Chapter 22 World War I

Section 1 The Origins of World War I  

In contrast to the 1700s, the 1800s were an era of relative stability in the international relations of Europe. However, in the final years of the century, underlying social and political forces began to erode that stability. The emergence of a new balance of power among the European nations in the years after 1890 undermined it even further. The stability of the 1800s finally collapsed under the pressure of crisis in the Balkans, where, in 1914, the mixture of underlying forces and a shifting balance of power exploded in world war.

Underlying Forces

In 1914, European civilization dominated the world. The British Empire alone controlled roughly one fifth of the earth’s landmass. France, Germany, and Italy also ruled vast territories and diverse peoples. In Europe itself, however, growing social and political tensions caused many Europeans to feel uneasy. One witness recorded that a “strange temper” filled the air; and despite warnings and forecasts of doom from some observers, people seemed “everywhere eager to dare.” In August 1914, this spirit of “daring” contributed to the outbreak of the most destructive war the world had yet seen. In many ways, this first world war represented a culmination of three great forces: nationalism, imperialism, and militarism.

Nationalism and imperialism. The rise of nationalism during the 1800s produced much of the instability that led to the outbreak of World War I. In the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires it inspired disruptive wars of national liberation among subject peoples like the Serbs. In nation-states like Britain, France, and Germany, it inspired citizens to identify more closely with their governments. One French President, Raymond Poincaré, once spoke of the “sacred union” among his countrymen which “nothing will break.” Nationalism could thus become a major factor in popular dislike of a nation’s “enemies.”

            Like nationalism, the intensification of imperialism during the late 1800s also contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Rival claims in Morocco, for example, worsened already poor relations between France and Germany, and nearly led to war in 1905 and 1911. Conflicting imperial ambitions also brought Russia, Austria, and the Ottomans into conflict in the Balkan Peninsula. Overseas, European armies won empires by defeating less technologically developed peoples in battle. By inspiring people at home, such victories led to militarism—a glorification of military power.

Militarism. “I and the Army--,” said the German Emperor, or Kaiser, Wilhelm II, “we were born for each other and will cleave indissolubly to each other.” Wilhelm was not the only leader who fell under the influence of militarism before World War I. Many argued that militarily strong nations usually got what they wanted, while weaker nations lost out. Such reasoning led leaders throughout Europe to rely on the advice of military experts. These experts generally predicted that future wars would be quick and decisive. The side that struck first, they thought, would gain the advantage and probably win. “Attack is the best defense,” declared the German General Alfred von Schlieffen, describing what became known as the “cult of the offensive”. The cult of the offensive inclined many European leaders to favor military action in cases of crisis.

            Militarism also often reflected the feelings of the general public. Combined with nationalism it fostered a popular attitude called “jingoism,” after the refrain of a popular British song of the 1870s: 

“We don't want to fight, but by jingo if we do—we've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.”

To many Europeans, war seemed a glorious adventure—a symbol of fitness and strength. One observer described the “unconscious boredom of peace.” In 1914, popular sentiment in Europe bordered on outright enthusiasm for war.

            BIO An American naval officer named Alfred Thayer Mahan embodied the combined spirit of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. Born in 1840, Mahan served as a United States naval officer during the Civil War. After the war, he taught history at a special school for senior naval officers. Mahan argued that sea power was historically the key to world power. Sea power, he pointed out, had made Britain the world's richest and most powerful nation. It could do the same for the United States. Mahan presented his case in several books and articles: 

“The influence of the government will be felt in its most legitimate manner in maintaining an armed navy of a size commensurate with the growth of its shipping and the importance of the interests connected with it.”[1] 

Translations of Mahan's books appeared in many languages, including Japanese. Leaders around the world used his ideas to justify their own plans for naval expansion and modernization. Kaiser Wilhelm, after “devouring” Mahan’s writings, ordered a massive naval build-up in Germany. As Mahan himself had foreseen, the German build-up antagonized Britain. In 1908, Mahan prophetically described the naval arms race between Britain and Germany as “the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well.”

A New Balance of Power

The rise of Germany as a great power in the late 1800s had reshaped the balance of power in Europe. The older powers feared the ambition and potential aggression of a unified Germany demanding its “place in the sun.” As German power continued to grow, a system of alliances emerged that eventually included all the great powers of Europe.

