A) Europe still dominated the rest of the world in 1914

  • Most of the decisions which shaped the fate of the world were taken in the capitals of Europe.
  • Germany was the leading power in Europe both militarily and economically.
  • Russian industry was expanding rapidly but had been so backward to begin with that she could not seriously challenge Germany and Britain.
  • But it was outside Europe in the USA and Japan that the most spectacular industrial progress had been made during the previous 40 years.

B) Imperial expansion after 1880

  • The European powers had taken part in a great burst of imperialist expansion in the years after 1880. Imperialism is the building up of an empire by seizing territory overseas.
  • Most of Africa was taken over by the European states in what became known as the ‘the Scramble for Africa’; the idea behind it was mainly to get control of new markets and new sources of raw materials.
  • There was also intervention in the crumbling Chinese Empire; the European powers, the USA and Japan all, at different times, forced the helpless Chinese to grant trading concessions.

C) Europe had divided itself into two alliance systems (or two armed camp)

  • The Triple Alliance (in 1882):
      • Germany
      • Austria-Hungary
      • Italy
  • The Triple Entente:
      • Britain
      • France
      • Russia
  • After Franco-Prussian war, Germany made here at one stroke the leading power in Europe and France crushed and isolated and Britain holding herself aloof from the continent.
    • After 1871, Bismarck’s policy was no longer “blood and iron”. It was essentially defensive. It was directed towards protection of “German Empire”.
    • He feared that France might wage war of vengeance against Germany, so henceforth it became his chief business to build up a comprehensive system of alliances so as to keep France completely isolated. Hence he formed the famous Triple Alliance composed of Germany, Austria and Italy and tried to keep France completely isolated.
      • Triple Alliance of 1882:
        • Austro-German alliance
          • The interest of Russia and Austria conflicted in Balkans. At the Congress of Berlin (1878) , Bismarck was forced to choose between Austria and Russia and he preferred Austria considering Russia as uncertain ally.
          • Finally, Austro-German alliance was concluded in 1879. This alliance was aimed against Russia and France.
          • Bismarck next drew Italy into the Austro-German alliance as Italy feared that France may seek to restore the Papacy.
        • Also there was Franco-Austrian rivalry over Tunis in North Africa.
        • Bismarck used these situations to draw Italy and isolate France.
        • Thus formed Triple Alliance of 1882 between Austria, Germany and Italy.
        • This was masterstroke of Bismarck as the alliance contained countries with bitter historical rivalry.
  • Formation of Dual Alliance:
    • France got opportunity to form alliance when disagreement between Russia and Germany, at the Congress of Berlin over the settlement of Eastern Question.
    • She took advantage and formed an alliance with Russia in 1894 called Dual Alliance which ended her isolation and served as a counterweight to Triple Alliance.
  • These two defensive European alliances were formed with the object of maintaining the status quo on the continent. Thus the Dual Alliance confronted the Triple Alliance and the condition of Europe may be described as one of “armed peace”.
    • The continental powers of Europe, though at peace with one another, kept a jealous, fearful and suspicious watch on each other, with all busied themselves with making military preparations.
  • Formation of the Triple Entente:
    • 1894 France and Russia sign alliance (Dual Alliance).
      1904 Britain and France sign ‘Entente Cordiale’ (friendly ‘getting-together’)
      1907 Britain and Russia sign agreement.
    • Thus formed the Triple Entente.
  • In addition, Japan and Britain had signed an alliance in 1902. Friction between the two main groups (sometimes called ‘the armed camps’) had brought Europe to the verge of war several times since 1900.


A) Immediate cause of the war:

  • The immediate cause of the war was the bitter enmity between Austria and Serbia in the Balkans leading to murder of Archduke Francis, the nephew of the Austrian Emperor and heir of throne in Serajevo by a Bosnian.
  • Austria by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, provinces akin to Serbia in blood and language, had created a second Alsace-Lorraine in the Balkans.
  • A lively agitation was set afoot by the Serbians with the object of securing the union of these provinces with their own country.
  • But Austria was determined to prevent the expansion of Serbia.
    • She feared that Serbia with her territory enlarged and prestige heightened, might attract to herself millions of Croato-Serbs under Austrian rule.

