‘War begins in the minds of men.’

Atharvaveda, ancient Indian text.

Prologue: Is Germany Alone to Blame for World War 1?

Few events have left an imprint as vast and permanent as the First World War. The world had never seen before such an all-pervading conflict or the calamitous devastation which altered the global landscape to its very foundations.

Aggressive German nationalism did hasten the conflict, but other nationalism variants were equally guilty. By 1870, Otto von Bismarck welded fractured German principalities into a coherent nation. But in doing so, he sowed seeds of distrust across Europe that would reap a bloody harvest. Anxiously energetic, the young German nation restlessly sought a leading position at the high table of international politics.

Trench Warfare in World War I
Trench Warfare in World War 1

Britain was the chief empire of the day, on which ‘the sun never set’. She and France were apprehensively jealous of Germany’s meteoric rise since 1870. All imperialists take the mile before reluctantly conceding the inch. Britain and France ferociously denied the deserving inch to Germany who, then, decided to grab the whole mile instead.

World War 1 Causes: The Context

‘Oh! If I only knew,’ was German Chancellor Bethman’s reply when quizzed on the causes of the First World War. Complex and interrelated, developments that triggered World War 1 (1914-18) must be seen in the context of related phenomenon viz.:

  • European Industrialization
  • Intense Nationalism
  • Social Darwinism
  • Globalization of Conflict
  • Absence of Peaceful International Dispute Resolution Mechanism

Rapid industrialization in 19th century Europe created the need for industrial powers to seek colonies and spheres of influence in distinct lands for obtaining cheap raw materials, assured markets, cheap labor, and lucrative investment destinations. This sparked off a mad race for colonies among numerous European powers.

By 1914, most non-industrial world in Asia, Africa, and the Americas was divided as colonies or spheres of influence between Britain, France, Germany, Italy, United States, and Japan. Further imperialist expansion was possible only by snatching someone else’s possessions.

And expand they had too. Colonization produced a chain reaction – a colony was needed either to protect an earlier colony or the route from the mother nation to it or both.

Decline of the Ottoman Empire had exposed the Balkan Peninsula to imperialist designs. The chief rivals were Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Germany too eyed the Balkans as did Britain and France.

Nationalism is a sense of belonging, a feeling of unity felt by a certain people. A positive concept, it was twisted by the prevailing politics to mean industrial, military, and colonial might. In combination with the concept of Social Darwinism i.e. survival of the fittest, nationalism became a tool to legitimize imperialism.

Having arrived late in the scramble for colonies, Germany felt left out. Nationalism had unified Germany. But the perverted version of nationalism was wrecking havoc across Europe. It was this young, nervous energy that coerced Germany to start World War 1 by attacking France on August 4, 1914.

Military Alliances Globalized
Military Alliances Globalized the Conflict
Image Courtesy of Nelson Harding at http://www.johndclare.net/causes_WWI4.htm
Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chain_of_Friendship_cartoon.gif

Imperial powers were divided in armed camps. Russia was aligned with Serbia, France, and Britain while the Germans were in agreement with the Austrians and Italians. The United States was more interested in its trade interests than direct colonization and Japan was vying German areas of influence in China.

In the absence of an international conflict resolution mechanism, these military alliances escalated an isolated discord between two rival powers into a global strife.

World War 1 Causes: The Triggers

Summing up the sentiment in Europe at the time is a relevant quote by French politician Raymond Poincare: ‘if our generation has not been living in the hope of getting back Alsace and Lorraine, then I don’t see any other reason why she exists.’

Following factors sparked off the war:

  • German Nationalism was triggered by industrialization and her quest for a ‘place under the sun’. Germans made rapid strides in coal, iron, and steel production – the essentials of any development – and rivaled Britain’s production capacity by 1914.

In an atmosphere charged with suspicion and the distorted interpretation of nationalism, strife was inevitable.

European Military
European Military Alliances in 1914
Image Courtesy of Historicair, Fluteflute, and User: Bibi Saint-Pol at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg
  • Bismarck’s Policy of Backdoor Treaties and Manipulation planted doubt in the minds of European rulers. Secret treaties meant nobody was sure who was supporting whom! The armed alliances were:
    • Triple Alliance 1882: Italy joined the 1879 accord between Germany and Austria-Hungary. These formed the Central Powers with Bulgaria and Turkey. Italy, however, switched sides.
    • Triple Entente of 1907: Russia joined the 1904 French-Britain Entente Cordiale. These were the Allied Powers. Japan, United States, Portugal, Greece, and Romania joined later.

Here is an example of Bismarck’s manipulative politics. Wanting a pretext for war with France, Bismarck publicly released a doctored version of a telegram, making it look that the Kaiser (German emperor) and the French ambassador had insulted each other in a meeting over Spanish succession.

As expected, public opinion on both sides bayed for blood and there began the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. In this war, Germany snatched the resource-rich Alsace and Lorraine provinces from France that later became a cause for hostile French nationalism.

  • Arms Race gathered pace after the armed treaties. Germans bolstered their navy from 1897. Britain reacted by launching the Dreadnought, the most advanced warship of the early 20th

By 1914, Germans had over 4.5 million forces under training, Britain had less than a million. Russians up-scaled military training and expanded to 5 million.

  • Tragedy of Miscalculations by everyone precipitated the crisis. Serbian rise and her desire to throw off Austrian yoke gained strength, particularly after she fared well in the 1913 Second Balkan War. This irked Austria and Germany. Germans interpreted relative British detachment from continental politics as her unwillingness for war.

The assassination of Francis Ferdinand, Austrian Duke and heir-apparent, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo set off the spark in these explosive conditions. With unconditional German support, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia. The Russians ordered a military mobilization, as did the Germans.

European Political Map 1923
European Political Map 1923
Image Courtesy of Historicair and Fluteflute at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_Europe_1923-en.svg

Both sides wrongly interpreted mobilization as war. Germany declared war on Russia and France and attacked the latter via Belgium. This forced British entry in the war for Belgium is just opposite the English coast.

The war had started. Soon, Europe would be the biggest loser.

Epilogue: World War 1 Effects

Directly, the war killed over 16 million. Adding the injured, missing, and prisoners plus deaths due to war-caused epidemics, starvation, and genocide, the figure skyrockets to 37 million.

European domination of international politics began to wane with the end of the First World War. Tremendous economic losses put Europe in debt, mainly American. Plus, there emerged the Soviet Union.

Allies’ propaganda of the war ‘defending democracy’ aroused nationalist feelings in their colonies. How could the Allies talk democracy when they denied it to their colonial subjects? Decolonization gathered steam and dented European supremacy.

Ironically, imperialism picked up after the war. The victors imposed ruthless penalties, particularly on Germany – $6.5 billion war penalties, return of Alsace-Lorraine to France, military restrictions, and breakup of colonial possessions among others.

Austria and Turkey faced similar fate. This further intensified and distorted German nationalism post World War 1.

European industrial heavyweights went to the ‘war to end all wars’ to preserve and expand their colonial prowess. Paradoxically, they ended up provoking a more calamitous war – the Second World War which hastened just the opposite i.e. loss of colonies and global hegemony.

Indrajeetsinh Yadav @ Falcon Words is the author of this article. For more such historical content with conceptual clarity, write to us at info@falconwords.com or call us at +91-9822052945.  Visit Falcon Words for sterling content on 10+ areas.

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