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World War I and its consequences have dominated European history since 1914. Because of the bitter controversy over the post-war peace treaties, the origins of the war continued to be an issue of utmost political importance in the years to come. The Great War had its roots in 1870 in the grand expansion and uncontrolled ambitions of Bismarck and the new Germany (Wolfson et al 1997). Imperialism, which began to emerge around the turn of the 20th century also played a decisive role. Fights over the colonies contributed to the establishment of complex set of international alliances, which helped to destabilize the European balance of power and when combined with the third factor – instability in the Balkan region – inevitably sparked off the First World War.
Besides the three main causes, they were also other conditions, like the arms race between Germany and Britain, a process of social-economic modernization in Europe, the increasing importance of international prestige, the underestimation of the counterpart’s power, which also contributed to the outbreak of the war. As Joll (1990) argues, there were also philosophical facts that had great impact in the evolution of the tragic events of 1914. The prevalent Darwinian ideas of the survival of the fittest, of the struggle for existence were among European statesmen prior 1914.
The Versailles Treaty, signed in June 1919 unambiguously blamed Germany, the military regime of the Kaiser, William II and his allies for causing all the loss and damage they imposed upon Europe between 1914-1918. In the eighty- five years since the war ended however there has been a growing awareness, that the origins of the war were far more complex. Historians have studied not only the tangle of alliances and treaties which existed before the war but also the connections between the political and military spheres, the influence of domestic policies, and the national myths and traditions (Merriman 1996).
Looking back in history, the Franco-Prussian War (1870) completely changed the balance of power in Europe and strengthened Germany’s position as the leading continental power. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine never healed the wounds in France, and poisoned the relations between the two countries down to 1914. European politics from the 1880s was dominated by a dense web of alliances and treaties, which aimed to consolidate Germany’s position in Europe.
However, Bismarck’s international relations were only successful in the short-term and in the long-term they were plagued by insecurity and mistrust. As one alliance developed, it aroused the distrust of those states excluded from it, which then created counter-alliances (Joll 1990). French hostility was inevitable but Britain and Russia had also become deeply suspicious of German policies. But insecurity ruled also between the Russians and the French, the French and the British, the Serbs and the Russians, and the Germans and the Austrians. By the time Bismarck left office in 1890, his only reliable German allies were the Dual Monarchy of Austro-Hungary and Italy, and this remained the position in 1914.
By 1914 the key European alliances were:
-Entente Cordial between England-France (1904)
-The Triple Entente between England France and Russia (1907) and
Out of the great European powers only Austro-Hungary entered the war with a clear aim: to end the challenge of the South-Slav nationalism; the other participants fought for their survival as Great Powers. So Austria has to bear also some responsibility for the outbreak of the war. Russia was not ready for war, she desperately needed to avoid another humiliation as in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese war – the first time in history, when white supremacy became endangered. The British government was also reluctant to become involved in the war, it had its own problems with the Irish Home Rule, with strikes and suffragettes (Gildea 1996). France was also on the defensive side, she had its socialists to worry about, but she highly relied on the Russian alliance given the danger of the German attack.
Imperialism played a decisive role in the escalation of the tensions between the Great Powers at the outbreak of the war in 1914. As Marxist historians considered, imperial expansion was the logical extension of the development of monopoly capitalism, and such it would lead to war and eventually to international revolution (Wolfson et al 1997). The motives for swift colonial expansion prior the Great War were mixed and complex. There was a strong ideological belief in the superiority of European culture, but also the possession of colonies was a factor of world power.
Imperialism poisoned the relations between the Great Powers from the 1870s. Although the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 had settled the principles of European colonisation, further disagreements developed among the parties over territory, access to raw materials and markets, thus leading to series of crisis, like the Fashoda incident (1898), or the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) (Merriman 1996). The issue of control over the Suez Canal particularly embittered the relation between Britain and France, because France was deeply jealous of British colonial supremacy. Germany was keen to exploit this rupture to win France over to his side, and to bully Great Britain into making concessions to Germany (Gildea 1996).
However, the Anglo-German rivalry, which became acute by 1914, was the most important clash among the Great Powers (Eksteins 1989). British statesmen were eager to uphold certain principles in Europe. They were concerned by the prospect of any nation becoming too powerful and providing a threat to British world power. Germany, which had been united as recently as 1871, and within one generation had become an awesome industrial and military power, posed real danger to the British pre-eminence and mastery in Europe. However the most dangerous acceleration came in the field of naval expansion. Since Britain held her navy to be vital, any attempt to rival it by another power, particularly Germany would meet a spirited response (Wolfson et al 1997 ). Britain also feared that Germany and Russia might make common cause, for instance in the Middle East (Stone 1973).