Origins of the alliance system. At the root of the new alliance system were the policies of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Fearing that the French would seek revenge for their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, Bismarck set out to isolate France diplomatically. Also worried that Germany would face a two-front war if France and Russia ever became allies, in 1879 he concluded a defensive alliance with Austria to guard against a Russian attack. In 1882 he persuaded Italy to join what became known as the Triple Alliance as a safeguard against France.

            Despite his pledges, however, Bismarck worried that Austria might drag Germany into an unwanted war with Russia. Consequently, in 1887 he secretly concluded the so-called Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, pledging that Germany would remain neutral if Austria should be the aggressor against Russia. In return, Russia agreed to remain neutral if France attacked Germany. Thus Bismarck hoped to avoid the dreaded two-front war. In 1890, however, Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck and allowed the Reinsurance Treaty to lapse—a move that worried both France and Russia.

            In 1894, French and Russian diplomats concluded an alliance directed primarily against Germany. Bismarck had been right: France did want revenge for the defeat of 1870, especially the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Russia, on the other hand, had ambitions in the Balkans. Local Slavic populations in the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires looked to the Tsar to head a pan-Slavic nationalist movement. France and Russia also had common ground since both were imperial rivals of Great Britain. Not least, France provided Russia with desperately needed financial support.

            The Franco-Russian combination had a dramatic affect on German officers, who now concluded that Germany would have to fight both France and Russia in any future war. In 1905, General Alfred von Schlieffen worked out a plan for such a two-front war. The Schlieffen Plan plan called for a knockout blow to France before taking the offensive against Russia. In effect, war with Russia automatically meant war with France as well. 

Britain's new foreign policy. Germany's rise as a great power also transformed Britain's foreign policy. Throughout the 1800s, Britain was the most powerful nation in the world. From this position of strength, British leaders avoided alliances with other countries on the European continent. Their primary aim was to prevent any single power from dominating Europe as Napoleon had once done.

            By the end of the century, however, the rise of the United States, Germany, and Japan threatened Britain's dominant position. Adding to the problem, during the mid-1800s British leaders had been over-confident of their superiority at sea. Consequently, they had neglected the modernization of the Royal Navy, the primary instrument of their overseas power. This neglect gave other countries a chance to challenge Britain's international position. As a result, by 1900 Britain's policy of “splendid isolation” had become more and more difficult to maintain.

            Britain courted American friendship by agreeing to American demands in the Western Hemisphere. In Asia, Britain concluded an alliance with Japan in 1902. The Anglo-Japanese alliance freed the British to concentrate their naval forces in European waters against a German threat. They relied on the Japanese to keep an eye on Russian ambitions in Asia, and to help safeguard the routes to British possessions in Asia and the Pacific. With Germany, however, British leaders concluded there could be no compromise. Eventually, Britain began to look for European allies against Germany.

The Tripe Entente. In 1904, Britain and France settled their rival claims in Africa. This agreement, known as the Entente Cordiale, or “friendly agreement,” laid the foundation for a closer relationship between the two countries, including joint military planning. British differences with Russia, whose expansion in Asia was the major threat to British India, were more difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, in 1907 Britain and Russia agreed to define and respect each others spheres of influence in Asia. Russia then joined Britain and France in what became known as the Triple Entente

The Ottomans turn toward Germany. The Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 damaged British relations with the Ottomans. Britain had supported the Ottoman Empire during the 1800s, as a buffer against Russian encroachment in the Middle East. The agreement with Russia, however, the Ottomans’ greatest enemy, convinced Ottoman leaders that the British were unreliable allies. Many believed (unjustly) that Britain and Russia had finally agreed to liquidate and divide up the Ottoman Empire. As a result, they began to look to Germany for support.

            The Germans had been interested in the Ottoman Empire for some time. As early as the mid-1800s, they had considered developing an empire in the Middle East, a policy they called Drang nach Osten, or “drive to the east.” Consequently, Germany had begun to cultivate its influence in Istanbul. German military advisers began to serve with the Ottoman army. German financiers and engineers planned to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. By 1914, Germany's drive to the east had heightened tension among the great powers and focused attention on the Balkan Peninsula.

The Balkan Powder Keg

As local forces of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism came together in the Balkans, they turned the region into a “powder keg”. The changing balance of power in Europe added to the instability. Soon, the regional conflicts threatened to explode into a war encompassing the whole continent. 

