The Causes and War Aims of World War One

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The traditional explanation for the start of World War 1 concerns a domino effect. Once one nation went to war, usually defined as Austria-Hungary’s decision to attack Serbia, a network of alliances which tied the great European powers into two halves dragged each nation unwillingly into a war which spiraled ever larger. This notion, taught to schoolchildren for decades, has now been largely rejected. In "The Origins of the First World War", p. 79, James Joll concludes:

"The Balkan crisis demonstrated that even apparently firm, formal alliances did not guarantee support and co-operation in all circumstances.”

This doesn’t mean that the formation of Europe into two sides, achieved by treaty in the late nineteenth / early twentieth centuries, isn’t important, just that the nations were not trapped by them. Indeed, while they divided Europe’s major powers into two halves - The ‘Central Alliance’ of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Germany - Italy actually changed sides.

In addition, the war was not caused, as some socialists and anti-militarists have suggested, by capitalists, industrialists or arms manufacturers looking to profit from conflict. Most industrialists stood to suffer in a war as their foreign markets were reduced. Studies have shown that industrialists did not pressure governments into declaring war, and governments did not declare war with one eye on the arms industry. Equally, governments did not declare war simply to try and cover up domestic tensions, like the independence of Ireland or the rise of socialists.

Context: The Dichotomy of Europe in 1914

Historians recognize that all the major nations involved in the war, on both sides, had large proportions of their population who were not only in favor of going to war, but were agitating for it to happen as a good and necessary thing. In one very important sense, this has to be true: as much as politicians and the military might have wanted the war, they could only fight it with the approval – greatly varying, maybe begrudging, but present - of the millions of soldiers who went off to fight.

In the decades before Europe went to war in 1914, the culture of the main powers was split in two. On the one hand, there was a body of thought – the one most often remembered now - that war had been effectively ended by progress, diplomacy, globalization, and economic and scientific development. To these people, who included politicians, large-scale European war had not just been banished, it was impossible. No sane person would risk war and ruin the economic interdependence of the globalizing world.

At the same time, each nation’s culture was shot through with strong currents pushing for war: armaments races, belligerent rivalries and a struggle for resources. These arms races were massive and expensive affairs and were nowhere clearer than the naval struggle between Britain and Germany, where each tried to produce ever more and larger ships. Millions of men went through the military via conscription, producing a substantial portion of the population who had experienced military indoctrination. Nationalism, elitism, racism and other belligerent thoughts were widespread, thanks to greater access to education than before, but an education that was fiercely biased. Violence for political ends was common and had spread from Russian socialists to British women’s rights campaigners.

Before war even began in 1914, the structures of Europe were breaking down and changing. Violence for your country was increasingly justified, artists rebelled and sought new modes of expression, new urban cultures were challenging the existing social order. For many, war was seen as a test, a proving ground, a way to define yourself which promised a masculine identity and an escape from the ‘boredom’ of peace. Europe was essentially primed for people in 1914 to welcome war as a way to recreate their world through destruction. Europe in 1913 was essentially a tense, warmongering place where, despite a current of peace and obliviousness, many felt war was desirable.

The Flashpoint for War: the Balkans

In the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, and a combination of established European powers and new nationalist movements were competing to seize parts of the Empire. In 1908 Austria-Hungary took advantage of an uprising in Turkey to seize full control of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a region they had been running but which was officially Turkish. Serbia was livid at this, as they wished to control the region, and Russia was also angry. However, with Russia unable to act militarily against Austria – they simply hadn’t recovered enough from the disastrous Russo-Japanese war – they sent a diplomatic mission to the Balkans to unite the new nations against Austria.

Italy was next to take advantage and they fought Turkey in 1912, with Italy gaining North African colonies. Turkey had to fight again that year with four small Balkan countries over land there – a direct result of Italy making Turkey look weak and Russia’s diplomacy - and when Europe’s other major powers intervened no one finished satisfied. A further Balkan war erupted in 1913, as Balkan states and Turkey warred over territory again to try and make a better settlement. This ended once more with all partners unhappy, although Serbia had doubled in size.

However, the patchwork of new, strongly nationalistic Balkan nations largely considered themselves to be Slavic, and looked to Russia as a protector against nearby empires like Austro-Hungary and Turkey; in turn, some in Russia looked at the Balkans as a natural place for a Russian-dominated Slavic group. The great rival in the region, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was afraid this Balkan nationalism would accelerate the breakdown of its own Empire and was afraid Russia was going to extend control over the region instead of it. Both were looking for a reason to extend their power in the region, and in 1914 an assassination would give that reason.