However there were many other signs that the alliance system was overheating in the years before 1914. Morocco – rich in mineral and agricultural wealth – on the northern coast of Africa had become a central feature of the world politics because it combined a variety of aims and interest (Wolfson et al 1997). It provided an opportunity for colonial expansion, and also to enhance European aims in relative safety. By 1900 several European countries were eager to exploit the resources of Morocco, particularly Germany and France coveted the place. In 1904, in the ‘Entente Cordial’ Britain had recognised French interest over the country. Germany was not consulted of these negotiations. In the Algeciras conference in 1906 Germany found herself deserted by all but Austro-Hungary, and the German delegation had to be satisfied with a share of international control of Moroccan finances (Wolfson et al ibid).
In 1911 when France was given a protectorate in Morocco, Kaiser William attacked the Moroccan port, Agadir, to protect German interests there. Although direct confrontation was avoided when the Germans were compensated by an offer of territory in the French Kongo, this compromise could only offer a temporary solution to the Franco-German conflict, since Germany was dissatisfied with the resolution. The Agadir crisis also had harmful consequences for the peace of Europe. On the one hand, Germany had suffered a diplomatic defeat, but on the other hand, the British, French and Russian governments were alarmed by the aggressive attitude of the Germans. France was also humiliated, which fact stimulated the awakening of national feeling in France (Gildea 1996).
The growth of opposition to imperial rule resulted in the emergence of nascent nationalist movements in Europe. The principle of national self-determination had been gaining force since the revolutions of 1848, and revolutionary nationalism in various forms threatened the Ottoman, Austrian, German, Russian and British Empires. The war of 1914 was also due to the unbearable national tensions within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the attempts of that power to escape from them by action dangerous to peace (Wolfson et al 1997). Austro-Hungary had always been a multi-racial state and the subject races were now rebelling against it. Nationalism of the different nationalities within the empire profoundly threatened the stability of its power, and thus the empire sought a swift and easy victory that would reunite the nationalities against a common enemy.
So, finally, it was the Balkan which was the tinderbox for the outbreak of the war. The national struggles of the Balkan people were complicated by the rivalry between the powers in the area. Of the five great powers, Russia, Austria and Germany were particularly interested in the area either on political, or cultural reasons. Also, the control of the Balkan meant an abundant supply of cheap raw materials, a populous market and a large field for profitable investment for the rival parties.
In 1908 the Ottoman provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been occupied by Austria Hungary since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, were annexed by the Austro-Hungarian government, mainly to prevent these Slav provinces from being absorbed by the Slav kingdom of Serbia. These Turkish provinces were of great strategic importance to the Habsburgs. Russia, the protector of the South Slavs, didn’t fight over this issue, because she was compensated by access to the Mediterranean. However, as an immediate repercussion to the Bosnian crisis, Russia constructed a Balkan block as a bulwark against further Austrian expansion.
The success of the Balkan League (1912) against the Turkish Ottoman Empire horrified the Great Powers. Each of the new Balkan powers had made significant gains of both territory and prestige. These gains endangered the plans of Russia and Austro-Hungary for the domination, if not annexation, of the Balkan (Wolfson et al 1997). The emergence of a victorious Serbia grew particularly troublesome in the region. The Czar felt that Russia had suffered a diplomatic defeat because due to Austrian insistence she could not obtain Albania for Serbia. Austria-Hungary considered her ambitions to reach the Aegean directly affected, and she also considered that a powerful Serbian state might be dangerous if it reached the sea, and under the influence of Russia might be able to close Austria’s only outlet, the Adriatic. Therefore some of the bolder statesmen of the Dual Monarchy desired to keep Serbia always dependent.
The consequences of the Balkan Wars directly led to the outbreak of the First World War. The increasingly serious crises sparkled the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne at Sarajevo by Bosnian students. They opposed the Trialism that advocated the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Kingdom of Serbia, but the Serbian government was not responsible in the killing (Gildea 1996). However, the crisis couldn’t have developed further, if imperial tensions hadn’t poisoned the relation between the Great Powers.
In the approach to the outbreak of the First World War three factors were crucial.
Imperialism, the system of international alliances, and the rising nationalism. However, the ambitions and strategies of the Great Powers, colonial rivalry, awakening national pride were also decisive factors. Imperialism fuelled conflicts among the Great Powers, particularly when it threatened the participants’ pride, and interest. But it also led to the frustrations of ethnic minorities, which in turn sparkled violent reactions. The Morocco crisis increased the sense of international insecurity and intensified the pressure on states to rearm. The Balkan Wars strengthened the position of the Balkan powers, which challenged the plans of Russia and Austria-Hungary for domination. Each of these clashes had the potential to ignite a European war and while none solely contributed to the outbreak of war, they certainly assisted in the creation of a complex series of international alliances geared towards mutual protection against mutual enemies.
B I B L I O G R A P H Y
Eksteins, M. 1989. Rites of Spring. The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.
London: Bantam Press.
Joll, J. 1990. Europe since 1870. London: Penguin.
Gildea, R. 1996. Barricades and Borders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merriman, J. 1996. The History of Europe Vol 2. London: Norton.
Stone, N. 1973. Europe Transformed 1878-1919. London: Fontana.
Wolfson, R. Laver, J. 1997. Years of Change. Europe 1890-1945.