Austria felt that if Serb and Slav nationalist ambitions for a state of Yugoslavia were achieved, it would cause the collapse of the Habsburg Empire.

  • It was at Austrian demand that Serbia was deprived of some of the fruits of her victory in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and it was at her instance that the artificial state of Albania was erected to prevent Serbia from getting any outlet to sea.
  • But in spite of Austrian opposition Serbia managed to enlarge her territory and to heighten her prestige. Her impassioned patriotism led her to intensify the Pan-Slavic agitation. Austria in her turn was concerting measures to isolate Serbia and crush her.
  • It was at this posture of events when there was plenty of bad blood on both sides that Archduke Francis was murdered which started the World War.
  • The Austro-Serb quarrel explains the outbreak of the war, but not why it became a world war.
  • The Great War of 1914 was the culmination of the developments that had been going on for more than a generation. Its causes are to be sought in the conjunction and intermingling of various forces and tendencies which had been at work for a long time among the nations of Europe. Here are some of the reasons which have been suggested for the escalation of the war:

B) Nationalism:

  • Resounding triumph of nationalism in Italy and Germany invested it with new vigour and made it a potent force in politics.
  • It inflamed the racial pride of the people, stimulated them to exalt their country above all others and made them arrogant in their attitude to their neighbours. That was why Lord Acton had branded nationalism as an absurd and criminal principle.
  • It was the excess of nationalism that embittered the rivalries of states like Germany and Great Britain and encouraged them to naval and military competition.
  • It was aggressive nationalism that led the Powers to squabble over their interests in Asia, Africa and the Balkans.
  • It was the outraged nationalism of French people that kept alive their spirit of revenge for the loss of Alsace Lorraine and made them the bitterest enemy of Germany.
  • The cry of Italia Irredenta (unredeemed Italy) was the expression of the national ambition of Italy to wrest from Austria the Italian-speaking districts of Trieste and the Trentino.
  • Unsatisfied national aspirations of the Balkan peoples made the Balkan Peninsula a vertiable tinder-box which before long set all Europe ablaze.
  • Hence excess of nationalism was at the back of most of the occurrence that led towards the war.

C) The alliance system or ‘armed camps’:

  • It owed its origin to the diplomacy of Bismarck who realised that France could not easily forget the humiliation inflicted upon her by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
      • Hence to safeguard Germany against a possible French attack, he initiated a system of military alliance.
      • This, in its turn, provoked counter-alliances, and in the result Europe was divided into two hostile armed camps.
  • The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria and Italy confronted the Dual Alliance of France and Russia, supported by the Triple Entente of England, France and Russia.
  • The worst feature of the alliance system was that the treaties were secret. Hence the alliances designated to preserve peace actually aroused fears and suspicious.
  • The alignment of Powers into mutually suspicious groups was fraught with grave menace to international peace.
      • In the recurring crises that occurred from 1906 to 1914 the rival groups confronted each other and took sides.
      • Each of the groups had met with diplomatic rebuffs causing loss of prestige.
      • Thus Germany had been outplayed in the two Moroccan crises by France and Great Britain and this was regarded as the defeat of the Triple Alliance. But in the Bosnian crisis of 1908 the Austro-German combination won a victory over the Triple Entente and humiliated Russia.
      • Such alternate diplomatic rebuffs and victories caused increased bitterness, intensified the rivalry of the two system of alliances and thereby set the stage for war.
  • As suspicions mounted between the two opposing camps, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany got themselves into situations which they could not escape from without suffering further humiliation; war seemed to be the only way for them to save face.

D) Competitive militarism:

  • The rising nationalist sentiments, the increasing tension among the Powers and the existence of the two rival systems of alliances, produced a deep sense of insecurity in the minds of the Powers.
  • The two groups faced each other with the utmost vigilance and suspicion and vied with one another in making military preparations against possible attack.
    • Germany greatly increased the size of her standing army.
    • France lengthened the term of compulsory service from two years to three.
    • Russia adopted a new programme of army expansion.
    • Great Britain added considerably to her already large naval expenditure.
  • This competitive race in armament produced fear and hostility among all nations.
  • Anglo-German naval rivalry was one of the contributory causes of the war.

