World War I was one of the most significant and pivotal events in the 20th century. The war was centered around Europe, which lasted 4 years from 1914 to 1918. This great war called for all the great powers to come together and was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. The war began with Austria-Hungary declaring war with Serbia. This resulted in multiple countries to join due to the alliance systems: the Triple Entente and the Dual Alliance. In the end, resulted in a major world conflict between great powers.
For the first time, a massive war began to pull countries closer to war even when they did not want to be involved. The event contributed to significant changes in economic, geographic, and political changes throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Historians all over agree that WWI was an exceptional war that was completely different from previous generations. However, many debate over who and what factors contributed to the outbreak of the First World War and if the war could have been prevented.
Although it is true that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand played a significant role in starting the war, there were multiple underlying factors that caused the First World War. However, to understand the factors caused the war and to prevent the outbreak of WW1, we need to travel back in time to the year 1904, 10 years prior to WW1. During this time, there was great economic, political, and social instability across Europe. The cause for the instability in Europe was caused by 3 factors: militarism, imperialism, and nationalism.
Militarism is the movement of using a strong military force aggressively to defend or promote national interests. Imperialism is the concept of establishing political, economic, and social dominance over other territories/countries. Nationalism is the concept of extreme patriotic pride for one’s country. These 3 factors resulted in rigid alliance systems (multipolarity), deterrence failure, and poor leadership. I firmly believe that political instability was the root of the outbreak of WW1. Each of the European powers was going through a series of conflicts within and the internal problems faced by the governments were responsible for the decision to enter into the war. The internal problems that each country was facing were the result of competition for resources and to expand their power.
Examples of this included the Franco-Prussia war, conflict over Korea by Japan and Russia, and a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Most European countries at the time were engaged in Empire building and there was little land to expand, thus creating a tone of animosity which made it easy for countries to join in. This caused nationalism to rise which caused the people to feel intense hatred towards their adversaries. Austria-Hungarian Empire was a dual monarchy, which was formed by 2 states during 1865. This resulted in many different ethnic and language groups, which led to many barriers between the people. Furthermore, this resulted in ethnic and religious clashes. Due to the fact that the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was comprised of many ethnic identities, they were terrified of Pan-Slavism. This was a nationalist movement by the Slavs in the Balkans who founded their own nation-states. Austria-Hungary was very over this and believed that only through aggressive actions against Serbia could solve this issue (Bridge 2010). On the other hand, Britain was dealing with both internal and external crises.
There was general unrest among the standard of living among the workers, which caused unrest among the laborers. This resulted in numerous strikes, which posed a risk to the economy and order (A Brief History). There were also tensions among political stability between the House of Lords and Commons. Britain was facing insecurity because they were suffering from imperial overreach. France was dealing with political tension in the region due to the rivalry between monarchists and republicans. There was a debate over electoral reform and whether or not to propose proportional representation (Garner 1913). The question of income tax and to reintroduce 3-year military service. There was also some bitterness between Britain which led to competition. However, France reconciled with Britain through Theophile Declasse, who alter the Franco-Russian alliance into action by broadening its scope to strengthen the European balance of power (Porter)(Delcassé 2019). As relations strengthen they worked together as a force to balance the power as Germany was rising. Britain supported France during the Morocco Crisis of 1905 and Germany was defeated. At this time, Germany was growing its military strength which led other powers to be insecure, especially the British and French. Germany, itself felt vulnerable due to the trade alliances of British-France-Russia and became aggressive to “show their strength.”
This eventually led to a naval arms race against Britain. As well, they were faced with shifting German policies due to Kaiser. While Russia was facing poor social and economic sanctions. The people were also discontent with the power of the Duma (legislative body). These events such as the Balkan wars, Moroccan Crisis, and the naval races caused increase instability and tensions between the European countries. The instability also produced poor leadership and this often led to many of the citizens left in the dark. The elites had the power to make decisions and often they were decisions that were irrational and miscalculated. This contributed to the concept of confirmation bias and national mythmaking. This resulted in a series of miscalculations which increased the tensions between the powers. Austria-Hungary declared war on Syria thinking it would be a short victorious war. Germany though the Schlieffen Plan would work to prevent a two-front war. However, this resulted in the involvement of the Triple Entente and neutral Belgium. They also miscalculated how long it would take Russia to mobilize.
These miscalculations were driven by 3 factors: nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. The economic and political conflict within each power had created a divide throughout Europe. The political factors pushed the spread of nationalism and the formation of alliances between powers. The economic factors pushed for militarism, which contributed to the rise of imperialism. Militarism can be echoed from the “blood and iron” policy by Bismark. Shortly after, the European countries began to build up their military strength. Due to this, people began to regard war as necessary and a part of attaining peace and power. As Germany was growing its military, Britain soon became alarmed when Germany build dreadnoughts. This caused a chain reaction of numerous arm races, which caused serious financial difficulties for all governments. Nationalism took two forms: a strong desire for national unity and independence if they had not achieved national unity and independence. The second form was a strong desire for national glory and prestige if they already had national unity and independence. This resulted in multiple dangerous movements throughout Europe, especially in the Balkan region. Such movements included the Greater Serbia Movement, the Pan-Slav movement, and a revenge movement in France.
