FC126: The Causes and Outbreak of World War I


FC126 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1211.
Yes, this delightful land which we inhabit and which nature caresses with love is made to be the domain of liberty and happiness...I am French, I am one of thy representatives!...Oh, sublime people!  Accept the sacrifices of my whole being.  Happy is the man who is born in your midst; happier is he who can die for your happiness. Robespierre
France will have but one thought, to reconstitute her forces, gather her energy, nourish her sacred anger, raise her young generation to form an army of the whole people, to work without cease, to study the methods and skills of our enemies, to become again a great France, the France of 1792, the France of an idea with a sword.  Then one day she will be irresistible. Then she will take back Alsace-Lorraine. Victor Hugo
The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime. Lord Grey


The century from 1815 to 1914 was one of the most peaceful in European history.  This was largely because European powers were preoccupied with internal political events (i.e., liberal and nationalist movements) and economic developments (industrialization) which gave them the power and scope to expand their colonial empires without getting too much in each other's way.  However, the same forces that kept Europe tranquil in the 1800’s also carried the seeds for trouble in the first half of the 1900's, making it a time of war, revolution, and economic turmoil.

People often cite the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, as the cause of World War I.  This is true as an immediate, short-range cause, but his murder alone could not have triggered a global war.  Rather, World War I was the product of two of the most powerful forces driving European civilization in the 1800's: nationalism and industrialization.  Together and separately, they would create three factors that led to war: German unification, territorial rivalries, and economic competition.

Economic competition

The spread of the Industrial Revolution outside of Britain after 1850 expanded the consumer markets available for businesses to exploit.  But it also expanded the number of producers competing for those markets, triggering more competition for what seemed to be a stagnant economy by the turn of the century.  Intensifying this competition in each country were fierce nationalistic feelings fostered by an expanding public school system that preached its nation's superiority over other nations and the dangers they posed to it.

European nations did two things to protect themselves.  First, they (especially France, Britain, and Germany) joined in the rush for overseas colonies.  However, by 1900, most good places for colonization had been taken, just causing more competition for what few areas were left.  For example, Germany and France had two bitter crises that nearly led to war over control of Morocco.

The second strategy was the use of protective tariffs (import taxes) to raise the cost of foreign goods and make the home nation's goods correspondingly more appealing to its consumers.  Of course, other nations did the same thing.  Prices went up, trade declined, and unemployment grew, causing internal unrest and turmoil.  As a result, politicians looked for scapegoats and conveniently blamed other nations.  This led to more tariffs, lower trade, rising unemployment, unrest, blame, and so on.

German unification

Nationalism created other problems.  The unification of Italy and especially Germany upset the balance of power in central Europe, replacing many small and vulnerable states with two unified and aggressive nations.  Germany's rapid rise as a political, economic, and military giant alarmed its neighbors, particularly France, still burning to avenge its humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  Nations reacted in two ways: the formation of alliances and military build-ups.

In the two decades since the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck had masterfully juggled alliances to keep France isolated and Europe at peace.  But Bismarck was fired in 1890 by the short-sighted and aggressive new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who let Germany's alliance with Russia, which Bismarck had carefully nurtured for 30 years, lapse.  France quickly seized the opportunity to ally with Russia.  As in 1756 with Frederick the Great, the nightmare of a two front war fought on German soil loomed as an imminent threat.

Desperate for allies, Germany attracted Austria (Russia's vehement enemy) and Italy into what was known as the Triple Alliance.  France lured Britain into its alliance, known as the Triple Entente, by playing on British fears of the growing German economy, navy, and colonial empire.  With all the major powers aligned in one camp or the other, there was the serious danger that if two members of opposing alliances got into a war or crisis, all the other alliance members and their colonial empires would be dragged in, too.  That is exactly what would happen in 1914.

The Industrial Revolution's rapid creation of new technologies was by no means confined to peaceful ends.  New and improved weapons such as the machine gun, submarine, and steel clad battleship combined with nationalist pride and fear of other nations to trigger an arms race such as the world had never seen.  As soon as one nation started building armaments, its rivals would do the same and try to outdo the first nation.  This would only alarm the first power, which would further increase its armaments, and so on.  Each nation acted in what it felt was self-defense, but what other nations saw as aggression.

Therefore, France built up its forces to avenge the defeat of 1870 and to protect itself against German aggression.  Germany armed itself to guard against French aggression and a two front war with Russia as well.  The Russian army expanded to protect itself from German aggression.  And the Austrian military grew to counter Russian moves into the Balkans.  To make matters worse, Wilhelm II, despite Bismarck's advice, wanted a colonial empire to match those of Britain and France.  This involved building a navy, which prompted Britain to build up its navy to keep ahead of Germany.  Therefore, in addition to a military arms race, Germany found itself involved in an equally expensive naval arms race as well. In the end, this expensive arms race only weakened everyone's security and economies, added to mutual fears and suspicions, and led to a general expectation of war that became a self-fulfilling prophecy as nations prepared for that war.

Territorial rivalries

 already abounded among the many competing states and peoples in Europe.  Fueling those rivalries were strong nationalist feelings further intensified by the ideas of Social Darwinism and militarism (the belief that there was nothing more glorious than to fight and even die for one's nation).  Writings of the nineteenth century abounded with militaristic sentiments, or ideas that could be easily misinterpreted to support such sentiments.  One very influential philosopher who was not so simplistically aggressive as suggested by the following quotations was Georg Wilhelm Hegel, whose ideas heavily influenced such diverse thinkers as Marx and Lenin on the one hand, and Bismarck and Hitler on the other.  Hegel saw war as the great purifier, making for

“...the ethical health of peoples corrupted by a long peace, as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm.”

