Causes of World War I – Part 1

After my string of poor reading selections, I gambled once again, and read a rather lengthy history of Europe spanning 1848 through 1918. I’ve been interested in filling in my knowledge of this period, in particular trying to understand the root causes of World War I.

The book in question is “The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918” by A.J. Taylor and was published in the 1950s. Although I found the book highly informative, and directly addressing my interests – which were more about the power struggle and diplomacy of the period, and less about the details of battles and the development of weapons – this choice did suffer from a couple shortcomings. Taylor states in the introduction that this is not a textbook. This becomes apparent when he repeatedly assumes knowledge on the part of the reader that is far beyond what the non-historian would know about the time period (at least now, 50 years after publication, and in a time when history is not taught in most American school systems [no, “social studies” do not count!]). For example, near the beginning of the book he doesn’t bother describing the political geography of 1848, and left me trying to grasp the relationship between Prussia, Austria, and the “German Confederation”. Major political events are assumed knowledge – such as the Paris Commune movement by Adoplhe Thiers [haven’t bothered to figure that one out], and various “scandals” in both France and England. Another annoyance is the introduction of individuals by name, without indicating what office or even what country they represent. All of this is not really a fault of the book – which as Taylor says is not a textbook – but does mean that this should not be the first (or second, or even third) book one reads on late 19th century Europe. A final indicator of this is Taylor’s various corrections to established history. Without knowing the context, and therefore not being able to judge the accuracy of Taylor’s assertions these are not very helpful to the novice reader.

Now all that being said, I should mention that I have been looking for a good text covering this period for about a year (in used book sales, not anywhere else), and have found only this book. Again, this is a testimony to the public’s disinterest in history – and my disinterest in paying for a new book…

Ok, so it wasn’t a perfect choice, but what did I get out reading it? Actually, this was a very engaging subject and held my interest continually. Without trying to educate my reader on this period of history, let me sketch an outline. After the Napoleanic wars, Europe is dominated by four “great powers” – France, Russia, Prussia and Austria. England plays the role of a very interested, but outside, observer. All of these powers have interests of expansion involving conflicts with the interests of the others, as well as with the various lesser European powers (Denmark, Belgium, Poland [controlled by Prussia], and most significantly the Balkan states under the rule of the weakening Ottoman Empire). Peace is maintained through a delicate “Balance of Power” consisting of interlocking treaties between the four major powers. Envision a huge Cross, with Russia and France forming the East-West alliance, and Prussia and Austria forming the North-South (or Central) powers. In the late 19th century, Germany unifies under Bismark – essentially Prussia expands to subsume the German Confederacy – Austria expands into Austria-Hungary, while France and Russia remain stagnant.

Russia continually worries over who controls the Bosporus straits, which from the Black Sea form a major trade route into the Mediterranean. Constantinople (not yet Istanbul) is the key to the Straits, and the Ottoman Empire nominally owns Constantinople. Austria-Hungary eyes the territory to its southeast – the Balkan states – that remain under Ottoman control and are periodically subjected to atrocities, and threaten revolution. Russia also eyes this territory as a belle-weather on who may eventually wrest control of Constantinople from the Turks. We in the 21st century know the names of these states well – Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hercegovina, Albania – and the underlying problems have not changed in 100 years.

Meanwhile, Germany experiences industrialization and rapid demographic expansion. France remains stagnant (which is also familiar in the 21st century), while England and Russia seek expansion of their overseas empires. Although there is friction in some areas of the world between the Powers – in the Far East between Russia and England, with France and Germany there for the ride – in Africa between France and England, with Germany playing on the sidelines – these frictions are not essential in the struggle to master Europe.

More to come.

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