This was the result of the desire of expanding their territories. Pan-Slavism was a nationalistic movement to unite all the Slavs. Russia supported this movement, while Austria-Hungary opposed the movement. They wanted to expand to the Balkans and was supported by Germany to unite all Germans together. Nationalism influence France to take revenge on Germany due to its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1971. This increased the tensions and hostility between the two countries. Thus, leading to a series of defensive alliances within one another due to long-term rivalries. By 1907, the European countries were divided into 2 groups. The alliances’ systems were rigid because they were built from fear and suspicion, which resulted in a security dilemma. The deterrence theory also played a role in the alliances. Kaiser started to build up his military to challenge both, Britain and France. Kaiser’s aggression led other powers to join alliances and caused increased tensions. Thus, explaining how instead of the alliance systems decreasing the possibility of war, it increased the possibility of war. Powers on each side were bound together, meaning if war broke out between one of their allies and their enemies, then they would be dragged. Not all alliances were known, some were kept secret which led to a spiral between all the powers. Due to the alliances, many powers began to rush into conflict (false optimism) believing they can get the upper hand.
As you can see, the cause for WWI resulted from the instability within each European country and this was driven by militarism, imperialism, and nationalism. This led to a deterrence failure which resulted in multiple spirals and miscalculations. Nations used their military to engage in large scale conflict and to expand their territories. Tensions rose among powers to expand their territory. The assassination was a small part of starting the war, therefore it could have only become a great war if there were already pre-existing conditions in Europe. Therefore in order to prevent WWI from occurring, I would make regime changes in certain states. I would get new leaders and make changes within the regime. Next, I would limit the ideologies of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. Lastly, I would promote diplomacy and effective communication between states. I would set each country up so they are stable. The reason for doing this is because they each had internal conflicts that pushed them further to war.
Thus, if internal conflicts are distinguished then the powers would not feel pressured to enter the war. Germany was going through erratic domestic and foreign policy changes with Kaiser. Kaiser inforced militaristic policies and wanted to expand German territory. I would try to persuade him to get rid of his militaristic agenda. I would do this by proposing a marriage of ties with the French or the British with him or his children. If he did not agree to give up his militaristic agenda, then I would get rid of Kaiser and his elite team and put one of his children on the throne. I would make sure they do not reflect the same agenda as Kaiser by making Germany into a constitutional republic but with a twist. The head of state will be whoever is next in line but the other representatives will be elected from a group of people. Austria-Hungary needs to be set up in an effective way so that different ethnic and language clashes do not form, whether it be coming up with different provinces or states within Austrian-Hungarian. If Austrian-Hungarian divided itself into provinces then it would be easier for them to control the people and it would also appease the people. Hence, creating peace and the people within Austria-Hungary would follow the Austrian-Hungarian rule.
Another idea would be to split Austria-Hungary into two separate countries. This way they would not fear the idea of Pan-Slavism. I would try to get the Austrian-Hungarian to stop using aggressive forces against Serbia, this way Serbia does not have to engage in conflict. This will also allow both countries to be somewhat neutral. Furthermore, Serbia will back off and this could allow for peaceful negotiations to occur. As for Britain, they had general unrest among the British laborers at the time due to the standard of living among workers. I would improve the standard of living by increasing the availability of income and access to resources (water, food, shelter). By the 20th century, the British economy was stable but there was mass unemployment. Hence, if jobs are available to the working class, then depression and poverty would be solved. At this time there was a campaign for women’s suffrage that was militant, which disturbed society. I would try to make it peaceful by organizing sit-ins and peaceful riots. Lastly, the conflict between the House of Lords and Commons will be resolved by putting new members in the houses, this way there is no influence of family ties and patronage. This will be done by allowing the citizens to vote for members on each House. As well, preventing them from expanding their empire because at this time most of Europe, Africa, and Asia were already occupied by them or another power.
As for France, I would try to settle the political unrest by helping them recover from the Franco-Prussian War against Germany. I would do this by getting rid of Georges Clemenceau- who was the French prime minister. He vigorously attacked Germany and argued for a greater military. If he is removed, then we can prevent France from being hostile towards Germany and vice-versa. France lost Alsace-Lorraine when they lost the war. The Alsace-Lorraine land will be given back to the French due to suffering economically. They were already vulnerable and had to pay a huge sum to Germany, so they have no intention of fighting anytime soon. If they receive half of the Alsace-Lorraine then they would be able to recover economically, due to the land being rich in iron-deposits. Although half of the Alsace-Lorraine will be returned to France, they must emphasize aggressiveness to Germany and vice-versa. As well, a marriage tie between the two could decrease tensions among the two. I would also change the Third Republic to make it a semi-presidential system. This will mean that a president will exist among a prime minister and a cabinet. This way both the middle and lower factions can share political and social dominance with the rich.
As for Russia, I would improve their social and economic conditions by getting rid of the Duma. The Duma resulted in conflicts within the legislative body. Instead, I would propose a legislative body where the leader elects 10 officials and the rest of the officials will be picked by the people. This way there is some democratic aspect in the government. If the following does not work then I will get new leaders and give more power to the people by introducing media and public opinion. The reason for this is due to the fact that many people are left out in the dark. The majority of the time, elites with dominance in economic and political activities have influence over what happens. As well as give less control and power to the military due to civilian-military relations. This would prevent elite people from attaining too much power and dominance and will prevent “loose-cannons” from making a decision by themselves.
Instead, they will have to seek approval from the people. I will limit the ideologies of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism by cutting down the military in each power. As well as promote peaceful relations by teaching them the importance of what a single misunderstanding can lead to war. This will promote the powers to have better communications and not to make rash decisions right away. If all else fails, I will use letters to blackmail the leaders and elites, which would allow me to initiate the steps above. Lastly, I would provide the attendees with sources such as books with information about religion and geography to teach people to not discriminate and to treat everyone with respect. Additionally, I could make international laws to prevent rigid alliance systems, and this way the countries will not feel insecure and make sure the conflict does not lead to a spiral. These are the steps I would take to prevent the outbreak of WW1.