“...world history is no empire of happiness.  The periods of happiness are the empty pages of history because they are the periods of agreement without conflict.”

“World history occupies a higher ground...Moral claims which are irrelevant must not be brought into collision with world historical deeds or their accomplishments.  The litany of private virtues—modesty, humility, philanthropy, and forbearance—must not be raised vs. them.  So mighty a form [the state] must trample down many an innocent flower--crush to pieces many an object in its path.”

Another German philosopher whose ideas were oversimplified and misinterpreted was Freidrich Nietzsche.

“Ye shall love peace as a means to new war, and the short peace more than the long.  You I advise not to work, but to fight. You I advise not to peace but to victory...Ye say it is the good cause which halloweth every war.  I say unto you it is the good war which halloweth every cause. War and courage have done more great things than charity.”

Playing off these ideas was General von Bernhardi. His book, Germany and the Next War (1911), had such chapter titles as "The Right to Make War", "The Duty to Make War", "Germany's Historic Mission", and "World Power or Downfall" that fairly well summed up its thesis.  Another German writer, Heinrich von Treitschke, like Hegel, glorified the state, but more brutishly saw its subjects as basically its slaves and declared war as the highest expression of Man.

“It does not matter what you think as long as you obey”

“...martial glory is the basis of all the political virtues; in the rich treasure of Germany's glories the Prussian military glory is a jewel as precious as the masterpieces of our poets and thinkers.

“...to play blindly with peace...has become the shame of the thought and morality of our age.”

“War is not only a practical necessity, it is a theoretical necessity, an exigency of logic.  The concept of the State implies the concept of war, for the essence of the State is power...That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral.  It would involve the atrophy of many of the essential and sublime forces of the human soul...A people which become attached to the chimerical hope of perpetual peace finishes irremediably by decaying in its proud isolation...”

Psychologically and militarily, Europe was ready for war.

There were two regional "hot spots" in Europe in 1914.  First, there were Alsace and Lorraine, which France desperately wanted back from Germany since the Franco-Prussian War.  Second, there was the Balkans, destabilized by numerous Slavic nationalities, with Russia posing as their champion, wanted to break loose from the Hapsburg Empire.  As serious as the situation in Alsace and Lorraine was, people saw the Balkans as a disaster waiting to happen, calling it the “powder keg of Europe” which would hurl the whole continent into war.  They were right.

The Road to war (June-August, 1914)

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young member of a Serbian terrorist group known as the Black Hand, murdered the heir apparent of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo, Austria.  Naturally, this created quite a stir in the papers, but few at that time saw it as important enough to lead to a general war.  However, behind the scenes, all the forces of nationalist rivalries, economic competition, military buildups, and interlocking alliances were blowing this murder way out of proportion and driving events wildly out of control and toward war.

Nearly a month passed before events picked up.  Although there was no firm evidence that Serbia, a Slavic state bordering Austria, had anything to do with the murder, Austria still blamed it for the murder since the Black Hand was a Serbian ethnic group operating from Serbia and trying to stir up the large Serb population, against Austrian rule.  With German encouragement, Austria issued severe demands to the Serbian government on July 23, saying that failure to comply with its terms would lead to war.  Compliance with its harsh terms would totally humiliate Serbia.  However, Russia supported Serbia and, to show it was serious about the Serbian crisis, started mobilizing its armies.

In the past, this would have been a strong, although acceptable, way of exerting diplomatic pressure, since armies and diplomacy moved slowly, giving each side time to resolve a crisis before it was too late.  However, times had changed from the leisurely pace of pre-industrial wars and had drastically reduced the margin of error within which kings and diplomats had to work.  Two things specifically made Russia's mobilization unacceptable: Germany's geopolitical position and railroad timetables.

As stated above, Germany's geopolitical nightmare was a two-front war.  Russia's alliance with France made that a very real possibility.  Since Russia refused to cancel the mobilization order, and France would not reveal if it planned to get involved if war broke out, the Germans could only assume the worst, a two front war.  That brings us to the Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan was Germany's strategy for turning a two-front war into two successive one-front wars.  It assumed that pre-industrial Russia's armies would be slow to mobilize, thereby giving Germany enough time to concentrate its forces and deliver a knockout blow against France and then concentrate its efforts on Russia.

The key to, and problem with, this plan was the precise timing of railroad timetables necessary for the rapid mobilization of Germany's armies.  With Russia already mobilizing, Germany felt compelled to put the Schlieffen Plan into action before it was too late.  However, that required war with France, so Germany, with no apparent provocation, declared war on France as well as Russia.  That left the question of what Britain would do, which brings us back to the Schlieffen Plan.

Germany's high command considered the terrain and string of French fortresses along its western border with France too difficult for launching a quick offensive.  The best route lay through the open low country of Belgium.  However, Belgium refused passage to German armies, and so Germany, driven by the strict timetable of the Schlieffen Plan, violated Belgian neutrality in order to crush France and stay on schedule.  Britain, outraged by this act, declared war on Germany.

And so Europe, dragging its worldwide colonial empires in its wake, blundered into World War I.  Not that everyone saw it in such negative terms.  Crowds all over Europe greeted the news jubilantly.  Most men saw their nation as superior to all others and expected a quick victory much like that won by Prussia in 1870.  Each nation's army would occupy the enemy's capital by Christmas, which meant that anyone not enlisting now would miss out on all the fun and glory.  Little did they suspect the scope of the disaster about to befall them over the next four years.