The mixture. During the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire had slowly lost its grip on the Balkans. In 1878, Serbia had proclaimed its independence, but Serb nationalists continued to agitate for an even larger Slavic state that included lands still under Ottoman or Austrian control. The provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular would give landlocked Serbia a much-needed outlet on the Adriatic Sea. When the Austrians annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, infuriated Serb nationalists called for extreme measures against Austria. One editorial urged:  

“Serbs, seize everything you can lay hands on--knives, rifles, bombs, and dynamite. Take holy vengeance! Death to the Habsburg dynasty, eternal remembrance to the heroes who raise their hands against it!” 

Tensions between Serbia and Austria increased in 1912, when the first Balkan War broke out between Serbia and its allies, and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lost the last of their European territory except for Istanbul itself. As part of the spoils, the victorious Serbs took part of the Adriatic coast.

            With German support, however, Austria intervened and forced Serbia to give up the coast, which became instead the independent state of Albania. Unable to aid their Serb allies during the crisis, the Russians vowed to support Serbia fully in any future dispute with Austria. Meanwhile, relations between Serbia and Austria deteriorated further as Serb nationalists waged a terrorist campaign against Austrian officials in the Balkans. By 1914, the stage had been set for another confrontation.

The explosion. The spark that exploded the Balkan powder keg and led to the outbreak of war came on June 28, 1914. The heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had gone on a mission of goodwill to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As they rode through the city in an open car, shots rang out, killing both the archduke and his wife. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin, belonged to the Black Hand, one of many secret Serbian nationalist groups.

      Determined to punish the Serbs, Austria first sought assurances of German help in case Russia tried to aid Serbia. The Kaiser promised to support whatever Austria decided to do. With this so-called “blank cheque” Austria gave Serbia an ultimatum—a demand that would result in war if refused. Serbia agreed to most of Austria’s conditions, but called for an international court to settle the rest. Not satisfied, on July 28, 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. 

Russian mobilization. Russia now prepared to defend Serbia against Austria. At first the Tsar ordered a partial mobilization, or preparation of the armed forces for war, aimed only at Austria. His generals, however, feared German support for the Austrians. Mobilization was an extremely grave step. It involved requisitioning all available transport and support facilities and redirecting them towards the anticipated battlefront. If Germany mobilized, the generals argued, and Russia had to switch in mid-stream from a partial to a complete mobilization of its forces, chaos would ensue. Fatefully, Nicholas agreed to their demands for a general mobilization.

            No European power in the industrial era could allow a potentially hostile neighbor to mobilize along its borders without responding in kind. The force that mobilized first would have a potentially insuperable advantage and might even dictate terms without having to fire a shot. Germany ordered its own mobilization and demanded that Russia remove its troops from the frontier or face war. Fearful that Germany would continue mobilizing even if they agreed, the Russians ignored the ultimatum.

The German declaration of war. On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. The alliance system now took its toll. Believing that France would support their Russian allies, on August 3 Germany also declared war on France. Following the Schlieffen Plan, the German High Command hoped to deliver a quick knockout blow to France before turning on Russia. They decided their best route would be through the flat coastal plain of neutral Belgium. Consequently, Germany demanded that Belgium allow German troops to cross its borders on their way into northwest France. The Belgian king refused, insisting that he ruled “a country not a highway.” German troops marched in anyway. 

Expansion of the war. Despite the 1904 Entente between Britain and France, British leaders were hesitant to go to war in defense of the French. However, Britain was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Although the Germans did not believe Britain would fight over a “scrap of paper”, the British took their obligation seriously. On August 4 Britain declared war. At 11 o’clock that night, British leaders signaled all units of the Royal Navy: “Commence Hostilities Against Germany.”

            The so-called Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Britain became known as the Allied Powers. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, later joined by Bulgaria, became known as the Central Powers. By the fall of 1914, a war that had begun as a local dispute in the Balkans had expanded over most of the European continent. Only Italy at first held aloof, despite her treaty obligations, on the grounds that Austria was the aggressor. Eventually, however, hoping to obtain Austrian territory, Italy joined the Allies in 1915.

            Ironically, when the war began, many people expected it would be over soon. In August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm told departing German soldiers they would “be home before the leaves had fallen from the trees.” Throughout Europe, men rushed eagerly to join up lest they miss out on the action. A French writer described the scene in Paris:

“Thousands of men eager to fight . . . jostle[d] one another outside recruiting offices, waiting to join up. Men who could have stayed home, with their wives and children or an imploring mama. But no. The word ‘duty’ had a meaning for them, and the word ‘country’ had regained its splendor.” 

Similar scenes occurred in all the belligerent nations. British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey was less optimistic. He feared the war would plunge Western civilization into a new dark age. “The lamps,” he said, “are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”