E) The naval race between Britain and Germany

  • The German government had been greatly influenced by the writings of an American, Alfred Mahan, who believed that sea power was the key to the successful build-up of a great empire. It followed therefore that Germany needed a much larger navy capable of challenging the world’s greatest sea power – Britain.
  • Starting with Navy Law of 1897, the Germans made a determined effort to expand their navy.
  • The resulting naval race was the main bone of contention between the two right up to 1914. For many of the British, the new German navy could mean only one thing: Germany intended making war against Britain.

F) Economic rivalry:

  • World history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was characterised by a struggle for markets, for sources of raw materials and fields for investment of surplus capital and for settlement.
  • This struggle was at the bottom of most of the international crises that occurred during the two decades before the outbreak of the war.
  • In industrial and commercial competition Germany was gradually gaining ground and this aroused great apprehension in Great Britain or she feared that Germany would outdistance her in the race for the world commerce and trade.
  • As a matter of fact British suffered from a veritable “Made in Germany” complex which boded ill for the peace of Europe. This economic competition led to frictions between the two nations and made the people of one look upon the people of the other as rivals and enemies.
  • In lessor degree there were similar economic rivalries among other nations.

G) Imperialism:

  • Imperialism was constant source of friction among the powers.
  • As the result of the imperialistic outlook of the age, the greatness of the nation was considered to depend not merely on its standing in Europe, but upon the value and extent of its non-European possessions.
  • Judged by this new standard Germany found herself dwarfed by her rivals. England, France and Russia, each of them had built up a huge colonial empire and had practically parceled out among themselves the non-European possessions- a share quite disproportionate to her real status.

H) Russia made war more likely by supporting Serbia

  • Russian backing probably made Serbia more reckless in her anti-Austrian policy than she might otherwise have been.
  • Russia was the first to order a general mobilization, and it was this Russian mobilization which provoked Germany to mobilize.
  • The Russians were worried about the situation in the Balkans, where both Bulgaria and Turkey were under German influence.
    • This could enable Germany and Austria to control the Dardanelles, the outlet from the Black Sea. It was the main Russian trade route, and Russian trade could be strangled.
    • Thus Russia felt threatened, and once Austria declared war on Serbia, saw it as a struggle for survival.
  • The Russians must also have felt that their prestige as leader of the Slavs would suffer if they failed to support Serbia.
  • Possibly the government saw the war as a good idea to divert attention away from domestic problems, though they must also have been aware that involvement in a major war would be a dangerous gamble.
    • Shortly before the outbreak of war, one of the Tsar’s ministers warned that a long war would put a severe strain on the country and could lead to the collapse of the tsarist regime.
  • Perhaps the blame lies more with the Austrians: although they must have hoped for Russian neutrality, they ought to have realized how difficult it would be for Russia to stay neutral in the circumstances.

I) German backing for Austria was crucially important

  • It is significant that Germany restrained the Austrians from declaring war on Serbia in 1913, but in 1914 encouraged them to go ahead.
    • The Kaiser sent them a telegram urging them to attack Serbia and promising German help without any conditions attached.
    • This was like giving the Austrians a blank cheque to do whatever they wanted.

J) The mobilization plans of the great powers

  • Some historians believe that the German plan for mobiliza­tion, known as the Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by Schlieffen in 1905-6, was extremely risky and inflexible and deserved to be seen as the start of disaster both for Germany and Europe. It gave the impression that Germany was being ruled by a band of unscrupulous militarists.

K) A ‘tragedy of miscalculation’

    • Some historians suggest that the Germans may not have deliberately provoked war and that, in fact, war was not inevitable, and it should have been possible to reach agreement peacefully.
    • The war was actually caused by a ‘tragedy of miscalculation’. Most of the leading rulers and politicians seemed to be incompetent and made bad mistakes:
      • The Austrians miscalculated by thinking that Russia would not support Serbia.
      • Germany made a crucial mistake by promising to support Austria with no conditions attached; therefore the Germans were certainly guilty, as were the Austrians, because they risked a major war.
      • Politicians in Russia and Germany miscalculated by assuming that mobilization would not necessarily mean war.
      • The generals, especially Moltke, miscalculated by sticking rigidly to their plans in the belief that this would bring a quick and decisive victory.
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