The Trigger: Assassination

In 1914, Europe had been on the brink of war for several years. The trigger was provided on June 28th, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia on a trip designed to irritate Serbia. A loose supporter of the ‘ Black Hand’, a Serbian nationalist group, was able to assassinate the Archduke after a comedy of errors. Ferdinand wasn’t popular in Austria – he had ‘only’ married a noble, not a royal - but they decided it was the perfect excuse to threaten Serbia. They planned to use an extremely one-sided set of demands to provoke a war – Serbia was never meant to actually agree to the demands – and fight to end Serbian independence, thus strengthening the Austrian position in the Balkans.

Austria expected the war with Serbia, but in case of war with Russia, they checked with Germany beforehand if it would support them. Germany replied yes, giving Austria a ‘blank check’. The Kaiser and other civilian leaders believed swift action by Austria would seem like the result of emotion and the other Great Powers would stay out, but Austria prevaricated, eventually sending their note too late for it to look like anger. Serbia accepted all but a few clauses of the ultimatum, but not all, and Russia was willing to go to war to defend them. Austria-Hungary had not deterred Russia by involving Germany, and Russia had not deterred Austria-Hungary by risking the Germans: bluffs on both sides were called. Now the balance of power in Germany shifted to the military leaders, who finally had what they had been coveting for several years: Austria-Hungary, which had seemed loathe to support Germany in a war, was about to embark on a war in which Germany could take the initiative and turn into the much greater war it desired, while crucially retaining Austrian aid, vital for the Schlieffen Plan.

What followed was the five major nations of Europe – Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side, France, Russian and Britain on the other – all pointing to their treaties and alliances in order to enter into the war many in each nation had wanted. The diplomats increasingly found themselves sidelined and unable to stop events as the military took over. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia to see if they could win a war before Russia arrived, and Russia, who pondered just attacking Austria-Hungary, mobilized against both them and Germany, knowing this meant Germany would attack France. This let Germany claim victim status and mobilize, but because their plans called for a quick war to knock Russia’s ally France out before Russian troops arrived, they declared war on France, who declared war in response. Britain hesitated and then joined, using Germany’s invasion of Belgium to mobilize the support of the doubters in Britain. Italy, who had an agreement with Germany, refused to do anything.

Many of these decisions were increasingly taken by the military, who gained ever more control of events, even from national leaders who sometimes got left behind: it took a while for the Tsar to be talked round by pro-war military, and the Kaiser wavered as the military carried on. At one point the Kaiser instructed Austria to cease trying to attack Serbia, but people in Germany’s military and government first ignored him, and then convinced him it was too late for anything but peace. Military ‘advice’ dominated over diplomatic. Many felt helpless, others elated.

There were people who tried to prevent the war at this late stage, but many others were infected with jingoism and pushed on. Britain, who had the least explicit obligations, felt a moral duty to defend France, wished to put down German imperialism, and technically had a treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s safety. Thanks to the empires of these key belligerents, and thanks to other nations entering the conflict, the war soon involved much of the globe. Few expected the conflict to last more than a few months, and the public was generally excited. It would last until 1918, and kill millions. Some of those who expected a long war were Moltke, the head of the German army, and Kitchener, a key figure in the British establishment.

War Aims: Why each Nation went to War

Each nation’s government had slightly different reasons for going, and these are explained below:

Germany: A Place in the Sun and Inevitability

Many members of the German military and government were convinced that a war with Russia was inevitable given their competing interests in the land between them and the Balkans. But they had also concluded, not without justification, that Russia was militarily much weaker now than it would be should it continue to industrialize and modernize its army. France was also increasing its military capacity – a law making conscription last three years was passed against opposition – and Germany had managed to get stuck in a naval race with Britain. To many influential Germans, their nation was surrounded and stuck in an arms race it would lose if allowed to continue. The conclusion was that this inevitable war must be fought sooner, when it could be won, than later.

War would also enable Germany to dominate more of Europe and expand the core of the German Empire east and west. But Germany wanted more. The German Empire was relatively young and lacked a key element that the other major empires – Britain, France, Russia – had: colonial land. Britain owned large parts of the world, France owned a lot too, and Russia had expanded deep into Asia. Other less powerful powers owned colonial land, and Germany coveted these extra resources and power. This craving for colonial land became known as them wanting ‘A Place in the Sun’. The German government thought that a victory would allow them to gain some of their rivals’ land. Germany was also determined to keep Austria-Hungary alive as a viable ally to their south and support them in a war if necessary.

Russia: Slavic Land and Government Survival

Russia believed that the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were collapsing and that there would be a reckoning over who would occupy their territory. To many Russia, this reckoning would be largely in the Balkans between a pan-Slavic alliance, ideally dominated by (if not entirely controlled by) Russia, against a pan-German Empire. Many in the Russian court, in the ranks of the military officer class, in the central government, in the press and even among the educated, felt Russia should enter and win this clash. Indeed, Russia was afraid that if they didn’t act in decisive support of the Slavs, as they had failed to do in the Balkan Wars, that Serbia would take the Slavic initiative and destabilize Russia. In addition, Russia had lusted over Constantinople and the Dardanelles for centuries, as half of Russia’s foreign trade traveled through this narrow region controlled by the Ottomans. War and victory would bring greater trade security.

