“Eight to ten million soldiers will swallow each other up and in doing so eat all Europe more bare then any swarm of locusts… extending over the whole continent; famine, sickness,… Only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the final victory of the working class.” (DOC 1). This is an eerily accurate prediction of World War 1 that nobody could have ever conceived of. World War 1, also known as the ‘First World War’ or the ‘Great War’, started on July 28th, 1914. The War attracted the strongest and most powerful nations in the world. The War was fought by two opposing alliances, The Triple Entente and The Triple Alliance. The Triple Alliance consisted of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy. The Triple Entente was made up of Great Britain, Russia, and France. It was believed that by creating a ‘balance of power any ‘large scale war’ could be prevented. The logic was that if major countries were ‘balanced in strength’ then ‘no one country could dominate the rest’. Unfortunately, this backfired and the very existence of these alliances led to a strong and growing tension between nations that was fueled by politics, jealousy, ideas of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Conditions were set so that all that was needed was a ‘spark’ for the tension to snap. That spark came on the morning of June 28th, 1912, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by Serbian nationalists. Considering all of this, what specifically were the primary underlying causes of World War 1? The underlying causes were forces of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism.
Nationalism is a belief or political ideology that is built on patriotic principals and efforts. When on the search for cause of the war, nationalism is the first obvious cause. Nationalism existed in one of its more extreme forms during the beginning of the 20th century. Nationalism taken to its extreme is a belief of superiority over other countries. “If Serbia wants to live in honor, she can only do this by war… Our whole race must stand together to halt the onslaught of these aliens from the north.” (DOC 6). This quote appeared in a newspaper ran by the head of the Serbian military and has nationalism written all over it. It is clear that the Serbs who personified the country as a ‘she’ that must go to war to live in honor did so because they were truly nationalist in the way they viewed their country. We see that they are extreme in their nationalist beliefs when they say the must stand together against aliens from the north. Their extreme nationalism can be accurately described as elitism. The Serbs are not the only people guilty of this kind of nationalism. “In the coming century the German nation will be either the hammer or the anvil”. (DOC 6). We see again that countries believe that they must stand up for themselves in order not to be destroyed. ‘England, Belgium, Russia, and France, blamed Germany. Austria and Serbia blamed each other.’ (DOC 8). We see that countries were so caught up in their own pride and superiority that they mindlessly blamed each other for starting the conflict. As the conflict rises, the countries conclude that war is inevitable, and the only option to protect themselves and their honor.
Militarism was another extremely powerful belief that most countries embraced before the First World War. There is substantial evidence that shows militaristic beliefs were an underlying cause of the war. “We realize that without power, without a strong army and a strong navy, there can be no welfare for us.” (DOC 8). “It is only warlike nations which have prospered; a nation dies as soon as it disarms.” (DOC 2). These quotes portray what the opposing alliances had in common; within their countries this was the conventional wisdom. This abundant and strong belief of militarism made the great nations incredibly war prone. ‘From 1890 – 1914, the combined military strength of the Entente Powers and the Allied Powers went from about 108£ to 223£ and 58£ to 179£ respectively.’ “By 1914 the Entente Powers could field 2.23 million men, Germany and Austria-Hungary 1.2 million.” (DOC 12). We see that before the war even began, the alliances had more than doubled their military expenditures over the course of 24 years. It is clear how this excessive military buildup is partially behind the tension between nations leading up to the war. Clearly militarism was a major underlying cause of the Great War.
Imperialism is another essential cause of the war. Imperialism is how a country expands its power and influence by having colonies. Imperialism was not just a practice that countries engaged in, it was also a widely held belief. “A steadily increasing … concern about national security gave rise to theories that a country’s survival as a great power depended on the extent of its territorial possessions… Colonies were deemed as essential sources of raw material for the manufacture of modern weapons, and as naval bases… a state had to acquire as much territory as possible as quickly as possible while there was still territory left to take.” (DOC 13). We see that not only was the practice of Imperialism in response to national security, but countries militarily benefited from it and thus had to maintain a competitive edge. It is clear that the opposing alliances of the war were very much engaged in imperialistic practices. ‘The Entente powers together had more than 44,824,000 sq. km. within their Colonial Empires in 1913, while the Triple Alliance totaled out to a measly 2,950,000 sq. km. within their empires.’ (DOC 16). Imperialism was clearly a major investment on both sides of the War. “The means for fighting the battle of existence in this world without strong armaments on land and water, for a nation soon to count sixty millions, living in the centre of Europe and at the same time stretching out its economic feelers in all directions, have not yet been found.” (DOC 6). This is a common perspective on how to be successful in the war. The Germans are referring to Imperialistic practices when they reason that large amounts of land and gains in population throughout the world are essential to becoming either the proverbial ‘hammer’. The Germans (and other nations) are so obsessed with not becoming the ‘hammer’, they see attacking another country as a smart investment. With this in mind, we can clearly see how the great nations are encourage and compelled to start conflict over each other’s extreme imperialist practices.
In conclusion, Nationalism, Militarism, and Imperialism were the three primary underlying causes of the First World War. We now understand how these beliefs, ideologies, and practices among others created great conflict between great nations. There is a very important lesson here, great nations too often go over the ‘cliff of war and barbarism’, what is too often overlooked is that this is because leaders get so caught up in their own beliefs and special interests, they cannot see the big picture. Only a leader like Otto von Bismarck could predict that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans (1888).” He may have been a horrible person, but he utilized his leadership skills and philosophies to unify Germany and maintain peace of Europe. It is worth noting that he had an ingenious, realist approach to politics. Even if the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, one has to admit that throughout history realist approaches to politics and leadership tend to yield the most success, and this is just one example where nations that lack pragmatic and realist approaches to geo-politics ultimately fall off the proverbial ‘cliff’.