Causes of World War I – Part 2

Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the situation begins to change. Germany, now secure in its alliance with Austria-Hungary, begins a massive expansion of its navy. Britain cannot tolerate a second strong European navy, and the English and Germans start an arms race, each increasing its expenditure on naval forces in a spiraling crescendo. The British launch the first “dreadnought” battleship in 1906 – the first ship equipped with large caliber (12 inch) guns exclusively. Germany (and the US, and Japan) rapidlylaunch theirown dreadnought, and the race accelerates. A series of attempts at “arms control” over the dreadnought between Germany and Englandare repeatedly violated by the Germans in secret.

Meanwhile, Russia is showing signs of weakness. After her defeat against Japan in 1905, social revolution threatens to take down the Tsar, and the Russian army is ill-prepared to face external conflicts. In the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire faces repeated uprisings against a variety of Turkish atrocities, and shows itself to be increasingly unable to maintain control. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia look on with concern over the stability and ultimate fate of these neighbors.

All this forms the background for the final events – the immediate cause – of the war. On June 28, 1914, archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Austria demanded Serbia cease anti-Austrian propaganda andarrest the parties suspected in the assassination. Meanwhile, Austrian and German diplomats came to an understanding that no serious attempts to negotiate a settlement should be made, and preparations for a large scale war should begin. Serbia received assurances from Russia that Russia would intervene on Serbia’s behalf in the event of hostilities, and Serbia proceeded to mobilize. Within a month of Austria’s ultimatum, the delicate web of treaties and agreements that maintained the Balance of Power were all activated, and France, Russia, England, Germany and Austria-Hungary found themselves at war.

What surprised me most about reading through this history was the use of a relatively minor diplomatic crisis to trigger so massive a response. Clearly the combatants never envisioned a war lasting 4 years and claiming the lives of 8 million people. This war, on the face of it, had no rational immediate cause. Rather, it was the inevitable consequence of a large set of interlocking and growing tensions that were accepted by the European nations as the boundary conditions of diplomacyfor over 60 years. In seeking to identify a major theme in the decades leading to this disaster, two come to mind. First – and potentially the dominant theme – is the rise of German industrial power. A second theme – more apparent in the consequences of the war – is the incomplete social revolution of Europe. The primary political casualties of the war were the Empires – the Ottoman, the Austria-Hungarian, the German, and the Russian. Although not replaced entirely by democracies, the failure of these authoritarian states lead to the rise of more localized nations whose borders were based on nationality (common customs). Poland, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Latvia became independent nations based on nationality. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia became smaller agglomerations of nationalities.

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1 thought on “Causes of World War I – Part 2

  1. Bill

    The Military Channel recently televised an excellent 10-part (1 hour each) miniseries on WWI. The causes were discussed in detail fitting such a long treatment, and included numerous historical pieces of footage, photos, letters, analyses, etc. The end product ‘worked’. If there was anything glossed over at all, it was the US involvement, which was treated as somewhat incidental. I missed episodes 5 and 6, and look forward to a replaying of the series.

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