Tsar Nicholas II was cautious, and a faction at court advised him against war, believing the nation would implode and revolution would follow. But equally, the Tsar was being advised by people who believed that if Russia didn’t go to war in 1914, it would be a sign of weakness which would lead to a fatal undermining of the imperial government, leading to revolution or invasion.

France: Revenge and Re-conquest

France felt it had been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 – 71, in which Paris had been besieged and the French Emperor had been forced to personally surrender with his army. France was burning to restore its reputation and, crucially, gain back the rich industrial land of Alsace and Lorraine which Germany had won off her. Indeed, the French plan for war with Germany, Plan XVII, focused on gaining this land above everything else.

Britain: Global Leadership

Of all the European powers, Britain was arguably the least tied into the treaties which divided Europe into two sides. Indeed, for several years in the late nineteenth century, Britain had consciously kept out of European affairs, preferring to focus on its global empire while keeping one eye on the balance of power on the continent. But Germany had challenged this because it too wanted a global empire, and it too wanted a dominant navy. Germany and Britain thus began a naval arms race in which politicians, spurred on by the press, competed to build ever stronger navies. The tone was one of violence, and many felt that Germany’s upstart aspirations would have to be forcibly slapped down.

Britain was also worried that a Europe dominated by an enlarged Germany, as victory in a major war would bring, would upset the balance of power in the region. Britain also felt a moral obligation to aid France and Russia because, although the treaties they’d all signed didn’t require Britain to fight, it had basically agreed to, and if Britain remained out either her former allies would finish victorious but extremely bitter, or beaten and unable to support Britain. Equally playing on their mind was a belief that they had to be involved to maintain great power status. As soon as war began, Britain also had designs on German colonies.

Austria-Hungary: Long-Coveted Territory

Austria-Hungary was desperate to project more of its crumbling power into the Balkans, where a power vacuum created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire had allowed nationalist movements to agitate and fight. Austria was particularly angry at Serbia, in which a Pan-Slavic nationalism was growing which Austria feared would lead to either Russian domination in the Balkans, or the total ousting of Austro-Hungarian power. The destruction of Serbia was deemed vital in keeping Austria-Hungary together, as there were near twice as many Serbs within the empire as were in Serbia (over seven million, versus over three million). Revenging the death of Franz Ferdinand was low on the list of causes.

Turkey: Holy War for Conquered Land

Turkey entered into secret negotiations with Germany and declared war on the Entente in October 1914. They wanted to regain land which had been lost in both the Caucuses and Balkans, and dreamed of gaining Egypt and Cyprus from Britain. They claimed to be fighting a holy war to justify this.

War Guilt / Who was to Blame?

In 1919, in the Treaty of Versailles between the victorious allies and Germany, the latter had to accept a ‘war guilt’ clause which explicitly stated that the war was Germany’s fault. This issue – who was responsible for the war – has been debated by historians and politicians ever since. Over the years trends have come and gone, but the issues seem to have polarised like this: on one side, that Germany with their blank cheque to Austria-Hungary and rapid, two front mobilization was chiefly to blame, while on the other was the presence of a war mentality and colonial hunger among nations who rushed to into to extend their empires, the same mentality which had already caused repeated problems before war finally broke out. The debate has not broken down ethnic lines: Fischer blamed his German ancestors in the sixties, and his thesis has largely become the mainstream view.

The Germans were certainly convinced war was needed soon, and the Austro-Hungarians were convinced they had to crush Serbia to survive; both were prepared to start this war. France and Russia were slightly different, in that they weren’t prepared to start the war, but went to lengths to make sure they profited when it occurred, as they thought it would. All five Great Powers were thus prepared to fight a war, all fearing the loss of their Great Power status if they backed down. None of the Great Powers was invaded without a chance to step back.

Some historians go further: David Fromkin’s ‘Europe’s Last Summer’ makes a powerful case that the world war can be pinned on Moltke, head of the German General Staff, a man who knew it would be a terrible, world changing war, but thought it inevitable and started it anyway. But Joll makes an interesting point: “What is more important than the immediate responsibility for the actual outbreak of war is the state of mind that was shared by all belligerents, a state of mind that envisaged the probable imminence of war and its absolute necessity in certain circumstances.” (Joll and Martel, The Origins of the First World War, p. 131.)

The Dates and Order of the Declarations of War

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Wilde, Robert. "The Causes and War Aims of World War One." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Causes and War Aims of World War One. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Causes and War Aims of World War One." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).