joll, J. and G. Martel. 1992. The Origins of the First World War. New York: Longman. McEvedy, C. 2003. The New Penguin Atlas of History. New York: Penguin. Strachan, H. 2001. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. London: Oxford University Press.
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